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date: 26 February 2021

Spenser, Edmundfree

  • Andrew Hadfield

Spenser, Edmund (1552?–1599), poet and administrator in Ireland, was born in London but his family possibly came from Burnley in north-east Lancashire. His origins are unclear and his immediate family not established beyond doubt, although a number of possible ancestors and relatives are recorded. The Spensers are noted at the end of the thirteenth century, holding a freehold at Hurstwood, in Worsthorne, 3 miles south-east of Burnley. An Edmund Spenser, head of this branch of the family, is recorded deceased in 1587. He married twice and by each marriage had a son named John, both of whom had sons named Edmund. Spenser publicly claimed kinship with a more exalted line of the family name, the Spensers of Althorp. In Prothalamion he claims that:

from another place I take my name,An house of auncient fame

ll. 130–31and in Colin Clouts Come Home Againe he notes his relation to the three daughters of Sir John and Lady Katherine Spenser of Wormleighton and Althorp:

Ne lesse praiseworthy are the sisters three,The honor of the noble familie:Of which I meanest boast my selfe to be,And most that unto them I am so nie.

ll. 536–9He dedicated three of the poems contained in his Complaints to the three ladies: Mother Hubberds Tale (published separately in 1612) was dedicated to Anne, Lady Compton and Monteagle; 'The Teares of the Muses' to Alice, Lady Strange; and 'Muiopotmos' to Elizabeth, Lady Carey. Spenser also addressed to Lady Carey one of the dedicatory sonnets to The Faerie Queene, which contains a reference to the poet's 'remembraunce of your gracious name'—probably a sly hint at their kinship and her maiden name.

Edmund's father may have been the John Spenser who moved from Hurstwood to London, where he became a member of the Merchant Taylors' Company. John is recorded working as a free journeyman clothmaker in the service of Nicholas Peele, 'sheerman', of Bow Lane, London, in October 1566. He may have been the John Spenser who became an alderman in 1583, owned a house formerly in the possession of the duke of Gloucester, near the Merchant Taylors' Hall, constructed a warehouse nearby, was made lord mayor in 1594, and subsequently received a knighthood. It is also possible that Edmund was the son of an ordinary journeyman, as his claims to gentleman status came through his own achievements—a university degree—and acquisition of land in Ireland. Nothing is known of his mother other than her name, Elizabeth, to which he refers in Amoretti, sonnet 74. Spenser probably had a number of siblings. Gabriel Harvey refers to him as 'your good mother's eldist ungracious son' in his Letter Book. There were perhaps two sisters, named Elizabeth and Sarah, the latter of whom later lived in Ireland. A John Spenser who matriculated as a sizar at Pembroke College, Cambridge, at Easter 1575 and graduated in 1577–8 may well have been a younger brother. A John Spenser, perhaps the same person, is recorded as attending Merchant Taylors' School in 1571, and a John Spenser is recorded as serving as constable of Limerick in 1579, the coincidences suggesting, assuming both are the same person, that he was probably related to Spenser in some way.

Early years and education

It is not certain where in London Spenser was born. Early eighteenth-century antiquarians claimed that he came from East Smithfield but, given the low population of this area, it is more plausible that he was born in West Smithfield. He was probably born in 1552, since he matriculated at Cambridge University in 1569, at a time when the usual age at matriculation was sixteen or seventeen. First he attended the recently founded Merchant Taylors' School, probably from 1561, the year in which it opened, although the sole record of his attendance is for his last year there, 1569. The headmaster was the humanist educational theorist Richard Mulcaster, whose rigorous pedagogical methods and intellectually demanding approach to the curriculum strongly influenced Spenser. Mulcaster was also interested in the development of the English language, advocating its widespread use but recognizing its need to borrow words and phrases from other languages. It is perhaps significant that this problem was one which Spenser examined throughout his literary career. The school was housed in an old mansion, the Manor of the Rose, in the parish of St Laurence Pountney. Other pupils included Thomas Kyd, Lancelot Andrewes, and Thomas Lodge.

On 26 February 1569 Spenser was one of thirty-one 'certyn poor schollers of the scholls aboute London'—six from his school—who were left 1s. and a gown to wear at the funeral of Robert Nowell, a rich lawyer from Lancashire and brother of Alexander Nowell, dean of St Paul's, in the will of the deceased. This may indicate that the Spensers were poor, and so suggests that Spenser's father was the less rather than the more successful John Spenser mentioned above. Spenser subsequently received three payments from Nowell's bequest: 10s. on 7 November 1569, 6s. on 7 November 1570, and 2s. 6d. on 24 April 1571. He also received five other payments while at university, between 1571 and 1574, which may have been on account of ill health or further indications that he was a scholar in need of funds.

Shortly before he went to university Spenser translated a series of twenty-one poems: six 'epigrams', which were stanzas from Petrarch's canzone 'Standomi un giorno solo a la finestra', and fifteen sonnets from Du Bellay's 'Visions'. These were published with accompanying woodcuts as an introduction to A theatre wherein be represented as wel the miseries and calamities that follow the voluptuous worldlings, a translation of a work by the major Dutch protestant poet Jan Van Der Noot by Henry Bynnemann, a prominent publisher, who had entered the work in the Stationers' register on 22 July 1569. Van Der Noot's preface suggests that the translations are his but Spenser later reworked both sequences as 'The Visions of Petrarch, Formerly Translated' and 'The Visions of Bellay' in Complaints (1591). These works indicate that his was regarded as a precocious talent, as it is unusual for a schoolboy to contribute to such an important volume. They also suggest that Mulcaster, who was friendly with Van Der Noot's cousin Emanuel Van Meteren and had other Dutch contacts, may have been instrumental in launching Spenser's writing career.

Spenser matriculated at Pembroke College, Cambridge, on 20 May 1569 as a sizar—a poor scholar who earned his bed and board by performing a series of servant's duties. Spenser wrote little about his life at college but he did refer to 'My mother Cambridge' in The Faerie Queene (book 4, canto 11, stanza 34). He appears to have read widely in a variety of languages, and could read Latin, Greek, French, and Italian, and probably other tongues. His contemporaries included Lancelot Andrewes, who followed him to Pembroke from school two years later; Gabriel Harvey, who became a fellow in 1570 and was to be Spenser's most significant mentor for the next ten years or so; and Edward Kirke, admitted as a sizar in 1571, who may have made some contribution to the notes published with The Shepheardes Calender, or at least have been party to their complex humour and eccentric nature. On 18 October 1569 a bill was signed to an Edmund Spenser for bearing letters from Tours for Sir Henry Norris, ambassador to France, to Queen Elizabeth, indicating that Spenser was already involved in secretarial work for powerful patrons. Norris was father of John and Thomas Norris, whom Spenser later served in Ireland.

Spenser graduated with a BA in 1573, his name placed eleventh in a list of 120, and an MA in 1576, when he was placed fourth from last out of seventy (the lists may not be in order of merit). It is not clear how he spent the next three or four years. He may have travelled back to Lancashire, where he fell in love with ‘Rosalind’; E. K., in The Shepheardes Calender, encourages readers to identify the love-sick Colin in the January and June eclogues with Spenser—'[Rosalynde] is … a feigned name, which beyng wel ordered, wil bewray the very name of hys love and mistresse, whom by that name he coloureth' (January); 'this is no poetical fiction, but unfeynedly spoken of the Poete selfe' (June)—but taking such material at face value is a hazardous enterprise. It is possible that Spenser was in Ireland in the mid-1570s. In A View of the Present State of Ireland (written c.1596) Irenius claims to have witnessed the execution of Murrough O'Brien (July 1577). Such evidence is also problematic, as it depends upon an exact identification of Spenser with Irenius, a fictional character in a dialogue. However, there is corroborating evidence: Spenser is recorded delivering letters and a 'cast of falcons' to Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, from Sir William Drury, president of Munster (8 July 1577). It is possible that Spenser was working for the lord deputy, Henry Sidney, Leicester's brother-in-law, as he had for Sir Henry Norris.

Some time after 1 April 1578 Spenser was employed in the household of Dr John Young, bishop of Rochester, and former master of Pembroke College when Spenser was a student (Young was installed on the above date). Gabriel Harvey possessed a copy of Jerome Turler's The Traveller (1575), which has the inscription 'Ex dono Edmundi Spenserii, Episcopi Roffensis Secretarii' ('a gift of Edmund Spenser, secretary of the bishop of Rochester'). It is likely that Spenser lived at the bishop's residence in Bromley, which would account for E. K.'s statement in the June eclogue that ‘Colin’ had 'for his more preferment removing out of the Northparts came into the South'.

Gabriel Harvey records that he and Spenser met in London on 20 December 1578. Spenser presented Harvey with four 'foolish bookes' that he had to read before 1 January 1579 or give Spenser his four volumes of Lucian. The four volumes were Till Eulenspiegel's A Merye Jest of a Man that was called Howleglas (c.1528), Andrew Borde's Jests of Scoggin (c.1566), Merie Tales … by Master Skelton (1567), and The Pleasaunt Historie of Lazarillo de Tormes (trans. D. Rowland, c.1569). The outcome of the contest is not recorded. Harvey also noted in his Letter Book that Spenser looked like a 'young Italianate signor and French monsieur', a description that gives a sense of the humorous banter established between the two friends.

Early works

Spenser was clearly writing poetry throughout the 1570s. The prefatory epistle to The Shepheardes Calender, signed E. K., claims to have been written 'From my lodging at London thys 10. of April'. E. K. may have been Edward Kirke, Spenser's contemporary at Pembroke, but it is more likely that the epistle was written by Harvey or by Spenser himself, and possibly both. E. K. refers to a series of other works that are now lost: 'Dreames, Legendes, Courte of Cupide', a translation of Moschus; 'Idyllion of Wandering Love, Pageaunts, Sonnets'; and 'The Englishe poete', a critical treatise. It is likely that some of these works were revised and reappeared as parts of longer poems published later (commentators speculate that the 'Courte of Cupide' was revised as The Faerie Queene, book 3, cantos 11–12). Certainly this would accord with other information about Spenser's habits of composition. Lodowick Bryskett records, in his Discourse of Civill Life (1606), an exchange—which may be in part fictional—between a number of intellectuals at his house near Dublin in 1582. Spenser begs to be excused from a discussion of moral philosophy because he has already completed such a task in The Faerie Queene, which suggests that his works were often written a long time before they were published and that they were carefully revised.

Spenser wrote to Harvey on 5 October 1579 from 'Leycester House' to say that he had entered the earl's service and was ready to travel abroad for his master. It is likely that he had entered the Leicester circle some time between September 1578 and April 1579. On 15 October he wrote to Harvey again, from the house of 'Mystresse Kerkes' in Westminster, to say that he was in 'some use of familiarity' with Sir Philip Sidney and Edward Dyer, and that they debated how to reform English metre and bring it in line with the standards of the ancients. In another letter Harvey writes that both he and Spenser are friendly with Daniel Rogers, another acquaintance of Sidney's. Commentators have suggested that Spenser and Sidney enjoyed a close relationship and discussed poetic matters, before Sidney's untimely death in 1586. Others argue that the evidence is slim and that it is unlikely that someone of Sidney's social status would have been keen to spend a great deal of time with a commoner such as Spenser (Heninger).

On 27 October 1579 Spenser married Maccabaeus Childe at St Margaret's, Westminster. They had two children, Sylvanus and KatherineRichard Mulcaster, Spenser's former headmaster, had a child named Sylvanus. Spenser married again, in 1594, but his poetic persona, Colin Clout, refers to being 'Vassall to one, whom all my dayes I serve' (Colin Clouts Come Home Againe, 1591), which suggests that Maccabaeus Spenser died between c.1590 and c.1593.

The Shepheardes Calender was entered into the Stationers' register on 5 December 1579 and was published by the protestant publisher Hugh Singleton soon after that date, as the poem bears the imprint 1579 (indicating that it must have appeared before the end of February). The Calender was a popular work and was reprinted in 1581, 1586, 1591, and 1597, demonstrating that Spenser did make an impact as 'our new poet'. It contains twelve poems, complete with prefatory comments and notes by E. K., which may or may not have been written by Spenser himself and Gabriel Harvey, and a series of emblematic woodcuts of allegorical significance. The poems describe events in the lives of a series of fictional shepherds and vary from apparently personal laments on the nature of loss and unrequited love to stringent ecclesiastical satire and attacks on corruption and court patronage. They comment on the nature of love and devotion, the pains of exile, praise for the queen, forms of worship, the duties of church ministers, forms of poetry, the merits of protestantism and Catholicism, and impending death. Equally important is the showy technical proficiency of the works and the ways in which the poems and commentary serve to announce the arrival of a major new English poet.

The Calender was soon followed by another work, presumably as part of the same plan to launch Spenser as a significant English poet. On 30 June 1580 his and Harvey's Three Proper, and Wittie, Familiar Letters were entered into the Stationers' register; the epistle 'To the Curteous Buyer, by a Welwiller of the Two Authors' is dated 19 June 1580. To these letters were attached 'Two other very commendable letters, of the same mens writing … more lately delivered unto the printer'. Spenser's letters are purportedly written from Leicester House and are dated 5 October 1579 (containing further material dated 15–16 October) and 2 April 1580. They discuss a variety of intellectual and literary matters, concentrating especially on the need to reform English poetry and, especially, the desirability of quantitative metre. The tone, in H. R. Woudhuysen's words, is 'familiar and intimate, knowing and rather jokey, secret and yet clearly assembled with publication in mind' (Hamilton, 435), in line with the textual apparatus of The Shepheardes Calender. The letters contain more references to lost works: 'My Slomber', 'The Dying Pellican', 'Nine Comoedies', 'Stemmata Dudleiana', 'Dreames' (also referred to in The Shepheardes Calender), and 'Epithalamion Thamesis' (probably reworked as part of The Faerie Queene, book 4, canto 11). Spenser refers to 'Dreames' and 'Dying Pellican' as 'fully finished'. There is also the first reference to The Faerie Queene when Harvey writes that, for Spenser, ''The Faerye Queene' be fairer in your eie than the Nine Muses, and Hobgoblin runne away with the Garland from Apollo' (p. 628).

Secretary to Lord Grey in Ireland

In 1580 Spenser became private secretary to Arthur, Lord Grey of Wilton, who was appointed lord deputy of Ireland in July. Spenser probably arrived with Lord Grey on 12 August. His salary, as recorded on 31 December, was £20 p.a. He was also paid £43 19s. 3d. for carrying messages, and paid out £18 16s. 10d. to messengers (12 December). He now lived in Ireland until his death, returning to England at regular intervals for official and literary business. He may not have wished to leave for Ireland, as some have conjectured. It is likely that he incurred the wrath of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, for his hostile portrait in Mother Hubberds Tale, which appears to have circulated in manuscript in the late 1570s or 1580. No copies of this manuscript survive and there is no contemporary corroborating evidence, apart from internal references, added later, lamenting the fate of an unsuccessful courtier—presumably Spenser himself—who has 'thy Princes grace, yet want her Peeres' (l. 901). The last lines of The Faerie Queene have also been taken to refer back to this incident; Spenser hopes that his work will be read fairly, unlike his 'former writs', and so be:

free from all that wite [blame],With which some wicked tongues did it backbite,And bring into a mighty Peres displeasure.

book 6, canto 12, stanza 41The peer in question was Burghley and the work Mother Hubberds Tale.

It seems likely that the work was controversial because of its direct satire of the queen's projected marriage to François, duke of Alençon. John Stubbs, author of The Discoverie of a Gaping Gulf (1579), an aggressive treatise urging Elizabeth not to make her subjects obey a foreign, probably Catholic, monarch, had just had his right hand severed for publishing his work. Stubbs's book was translated into French and Italian, and a manuscript was sent to the pope, precipitating an international incident. Spenser could hardly have chosen a less apposite time to circulate a topical satire of the incident, in which he seems to show that the queen is in danger of being duped by the French ambassador, Simier, represented as an ape (Elizabeth's name for him) in league with her chief minister, represented as a fox. The disastrous effect of Mother Hubberds Tale probably explains why Spenser, who had promoted himself as the most important new English poet earlier in the year, did not publish another significant work for ten years and concentrated instead on his career in the Irish civil service.

It is possible that Spenser accompanied Grey on some military expeditions and he may have been present at the notorious massacre at the Fort d'Oro, Smerwick, on the Dingle peninsula, on 9 November 1580, when Lord Grey ordered the slaughter of some 600 Spanish and Italian troops who had surrendered to the lord deputy. The state papers contain letters in Spenser's hand from Grey to Elizabeth and Lord Burghley, vigorously defending his actions. Spenser later defended Lord Grey himself in A View of the Present State of Ireland (c.1596).

Spenser may also have accompanied Grey on expeditions against the O'Mores of Connaught in February 1581 and the O'Tooles, O'Byrnes, and Kavanaghs in co. Wicklow and co. Wexford in May–June; on his northern tour of duty in August, when Grey negotiated peace with Turlogh Lynagh O'Neill and fought in Leinster; and in his campaign against the Munster rebels in September. On 14 March Spenser was appointed clerk of the chancery for faculties, as successor to Lodowick Bryskett. The seven-year appointment required the drafting of the licences and dispensations issued by the archbishop of Dublin. Spenser undoubtedly employed a deputy and kept part of the salary for himself. At the end of the month he was paid £52 4s. 10d. for carrying messages and paid out £39 3s. 8d. to messengers. The total that Spenser was paid for organizing messengers during Grey's deputyship was £430 10s. 2d. He is referred to as 'gent … secretary of the deputy', affirming that his position in Ireland had changed his status, probably through his ability to purchase and rent land.

Spenser was undoubtedly living in Dublin or close outside throughout this period. It is likely that his intellectual circle in Dublin was wide and varied, as indicated in Lodowick Bryskett's Discourse of Civill Life. As well as Bryskett and Grey, Spenser undoubtedly knew Geoffrey Fenton, translator of prose romances and of Guicciardini's history of Italy, who married into the Boyle family, as Spenser was to do later; Barnaby Rich, soldier and author of numerous romances and political treatises; and Barnaby Googe, author of Eglogs, Epytaphs, and Sonettes (1563)—pastoral poems that may have had some influence on The Shepheardes Calender—and numerous translations.

On 6 December 1581 Spenser was granted the official lease for the abbey and manor of Enniscorthy, co. Wexford, a former Franciscan monastery, 'and a ruinous castle and weir there'. The lands were leased out to Richard Synnot, a previous owner who may have been living there all the time, for £11 13s. 4d. In 1581–2 Spenser also leased a house in Dublin; a former monastery at New Ross, co. Wexford, which he later sold to Sir Anthony Colclough (d. 1584); and another ruined Franciscan monastery, New Abbey, near Kilcullen, co. Kildare, 25 miles from Dublin (15 July 1582). He signed a twenty-one-year lease on the last property for £3 a year but forfeited this in 1590. There is only one record of Spenser paying rent (August 1583), which suggests that he probably moved to Munster soon after that date. Spenser's transactions indicate how easy it was for ‘new’ English civil servants, soldiers, and adventurers to acquire land and wealth well beyond what they could have expected to gain had they remained in England. It is unlikely that Spenser would have been able to become a gentleman in England, and this change in status may also explain why he chose to pursue a career in Ireland. Many of the properties in question were confiscated from Irish ‘rebels’. New Abbey was forfeited by James Eustace after his rebellion.

Ireland, 1582–1589

Lord Grey was recalled and left Ireland on 31 August 1582, so ending Spenser's secretaryship. Grey's appointment was ended partly due to criticism at court of his harsh treatment of Irish rebels, most notably at Smerwick, but he was to remain a heroic figure for many of the ‘new’ English, who approved of his stern and decisive actions and looked back to his example during the Nine Years' War in the 1590s. Eudoxus, in A View of the Present State of Ireland, tries to refute claims that the 'good Lo. Grey … was a blodye man, and regarded not the life of her [majesty's] subjectes no more then dogges' (Works, 10.159). Such partisan support indicates that Spenser thought highly of Lord Grey and respected him as a master. He may have accompanied Grey on his final expedition to King's county in May–June 1582.

In May 1583 Spenser was appointed a commissioner for musters in co. Kildare for two years, with twenty-six others. The commissioners were expected 'to summon all the subjects of each barony, and then so mustered in warlike apparel' (Maley, 38), when necessary. Spenser's address is given as New Abbey, implying that this was his principal residence. Spenser was summoned to perform his duties on 4 July 1584, with twenty-five others.

On 6 November 1583 Lodowick Bryskett, whose career in the Irish civil service appears to have been more advanced than Spenser's and who seems to have acted as patron to the younger man, was officially installed as clerk of the council of Munster and secretary to Sir John Norris, president of the council. Spenser served as his deputy, probably from this time or soon afterwards, on a salary of £7 10s., but undoubtedly employed a deputy himself. Assuming that the new lord deputy, Sir John Perrot, required secretaries to follow him on expeditions and tours of duty, Spenser may have accompanied Perrot and Sir John Norris on a tour through Munster and Connaught in July 1584 to install Norris and Sir Richard Bingham in their respective presidencies. He may also have travelled north to Ulster with Norris in August and September to confront Sorley Boy MacDonnell, who had landed on the Antrim coast with a large force of Scots in July, and returned to Dublin in October.

In 1585 Spenser became prependary of Effin, a benefice attached to Limerick Cathedral, which probably made few, if any, demands on his time. A prepend was a pension or plot of land granted to a cathedral to fund a secular priest or a regular canon; Effin, west of Balingaddy, consisted of 1052 acres. In the May and July eclogues of The Shepheardes Calender Spenser had attacked such practices as corrupt. In Mother Hubberds Tale he makes a direct reference to the problematic nature of prepends:

How manie honest men see ye arizeDaylie thereby, and grow to goodly prize;To Deanes, to Archdeacons; to Commissaries,To Lords, to Principalls, to Prependaries?

ll. 414–17How Spenser performed his duties is not recorded.

Spenser would have attended the sessions at the presidency court of Munster in Limerick and Cork throughout 1585 and 1586. A few years earlier plans had been made to establish a plantation of English settlers in Munster using the lands confiscated from the native Irish after the Desmond rebellion (1579–83). The forfeited lands were surveyed in September–November 1584 with the purpose of selling them off to settlers; the plan for the plantation was drafted in December 1585 and, having passed through the Irish parliament of 1586, which Spenser would have attended, the articles for the Munster undertakers received royal assent in June.

At some point in 1586 Spenser acquired an estate of 3028 acres connected to the ruined Norman castle of Kilcolman, in co. Cork, one of the smaller portions of land granted to English settlers on the plantation from over half a million acres confiscated from the earl of Desmond's lands. It is likely that he used one Andrew Reade to claim the property on his behalf. Kilcolman was described as 'a large castle, old, and dilapidated, which at the present time has no use except to shelter cattle at night' (Maley, 43). Spenser would have lived in an adjoining house, not in the castle itself. Like Dublin, Munster would have supplied Spenser with numerous intellectual contacts, allies, and companions. Sir Walter Ralegh was his immediate neighbour, occupying an enormous estate of 42,000 acres in co. Cork and co. Waterford, although he may not have spent much time in Ireland. Richard Beacon, the queen's attorney for Munster and author of Solon his Follie (1594), occupied land also in the counties of Cork and Waterford. Meredith Hanmer, protestant polemicist and historian, whose history of Ireland was included in Sir James Ware's edition of Irish chronicles, together with Spenser's View, was archdeacon of Ross from 1591 until his death in 1604. Sir William Herbert, author of 'Croftus, sive de Hibernia liber', occupied land in co. Kerry and acted as vice-president of Munster in the absence of Sir Thomas Norris while living in Ireland from 1586 to 1589. Spenser's life was to be closely connected to the fate of the plantation until his death.

Spenser was probably in Dublin for much of 1586, attending the Irish parliamentary session, which opened on 26 April and closed on 14 May. A sonnet written to Gabriel Harvey, and later included in Harvey's Foure Letters (1592), is dated 18 July from Dublin, suggesting that Spenser spent most of the year in Dublin, probably returning to attend sessions of the presidency court of Munster held in September in Dungarvon and in October in Lismore and Youghal. The third edition of The Shepheardes Calender was published in London, indicating that Spenser's work was still in demand in England.

Spenser undoubtedly attended a session of the Munster council in Cork in March and two others in Limerick in June and November 1587. He probably spent most of the year in various parts of Munster. By October he was serving as deputy to Bryskett, clerk of the council of Munster. Records indicate that he must have taken up residence at Kilcolman some time in 1588, probably around September, when Lord Roche, a local Irish landowner, complained to the queen's commissioners that some of his land had been occupied by English planters. It is likely that Spenser spent some of the year with Ralegh, who was resident in his house at Youghal, and was serving as mayor of the town. Spenser sold on his post as clerk of the court of chancery to Arland Uscher (22 June).

There was general panic in Ireland in 1588, when the Spanish Armada tried to sail home round the Irish coast and out into the Atlantic. Fearing Atlantic storms, many sailed close to the coast and, because their maps were not accurate enough to navigate through the treacherous waters, most were wrecked—twenty-five in February alone. The English authorities in Ireland, fearing an invasion triggered by an alliance between Irish and Spanish, swiftly mobilized to deal with any survivors. Spenser probably accompanied Sir Thomas Norris's military expedition to Ulster and Connaught in October and November. He would have been in Dublin in December to see Norris knighted by the lord deputy, Sir William Fitzwilliam.

Spenser would have returned with Norris to Munster in January 1589, as a letter in his hand indicates (Maley, 48–9). He obtained official possession of the Kilcolman estate on 22 May, for which he paid an annual rent of £20 and on which he established a colony of six householders and their families. Meanwhile Lord Roche was making further complaints about the confiscation of his lands, naming Spenser, with George Browne, Hugh Cuffe, Justice Smythes, and Arthur Hyde. On 12 October he wrote directly to Elizabeth, alleging that:

Edmund Spenser falsely pretending title to certain castles and 16 ploughlands, hath taken possession thereof. Also by threatening and menacing the said Lord Roche's tenants, and by seizing their cattle, and beating Lord Roche's servants and bailiffs, he has wasted 6 ploughlands of his lordship's lands.

ibid., 52

The undertakers countered with a bill against Roche, alleging that he had:

relieved one Kedagh O'Kelly, his foster brother, a proclaimed traitor, has imprisoned men of Mr. Verdon's, Mr. Edmund Spenser and others. He speaks ill of Her Majesty's government and hath uttered words of contempt of Her Majesty's laws, calling them unjust. He killed a fat beef of Teig Olyve's, because Mr. Spenser lay in his house one night as he came home from the sessions at Limerick. He also killed a beef of his smith's for mending Mr. Peer's plough iron. He has forbidden his people to have any trade or conference with Mr. Spenser or Mr. Piers or their Tenants. He has concealed from Her Majesty the manor of Crogh, being the freehold of one who was a rebel.

Maley, 52

The case was to haunt Spenser throughout the next decade, and was arguably a significant influence on the 'Two cantos of Mutabilitie', published after his death (P. Coughlan, The local context of Mutabilitie's plea, Irish University Review: A Journal of Irish Studies, 26, 1996, 320–41).

The Faerie Queene

Spenser had clearly been working hard on his poetry, even though he had published next to nothing since his initial success with The Shepheardes Calender. It is likely that his busy job as a civil servant precluded extensive publication—although we cannot be sure how onerous his duties really were. Perhaps now that he was a landowner of some substance he could find more time to write, or to prepare what he had written for publication, as he produced a large body of work in the last decade of his life. The first edition of The Faerie Queene must have been ready for publication in 1589, for in October he left for England with Ralegh, leaving Richard Chichester as a substitute deputy. Spenser's visit is recorded in Colin Clouts Come Home Againe (first published 1596)—although as usual we should be wary of taking anything Spenser wrote in his work at face value. The preface to that poem, dated 27 December 1591, 'From my house of Kilcolman', thanks Ralegh 'for your singular favours and sundrie good turnes shewed to me at my late being in England'.

Spenser may have brought a copy of The Faerie Queene with him in order to see the proofs through the press, as he appears to have been careful to do this for other works. The poem was entered into the Stationers' register on 1 December 1589 and published in early 1590. The appended 'Letter to Raleigh' is dated 23 January 1589 (that is, 1590), suggesting that it may have been inserted at the proof stage. Colin Clouts Come Home Againe claims that Spenser (Colin Clout) was granted an audience with Elizabeth and was able to read out sections of The Faerie Queene. It is quite likely that this did occur, as Elizabeth is the main dedicatee of the poem. Spenser writes that the encounter was a great success:

Unto that Goddesse grace me first enhanced,And to mine oaten pipe enclin'd her eare,That she thenceforth therein gan take delight,And it desir'd at timely houres to heare …And wondrous worth she mott my simple song,But joyd that country shephearde ought could fyndWorth harkening to, emongst the learned throng.

ll. 359–67Although it is unsafe to assume that Spenser's audience with Elizabeth went as well as Colin Clout claims, on 25 February 1591 she did grant him a life pension of £50 a year.

The Faerie Queene was a new departure in the history of English poetry, being a combination of Italian romance, classical epic, and native English styles, principally derived from Chaucer. Spenser signalled this by inventing a new stanza (which has come to be known as the Spenserian stanza), a hybrid form adopted from the Scots poetry of James I, ‘rhyme royal’, and Italian ‘ottava rima’. It contained nine lines, the first eight being pentameters and the last line an alexandrine, and employed the rhyme scheme ababbcbcc. It was accompanied by seventeen dedicatory sonnets to a variety of figures. Unusually for an Elizabethan poem these were appended, rather than prefaced, to it. They were addressed to a range of important courtiers: Sir Christopher Hatton; Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex; Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley; Edward de Vere, seventeenth earl of Oxford; Henry Percy, ninth earl of Northumberland; George Clifford, third earl of Cumberland; Thomas Butler, tenth earl of Ormond; Charles, Lord Howard of Effingham; Sir Henry Carey, first Lord Hunsdon; Arthur, Lord Grey of Wilton; Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhurst; Sir Francis Walsingham; Sir John Norris; Sir Walter Ralegh; Mary Sidney, countess of Pembroke; Lady Carew; and 'all the gratious and beautifull Ladies of the Court'. It is clear from this list that Spenser had chosen to dedicate the poem to friends and employers—Ralegh, Norris, and Grey—and figures who were especially concerned with matters in Ireland—Ormond, Burghley, and Essex—as well as to a variety of powerful politicians and potential patrons, such as Mary Sidney and Walsingham. It would be stretching a point to read personal relationships into this miscellaneous group of people, especially if one bears in mind that works could be dedicated to patrons without their knowledge (as was the case with Stephen Gosson's dedication of School of Abuse (1579) to Sir Philip Sidney, and Sir John Hayward's dedication of The First Part of the Life and Reign of King Henry IV (1599) to the earl of Essex).

The poem has survived as a long fragment of six completed books, each of twelve cantos, of lengths varying from forty to eighty stanzas. A further fragment of a seventh book, published after Spenser's death, consisted of two complete cantos and two stanzas from a third. There was also a letter appended from the author to Ralegh, dated 23 January 1589, explaining the allegorical method of the 'Poet historical'. Scholars are divided on the question of the extant nature of the poem, some concluding that Spenser never really intended to complete it, others that had he lived longer all twelve books would have emerged. Equally the relationship between the 'Two cantos of Mutabilitie' and the rest of the poem has not been satisfactorily resolved, some regarding these as a key to the whole work, others reading them as a minor episode not fully worked through.

The Faerie Queene tells a series of discrete but interrelated stories based around the quests of six knights who each represent a particular virtue. Its allegory is flexible and moves easily from the historically specific to deal with theological, philosophical, and ethical questions, many based on readings of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, a stated source of the poem. Book 1 tells the story of the redcross knight, eventually revealed to be the patron saint of England, St George, who has to destroy the dragon who holds captive the parents of his lady, Una. As with all romances the narrative moves sideways as much as forwards (a process known as dilation), and a whole series of episodes represent events and problems precipitated by the Reformation. The lovers are united but, significantly, the knight is recalled to his service to Gloriana, the faerie queen, before they can get married. Book 2 charts the progress of the knight of temperance, Sir Guyon, culminating in the famous description of his destruction of the Bower of Bliss, an episode which has inspired commentators, artists, and writers ever since. Guyon's undoubted virtue is shown to be limited when he is defeated by the knight of chastity, Britomart, the heroine of book 3. While Guyon can only refuse and oppose bodily temptation Britomart is able to experience corporeal ecstasies and agonies, and so point to a way beyond the limits of temperance for those who have to live in the ordinary world. Britomart, in pointed contrast to the real queen of England, the virginal Elizabeth, sees her husband-to-be, Artegall, in Merlin's magic mirror, and the dynasty that she will found stretching into the future. The first edition of The Faerie Queene concluded with the striking image of the hermaphrodite created through the passionate embrace of the rescued lovers, Amoret and Scudamore, a sign that human experience could be equal and satisfying through the institution of marriage.

The second edition of the poem (1596) is generally agreed to be a darker and more diffuse work. Book 4, the legend of Friendship, has two central figures, Cambel and Telamond, who occupy only a small section of the narrative. Many commentators argue that the original version of the poem that circulated in manuscript in the early 1580s consisted of portions of books 3 and 4, later worked into the printed version with varying success. The book contains the famous description of the marriage of the Thames and the Medway—again probably adapted from an earlier work or version of the poem. Book 5, the legend of Justice, follows the adventures of Artegall, Britomart's future spouse. This has generally been the least popular section of the poem because of its disturbing defence of English policy in Ireland and, more overtly, its historical allegory, but it has recently received far more attention for the very reason that it was previously ignored. Artegall, abandoned by his tutor, Astrea, has to resolve a number of difficult disputes, foolishly falls prey to the Amazon Radigund, and has to be rescued by Britomart before his violent suppression of rebellion in Ireland is prematurely truncated by Gloriana. Book 6, the legend of Courtesy, depicts the adventures of Sir Calidore, a confused and misdirected knight who tries to give up his elusive quest for the Blatant Beast when he stumbles across a pastoral world at odds with the courtly world he is less than keen to defend. The book, like its predecessor, is replete with disturbing images of violent disruption, principally of disguised rebels ambushing small peasant communities (undoubtedly an echo of Spenser's experience in Ireland). It ends when Calidore finally manages to capture the Blatant Beast, but it escapes to terrorize the world with its awful slanders, which include attacks on the poet himself.

Spenser may have spent much of 1590 in London, or he may have returned to Ireland, owing to his protracted lawsuit with Lord Roche. A letter from Richard Whyte to Lord Burghley, dated 8 May, suggests that Richard Chichester was still serving as Spenser's deputy as clerk of Munster. A ‘bill of imprest’ made out by Sir Henry Wallop, treasurer at wars in Ireland, on 30 May may have been made out to Spenser in person, in which case he was clearly back in Ireland. On 6 May Elizabeth granted Spenser and his heirs the manor, lands, castle, and town of Kilcolman in fee-farm forever, confirmed on 26 October. The royal grant notes that part of the estate went by the name Hap Hazard (Maley, 55).

Other publications of the early 1590s

The volume Complaints was entered into the Stationers' register on 29 December 1590. The publisher, William Ponsonby, included a preface to the reader, which states that his last publication for Spenser, The Faerie Queene, 'hath found favourable passage with you [the readers]' and that therefore he has attempted to:

get into my handes such smale Poemes of the same Authors; as I heard were disperst abroad in sundrie hands, and not easie to bee come by, by himselfe: some of them having bene diverslie imbeziled and purloyned from him, since his departure ouer Sea.

Ponsonby claims that he has gathered the volume together 'for that they al seeme to containe like matter of argument in them'. He also refers to other works that he understands are circulating:

namelie Ecclesiastes, and Canticum canticorum, translated A Senights Slumber, The Hell of Lovers, his Purgatorie, being all dedicated to ladies. Besides some other Pamphlets looslie scattered abroad: as The Dying Pellican, The Howers of the Lord, The Sacrifice of a Sinner, The Seven Psalmes, &c. which when I can either by himselfe, or otherwise attaine too, I meane likewise for you your favour sake to set forth.

From this preface it has been argued that Ponsonby simply went ahead on his own without the poet's consent and that arguments for Spenser's involvement in the physical process of publishing his work should be discounted (see Brink, Who fashioned Edmund Spenser?). It might equally be a means of disguising the fact that he and Spenser worked in close co-operation (Johnson, 27). As well as providing another confirmation of the existence of 'The Dying Pellican' and naming other lost works Ponsonby's comments read like an advertisement for future publications of Spenser's works, suggesting a relationship in print that we should place alongside Spenser's published correspondence with Gabriel Harvey, Sir Walter Ralegh, and the enigmatic E. K. It is implausible that Spenser was not aware of Ponsonby's comments.

Complaints, like The Shepheardes Calender, is a complex and puzzling volume. Critics who want to claim that Spenser was attempting to follow a poetic career based on the model of Virgil, progressing from the pastoral Eclogues to the epic Aeneid, have to ignore Complaints, treating it as a detour between the serious business of The Shepheardes Calender and The Faerie Queene, often taking Ponsonby's prefatory comments that he, not Spenser, compiled the poems, at face value. Complaints gathers together a series of poems 'being all complaints and meditations of the worlds vanitie, verie grave and profitable': 'The Ruines of Time', 'The Teares of the Muses', 'Virgil's Gnat' (an adaptation of the pseudo-Virgilian Culex), Prosopopia, or, Mother Hubberds Tale, 'The ruines of Rome: by Bellay' (a translation of Du Bellay's Antiquitez de Rome), 'Muiopotmos, or, The fate of the butterfly' (dated 1590 and dedicated to Lady Carey), 'Visions of the Worlds Vanitie', and 'The Visions of Bellay' and 'The Visions of Petrarch, Formerly Translated', the last two being revised versions of the material published in Van Der Noot's Theatre over twenty years earlier.

The volume, evidently published early in 1591, appears to have landed Spenser in more trouble, owing to its satire of Lord Burghley. It was quickly called in. Given that Burghley was one of the dedicatees of The Faerie Queene Spenser may have assumed that the offence taken at the manuscript of Mother Hubberds Tale about 1580 was now forgotten. His mistake, which reflects his lack of knowledge of court life, might have fostered his adoption of an Anglo-Irish identity. This was publicly expressed in Colin Clouts Come Home Againe, dated 27 December 1591—that is, soon after the publication of Complaints—where the 'home' that Colin refers to rather bitterly in the poem is Ireland, not England. Gabriel Harvey noted: 'Mother Hubberd in heat of choller, forgetting the pure sanguine of her sweete Faery Queen, willfully over-shott her malcontented selfe' (E. Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. A. C. Hamilton, 1977, x). The Catholic recusant Sir Thomas Tresham, in a letter of 19 March 1591, also refers to the furore surrounding the publication of the volume, while noting the effect that the scandal had on its price:

The whole discourse of that ould weoman [Mother Hubberd] ys (as I have heard reported) to showe by what channce the apes did loose their tayles. Thowghe this be a jest, yett is itt taken in suche earnest, that the booke is by Superior awthoritie called in; and nott to be had for anie money. Where ytt was att the first sould for vi. D. it is nowe of redie money a Crowne. The bookebynders have allreadie gotten by the vent of this booke, more then all the Apes in Parys garding is worthe. I did never see ytt myselfe; neither would I read ytt nowe, yf I might have ytt, becawse yt is forbidden.

Peterson, 22–3

Tresham also attests to the popularity of Spenser, noting that The Faerie Queene 'was so well liked, that her ma:tie gave him ane hundred marks pencion forthe of the Exchequer: and so clerklie was yt penned, that he beareth the name of Poet Laurell'. Now, however, Spenser was 'in hazard to loose his forsayd annuall reward: and fynallie hereby proove himselfe a Poett Lorrell' (ibid., 23). The title poet laureate was evidently an unofficial one but indicates that Spenser did indeed make a significant impact at court in 1589–90, one which he appears to have spoilt rather with the publication of Complaints. This may explain the extent of his bitterness towards the court—and the queen—in some of his subsequent writings.

Spenser continued to produce poetry at an impressive rate. Daphnaida: an elegie upon the death of the noble and vertuous Douglas Howard, daughter of Lord Howard and wife of Arthur Gorges, an imitation of Chaucer's Book of the Duchess, was published by Ponsonby on 1 January 1592. There is no evidence to suggest how close Spenser was either to Arthur Gorges, later translator of Lucan's Pharsalia, or to Douglas Howard herself, daughter of John Howard, second Viscount Howard de Bindon. The poem is dedicated to Lady Helena, marchioness of Northampton, another figure whose relations with Spenser are unknown. The pseudo-Platonic Axiochus: a most excellent dialogue, written in Greeke by Plato the phylosopher, trans. by Edw. Spenser was entered into the Stationers' register on 1 May and published later in the year. The work is a translation from a Greek dialogue between Socrates and Axiochus, an old man, about the fear of death. It is not certain that the translation was by Spenser, as the attribution is based on verbal echoes in Spenser's other works, most of which could be coincidence (although there is a substantial echo of an entire clause in the dialogue in The Faerie Queene, book 2, canto 12, stanza 51). The attribution to 'Edw.' may simply be a mistaken expansion by the publisher but remains a troubling detail for those who want to include it in the Spenser canon. Some scholars attribute the work to Anthony Munday.

There is little record of Spenser in the next two years. He appears to have travelled to England in August–September 1592 and is referred to in a list of colonists who have paid their rent in December of that year. The lawsuit with Lord Roche was still proceeding, with claims and counter-claims. In 1593 Roche petitioned Adam Loftus, lord chancellor of Ireland, that Spenser had falsely claimed his land at Shanballymore (east of Doneraile). He also petitioned against Joan Ny Callaghan on the grounds of his 'supportation and mayntenance of Edmond Spenser, gentleman, a heavy adversary unto your suppliant' (Maley, 60). Spenser sold his office as deputy clerk of Munster to Nicholas Curtis. There were a large number of references to Spenser and his work, borrowings, quotations, and citations in the early 1590s, indicating his popularity and influence as a poet. These include works by Barnaby Barnes, Nicholas Breton, Samuel Daniel, John Florio, Abraham Fraunce, Sir John Harington, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Nashe, Henry Peacham, George Peele, and Thomas Watson.

Spenser served as queen's justice for Cork in 1594. The legal battle with Lord Roche continued with Roche complaining in February that Spenser had occupied and damaged his land at Ballingerath, destroying woods and corn to the value of £200. Spenser appeared in court on 12 February and Roche was granted possession of the disputed lands.

Marriage and later works

On 11 June 1594, St Barnabas day, Spenser married, as his second wife, Elizabeth Boyle, a relative of Richard Boyle, later earl of Cork. They had one child, Peregrine ('Lat. Strange or outlandish', according to William Camden), born possibly in 1595. The courtship and marriage are represented in the sonnet sequence Amoretti and the marriage hymn Epithalamion, entered into the Stationers' register on 19 November 1594 and published as a single volume in early 1595, when they were advertised as poems 'Written not long since'. The dedicatory note by Spenser's usual publisher, William Ponsonby, to Sir Robert Needham claims that he has taken responsibility for publishing the poems in the absence of the poet. Needham, according to Ponsonby's dedication, had brought them from Ireland to London, and it is possible that he also brought over the completed second edition of The Faerie Queene. Sonnet 80 of Amoretti states that Spenser had already finished the six completed books of The Faerie Queene, which were to be published in 1596, giving the newly married Spenser time to turn his attentions from Elizabeth, the queen, to his wife of the same name.

Colin Clouts Come Home Againe, another poem that draws on Spenser's life, was published in the same year, though it states that it was written 'From my house of Kilcolman the 27. of December. 1591' (The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser, ed. J. C. Smith and E. de Selincourt, 1912, 536). The poem fits neatly into a tradition of advice literature that exempts the monarch from the general failings of his or her courtiers, and includes strong criticisms of the court, as well as attacks on the vanity, ignorance, and greed of courtiers in general. It is possible that Colin Clout was intended as a criticism of Elizabeth's regime in the 1590s, especially if we bear in mind Spenser's own lack of preferment in England and his posthumous criticisms of the queen in 'Two cantos of Mutabilitie' (A. Hadfield, Edmund Spenser's Irish Experience, 1997, chap. 6). 'Astrophel: a pastorall elegie upon the death of the most noble and valorous knight, Sir Philip Sidney' was published in the same volume and dedicated to the countess of Essex, Sidney's widow, Frances Walsingham, with six other elegies, by Lodowick Bryskett and others; again Spenser's poem was undoubtedly written earlier. He also published a commendatory sonnet prefixed to William Jones's translation of Nennio, or, A Treatise of Nobility (1595).

The second edition of The Faerie Queene was entered into the Stationers' register on 20 January 1596, and it is possible—although no evidence survives—that Spenser was in London to supervise its publication. The work consisted of three new books, 4–6, and a revision of the first three books, with the ending altered to allow the plot to continue; like the first edition it was dedicated to Elizabeth. As in the case of Mother Hubberds Tale it plunged Spenser into considerable trouble and triggered a diplomatic row. Robert Bowes, the English ambassador in Scotland, wrote to Lord Burghley on 1 November 1596 that James VI was extremely angry at the portrayal of his mother, Mary, queen of Scots, and her execution in book 5, canto 9. The poem was withdrawn from sale in Scotland and James signalled his intention to complain to Elizabeth. Bowes wrote to Burghley again, on 12 November, claiming that he had persuaded the king that The Faerie Queene had not been published with royal approval but warned that 'he still desires that Edward [sic] Spenser for his fault may be tried and duly punished' (CSP Scot., 1589–1603, 723). Nothing appears to have come of James's complaints but in March 1598 he commissioned the poet George Nicolson to write a response to Spenser's book, which was either never completed or has not survived. James's furious reaction indicates that Spenser's work was read seriously and carefully by those with political power and influence.

Later in the year Spenser published Fowre Hymnes, the first two ('Of Love' and 'Of Beautie'), dated 1 September 1596, written 'in the greener times of my youth' and dedicated from the court at Greenwich to Lady Margaret, countess of Cumberland, and Lady Mary, countess of Warwick; the volume also contained the second edition of Daphnaida, and Prothalamion, a marriage hymn celebrating the betrothals of the two daughters of the earl of Worcester, Lady Elizabeth and Lady Katherine Somerset. The earl was a close associate of Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex, in whose capacious circle Spenser appears to have been moving in the last years of his life. The marriage took place at Essex House, London, on 8 November 1596 and Spenser may have attended, given his presence in London recorded in the Fowre Hymnes. He also published a commendatory sonnet prefacing Zachary Jones's translation History of George Castriot, Surnamed Scanderbeg (1596), from the French of de La Vardin.

A View of the Present State of Ireland

It is likely that Spenser completed A View of the Present State of Ireland in June and July 1596, possibly before he travelled to London to attend the weddings celebrated in the Prothalamion. The work recommends that a lord lieutenant be appointed to oversee Irish affairs and refers to 'such an one I Coulde name uppon whom the ey of all Englande is fixed and our last hopes now rest' (p. 228). Many commentators have suggested that Spenser—through his character, Irenius—was referring to the earl of Essex, a supposition made plausible by other indications that he had started to move in the large Essex circle.

A View is a work which poses a number of questions. It was not published until 1633, when it formed part of Sir James Ware's Ancient Irish Histories, alongside works by Edmund Campion and Meredith Hanmer. It was entered into the Stationers' register on 14 April 1598 with the note 'Mr Collinges / pray enter this Copie for mathew Lownes to be printed when he do bringe other authoritie' (Arber, Regs. Stationers, 3). Commentators have sometimes assumed that this means that the work was censored but this was not necessarily the case. Other works entered in the register were queried in the same way, often owing to disputes between printers and stationers. Given that Matthew Lownes, a printer with a record of literary piracy (most notably over Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella), entered the work and not Spenser's usual publisher, William Ponsonby, it is more probable that A View was the subject of a dispute between printers than that it was carefully read and censored. Some twenty manuscript copies survive, including one that belonged to the earl of Essex, which indicates that this work also was read by powerful and influential figures. It is unlikely that Spenser would have been keen to have a political treatise dealing with such a dangerous issue bearing his name circulating to a wide audience in print, considering the dearth of works published that discussed Ireland in the later 1590s when the Nine Years' War was being fought; he had, after all, had his fair share of brushes with the authorities before 1598. The chances are that Lownes wanted to make a profit out of Spenser's name, given the impact of the recently published Faerie Queene.

Later claims have been made that Spenser did not write A View (Brink, Constructing the View of the Present State of Ireland, Spenser Studies, 11, 1994, 203–28; Appropriating the author); the work was definitely attributed to Spenser only after his death, by Sir James Ware, although one of the manuscripts bears the initials E. S. Such claims, if substantiated, would cause numerous scholars to revise their interpretation of Spenser's relationship to Ireland. But they have not found much favour with other critics and historians who have defended the attribution of the work to Spenser on a variety of grounds: verbal and stylistic echoes between A View and Spenser's poetry; lack of suitable alternative authors; dating; widespread circulation of manuscripts; and the attribution by Ware. In short it cannot be proved that Spenser wrote A View but the wealth of corroborating evidence suggests that only a bizarre series of coincidences would force scholars to attribute the work to somebody else.

Final years

Spenser was still active in acquiring land, despite the mounting threat to the Munster plantation from Hugh O'Neill's forces in the Nine Years' War. In 1597 he purchased the castle of Renny, in the south of co. Cork, and its surrounding lands for his young son, Peregrine, for £200. Buttevant Abbey also came into his possession. On 7 February 1598 he was noted as being in arrears for the rent of this property. On 30 September, with the Munster plantation on the brink of being overrun by O'Neill's forces, he was made sheriff of Cork by the privy council (which included the earl of Essex) 'for his good and commendable parts (being a man endowed with good knowledge in learning and not unskilful or without experience in the service of the wars)' (Judson, 200).

Spenser's lands were under serious threat from the rebels when he was appointed, indicating that his elevation was a desperate measure and might not have happened in quieter times. On 4 October Sir Thomas Norris, James Goold, and George Thornton wrote to the privy council from Kilmallock that a force of 2000 Irish rebels were marching towards the area of Kilcolman. By 7 October the plantation was effectively overrun. On 15 October Kilcolman was sacked and burnt. A letter by Sir Thomas Norris of 23 October noted that the son of the Lord Roche with whom Spenser had been in dispute, David Roche, was one of the prominent rebels in the area. Spenser and his family escaped through an underground tunnel, known as the fox hole, leading to caves north of the estate (the tunnel is still recorded as extant in 1840). The family fled to Cork for refuge.

Spenser, in his new official role as sheriff, is recorded as being in Cork on 7 December. He left the city on 9 December to deliver a letter from the president of Munster, Sir Thomas Norris, to the privy council, detailing the desperate situation in the province. He was probably in Whitehall about 24 December, when he delivered letters from Norris and a host of other documents from the English inhabitants of Munster, some of which were later collected as A Briefe Note of Ireland and attributed to Spenser. This work consisted of three documents: 'A briefe note of Irelande'; an address to the queen beginning 'Out of the ashes of disolacon and wastnes of this your wretched Realme of Ireland'; and 'Certaine pointes to be considered of in the recovery of the realm of Ireland'. Though these have been reproduced in the standard works of Spenser it is now generally agreed that the first two are probably not by Spenser, and the attribution of the third has been disputed. Given that all three short pieces do little more than echo the sentiments and pleas of a desperate people who want more military aid to repel the Irish rebels they could have been written by any number of literate Munster planters, and probably are all that survive of a larger batch of similar documents brought over by Spenser in December 1598. Including or excluding any or all of A Briefe Note of Ireland in the Spenser canon does little to affect his reputation either way.

On 8 December Spenser was paid £8 for delivering the letters from Norris to the privy council (the official document, as elsewhere, calls him Edward). He died on 13 January 1599 in Westminster. Ben Jonson told William Drummond of Hawthornden 'that the Irish having robbed Spenser's goods and burnt his house and a little child new born, he and his wife escaped, and after he died for lack of bread in King Street' (C. H. Herford and others, eds., Ben Jonson, 1925–52, 1.137). There is no other evidence of the dead child and, given that it is unlikely that Spenser starved to death in Westminster, having been paid a pension of £25 and £8 for delivering letters in the previous month, Jonson's comments have usually been discounted. Spenser was buried in Westminster Abbey, near Chaucer, on 16 January, at the expense of the earl of Essex, further evidence of the relationship between the two men. William Camden noted 'his hearse being attended by poets, and mournful elegies and poems, with the pens that wrote them, thrown into the tomb' (Maley, 80). The queen ordered that a monument be erected to his memory but this was not carried out until 1620, at the expense of Ann Clifford, countess of Dorset (Fowre Hymnes had been dedicated to her mother and her aunt), who commissioned Nicholas Stone to produce the work. The inscription reads:

Heare lyes (expecting the Second comminge of our Saviour Christ Jesus) the body of Edmond Spencer, the Prince of Poets in his tyme; whose Divine Spirrit needs noe othir witnesse then the works which he left behinde him. He was borne in London in the yeare 1510. And Died in the yeare 1596.

Judson, 207

A folio edition of The Faerie Queene was published in 1609 by Matthew Lownes, who acquired the papers of William Ponsonby after his death, in 1604. This was the first work to contain 'Two cantos of Mutabilitie', supposedly the basis for a seventh book of the uncompleted work that the 'Letter to Ralegh' stated would run to twelve books. The discovery may have inspired James Ware's comment in 1633 that 'the latter part' of The Faerie Queene had been lost by a careless servant. The date of these cantos is unknown but they were probably written in the late 1590s, as they contain allegorical material relating to Ireland in line with Spenser's other later writings. Lownes published a folio edition of the collected works in 1611 entitled The faerie queene: The shepheardes calender: together with the other works of England's arch-poet, Edm. Spenser. This was reprinted in 1617.

Spenser was survived by his widow, Elizabeth, who married Richard (or Roger) Seckerstone in 1603. They had a son called Richard. After Seckerstone's death she married Captain Robert Tynt. Spenser had three children: Sylvanus and Katherine from his first marriage, and Peregrine from his second. Sylvanus, who died in 1638, married Ellen Nagle (or Nangle) and they produced two children, Edmund and William. Sylvanus sued his stepmother successfully for possession of Kilcolman. William inherited the property but, having been converted to Catholicism, was labelled an 'English papist' and transplanted to Connaught in 1654; his lands were assigned to Captain Peter Courthope. William sued for the restoration of the estate, a suit favourably received by Cromwell, but the disputed property only returned to his possession after the Restoration. He became a loyal supporter of William of Orange and received further grants of land (including those forfeited by his cousin Hugoline) before his death c.1720. His son Nathaniel died in 1734 and his grandson Edmund was recorded 'of Kilcolman', indicating that the property remained in the Spenser family for several generations. Peregrine married Dorothy Maurice and was granted the lands surrounding the castle at Renny by his elder brother. He died at some point before 1656. His son Hugoline sided with James II against William of Orange, and his estates were transferred to his cousin William after he was attainted and outlawed on 11 June 1691. Katherine Spenser married William Wiseman of Bandon but there is no record of their having any children.


Spenser's work has had an enormous influence over the course of English poetry in the four centuries since his death. His most widely read poem has been The Faerie Queene, which any aspiring English poet has felt obliged to read carefully and imitate. But The Shepheardes Calender and much of Complaints have also had a major impact (it is one of the great clichés of literary criticism that Spenser's shorter poems would be far better known had he not written The Faerie Queene). Spenser's principal strands of influence have been to create an oppositional, protestant-inspired, anti-courtly poetry in the seventeenth century; to define the style and subject matter of mainstream canonical writers within a central tradition of English writing; to establish the Gothic in art and literature in the eighteenth century; and to help fashion a protestant Anglo-Irish identity in Ireland.

Many writers of the early Stuart period looked back to the age of Elizabeth with envy and nostalgia. One particular group were the self-styled 'shepheards nation', who modelled their verse on Spenser's pastorals, so forming a community of dissident writers opposed, as their mentor had been, to what they saw as the corrupt, false values of the court. The principal writers were George Wither, William Browne, Christopher Brooke, and, most significant of all, Michael Drayton, whose Pastorals and long chorographical poem Poly-Olbion reuses and adapts numerous episodes from The Faerie Queene. Other imitators of Spenser's style include Phineas and Giles Fletcher.

At the same time that Spenser was being used as the focus for opposition to the Stuart regime he was also being canonized as the most important Elizabethan poet, having already been lavishly praised by contemporaries such as Sir Philip Sidney, William Webbe, George Puttenham, and Samuel Daniel. Sir Kenelm Digby, for example, extravagantly praised him as 'our English Virgil' in a Neoplatonic reading of The Faerie Queene, book 2; Alexander Gill suggested that he was 'more correct in beautifying his language' than Homer; and for Henry Peacham he was 'our excellent Spenser' (Cummings, 126, 144, 147–59). Spenser was to influence virtually all major poets writing in English before the twentieth century. He had a decisive impact on the career of John Milton, who referred to 'our sage and serious Poet Spenser, whom I dare to be known to think a better teacher then Scotus or Aquinas' in Areopagitica (1664; ibid., 164). Milton planned to write his epic on the Arthurian legends but changed his mind and switched to the story of the fall for fear of allowing himself to become simply an imitator of Spenser.

In Ireland A View of the Present State of Ireland was undoubtedly influential in helping to establish a protestant Anglo-Irish identity when it was published, with some of its fiercest comments removed, in 1633 by the Dublin antiquarian Sir James Ware. Spenser drew a clear line between the embattled ‘new’ English settlers in Ireland, who were opposed and undermined by the native, 'wild' Irish and, worse still, the 'degenerate' ‘old’ English, the descendants of the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman settlers who had become Irish and Catholic. Spenser is adamant that Ireland must be purged and then properly governed before peace can return to the island, a political message that was influential throughout the seventeenth century, as the numerous references to his work indicate.

In the eighteenth century Spenser began to be seen as an antique and eccentric poet whose marvellous fictions inspired visions of a vanished, Gothic England of knights, fairies, and castles. Such a case was argued in John Hughes's six-volume edition of Spenser's works (1715), where the perceived irregularities of the poet were made a cause for celebration rather than criticism. This interpretation of Spenser was expanded by subsequent critics such as John Jortin, Thomas Warton the younger, John Upton, and Richard Hurd. Also influential were William Kent's illustrations for Thomas Birch's edition of The Faerie Queene (1751), which used Kent's knowledge of garden design, architecture, painting, and interior design to construct for the poem a Gothic world of mystery, intrigue, and the supernatural. The poem most clearly inspired by this vision of Spenser was James Thompson's The Castle of Indolence (1748). In essence the Romantic version of Spenser was similar, as is demonstrated in the work of the most Spenserian of the English Romantics, John Keats, whose 'Eve of Saint Agnes' clearly owes much to the reading of The Faerie Queene established in the previous century. Spenser was also an important influence on William Blake's art and poetry.

Spenser's work became more obviously moralized in the nineteenth century and it is significant that numerous editions of The Faerie Queene were produced for children, the complex verse rewritten as prose to draw out the perceived moral of selected episodes. Spenser was an important author for the Pre-Raphaelites, and numerous representations of his work were produced. A fascinating example of Spenser's wide readership is represented by the stained-glass windows commissioned for the entrance to Cheltenham Ladies' College in 1880; these were the brainchild of the headmistress, Dorothea Beale, who wished to provide the young ladies in her charge with suitable ideals of womanhood to inspire them. She selected Britomart as an ‘ideal of woman’ because she seemed to combine a devotion to duty, motherhood, and marriage with an assertive independence and male virtues. Charles Kingsley's novel Westward Ho! (1855) contains a portrait of Spenser as a vigorous and daring adventurer in both life and writing—alongside Sir Walter Ralegh—thus transforming him into a Victorian imperialist and muscular Christian. He was also starting to have an impact in America, and was the subject of a famous essay by the Harvard scholar James Russell Lowell (1819–1891), who emphasized the puritan and Platonic strains in his work.

Spenser was still read by poets and authors in the twentieth century, a notable devotee being the war poet Wilfred Owen, who writes in his journals of reading Spenser as a means of transporting himself away from the horrors of the front line. W. B. Yeats, who edited an important selection of Spenser's poetry in 1906, wrote an influential preface to that work arguing that Spenser has to be divided up into the sensitive poet who appreciated the beauties of Ireland and the brutal colonizer who sought to impose his narrow-minded English will on the natives. Yeats's version of Spenser is essentially repeated in the critical works of C. S. Lewis, undoubtedly the most widely read Spenser critic of the twentieth century. Spenser featured more in the work of Irish and Scottish writers than of English at the end of the twentieth century, notably in that of Seamus Heaney, George MacBeth, and Brendan Kennelly, who regarded Spenser in the same ambiguous way as Yeats did.

But perhaps it is true to suggest that Spenser became more of a scholar's poet in the twentieth century and had little impact on a wider reading public. As David Hill Radcliffe has pointed out, 'In the first three decades of the twentieth century, more was written about Spenser than in the previous three hundred years' (Radcliffe, 157). Spenser became one of the key major authors central to university English courses and a writer with whom the aspiring university teacher was expected to struggle.


  • W. Maley, A Spenser chronology (1994)
  • G. Harvey, Letter book, 1573–1580, ed. G. L. J. Scott (1884)
  • A. C. Hamilton, ed., The Spenser encyclopedia (1990)
  • A. C. Judson, The life of Edmund Spenser (Baltimore, 1945)
  • F. R. Johnson, A critical bibliography of the works of Edmund Spenser printed before 1700 (Baltimore, 1933)
  • The works of Edmund Spenser, ed. E. Greenlaw and others, 11 vols. (1932–57)
  • The complete works in verse and prose of Edmund Spenser, ed. A. B. Grosart, 9 vols. (1882–4)
  • S. K. Heninger, ‘Spenser and Sidney at Leicester House’, Spenser Studies, 8 (1990), 239–49
  • J. R. Brink, ‘Appropriating the author of The faerie queene’, Soundings of things done, ed. P. E. Mepine and J. Wittreich (Newark, Delaware, 1997), 93–136
  • R. Peterson, ‘Laurel crown and ape's tail: new light on Spenser's career from Sir Thomas Tresham’, Spenser Studies, 12 (1991), 1–35
  • J. Brink, ‘Who fashioned Edmund Spenser? The textual history of Complaints’, Studies in Philology, 88 (1991), 153–68
  • N. P. Canny, ‘Edmund Spenser and the development of an Anglo-Irish identity’, Yearbook of English Studies, 13 (1983), 1–19
  • R. M. Cummings, ed., Edmund Spenser: the critical heritage (1971)
  • A. Hadfield, ‘Spenser, Drayton, and the question of Britain’, Review of English Studies, new ser., 51 (2000), 599–616
  • A. Hadfield, ‘William Kent's illustrations of The faerie queene’, Spenser Studies, 14 (2000), 1–81
  • M. O'Callaghan, The ‘shepheardes nation’: Jacobean and early Stuart political culture, 1612–1625 (2000)
  • D. H. Radcliffe, Edmund Spenser: a reception history (1996)
  • M. MacCarthy-Morrogh, The Munster plantation (1986)



  • attrib. A. Allori, portrait; formerly in possession of Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, 1897
  • B. Wilson, oils (after portrait by unknown artist; now lost), Pembroke Cam.
  • oils; at Dupplin Castle in 1897
  • oils; at Bretby Park in 1897
  • unknown artist, oils, U. Lond., Senate House
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
Pembroke College, Cambridge
J. Venn & J. A. Venn, , 2 pts in 10 vols. (1922–54); repr. in 2 vols. (1974–8)