1576: Edmund Spenser Writes the Shepheard’s Calendar in East Lancashire
On graduating from Pembroke College in Cambridge, like any other student making their first steps into the world, Edmund Spenser went home to Burnley. Proof begins with the contemporary gloss to the June eclogue of the Shepheard’s Calendar, Spenser’s first major work, written in 1576. Provided by a certain ‘E.K.,’ the gloss describes Spenser as composing his famous poem among, ‘those hylles, that is the North countrye, where he dwelt,’ adding that after the poem’s composition E.K. says Spenser removed, ‘out of the Northparts’ & then, ‘came into the south.’ The initials E.K. stand for Edward Kelly, a friend of the Mancunian Magician John Dee, who was once pilloried in Lancaster for fraud, having his ears ‘cropped’ as a punishment. On Spenser’s homelands, TT Wilkinson’s paper quotes a certain Dr Craik, who in turn is quoting Mr. F. C. Spenser, of Halifax;
Various conjectures have been formed as to the precise locality intended by ‘the north;’ but the most probable one is that urged by Dr. Craik in his elaborate work on Spenser and his Writings. In a communication to the Gentleman’s Magazine for August 1842, Mr. F. C. Spenser, of Halifax, “produces such evidence as can scarcely leave a doubt that the branch of the Spensers from which the poet was descended was that of the Spensers, or Le Spensers, of Hurstwood, near Burnley, in the eastern extremity of Lancashire ; and that the family to which he immediately belonged was probably seated [here, or] on a little property still called ‘ The Spensers,’ near Filly Close, in the ancient Forest of Pendle, about three miles to the northward of Hurstwood. The poet always spelt his surname with an s ; and it appears from the registers that it was spelt in the same manner by the family at Hurstwood ; not only in the reign of Elizabeth, but for a century afterwards ; while even at Kildwick, near Skipton, only about ten or twelve miles distant, it is spelled with a c, in the manner as did, and do, the Spencers of Althorpe.
According to the ‘Letterbook’ of Gabriel Harvey – the same gentleman to whom the Calendar is dedicated – Spenser’s home ‘shier ‘ is described as being, ‘the middle region of the verye English Alpes.’ According to Alexander Grosart’s interpretation of the corrupted text (MS BM Sloane, 93, fol 37), Harvey reads; ‘To be shorte, I woulde to God that all the ill-favorid copyes of my nowe prostituted devises were buried a greate deale deeper in the centre of the ergye then the height & altitude of the middle region of the verye English Alpes amountes unto in your shier.’ To Grosart, Harvey is referring to Pendle Hill, that great solitary heap of Earth that dominates the East Lancashire skyline, which is indeed in the ‘I’ of the English Pennines, stretching as they do from Cumberland down to Derbyshire.
It is while staying at Hurstwood, near Burnley, that Spenser created his sophisticated mini-masterpiece. The Shepheard’s Calendar is pregnant with a wide array of references, & the first real original English poetic production of any merit since Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Wishing to emulate the dorick transfusions as enacted by Theocritus in his own Roman pastorals, Spenser daubed his creation with a great deal of the lilting local patter of East Lancashire. Where John Dryden describes Spenser as a, ‘master of our northern dialect,’ Dr Grosart identified 550 words in the Calendar unique to East Lancashire & West Yorkshire. Elsewhere, TT Wilkinson, in a speech to the Historic Society of Lancashire on January 10th 1867, listed forty-five words in that ‘folkspeech’ used by Spenser that were still in circulation in his day. As I can personally attest as a Burnley boy, some of these words have survived in the locality even to the 21st century, such as;
Brag – boast proudly
Chips – fragments cut off
Clout – blow with flat of hand
Crow Over – to boast over someone
Dapper – pretty smart
Latch – temporary fastening of a door
Smirke – smile in a smugly winning manner
Wilkinson adds; ‘The Folkspeech of East Lancashire is somewhat peculiar, both in words and pronunciation, and many of its oldest terms and phrases have a close affinity to the Lowland Scotch. Both contain an admixture of words derived from the Danes and Northmen who conquered and colonized the district… Robert Chambers… in his interesting Book of Days, vol. I, p. 07, asserts that when Spenser tells of a ewe that ” she mought ne gang on ” the green,” he uses almost the exact language that would be employed by a Selkirkshire shepherd, on a like occasion, at the present day. So also when Thenot says ” Tell me, good Hobbinol, what gars thee greete ?” he speaks pure Scotch. In this poem Spenser also uses tway for two ; gait for goat (?) ; mickle for much ; wark for work ; wae for woe ; ken for know ; crag for the neck ; icarr for worse ; hame for home ; teen for sorrow all of these being Scottish terms.’
In the Calendar, Hobbinol’s mentions of wastefull hylls, bogs & glens, invokes quite accurately the East Lancashire Pennine landscape. We also have the following exchange which indicates that in the locality of the Calendar, a few Wolves were still clinging to English soil. for indeed, Pendle Forest was one of the last haunts for the English wolf.
Fye on thee Diggon, and all thy foule leasing,
Well is knowne that sith the Saxon king,
Neuer was Woolfe seene many nor some,
Nor in all Kent, nor in Christendome:
But the fewer Woolues (the soth to sayne,)
The more bene the Foxes that here remaine.
Yes, but they gang in more secrete wise,
And with sheepes clothing doen hem disguise,
They walke not widely as they were wont
For feare of raungers, and the great hunt:
But priuely prolling too and froe,
Enaunter they mought be inly knowe.
There is a passage in the Calendar which shows how Spenser had come into contact with Sir John Townley, who is given a quiet cameo. Spenser was, let us say, a political Protestant, & his true religious sentiments seem hidden & confused. We get the sense, then, that a religio-neutral neutral Spenser is alluding to Sir John’s enforced silence in the face of a Protestant England, & that the Shepherds mentioned by Spenser are actually Catholic priests.
Truly Piers, thou art beside thy Wit,
Furthest fro the Mark, weening it to hit.
Now I pray thee, let me thy Tale borrow
For our Sir John, to say to-morrow,
At the Kirk, when it is Holiday:
For well he means, but little can say.
But and if Foxes been so crafty, as so,
Much needeth all Shepherds hem to know.
The publish’d poem contains a woodcut for each month, painted by the enigmatic ‘E.K.,’ whose pictorial accuracy is proclaimed by Spenser in a 1580 letter to Gabriel Harvey; ‘Therin be some things excellently, and many things wittily discoursed of E.K., and the pictures so singularly set forth, and purtrayed, as if Michael Angelo were there, he could (I think) nor amende the beste, nor reprehende the worst.’ When comparing the woodcuts with photographs I have made of Pendle from similar angles, even the staunchest opponents of Spenser coming from Lancashire must be rendered visibly silent.
1576: Spenser Encounters Shakespeare
It is now time to introduce an extremely significant clue into Shakespeareana which has hitherto been unacknowledged, or even noticed. In the August eclogue, Spenser places a young shepherd boy called Willye, who is versed in French poetry, in the company of Cuddy & Perigot. On the other occasion he uses the name Willye, it seems more than clear he is talking about William Shakespeare. Saying they are the same person is at first only matter of conjecture, but it is possible to follow a chispological factochain from the August eclogue to junior Shakespeare in just five steps, two of which were followed in the previous chapter. Retracing our passage then, as with any factochain I shall present as much supporting evidence as possible in order to strengthen the chain.
1: Willy = William Shakespeare
2: Cuddy = Cuthbert Mayne, back in England 1576
3: Cutbert Mayne in Douay, 1575/76
4: Simon Hughes in Douay 1576/76
5: Simon Hughes teaching Shakespeare in Stratford, 1575
In support we have the following nuggets;
1: Spenser would use the ‘Willye’ nick-name for Shakespeare over a decade later, when referring to the bard in a poem known as The Tears of the Muses;
Our pleasant Willie, ah! is dead of late.
With whom all joy and jolly merriment
Is also deaded and in doleur drent.
But that same gentle spirit from whose pen
Large streams of honey and sweet nectar flow,
Scorning the boldness of such base-born men,
Which dare their follies forth so rashly throw,
Doth rather choose to sit in idle cell,
Than so himself to mockery to sell.
Here Spenser’s ‘large streams of honey and sweet nectar,’ is reminiscent of Francis Meres own description of Shakespeare, in the Palladis Tamia: Wit’s Treasury, as ‘the witty soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous & honey-tongued Shakespeare.’
2: The name Cuddy is northern dialect English for Cuthbert.
3: The unique name ‘Perigot’ derives from the Périgord region of the Dordogne in France, in which a Jesuit convent was active in 1576.
4: Burnley (Reedley) was home to Robert & John Nutter, who would soon be at Douay training to be Jesuit missionaries for the spiritual reconquista of England. In fact, one sixth of all Jesuits trainees at Douay, were from Lancashire, along with another sixth from neighbouring Yorkshire. It must be noticed that in Reedley is Filly Close, where Dr Craik places Edmund Spenser’s family. Another Nutter-Spenser connection comes with Margaret Spenser of Hurstwood’s 1605 will, in which, ‘Margaret, and ffrances Nutter daughters of the said Henry,’ were inheritors.
5: In the August eclogue, ‘Willye’ is speaking in a poetic form known as the Roundelay. This 24-line form had been devised in France only in 1570, & while in Douay a young & poetically minded Shakespeare would have been keen to have kept abreast of the latest developments in the poetic arts.
PER. It fell upon a holy Eve,
WILL. Hey ho Holiday!
PER. When holy Fathers wont to shrive:
WILL. Now ‘ginneth this Roundelay.
PER. Sitting upon a Hill so high,
WILL. Hey ho the high Hill!
PER. The while my Flock did feed thereby,
WILL. The while the Shepherd self did spill
PER. I saw the bouncing Bellibone;
WILL. Hey ho Bonnibel!
PER. Tripping over the Dale alone,
WILL. She can trip it very well.
6: I cannot help but see hints of the Reformation, Counter-reformation, & even the Familists in the eclogue…
Ah, Willy, now I have learn’d a new Dance;
My old Musick marr’d by a new Mischance.
Mischief mought to that Mischance befall,
That so hath raft us of our Meriment:
But read me, What pain doth thee so appall?
Or lovest thou, or been thy Yonglings miswent?
Love hath misled both my Yonglings and me:
I pine for pain, and they my plaint to see.
Perdy and weal away! ill may they thrive;
Never knew I Lovers Sheep in good plight:
and a little later
Thereby is a Lamb in the Wolve’s Jaws:
But see, how fast renneth the Shepherd’s Swain,
To save the Innocent from the Beast’s Paws;
And here with his Sheep-hook hath him slain.
Tell me, such a Cup hast thou ever seen?
Well mought it beseem any harvest Queen.
Thereto will I pawn yonder spotted Lamb,
Of all my Flock there nis sike another;
For I brought him up without the Damb:
But Colin Clout raft me of his Brother,
That he purchast of me in the plain Field:
Sore against my Will was I forst to yield.
In the above extract, the shepherd metaphor screams Jesuit, for in the 16th century leading Jesuit Jérôme Nadal was writing in notebooks that their task par excellence was to search for the ‘lost sheep.’
The natural conclusion is that Shakespeare & Cuthbert Mayne were staying at Townley Hall, about a mile away from Spenser at Hurstwood. They had found a relatively safe, obscure & extremely pro-Catholic corner of the country to hide. In a letter written by Bishop Downham on the 1st Feb 1575 to the Privy Council, Sir John Townley is placed alongside other notables in Lancashire who, ‘in our opinion of the longest obstanancy against religion & if by your lord’s good wisdoms they would be reclaimed, we think others would as well follow their good example in embracing queen majesty’s most goodly example as they have followed their evil example in contemprising their duty in that behalf.’ A year previously, the Privy Council had been even more condemning identifying Lancashire as, ‘the very sink of popery where more unlawful acts have been committed & more unlawful persons holden secret than any other part of the realm.’
1576 : The Protestant authorities came down hard on the Catholic Mystery Plays
While Shakespeare was buzzin’ about round Burnley, & Spenser was creating some proper smart poetry, the Protestants were setting their Reichstags on fire, turning their gorgon gaze on the the medieval Mystery plays. These early proto-plays were especially popular in Wakefield, Yorkshire, & it is to the populace of that town that the Diocesan Court of High Commission at York ordered;
In the said play no pageant be used or set further wherein the Ma(jest) ye of God the Father, God the Sonne, or God the Holie Goste or the administration of either the Sacrementes of baptism or of the Lordes Supper be counterfeited or represented, or anything plaid which tend to the maintenance of superstition and idolatry or which be contrary to the laws of God or of the realm.
This really ripped the stuffing out of the heavily iconographied Mystery Plays, a death knell that saw this once massively popular national theatre all but banished from the noble Halls & bustling market places of the land. The last play performed in Wakefield was, May 17th 1576, was the ‘commonlie called corpus christi plaie,’ after which the Mysteries were never heard in the town again.
1577 : Shakespeare Works on the Towneley Manuscript
While at Townley Hall, there is evidence that Shakesepeare & Spenser were given the task of copying various Catholic ‘Miracle Plays’ recently banned by the Government. A manuscript was prepared which stored the entire cycle of 32 plays for posterity, with the press-mark on the first page of the only manuscript stating Christopher Townley (1604-74) was the owner of the book. I believe his father, Sir John, was the instrumental force behind preserving the plays for the Townleys & the other twenty or so recusant families in & around the Burnley area. The anonymous author has been monickered the ‘Wakefield Master,’ who peppers the text with local topography such as the reference in the manuscript’s Second Shepherds’ Play to Horbery Shrogeys – with Horbery being a town near Wakefield. Scholars have calculated that the original plays – dating to about 1400 – were rewritten & added to towards the end of that century. The new plays were Caesar Augustus, The Talents, Noah, the First Shepherds’ Play, The Second Shepherds’ Play, Herod the Great, and The Buffeting of Christ.
The unique manuscript was sold by auction in 1814, & is now housed at the Huntington Library, San Marino, California, & it just so happens to contain the handwriting of William Shakespeare. This is evinced by matches on the MS with the three & a half letters on Shakespeare’s will – the only samples of his formal handwriting to have survived. Orthographically speaking, we cannot use his flourish-heavy signature as proper evidence, which means all that the Bard left in his own true hand are the four letters of ‘by me’ or even ‘by mr’ that precede a signature on his will. These letters were written in 1616, four decades after the Townley MS was created, yet individual handwriting styles are set in stone at an early stage, & linger throughout one’s life. Of the four letters on the will, only B, Y & M can be used to any satisfaction. At this point you can decide for yourselves by checking out the graphology of the Townely MS & making your own mind up, while taking into consideration that four decades would have passed between the inscriptions.
The presence of some North Midland forms, rather than the northern forms, supports the Warwickshire-born Shakespeare as working on the manuscript. Spenser may have assisted at some point, for in the Cycle’s impressive Second Shepherd’s Play, a Nativity burlesque, the regular dialect is north-midlands, while that of a character called Mak heralds from Spenser’s schoolboy south. A remembrance of Spenser’s time with the Towneley manuscript seems to have inspired the Despair episode of his Faerie Queene, which contains the almost identical essence of the Cycle’s Hanging of Judas.
While working on the Cycle, we can see how Shakespeare was to be profoundly affected by the Mystery Plays. In later years, Gloucester’s blinding in King Lear appears very much like the brutal treatment of Christ found in the Towneley Cycle, where Caiaphas is stricken with an overwhelming desire to put out the eyes of Christ: ‘Nay, but I shall out-thrist / Both his een on a raw.’ Highlighting another Shakespeare-Cycle connection, Glynne Wickham, referring to the Cycle’s ‘Deliverance of Souls,’ states, ‘in the Townley play Rybald receives his orders from Belzabub, in Macbeth, the porter’s first question is, “‘Who’s there, I th’name of Belzebub… it was Rybald in the Towneley ‘Deliverance’ who cried out to Belzabub on hearing Christ’s trumpets at Hell-gate
… come ne,
ffor hedusly I hard hym call
Thunder, cacophony, screams & groans were the audible emblems of Lucifer & hell on the medieval stage. Those same aural emblems colour the whole of II-iii of Macbeth &, juxtaposed as they are with the thunderous knocking at a gate attended by a porter deluded into regarding himself as a devil, their relevance to the moral meaning of the play could scarcely have escaped the notice of its first audiences.’
Shakespeare would continue to be influenced throughout his career by the Mysteries motifs. Dramatic actions; the providential structurality of history; the emblematic allusions to moralaties such as Time, Death & the Wheel of Fortune; all appear in some form or another. The Mysteries were also bloody, visceral affairs; in the mid-seventeenth century the preacher, John Shaw, remembers seeing in his childhood, a Corpus Christi play, where there was a, ‘man on a tree, & blood ran down.’ Such gruesome scenes would permeate Shakespeare’s own work.
1576 – Shakespeare Dines with the Towneleys
Burnley is one of the friendliest places on the planet, & the Townleys would have doted over this young pro-Catholic prodigy that had arrived with Cuthbert Mayne. Shakespeare in turn would have relished the bountiful table which appeared every meal time at the Hall. William Harrison, in Description Of Elizabethan England, 1577 (from Holinshed’s Chronicles), describes the quality & quantity of the available fare.
In number of dishes and change of meat the nobility of England (whose cooks are for the most part musical-headed Frenchmen and strangers) do most exceed, sith there is no day in manner that passeth over their heads wherein they have not only beef, mutton, veal, lamb, kid, pork, cony, capon, pig, or so many of these as the season yieldeth, but also some portion of the red or fallow deer, beside great variety of fish and wild fowl, and thereto sundry other delicates wherein the sweet hand of the seafaring Portugal is not wanting: so that for a man to dine with one of them, and to taste of every dish that standeth before him (which few used to do, but each one feedeth upon that mnat him best liketh for the time, the beginning of every dish notwithstanding being reserved unto the greatest personage that sitteth at the table, to whom it is drawn up still by the waiters as order requireth, and from whom it descendeth again even to the lower end, whereby each one may taste thereof), is rather to yield unto a conspiracy with a great deal of meat for the speedy suppression of natural health than the use of a necessary mean to satisfy himself with a competent repast to sustain his body withal. But, as this large feeding is not seen in their guests, no more is it in their own persons; for, sith they have daily much resort unto their tables (and many times unlooked for), and thereto retain great numbers of servants, it is very requisite and expedient for them to be somewhat plentiful in this behalf.
The chief part likewise of their daily provision is brought in before them (commonly in silver vessels, if they be of the degree of barons, bishops, and upwards) and placed on their tables, fall should nothing hurt it in such manner; yet it might peradventure bunch or batter it; nevertheless that inconvenience were quickly to be redressed by the hammer. But whither am I slipped?
The beer that is used at noblemen’s tables in their fixed and standing houses is commonly a year old, or peradventure of two years’ tunning or more; but this is not general. It is also brewed in March, and therefore called March beer; but, for the household, it is usually not under a month’s age, each one coveting to have the same stale as he may, so that it be not sour, and his bread new as is possible, so that it be not hot.
1577 : Shepheard’s Play Performed at Chester
Despite being banned in Yorkshire the previous year, one of the Mystery plays was performed in Chester in 1577. Archdeacon Rogers upon Chester recorded (Harl. MS. 1944), 1577, ‘the Earle of Darbie did lye 2 nightes at his [the mayor of Chester’s] house; the Shepheardes play, was played a the highe crosse, with other triumphes.’ Accompanying the 4th Earl that day was his son Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange. If this particular version of the Shephearde’s Play was taken from the Townley MS, we gain our first possible theatrical connection between the Stanleys & Shakespeare, a relationship which we shall see has plenty of legs!