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date: 10 July 2020

Harvey, Gabrielfree

  • Jason Scott-Warren

Harvey, Gabriel (1552/3–1631), scholar and writer, was born at Saffron Walden, Essex, the eldest son of Alice (d. 1613) and John Harvey (d. 1593), a yeoman farmer and master rope maker who was a prominent member of the town's corporation. Richard Harvey and John Harvey were his younger brothers. Gabriel was educated first at Saffron Walden grammar school and then, the first of four sons sent to study at nearby Cambridge, matriculated as a pensioner at Christ's College on 28 June 1566, and proceeded BA in 1569–70, coming ninth in the order of seniority. On 3 November 1570, thanks in part to the patronage of another worthy of Walden, the statesman Sir Thomas Smith, he was elected a fellow of Pembroke College.

Early Cambridge career and friendship with Spenser

It was at Pembroke in 1573 that the first of many storms in Harvey's career blew up. A group of fellows led by Thomas Neville, later master of Trinity and dean of Canterbury, attempted to obstruct Harvey's admission as master of arts. His colleagues levelled a variety of charges against him, chiefly relating to his intellectual singularity (in particular his devotion to the writings of Peter Ramus, and consequent disparagement of Aristotle) and his arrogant, unsociable demeanour. Harvey defended himself vigorously in letters to Pembroke's master, John Young, who forced through his admission later in 1573; this time he was placed first in seniority. There followed another brief fracas over Harvey's appointment as the college's Greek lecturer. But Harvey soon recovered from these setbacks, becoming junior treasurer of the college by the end of 1573 and senior treasurer in 1575. In April 1574 he was appointed university praelector of rhetoric, lecturing at least four days a week to halls which were (by his own account) packed. Among his earliest published works were his opening spring-term orations for 1574 and 1575, printed as Rhetor, and his Easter-term oration for 1576, printed as Ciceronianus. The former maps out the pathway to true eloquence, via 'nature', 'art', and 'practice'. The latter describes the author's realization (upon reading Ramus's Ciceronianus) that superficial imitation of Cicero is not enough; the orator's style must, like Cicero's, grow out of his broad expertise in all fields of human knowledge. Harvey's efforts to attain such expertise are attested by his library, which he had begun to gather by the early 1570s, and which receives explicit mention in the Ciceronianus. Harvey's orations appeared in print in 1577, two years after his first publication, an elegy to Ramus entitled Ode natalitia.

At some point early in his Cambridge career Harvey made the acquaintance of his close contemporary Edmund Spenser, who had entered Pembroke College as a sizar on 20 May 1569. Their friendship, which would last until the poet's death in 1599, is first documented in 1578, when Spenser gave Harvey a number of books. In 1579 Harvey starred in The Shepheardes Calender as Colin Clout's 'especiall good freend Hobbinol'; he was also the addressee of E. K.'s dedicatory epistle to the volume, which urged him to defend the new poet's work 'with your mighty Rhetorick and other your rare gifts of learning'. A year later the public was granted a deeper insight into the SpenserHarvey relationship in Three proper, and wittie, familiar letters: lately passed betwene two universitie men, touching the earthquake in Aprill last, and our English refourmed versifying. The letters (which he later, somewhat implausibly, claimed had been published without his consent) offered Harvey an opportunity to display his scholarly talents in analysing the causes of a recent English earthquake; they also demonstrate the friends' shared interest in applying classical, quantitative versification to vernacular poetry, and tell of their devotion to the courtier poets Philip Sidney and Edward Dyer. Along with many tantalizing references to lost and possibly fictitious works by the two writers, the letters also contain the earliest (somewhat deprecating) notice of Spenser's Faerie Queene, the first part of which would appear a decade later.

Harvey was a firm believer in the superiority of the active to the contemplative life, and across the course of the 1570s he worked to realize his aspirations for public office by cultivating court connections, in particular to the circle of the stridently protestant earl of Leicester. Some time between October 1576 and February 1577 he was engaged by Leicester's nephew Philip Sidney, about to set out on an embassy to the emperor Rudolph II, as a professional reader of the Roman historian Livy (a role he had already performed in 1571 for Sir Thomas Smith's son, who was preparing for a colonial venture in Ireland). Early in 1578 there were plans for Harvey himself to travel abroad on official business, as part of a deputation of English scholars and courtiers joining the conference of protestant princes at Schmalkalden; the project never came to fruition. On 26 July of the same year Harvey was among the Cambridge scholars who disputed before Queen Elizabeth at Audley End; he took advantage of the occasion to present four large folio manuscripts of Latin verse to monarch and courtiers. Then, in September 1578, he published the poems in expanded forms as Gratulationes Valdinenses, and presented them to the queen again, this time at Hadham Hall, Hertfordshire, home of Harvey's friend Arthur Capel. In their revised versions the poems noted several details of Elizabeth's dealings with Harvey at Audley End (she permitted him to kiss her hand, and told him he had the look of an Italian); they may also have attempted (in veiled terms) to strike a blow against the proposed marriage of the queen to the Catholic duke of Alençon. Harvey's support for the pro-Leicester camp was made evident in the Three Letters of 1580, the third of which contained a poem entitled 'Speculum Tuscanismi', which was taken (probably with some justice, although Harvey denied it) as a libel on Sidney's enemy Edward de Vere, earl of Oxford. Oxford was alerted to the poem by his client, the writer John Lyly, and Harvey endured a brief spell in the Fleet prison which ended when he convinced the peer of his innocence. (This was apparently the second 'Fleeting' Harvey received for the Letters, which had also offended the controller of the queen's household, Sir James Croft.)

The death in August 1577 of Harvey's esteemed patron and role model, Sir Thomas Smith, spurred him to write a set of Latin elegies, published as Smithus, vel, Lachrymae musarum in 1578. It also, indirectly, sparked off a new round of academic feuding. Smith's widow and her co-executors had given Harvey 'certaine rare manuscript books' from his library. Preaching the funeral oration was Andrew Perne, vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, an inveterate bibliophile who wanted the manuscripts for himself. Perne, 'between jest, and earnest', called Harvey a fox, to which the younger man replied, 'betweene earnest, & jest, I might haply be a Cubb, as I might be used, but was over young to be a Fox, especially in his presence' (Stern, 38). Perne was apparently silenced by Harvey's witticism at the time, but he took ample revenge later, opposing his candidacy for the university oratorship in 1579 and intervening to prevent him from becoming master of Trinity Hall in February 1585. Harvey had jumped ship to Trinity Hall in 1578, pursuing his plan to train as a civil lawyer. This seems to have been just one of several options the perennially hard up academic was considering at this time (in April 1579, for example, he had asked Leicester to procure a prebend of Lichfield for him). For five months, from May 1583, he was appointed by the college as deputy proctor of the university. In 1584 he completed his legal training and obtained his LLB, but for reasons which remain unclear he was not subsequently inaugurated and he eventually incepted doctor of civil law at Oxford in July 1585. (Spenser's sonnet to 'HARVEY, the happy above happy men', may have commemorated this event.) Although Harvey retained his Trinity Hall fellowship until 1591–2, and possibly received a stipend from the college still longer, he moved to London at some point between about 1586 and 1588 to take up legal practice in the court of arches. Doubtless he viewed the law as another step on the ladder to a career at court.

Controversy with Nashe

Unfortunately, Harvey was to enter the public eye by another, altogether more problematic route. Shortly after his move to London, he became embroiled in a seemingly interminable series of vernacular print controversies with some of the most significant pamphlet writers of his day. Several factors conspired to force this new role on Harvey. First, there was the reputation he had acquired in certain quarters of the university for arrogance and singularity. He had for many years been the butt of poetic and dramatic satires, chief among which was Pedantius, a play performed at Trinity College on 6 February 1581, about a Ciceronian orator whose overblown ambitions in love and at court end in humiliation. Second, there was his family. Gabriel's fortunes were closely tied to those of his brothers, and especially Richard, another devotee of Ramus, who attracted much mockery for his publication, in 1583, of an astrological pamphlet predicting that dramatic and apocalyptic upheavals would follow the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in April of that year. Third, there were the celebrated 'Marprelate tracts', a radical protestant attack on the established ecclesiastical hierarchy, written by the pseudonymous ‘Martin Marprelate’. When John Lyly, fighting back on behalf of the authorities in his Pap with a Hatchet, hinted that Harvey or someone associated with him might lie behind Marprelate, the new print war was poised to begin.

Although Gabriel wrote an immediate reply to Lyly, entitled 'An advertisement for Pap-hatchet, and Martin Mar-prelate', he held back from publishing it, for reasons unknown. Richard Harvey, however, weighed into the controversy with two tracts, both probably published in 1590. One of these made the mistake of criticizing the 22-year-old Thomas Nashe for 'peremptorily censuring his betters at pleasure' in his preface to Robert Greene's Menaphon (1589). Among the 'betters' named were Sir Thomas More, Roger Ascham, and 'my brother Doctor Harvey' (Stern, 89). Greene retaliated in his Quip for an Upstart Courtier (1592) by pillorying the Harvey brothers and their father, a 'knave' whose 'cheefe living is by making fatal instruments, as halters and ropes, which divers desperate men hang themselves with' (ibid., 92). (Perhaps fearing lawsuits or punishment in the hereafter, Greene excised the satirical passage from later editions of the Quip before his death in September 1592.) In the same year Nashe published his Pierce Pennilesse, which (without naming him) poured scorn on Richard Harvey, the 'son of a ropemaker' (ibid., 93) who had grown into an overweening critic of Aristotle and an astrologer mocked for his prognostications by the likes of the clown Richard Tarlton and the balladeer William Elderton. At this point, Richard fell silent, and Gabriel stepped in on his brother's behalf, publishing his Foure letters, and certain sonnets: especially touching Robert Greene, and other parties, by him abused shortly after Greene's death. 'Wedded … to private study, and devoted … to publike quietnesse' (sig. G2r), he claimed that he was venturing into print most unwillingly, duty bound to defend his family's honour. In his judgement, 'the Print is abused, that abuseth' (sig. H1r). Despite this professed aversion to controversies, Harvey used his pamphlet to denigrate Greene, patronize Nashe, and praise himself, 'a very excellent generall Scholler' (sig. A3r) who might be a great asset to the commonweal.

Spotting an opportunity, Nashe quickly produced a mock-scholarly commentary on Harvey's Foure Letters entitled Strange newes, of the intercepting certaine letters, and a convoy of verses, as they were going privilie to victuall the Low Countries (entered in the Stationers' register in January 1593). In sprightly, conversational prose, this pamphlet punctures Harvey's every pretension and leaves his often sophisticated argumentative and stylistic manoeuvres looking clumsy and amateurish. Such a vicious assault could not go unanswered, and Harvey energetically defended his credit in Pierces Supererogation, or, A New Prayse of the Old Asse (probably completed by the summer of 1593). Here he turns Nashe's sarcasm back on him, mocking his voguish satire as shallow and unprofitable, while continuing to lament his own embroilment in the very thing he condemns. (Perceiving the similarity of Nashe's style to Marprelate's, Harvey bulked out this already lengthy book with the 1589 'Advertisement for Pap-hatchet' mentioned above.) In September 1593 Harvey wrote another attack on Nashe, prompted by the latter's attempt to call a truce in the preface to his Christ's Tears over Jerusalem. Realizing the error of his ways, Nashe now attributed 'all acknowledgements of aboundant Schollership, courteous well governed behaviour, and ripe experienst judgement' (Stern, 111) to Harvey. Harvey's New Letter of Notable Contents weighed Nashe's repentance in the balance and deemed it hollow. The impulse to go on railing may not have been all his own; it is quite possible that Harvey's printer, John Wolfe, with whom he was probably living and working at about this time, was responsible for prolonging an altercation which both parties felt had run its course.

Stung by the New Letter, Nashe returned to the offensive in a revised epistle prefacing the 1594 edition of Christ's Tears; in the same year he may have taken another swipe at Harvey via the figure of the university orator in The Unfortunate Traveller. Finally, in 1596, he published a substantial counter-blast to Pierces Supererogation, entitled Have with you to Saffron-Walden, or, Gabriell Harveys Hunt is up. His delay in producing this riposte was, Nashe declared, due to his desire of obtaining 'perfect intelligence of [Harvey's] life and conversation' (sig. E2v) for the fantastically embroidered biography of the 'eldest sonne of the Halter-maker' which formed the work's centrepiece. This comic tour de force is accompanied by a full-length woodcut portrait which purports to be 'The picture of Gabriell Harvey, as hee is readie to let fly upon Aiax' (sig. F4r) (‘Aiax’ being ‘a jakes’, a water-closet); this is almost certainly a recycled image rather than a genuine attempt at a likeness. Nashe insists that his repeated assaults on his enemy's 'humble' origins are motivated not by any snobbery of his own, but rather by Harvey's denial of his background; being the son of a rope maker would not be 'anie such hainous discredit simply of it selfe, if his horrible insulting pride were not' (sig. 12v–13r). An anonymous reply to Have with You, entitled The Trimming of Thomas Nashe, appeared in 1597; although it has frequently been attributed to Harvey, it is almost certainly not his work. Thus ended the NasheHarvey controversy, which received dishonourable mention in the ban on satire decreed by Archbishop John Whitgift of Canterbury and Bishop Richard Bancroft of London in 1599. It ordered that 'all Nasshes and Doctor Harvyes bookes be taken wheresoever they maye be found and that none of theire bookes bee ever printed hereafter' (Stern, 129).

Final years and reputation

In the last three decades of his life, Harvey largely disappears from view. He had left London several years before Nashe struck his final blows (the New Letter of 1593 was dated from Saffron Walden), and there is no evidence of his residence in the capital thereafter. It has been suggested that the motives for his withdrawal were chiefly financial. Nashe reports having lodged in the same Cambridge inn as Harvey, unbeknownst to him, some time in 1595–6, and in 1598 Gabriel wrote a long letter to Robert Cecil, bidding unsuccessfully to replace the grievously ailing Thomas Preston as master of Trinity Hall. Thereafter Harvey seems to have lived retired in the town of his birth. In 1608 his sister Marie and her husband sued him in chancery for £60 which she was due by the terms of their father's will; the dispute appears to have been resolved amicably. In 1626 Harvey, 'aged threeskore and thirteene yeres or thereaboutes' (Eccles, 61), testified in the town on behalf of Thomas Byrd, a member of a local family. There is some evidence to suggest that Harvey put his lifelong interest in medicine into practice in the final years of his life, and his last literary work may have been an epitaph on an apothecary of Hadleigh, Suffolk, dated 1630 and initialled ‘G. H.’. Harvey died in Saffron Walden on 7 February 1631 and was buried there on the 11th.

Aside from his friendship with Spenser and his paper-wars with Greene and Nashe, Harvey's interest today lies chiefly in his books. Although there is no catalogue of his library, which was dispersed after his death, it is likely to have been one of the most substantial of its day; more than 180 extant volumes from it have so far been identified in collections around the world. Furthermore, Harvey was one the most assiduous annotators in an age of annotation. His books are instantly recognizable from the sheer density of his marginal commentary, which sometimes tells of several readings conducted across the course of decades. He often used every scrap of available white space to record his thoughts on the printed text, employing astrological symbols to note the subject under discussion (Mercury for eloquence, Mars for war, and so on), and making repeated references to a mysterious cast of characters (with names like ‘Axiophilus’, ‘Angelus Furius’, ‘Eudromus’, and ‘Eutrapelus’) who may represent aspects of himself, or may refer to as-yet-unidentified acquaintances.

Attitudes to Harvey's annotations reflect broader divisions of opinion over his reputation. Some historians are inclined to see his marginal ruminations as 'self-therapy' (Stern, 180), and to view Harvey as little more than a fantasist, over-assured of his own capabilities and blind to his failings, who came nowhere near to attaining the position of authority he sought. Their case is strengthened by some of the more bizarre contents of Harvey's letter-book of the 1570s, including a series of missives relating to the attempted seduction of his sister Mercy by an unnamed nobleman, identifiable as Philip Howard, earl of Arundel; the drama, in which Gabriel plays a prominent role, may well be entirely the product of his imagination. Critics have also frequently echoed Nashe's attacks on Harvey, condemning his repetitious, 'euphuistic' style and accusing him of trying to lead Spenser into the literary cul-de-sac of quantitative metrics. But for others, Harvey's marginalia merely reflect the fact that his books were a semi-public resource, which needed to be customized in order to be useful. It is known that Harvey made them available for loan to friends and colleagues, and that he employed them in his capacity as a 'professional reader' to those (like Sir Philip Sidney) who needed the wisdom they enshrined. In this light, Harvey appears as a paradigmatic Elizabethan man of letters, a humanist who sought to bring ancient learning to bear on modern problems and who believed, like many of his contemporaries, that the best route to power was through knowledge.


  • V. F. Stern, Gabriel Harvey: his life, marginalia, and library (1979)
  • The letter-book of Gabriel Harvey, ad 1573–1580, ed. E. J. L. Scott (1884)
  • G. C. Moore Smith, Gabriel Harvey: marginalia (1913)
  • A. Grafton and L. Jardine, ‘“Studied for action”: how Gabriel Harvey read his Livy’, Past and Present, 129 (1990), 30–78
  • J. Nielson, ‘Reading between the lines: manuscript personality and Gabriel Harvey's drafts’, Studies in English Literature, 33 (1993), 43–82
  • J. W. Binns, Intellectual culture in Elizabethan and Jacobean England: the Latin writings of the age (1990)
  • L. Jardine, ‘Gabriel Harvey: exemplary Ramist and pragmatic humanist’, Revue des Sciences Philosophiques et Théologiques, 70 (1986), 36–48
  • P. Collinson, ‘Andrew Perne and his times’, Andrew Perne: quatercentenary studies, ed. P. Collinson and others (1991)
  • D. Attridge, Well-weighed syllables: Elizabethan verse in classical metres (1974)
  • L. Hutson, Thomas Nashe in context (1989)


  • BL, autograph notes, Add. MS 42518
  • BL, commonplace book, Add. MS 32494
  • BL, letter-book, Sloane MS 93
  • Magd. Cam., poems and annotations in four works, L.26
  • Pembroke Cam., marginal notes to Compendium Romanae historiae


Pembroke College, Cambridge
Essex Record Office
British Library, London
Magdalene College, Cambridge