ccd-leicesterhead1.jpg (9571 bytes)Dwight Peck's reprint series

Another Version of the Leicester Epitaphium

Offprint from
Notes and Queries
new series, volume 23, number 5-6, pp. 227-28
May-June 1976

"Another Version of the Leicester Epitaphium"

Copyright 1976   Oxford University Press

BOTH before and after his death on 4 September 1588, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was the object of libels and slanders of many kinds. The infamous tract known as "Leicester’s Commonwealth" (1584) is the best known of these, but amongst the rest there is a curious satirical squib usually called simply the "Epitaph". Certainly by no means a great poem, it does however have its own kind of interest, especially as it reveals something of the popular reaction to the Earl’s career. In its most familiar version it has long been attributed to Sir Walter Raleigh, from the ascription made in the seventeenth-century copy that was first printed, with inaccuracies, by J. P. Collier, and now resides in the Huntington Library (MS. EL 6183):


Here lyes the noble warryor that never bludyed sword
Her lyes the noble Courtier that never kept his woord
Her lyes his excellency that governs all the state
Her lyes the L[ord] of L[eicester] that all the World did hate.

Wa. Ra.

Raleigh’s authorship has justly been doubted by E. A. Strathmann, in M.L.N., lx (1945), 111-14, and is presently seldom accepted. Similar but anonymous forms of this version of the poem have also been found elsewhere (see Agnes Latham, ed. The Poems of Sir Walter Ralegh, The Muses’ Library, Harvard Univ. Press, 1951, p. 172).

In 1592 the Catholic propagandist Richard Verstegan printed a slightly different form of the verse in his Declaration of the True Causes of the Great Troubles (Antwerp, STC 10005, p.54):

Heere lies the woorthy warrier,
That never bloodied swoord:
Heere lies the loyall courtier,
That never kept his woord.
Heere lies his noble excellence,
That ruled all the states.
Heere lies the Earle of Leicester,
Whome earth, and heaven hates.

As Strathmann points out, this version is superior to the first in several minor ways; nonetheless, it is substantially the same poem.

There is still another version, however, which seems to have escaped previous notice. Of the more than sixty manuscript copies of "Leicester’s Commonwealth" which survive, one of them, Stowe MS. 156 (fols. 108v-204v) in the British Museum, is a rather more accurate copy than most of the others. Appended to the tract itself and written in the same sixteenth-century hand is the following:


Heere lyes the valiant soldier
that never drewe his sword.
Heere lyes the Loyall Courtier
that never kept his woord
Heere lyes the Noble Leacher
that used Art to provoke
Heere lyes the constant housband
whose love was firme as smoke.
Heere lyes the Politician
& Nutt worme of the state
Heere lyes the Erle of Leicester
that God, & Man did hate.
(fol. 204v)

As artistically modest as it may be, this longer version must be considered superior to the other two. At least the logic of the satirical strategy is more consistent here. The word "valiant" contrasts better with its antithesis than do either "noble" or "woorthy" with theirs (though "bloodied" may be thought more graphic than "drewe"). "Loyall" certainly makes a more specific contrast to the "never kept his woord" than does the "noble" of the Ellesmere version. "Politician" is an ambiguous word, which might mean statesman but could as well become "Nutt worme" in the following line, thus providing both the required antithesis and some Machiavellian associations as well. And "Nutt worme of the state" is a good deal more vigorous than its counterparts in the other versions; even the Queen in her favourite panegyric could have been said to have "governed all the state", and the implication of Leicester’s having usurped that role is just a bit oblique, since he did in fact "rule all the states" of the Low Countries in 1586, and by invitation. ("Nutt worme", by the way, is a word used nowhere else, according to the O.E.D. though its meaning here is obvious enough.) But on the other hand, the faulty antithesis of "lecher" in line 5 may well be counted against the Stowe version, as may the rather jarring rhythm of line 6.

Although the criticisms made of the Earl in all three versions are quite general in nature, the Stowe version seems to refer directly to "Leicester’s Commonwealth" in most of its elements. Lines 1 and 2 reflect the following passage: the men whom Leicester is alleged to have poisoned "were such valiaunt knightes the moste parte of them, as he durst as soone have eaten his scabbard, as drawe his sworde in publique against them" ("Leicester’s Commonwealth", The Copie of a Leter Wryten by a Master of Arte, 1584, STC 19399, p. 43). Lines 3 and 4 may reflect the following passage, among others: "namelie if he sweare solemnlie, by his George, or by the eternal God, then be sure it is a false lye . . . and some tymes in his own lodging, in like case his maner is to take up and sweare by the Bible, wherby a Gentleman of good accompt . . . protested to me of his knowledge, that in a verie short space, he observed him, wittingly & willingly, to be forsworne sixtiene tymes" (p. 197; of his oaths Leicester "maketh as great accompt, as hennes do of cackling"). Lines 5 and 6 suggest the "Commonwealth’s" assertion that Leicester was "given to procure love in others by Coniuring, Sorcerie, and other such meanes" (p.39), or, depending upon whom or what is to be "provoked", it may remind us of the bottle of ointment ("of ten Pounds the Pinte") which the Earl kept by his bed, "wherby (as they say) he is able to move his flesh at al tymes, for keeping of his credit" (p. 39); in the addition to the Discours de la Vie Abhominable, the 1585 French translation of the "Commonwealth", there is a long and very repulsive tale of the Earl’s employment of the sorceress "Mother Davies" to concoct for his unwilling lady-love a vile aphrodisiac potion (in English, Exeter College, Oxford, MS. 166, pp. 120-23). And lines 7 and 8 recall the "Commonwealth’s" charge that the Earl made and broke marriage contracts at his will, with his first wife Amy Robsart and then with his putative second wife the Lady Sheffield (pp.35-36). The final four lines, of course, reflect the whole tenor of the "Commonwealth’s" attack, which endeavoured in every way possible to demonstrate why Leicester was so "odible both to God and man" (p.196).

There is a great deal of heterogeneous anti-Dudley material surviving, representing the various concerns of the various groups opposed to the Earl. Nevertheless, these parallels between "Leicester’s Commonwealth" and the Stowe "Epitaphium" do seem significant and, coupled with the poem’s presence in an early and very accurate copy of the "Commonwealth", they may suggest that the poem, in this version, was directly inspired by the tract, in much the same way as was Thomas Rogers’s much longer poem "Leicester’s Ghost" (see the edition by F. B. Williams, Jr., Chicago Univ. Press, 1972). We cannot assume, to be sure, that the unknown Stowe copyist himself was its author, and should infer no more than that the poem might have come to him as already amongst the "Commonwealth’s’ progeny. But the Stowe version would seem on this evidence to be, not only a superior, but also a more authoritative text of the "Leicester Epitaphium" than either of its more familiar versions.

Kingston, Rhode Island.

bookpen.gif (2870 bytes)Please do not reproduce this text in any form for commercial purposes. Further historical references can be found in D. C. Peck, Leicester's Commonwealth: The Copy of a Letter Written by a Master of Art of Cambridge (1584) and Related Documents (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985). Feedback and suggestions are welcome, . First published in Notes and Queries, 1976, posted on this site 23 August 2001.


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