Steven W. May and Alan Bryson (eds), Verse Libel in Renaissance England and Scotland

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pg 113

Commentary, Poems 11, 12a, 12b

English libellers and their audiences did not restrict their venom to home-grown targets. Notably, a preponderance of the age's printed libels attack individual popes. These two poems, found only in manuscript, mention the pope (unnamed) but, above all, indict a broad spectrum of French secular political leaders. To judge from the poetry on the subject, French politics were of considerable interest to Elizabethan manuscript anthologists, especially with regard to events there between c. 1585 and 1593. Paul J. Voss estimates, moreover, that from Henry of Navarre's accession as Henry IV in 1589 until his conversion to Catholicism in 1593, the English press released nearly sixty news pamphlets devoted to affairs in France. But whereas these printed reports avoided negative portrayals of persons and events, scribal culture readily satirized the French.124 And while we have categorized Poems 28 and 29 as religious libels, they, too, attack the royal family of France.

The scribe of BL Egerton MS 2642, Robert Commander (d. 1613), copied into his anthology two texts of Poem 11 and two of another satiric poem on affairs in France c. 1585. Both were translated from French originals, and both remained current in manuscript circles well into the seventeenth century. The most popular of the two, judging from its ten Elizabethan copies, is the mildly satiric 'French Primero' (beginning, 'The state of France as now it stands).125 Poem 11, on ff. 236 and 325 of Commander's manuscript, survives in another eight texts, at least five of which are of post-Elizabethan vintage.

France was always a ready target of English satirists, especially after the St Bartholomew's Day massacre of 1572, compounded by François, Duke of Anjou's abortive courtships of Queen Elizabeth in 1573–4 and 1579–82. His death in June 1584 produced a political crisis in France that was particularly inviting to libellers in both countries. The ensuing three-way struggle for power pitted a weak Catholic party headed by the king, Henry III, against a strong Catholic party centred on the Guise family of Lorraine, opposing the Huguenots now led by Henry of Navarre, who had become on Anjou's death the legitimate heir to the throne. The prospect of a Protestant King of France was anathema to both the rival Catholic parties. Henry III was inept, impoverished, and childless, yet devoutly Catholic. Ironically his brother Anjou (then Duke of Alençon), had joined with the Huguenots in 1576 to force upon him the 'Peace of Monsieur', effectively granting religious freedom to the Protestants plus a guaranteed role in government decision making. In response, the Guise party organized a Catholic League to rescind these privileges and restore France uniformly to the old religion. Upon Anjou's death the League, supported by a papal edict and guided by Philip II, King of Spain, denounced Navarre's claim to the throne. In January 1585, the League, acting as an independent state within pg 114France, signed with Spain the Treaty of Joinville. By its terms the ageing Cardinal of Bourbon (d. 1590) became heir to the throne, although l. 13 of Poem 11 may refer instead to Louis, Cardinal of Guise, brother to the Duke of Guise. In the background, exerting what diplomatic leverage she could on all these events, was Queen Mother Catherine de Medici, who had done her best to protect her son, Henry, from being overwhelmed by the Guise faction. Poem 11 reflects, in a curiously distorted fashion, this state of affairs; indeed, the poem's title in BL Harl. MS 4199 dates it to September, 1585 (f. 32). The crisis escalated during the Christmas season of 1588 when the king managed to assassinate the Duke of Guise and his brother, the Cardinal. However, much of the satire in this poem is difficult to align with historical events. In what sense, for example, did the 'Parlyament . . . passe all'? The League controlled the key meetings of the Estates General under Henry in 1576 and 1588, and for the most part the Estates refused his pleas for financial aid. Similarly, the Queen Mother certainly influenced her son, but her governing powers, if any (l. 10), were restricted to his very diminished sphere of influence.

At some point after 1603, a copyist attempted to rewrite Poem 11 as a libel on the Elizabethan regime. The subscription to one copy of this version of the poem states that it was, 'as is reported lett fall to the Kinge in the cake pitt [sic, i.e. cockpit]' (Folger Add. MS 1023). The copyist added, 'Sir I pray you lett not this or the other be shewed but to discrete frendes for that it is not knowne by whome they wer made or howe they will bee taken.' The second poem referred to here remains a mystery, as the Folger text occupies a single leaf of paper. The handwriting suggests that the king in question was either James I or Charles I, neither of whom were known to visit the public London theatre known as the Cockpit nor any other such theatre with a 'pit'. More probably, 'the cake pitt' refers to the Cockpit-in-Court at Whitehall Palace, which housed government offices including the treasury and privy council chamber across from the Palace and known as the cockpit during the seventeenth century. Three of four additional versions of this recycled libel associate it with Elizabeth's reign. The text in O: MS Rawl. poet. 26, f. 82, is entitled 'The view of our Late Estate under our Queen Elizabeth', a title echoed by that in Huntington Library MS EL 6162, f. 1, and Yale, Osborn MS fb 9, p. 881. A fifth revised text in PRO SP 46/26, f. 148, lacks a title but follows the other four manuscripts in replacing the king in l. 8 with 'Queen' (Elizabeth), and Queen mother in l. 10 with the Maids of Honour (or 'Ladyes' in the case of SP 46/26). The Cardinal (l. 13) becomes 'crafty Intelligencers' ('bushoppes' in SP 46), and the Pope (l. 14), is changed to judges or those judged. All five of these seventeenth-century manuscripts, however, convert 'Gwyses' (the Duke of Guise, l. 12) into some form of 'Mounsier Buyroone', referring to Charles de Gontaut, Duke of Biron, a figure with little if any influence in Elizabethan England. He had, however, been promoted to both office and title under Navarre as Henry IV, and remained in his service until his execution for treason in 1602.126 The retrofitted, pg 115retrospective Poem 11 is an even less effective libel than its French original but it maintained its appeal in scribal culture for at least the first few decades of the seventeenth century.

In contrast with Poem 11, Poems 12a and 12b are unique texts. The Italian version (Poem 12a) is written in a broad italic hand. It parodies Petrarch's classic courtly love lyric, Rime Sparse 134, beginning 'Pace non trovo et no ò da far guerra'.127 Petrarch's amorous rhetoric is adapted, line by line, to the entities identified in the left margin. Poem 12b, the English translation, has been docketed in a different hand 'Master Standen vers upon all estates' (f. 198v). By 1593, the Catholic exile Anthony Standen had spent twenty-eight years abroad gathering intelligence, not always for his native England. By the late 1580s he was based in southern France and reporting to Secretary Sir Francis Walsingham, but probably to contacts in Spain as well.128 He returned to England in the summer of 1593 and joined the Earl of Essex's entourage, thus the survival of his poem in the papers of Anthony Bacon, one of the Earl's secretaries. Poem 12b is written in a rough secretary hand that seems to match that of Standen's letters to Lord Burghley (3 July 1593) and to Sir Robert Cecil (15 October 1601).129

Standen's poem offers an awkward English translation of the Italian original. It sacrifices both rhyme and metre, but retains the work's basic rhetoric as applied to the persons, institutions, and countries listed in the margin. Poem 12a makes no mention of Henry III of France, who was assassinated on 1 August 1589, but devotes l. 11 to Charles, Cardinal of Bourbon, who died in May 1590. Thus the Italian poem was composed between those two dates. The copies of both poems are calendared among Bacon's papers dating from 1596. Thus Standen composed his rendering of the Italian verses between about 1590 and 1596. The leaf that preserves Poem 12a was presumably, but not certainly, found among his papers. His motive for translating the poem is clear enough, for the persons and circumstances satirized in Poem 12a were of immediate concern to him as a double agent at work in France.

Textual Notes, Poem 12b

2 Duke of Meyne. Charles of Lorraine, Duke of Mayenne, assumed leadership of the Catholic League upon the murder of his brother, Henry, Duke of Guise, in December 1588. He then led the opposition when the Protestant King of Navarre became Henry IV of France in August, 1589.

5 Protestant forces commanded by Henry of Navarre besieged Paris in July, 1589.

6 Duke of Guize. Henry of Guise was the principal leader of the Catholic League until his assassination in 1588. His son, Charles, succeeded to the dukedom but remained in prison after his father's death until his escape in 1591.

pg 116

7 Princis of Navarre. Catherine of Bourbon (1559–1604) was Henry of Navarre's sister. She was actively involved with his campaign for the throne, but remained a Protestant when he converted to Catholicism in 1593. By then the two had become estranged over his resistance to her betrothal to Charles, Count of Soissons (l. 8). She was eventually pressured into a marriage with the Catholic Henry of Lorraine, Duke de Bar.

8 Cont of Soisson. Charles, Count of Soissons, had been raised a Catholic but in 1587 deserted the Guise faction with his brothers Francis, Prince of Conti, and, confusingly, a second Charles, Cardinal of Vêndome and Bourbon. They joined forces with their first cousin, Henry of Navarre. The Count had been secretly betrothed to Navarre's sister, Catherine (l. 7), but was forced to renounce the pledge in 1594.

11 Cardinal of Burbon. The elderly Charles, Cardinal of Bourbon, Henry of Navarre's uncle, had been under arrest since 1588 and died in May, 1590.

12 Cardinal Gondi. Cardinal Pierre Gondi was Bishop of Paris when Henry of Navarre, as Henry IV, besieged the city in 1590. Gondi, with the Archbishop of Lyons, negotiated with the King for a resolution to the conflict. In 1592, Gondi negotiated on Henry's behalf with the Duke of Mayenne and Pope Clement VIII.

13 Queen of Navara. Margaret of Valois, daughter of Henry II of France, married Henry of Navarre in Paris 18 August 1572. The two were wholly incompatible. With Margaret's consent, Henry had the marriage annulled and in 1600 took as his second wife Marie de Medici.

Textual Notes

Our textual analysis of Poem 11 deals only with the anti-French state of the text. Lines 1–6 are unique to the second Egerton version of the poem and quite possibly the work of Robert Commander. There is little to choose among the variant readings of this monorhymed chant.

Lemma: BL Egerton MS 2642, f. 325

  1. E   BL Egerton MS 2642, f. 236

  2. H   BL Harl. MS 4199, f. 32 (reverses the order of ll. 10 and 11)

  3. SP   PRO SP 63/214, f. 290v (reverses the order of ll. 10 and 11)

7 do nowe Crave] do Crave E H SP

8 doth accorde all] accordes to all H, awardes to all SP

9 doeth passe] passeth SP

10 The Queene] quene SP; doeth governe] governes H, dothe Rule SP

12 sub.monsieur Du pernon robs all H; is opposite and gives] opposeth him against H

15 sub. Without god Helpe E; (without god) H

16 will shortely have] will have E, will take them H

Notes Settings


Editor’s Note
124 Elizabethan News Pamphlets, Shakespeare, Spenser, Marlowe and the Birth of Journalism (Pittsburg, PA, 2001), 1, 192. Voss adds that 'Extant documents from 1584 to 1594 suggest that no other Englishmen, including Sir Francis Drake and the Earl of Essex combined, generated as much interest and support in the general press as Navarre' (103).
Editor’s Note
125 EV 24294. Elizabethan Poetry does not record the tenth source, in PRO SP 63/214, f. 290v (c. 1590). For a critical text of this poem see Steven W. May, 'The French Primero: A Study in Renaissance Textual Transmission and Taste', English Language Notes 9 (1971), 102–08.
Editor’s Note
126 The summary of events in France for Poems 11 and 12 is based on Louis Batiffol, The Century of the Renaissance, tr. Elsie Finnimore Buckley (New York, 1925); Robert Knecht, The Valois (London, 2004); Ronald S. Love, Blood and Religion, The Conscience of Henri IV 1553–1593 (Montreal, 2001); Vincent J. Pitts, Henry IV of France, His Reign and Age (Baltimore, MD, 2009).
Editor’s Note
127 Petrarch's Lyric Poems, trans. and ed. Robert M. Durling (Cambridge, MA, 1976).
Editor’s Note
128 Paul J. Hammer, 'An Elizabethan Spy Who Came in from the Cold: the Return of Anthony Standen to England in 1593', Historical Research, 64 (1991), 277–82.
Editor’s Note
129 BL Lansdowne MS 75, f. 103; PRO SP 63/209/2, f. 79.
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