Three hundred and eighty-nine years ago this week, George Villiers, the first duke of Buckingham, checked into a Portsmouth inn called The Greyhound. He wouldn’t live long enough to check out. Not long afterwards, a six-line epitaph in the duke’s voice began to circulate in manuscript. It is attributed in at least two surviving manuscripts to Elizabeth Tanfield Cary, Viscountess Falkland, a prolific author whose works include the first known English play written by a woman. “An Epitaph upon the Death of the Duke of Buckingham” is one of the most frequently transcribed poems in the RECIRC database. This post will consider the epitaph’s circulation in manuscript miscellanies and what, if anything, it can tell us about the reception of women’s writing in the early modern period.
Buckingham and notoriety in manuscript
Buckingham is a familiar figure for early modernists, but some background might shed light on manuscript compilers’ interest in him. Buckingham, son of Sir George Villiers, first caught the attention of James I in 1614. James fond of attractive, well-mannered young men, and Buckingham fit the bill; Godfrey Goodman, bishop of Gloucester, noted that Buckingham’s “limbs were so well compacted” (qtd. Lockyer 20).
His ascent was rapid, and James made him a viscount in 1616 and an earl in 1617. James finally created him duke of Buckingham in 1623, and he also bestowed titles on Buckingham’s relatives. Buckingham’s access to the king made him a much sought-after patron. However, it didn’t take long before people started to suspect him of corruption and undue influence on the king.
Buckingham’s judgment seems somewhat suspect. In February 1623, in an incident that sounds as though it could be taken from an early modern romance, Buckingham accompanied James’s son, the future Charles I, on an ill-fated mission to speed along the proposed “Spanish Match” by wooing the Infanta Maria Anna of Spain — in disguise.
Charles and Buckingham seem to have bonded during this misadventure. When James died and Charles ascended in 1625, the new king kept him close.
Buckingham was, by now, exceedingly unpopular, and the failure of the Cadiz expedition under his leadership in 1626 was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Parliament attempted to impeach Buckingham, only to be dissolved by Charles before they could proceed. Buckingham kept his position and soon led another disastrous expedition, this time to Ré, which made him even more unpopular. Charles was, by this point, short on funds, but he knew that his favorite would be at risk if he called another parliament. He delayed as long as he could, but, by 1628, he had no choice but to call them again. Sure enough, parliament presented Charles with a remonstrance against the duke, and Charles again dismissed them. About six weeks later, while preparing to lead yet another expedition, the duke was stabbed to death in Portsmouth by John Felton.
Then as now, unpopular political figures were objects of fascination and even humor. If he were alive today, he would certainly be satirized on late-night television. Instead, as Joshua Eckhardt has shown, manuscript libels both documented and fomented popular dislike of the duke during his life and after his death. Far more rare were poems celebrating the duke, like Cary’s epitaph. Although J.A. Taylor has wryly observed that “Buckingham’s demise…was not universally welcomed, and several poems in his favour did appear” (232), they don’t seem to have held the same appeal for readers. Indeed, the epitaph is often transcribed alongside poems criticizing the duke, celebrating his assassin Felton, or both. In British Library Add. MS 44963, for instance, Anthony Scattergood transcribes the epitaph after a mock epitaph that concludes with this couplet:
Live, ever, Felton, thou hast turn’d to dust
Ambition, treason, murder, pride, & lust. (f. 40r)
British Library Egerton MS 2026 also explores a range of possible lapidary statements. The compiler of this miscellany juxtaposes Cary’s epitaph with one suggesting that the duke’s tomb should recount his military failures as a source of “Englandes shame” (f. 12r). These miscellanies reflect an interest in Buckingham specifically and in court culture or favoritism more generally, with poems chosen for their topical interest.
Alternatively, the poem sometimes circulates in larger groups of epitaphs and elegies on various figures. British Library Egerton MS 2725 includes it in a ten-page run of poems including commemorative poems on James, Henry King, Francis Beaumont, the Earl of Rutland, Queen Anne, Prince Henry, Queen Elizabeth, a child, and a cobbler. This focus on memorial poems seems to have been purposeful; the compiler also included two older poems, Francis Bacon’s “The World’s a Bubble” and Walter Raleigh’s “What is this life?”, to commemorate these individuals. Folger MS E.a.6 opens with a similar collection of commemorative poems, including one headed “On a Baker” that opens rather bluntly: “This truthe’s confirmd, since he is dead” (f. 7r). These collections draw together models of commemorative writing, perhaps as models for later use.
Intriguingly, Marmaduke Rawdon, who moved to Spain as a teenager and remained there for nearly thirty years, transcribed the first four lines of the epitaph after two pages of Spanish commonplaces. While I haven’t consulted the oblong octavo notebook (British Library Add. MS 18044) personally yet, the possibility that these commonplaces comment on the duke’s many mishaps in Spain, however obliquely, seems worth exploring. Given the 1662 date of Rawdon’s miscellany, he certainly had time to plan his collection and make meaningful juxtapositions if he were so inclined.
Elizabeth Tanfield Cary, attribution, and circulation
Early modern verse collectors seem to have been interested in “An Epitaph upon the Duke of Buckingham” for a variety of reasons, but its association with Cary — now among the most important contexts for this poem — does not seem to have been one. Of the nine copies we’ve consulted, seven are unattributed, and one is attributed to “A Lady,” seemingly in a different hand than the transcription. Only the transcription in British Library Egerton MS 2725 (shown above) attributes the epitaph to “the Countesse of Faukland.” CELM lists thirty-four copies and records attributions to Richard Corbett, John Eliot, William Juxon, Richard Weston, and Edward Zouche. This is not totally surprising. The vast majority of items in miscellanies circulate anonymously; many items are attributed only by initials or pseudonyms, and even when names are present, they are not universally reliable. Although Nadine Akkerman has made a persuasive case that both the epitaph and the forty-four line elegy that sometimes circulates with it are Cary’s, it cannot be proven conclusively.
This highlights a problem I’ve been grappling with over the last year. In this instance, at least, we can conclude that whatever early modern manuscript compilers thought about the epitaph, they either didn’t know, didn’t believe, or didn’t care that it was by Cary, or they didn’t think this information was worth recording. As an individual case study, this would be interesting. However, here are the four most frequently transcribed poems in the RECIRC database (at least right now):1
There is, admittedly, some selection bias here: I went out of my way to account for all of the known copies of Lucy’s poem (although one is missing because I don’t have an image), while we know that there are at least thirty-four copies of Cary’s poem, though they’re not necessarily within the scope of RECIRC. But “Death be Not Proud” is only attributed to Lucy Harington Russell, Countess of Bedford in two manuscripts (with initials); two copies are attributed to “J. D” by initials; five are implicitly identified with Donne because they appear in collections of his poems or because they are appended to his “Death I recant” without any demarcation; and one, Huntington MS EL 6893 (the Bridgewater manuscript) attributes the poem to one “I. B.” “T’was Christ the Word,” is almost certainly not by Elizabeth I. Leah Marcus, Janel Mueller, and Mary Beth Rose include it in their edition of Elizabeth’s works but note that the attribution is “uncertain” (47), but Steven May has gone a step further and argued, “The claim that Elizabeth wrote the poem is far too late to be convincing” (55), especially in light of competing sixteenth-century attributions. “Though I seem strange” is attributed, in various manuscripts, to Anne Vavasour, her lover Edward de Vere, or the “Lady B.” (possibly for “Baviser,” as at least one contemporary called Anne).
So what can we make of this? (And am I bad feminist for questioning all of these attributions?) In these four cases, at least, I care less about whether these poems were actually composed by these women than about why anyone thought it was worth saying that they were. And the amazing thing about RECIRC is that I’m not limited to these four cases — I can compare patterns of early modern attribution across our entire thesaurus of woman authors, currently 1,848 and counting. I plan to do just that at RSA in New Orleans and in the RECIRC monograph.
1. I had wanted to provide the top five, but as always, the data has defied my desire for snazzy ranked lists, and there was a five-way tie for fifth place. The five poems are Katherine Philips, “An ode upon retirement, made upon occasion of Mr. Cowley’s on that subject”; Mary Cheke, “Erat quaedam mulier”; Jane Grey, “Verses said to be written by Lady Jane with a pin”; Elizabeth I, “Verses made by the Queen’s Majesty”; and Mary Jacob, “Lady Jacob’s answer.” And of course I couldn’t do ten because there was another multi-way tie.↩
Akkerman, Nadine N. W. “‘Reader, Stand Still and Look, Lo Here I Am’: Elizabeth Cary’s Funeral Elegy ‘On the Duke of Buckingham.’” In The Literary Career and Legacy of Elizabeth Cary, 1613–1680, edited by Heather Wolfe, 183–200. New York and Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Clarke, Danielle. The Politics of Early Modern Women’s Writing. London and New York: Routledge, 2014.
Eckhardt, Joshua. Manuscript Verse Collectors and the Politics of Anti-Courtly Love Poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Lewalski, Barbara Kiefer. Writing Women in Jacobean England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.
Locker, Roger. Buckingham: The Life and Political Career of George Villiers, First Duke of Buckingham 1592–1628. London and New York: Routledge, 2014.
Marcus, Leah S., Janel Mueller, and Mary Beth Rose, eds. Elizabeth I: Collected Works. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
May, Steven W. “‘Tongue-tied our Queen?’: Queen Elizabeth’s Voice in the Seventeenth Century.” In Resurrecting Elizabeth I in Seventeenth-Century England, edited by Elizabeth H. Hageman and Katherine Conway, 48–67. Madison and Teaneck: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2007.
North, Marcy L. The Anonymous Renaissance: Cultures of Discretion in Tudor-Stuart England. University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Perry, Curtis. Literature and Favoritism in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Taylor, J.A. “Two Unpublished Poems on the Duke of Buckingham.” Review of English Studies 40 (1989): 232–40.