for, sooth to say,…it was no sort of life

He was one of the “new men” who rose and fell by their wits; Spencer’s work and life a reflection of the splendors and miseries of his time.

“The Elizabethan conception of world-order was in its outlines medieval although it had discarded much medieval detail. The universe was a unity, in which everything had its place, and it was the perfect work of God. Any imperfection was the work not of God but of man; for with the fall of man the universe underwent a sympathetic corruption. But for all the corruption the marks of God’s perfection were still there, and one of the two great roads to salvation was through the study of created things. But though the idea of unity was basic, the actual order of the world presented itself to the Elizabethans under three different, though often related, appearances: a chain, a series of corresponding planes, and a dance to music….

Sir Philip Sidney. The soldier-poet and the embodiment of the Elizabethan idea of the gentleman. Read More:

…As a chain, creation was a series of beings stretching from the lowest of inanimate objects up to the archangel nearest to the throne of God. The ascent was gradual, no step was missing; and on the borders of the great divisions between animate and inanimate, vegetative and sensitive, sensitive and rational, rational and angelic, there were the necessary transitions….Read More:

Elizabeth had been on the throne for twenty years. Her court rivaled any in Europe, for she knew that “in pompous circumstances a secret of government doth must consist”. The great palaces of Windsor, Hampton Court, and Whitehall housed a shifting population of a thousand or more, from the great dignitaries of state to the grooms and scullery maids. It included ambassadors of the great powers, their spies and counterspies; there were poets, musicians, merchants seeking monopolies, adventurers and every kind of hanger-on.

Hercule Francois. Duc D'Alencon. "In sixteenth-century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted in a sling on a stage and slowly lowered into a fire. According to historian Norman Davies,...Read More: image:

At the center was Elizabeth. In the great tapestried halls, on the flowering lawns and dark landings of servant stairs, they fought for position. Many like Spenser had nothing to fall back on, no family wealth or estates to retire to. To lose the queen’s favor, or that of her ministers, was to lose everything.

For, sooth to say, it is no sort of life
For shepheard fit to lead in that same place,
Where each one seeks with malice and with strife,
To thrust downe other into foule disgrace,
Himselfe to raise; and he doth soonest rise
That best can handle his deceitfull wit
In subtil shifts, and finest sleights devise,
Either by slaundring his well deemed name,
Through leasings lewd and fained forgerie,
Or else by breeding him some blot of blame,
By creeping close into his secrecie;
To which him needs a guilefull hollow hart,…

Much of the intrigues derived from ELizabeth's never to be concluded search for a consort. Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was from a twice disgraced ducal family when the queen chose him as her platonic love shortly after ascending the throne. At once Dudley became the most powerful politician and patron in the realm. Helas, he secretly married and Elizabeth flew into a rage.,_1st_Earl_of_Leicester.png

It was not to be his life. Within a year the blow fell. Elizabeth was still unmarried and she kept her virginity interesting by constantly promising to lose it. The latest candidate for the privilege was the French Duc d’Alencon. Spenser wrote a verse fable, “Mother Hubberd’s Tale” , satirizing the match. The poem, like all court poems, was circulated in manuscript and came to the attention of Lord Burghley, Elizabeth’s lord chamberlain. He took offense, the manuscript was recalled, and Spenser was out in the cold. In August 1580, he found himself in Ireland.

The Elizabethans regarded Ireland as uncomfortable, dangerous, and full of rebellious savages who clung to their detestable religions with fanatical zeal. For the Elizabethans, Irish Catholicism was also strategically perilous, for Spain and Italy saw the island as a stepping stone to an invasion of England. Spenser found employment with the lord deputy of Ireland, Lord Grey de Wilton,

tern Puritan who felt the pope was anti-Christ and the Irish were to be brought to heel.

ELizabeth. Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder. "In cases of felony, manslaughter, robbery, murder, rape, piracy, and such capital crimes as are not reputed for treason or hurt of the estate, our sentence pronounced upon the offender is, to hang till he be dead. For of other punishments used in other countries we have no knowledge or use; and yet so few grievous crimes committed with us as elsewhere in the world. To use torment also or question by pain and torture in these common cases with us is greatly abhorred, since we are found always to be such as despise death, and yet abhor to be tormented, choosing rather frankly to open our minds than to yield our bodies unto such servile haulings and tearings as are used in other countries. And this is one cause wherefore our condemned persons do go so cheerfully to their deaths; for our nation is free, stout, haughty, prodigal of life and blood,..." Read More:

Another rebellion had broken out in Ireland and a small force of Spanish and Italian support troops landed on the Kerry coast. Grey, with Spenser at his side, marched there with a large army and forced the foreigners to unconditional surrender. The officers were ransomed, but the rest, six hundred of them, were massacred. When the Desmond rebels ran into the hills, the pious lord deputy burned their crops and left them to starve. And Spenser believed Grey’s policy was right.

So as not to leave them wallowing in their darkness too long, the English armies in Ireland strained to do their duty. They hunted the natives for profit and recreation alike: one detachment sending back a brace of Irish heads “like a bag of game to the Lord Keeper”. The wives and children of the Surley Boy rebels in Antrim were massacred on the island of Raithlin- another bag of six hundred- while their leader “stood on the mainland and saw the taking of the island and was like to have run mad for sorrow.” It is difficult to imagine a man such as Spenser tolerating such unrelieved severity. And yet he stayed.

"Witches are hanged, or sometimes burned; but thieves are hanged (as I said before) generally on the gibbet or gallows, saving in Halifax, where they are beheaded after a strange manner, and whereof I find this report. There is and has been of ancient time a law, or rather a custom, at Halifax, that whosoever does commit any felony, and is taken with the same, or confesses the fact upon examination, if it be valued by four constables to amount to the sum of thirteen-pence-halfpenny, he is forthwith beheaded upon one of the next market days (which fall usually upon the Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays), or else upon the same day that he is so convicted, if market be then holden. The engine wherewith the execution is done is a square block of wood of the length of four feet and a half, which does ride up and down in a slot, rabbet, or regall, between two pieces of timber, that are framed and set upright, of five yards in height." Read More:

The Elizabethans were interested in the nature of man with a fierceness rarely paralleled in other ages; and that fierceness delighted in exposing all the contrarieties in man’s composition. In particular by picturing man’s position between beast and angel with all possible emphasis they gave a new intensity to the old conflict. If in Spenser the conflict is more abstract and theological, in Shakespeare it is so concrete, so particularised into the objects of creation (and the beasts especially) that we are apt to forget that the abstraction was there….Read More:

…It was this key position in the chain of being, not the central position of the earth in the Ptolemaic astronomy, that made man so interesting among the objects of creation. Subject to lunar vicissitudes unknown in higher spheres and by its central position the repository of the dregs of things, the earth was not happily situated. But from before Plato till beyond Pope man’s amazing position in creation—a kind of Clapham Junction where all the tracks converge and cross—exercised the human imagination and fostered the true humanist tradition; and at no period of English history so powerfully as in the age of Elizabeth. …

…But if man is allied to the beasts in sensuality and to God and the angels in understanding, he is most himself in being social. Read More:

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