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

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Commentary, Poems 42, 42a

Poem 42, 'The Scottishe Libell' or 'Scottishe Coqalane' (cockalane, a libel or satire),560 characterizes Frederick II, King of Denmark as 'wars then wude' (more than mad, l. 9), but is otherwise only mildly insulting to the national leaders it mentions. Poem 42a, 'The Awnswer to the said Scottishe Libell', libels Pope Sixtus V, is merely dismissive of Philip II, and concludes by insulting the Scots as a nation. We include these marginally libellous poems because they illustrate contemporary understanding of the word libel, the transmission of texts in manuscript, and how one such poem could generate answering verse that is both refutational and somewhat more libellous.

Poem 42 is variously dated 1586 and 1587. Both dates could refer to the year 1587 by modern reckoning, while the Egerton MS scribe's assertion that the poem was 'published' in 1587 may simply mean that it began circulating in manuscript then. No printed text has come to light, albeit if published in Scotland as a broadside, a 100 per cent loss rate of its copies would be normal. If the poem is authentically Scottish in origin, it was probably composed in 1586 and almost certainly before 8 February 1587 when Mary, Queen of Scots was executed. Even many Scottish Protestants were outraged by Mary's trial, 11 October 1586, as an abettor of the Babington Plot, and her subsequent execution. The libel, however, addressed to an English audience, assures them that 'Your Wheene [Queen] is gude, hir game pg 271is faire' (l. 3); few Scots would have assented to this judgment in 1587. A date after 1586 is even more unlikely if the subscription to the Egerton text is authorial: 'God save my Lord Seaton561 & the French Embassadour & our King to if he prove a Catholicke'. This is probably the insertion of a Catholic scribe in the process of transmission (it was certainly not written by the Egerton scribe and Church of England clergyman, Robert Commander). Yet nothing in the subscription or the poem itself expresses any strong Catholic sentiment nor the general resentment felt by Scots toward the English for their treatment of Mary.

'The Awnswer to the said Scottishe Libell' (Poem 42a), is unique to the Egerton anthology and quite possibly by Robert Commander, author of the verse attack on Hugh Shadwell (Poem 3). The metrical irregularities of Poem 42a (e.g. ll. 2, 8, 11–12) cast doubt on his claim, however, as his rhythms in Poem 3, to which he subscribed his name, are entirely regular. At line 15, moreover, 'King' is an emendation required both by the correspondence with the 'King' of Poem 42.15 and the pronoun 'him' in 42a. 16. Commander's fondness for interacting with the poems he transcribed is nevertheless further illustrated by his additions to a text of 'The State of France', another satirical account of international politics in the mid-1580s that immediately precedes 'The Scottishe Libell' on ff. 324v–25.

It is possible that Poem 42 is not authentically Scottish, for its emphasis on the crisis in the Netherlands was far more pertinent in England than Scotland. In 1584 the Protestant Dutch leader William of Orange was assassinated, and in the following year Antwerp fell to the Spanish forces already in control of the southern and eastern Netherlands. Elizabeth reluctantly agreed late in 1585 to assist the Dutch by sending over an expeditionary force commanded by the Earl of Leicester. The English campaigns, primarily during the summers of 1586 and 1587, delayed some Spanish attempts, particularly in the vicinity of Zutphen, but Spanish troops under the Duke of Parma continued to seize strategically important towns such as Grave (1586) and Sluis (1587). Elizabeth persuaded Patrick, Master of Gray, to commit some 2,400 Scottish soldiers to the cause (at her expense),562 but the fighting otherwise little concerned Scotland. The Scots could well afford to 'ligg aluffe' while urging England (if in the giving vein), to extend further aid to its Protestant neighbour to the north.

Whatever the origins of Poem 42, and despite its contemporary classification as a libel, it is overall a mildly satiric warning to England not to overreach herself in the Netherlands, advice that dovetails neatly with Scottish interests. While Scotland had little immediate stake in the outcome of the English intervention, it had much to lose should it fail, leaving England open to Spanish invasion. The Spanish Armada was already under construction, its aim the conquest of England. And if England fell, Scotland would not be far behind, as James VI himself acknowledged pg 272by comparing the Spanish attitude toward Scotland to Polyphemus' offer to Odysseus, ' "to devour him after all his fellows were devoured" '.563

Textual Notes

Poem 42's title in BL Egerton MS 2642, ff. 325–25v (E) terms it 'The Scottishe Libell published Anno Dm} 1587'. No printed text is known to have survived, but the poem saw wide circulation in manuscript as witnessed by the survival of another three manuscript copies, BL Add. MS 38823, f. 69v (A), Marsh's Library, Dublin MS Z 3.5.21, f. 21v (Ma), and Yale, Beinecke Library, Osborn MS fb 9, f. 27v (Y).

All four scribes struggled with the poem's Scottish dialect. A and E are quite corrupt with nine errors each, six of which they share (ll. 6, 9, 15, 19, 20, and 21), revealing their descent from a common ancestor. The independently derived Ma, with five errors, is the obvious choice for copy text, emended at l. 2 ('vnkaintes' replaced with A's 'vnkethes' (uncouths), l. 12 ('likes well of that ilke same motion' changed to the unanimous reading of A E Y, 'Is well inclined to thilke/ elcke motion'). At l. 13, we omit (with A, E, and Y) the metre-rending 'But the' to read simply 'The', and at l. 20, we interpret Ma's 'shrewd' to be a mistake for a Scottish spelling of 'shield', perhaps 'shiewd', yielding a conjectural emendation by analogy with 'cawme' for 'calm' at l. 17 or 'awe' for 'all' at l. 22. The ancestor of A, E, and Y converted the word to 'keep'. At l. 24, Ma's 'awe ayune' seems a misreading of 'you awne' ('you on'), preserved in E but corrupted to 'you came' by A.

A, E, and Ma are roughly contemporary texts dating from c. 1585–1590. The Marsh's Library version, descending independently from the archetype, was compiled by students at St John's College, Cambridge. A is the personal anthology of Sir Edward Hoby, courtier, translator, and son of the redoubtable Lady Elizabeth Russell, née Cooke, the widow of Sir Thomas Hoby. Commander's miscellany, E, might in this instance share a common, court-centred point of origin for its text of Poem 42 insofar as Commander was Sir Henry Sidney's chaplain. Given the rapid and promiscuous circulation of texts through scribal networks, however, this is merely one plausible explanation for the transmission of these related versions of the poem. Y is a retrospective anthology of primarily Elizabethan texts compiled in the first quarter of the seventeenth century. Later, the names John Humphreys and Wynn were written on f. 1 of this manuscript, suggesting a Welsh provenance that could connect it with E and Commander, who spent many years at Ludlow Castle, Shropshire, as chaplain to Sidney, then Lord President of the Council in the Marches of Wales. While Ma descends from the archetype independently, A, E, and Y are related through a common hypothetical ancestor designated X in the stemma below.

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2 vnkaintes Ma

3 grace A

4 can A

6 yet nought A E Y

7 a partie is E; germande A

8 he promysed E

9 Henry A E Y

12 ilke same Ma

13 But the Ma

14 holdes E

15 he standes A E Y

17 ligges E, his liges A

18 he is A E

19 eythes E, bares A, liggs Y; gude will] fawe still Y

20 shrewd Ma, keepe/keppe A E Y

21 stand well to your tacling A E

21–22 om. Y

22 lost A; 24 awe Ma; came A

Fig. 3. Stemma for Poem 42

Fig. 3. Stemma for Poem 42

Notes Settings


Editor’s Note
560 The titles, respectively, of the Egerton and Additional MSS texts.
Editor’s Note
561 George, fifth Lord Seton, who died in January 1586, was a Catholic and committed supporter of Mary. The 'Lord Seaton' referred to here is probably his successor, Robert, the sixth Lord, one of the King's favourites. Henri Kir, Monsieur de Courcelles, was French ambassador to Scotland from February 1586.
Editor’s Note
562 Wallace T. MacCaffrey, Queen Elizabeth and the Making of Policy, 1572–1588 (Princeton, 1981), 360–61.
Editor’s Note
563 David Harris Willson, King James VI and I (Oxford, 1956; rpt. 1967), 80.
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