An Oxford Garrison of Poets in 1642

By Bruce, Donald | Contemporary Review, November 1992 | Go to article overview

An Oxford Garrison of Poets in 1642


Bruce, Donald, Contemporary Review


IN November, 1642, after King Charles the First's stray victory at Edgehill, the city of Oxford was fortified in expectation of his arrival. The undergraduates, except those ready to bear arms in his cause, were turned out of their colleges and lodgings. At the end of the month the King's coach rolled over Magdalen Bridge. With him were the Prince of Wales, recently recovered from the measles, and Charles's nephew, Prince Rupert. The King and his boy-heir established their headquarters at Christ Church College, although Prince Rupert was less splendidly billeted with the Town Clerk. In preparation for the King's resettlement, some zealous troopers had, on a foray into Buckingham, driven a herd of fat cattle into Oxford and impounded them in the wide quadrangle of Christ Church. Unfortunately, they were not Parliamentary cattle. Most of them belonged to the King's supporter, the Earl of Caernarvon, whose servants removed them during the following night, although some went astray in the dark of the cobbled streets. A few days later the troopers, now more discriminating, brought in a drove, this time of undoubtedly rebel cattle, and about three hundred sheep.(1) By the necessity of war, the royal ears were troubled by a brute concourse under his windows.

From the start a siege had been anticipated. Already nearly thirty cannons had been assembled, silent for the moment, in the gardens of Magdalen College. The tower of the college was loaded with boulders to be dropped upon any unwarily approaching malcontents. Loyally the university sent its plate to be melted down at the Mint in New College Hall for coinage to pay the King's soldiers. The walls of the city were strengthened, trenches were dug, and huge earthworks were raised in the north.(2)

To the King flew many of his poets not already safely in the city: some followers on his march; some glad to escape from Cambridge, which was by then in the hands of the rebels; others, such as the wry, hard-drinking attorney Alexander Brome, who held public office in threatened London. William Cartwright, already noted for his |florid and seraphical sermons', preached on his return with the King from Edgehill.(3) William Strode, another priest, was waiting, in his capacity as University Orator, to answer with a |gratulatory Replication' the King's speech to the City and the University upon his arrival. Crashaw and Cowley came briefly to Oxford after their retreat from Cambridge. Cleveland, poet, lawyer and physician, likewise cast out of Cambridge, stayed longer before being sent as Judge Advocate to the royalist outpost in Newark. Fanshawe came to Oxford to marry the delectable Ann Harrison with her monther's wedding ring. The King's windswept reign was hedged around with poets.

Sir John Denham was already in Oxford. The first edition of his Cooper's Hill was published there in 1643, on brown wrapping paper for want of better. Cooper's Hill, professedly a description of Denham's estate and nearby Windsor Castle (|where Mars with Venus dwells,/beauty with strength') contains scarcely an image not misappropriated from the classical poets. The meekly sloping hill becomes an |airy mountain' which hides its proud head |among the Clouds'.(4) At least Denham uses his poem to reprove, perhaps hintingly, the despotism of earlier monarchs. Denham was better at writing sallies in pre-Hudibrastic verse, as when he made Sir John Pooley explain how he came to be poxed:

Destitute of my wonted Gravity.

I perpetuated Acts of Depravity

In a contagious Concavity.

Making efforts with all my Puissance,

For some Venereal Rejouissance,

I got (as one might say) a nuysance (Poetical Works, 103). Rightly appalled by Davenant's epic poem, Gondibert, Denham regrets:

After so many sad mishaps

Of drinking, riming and of claps,

I pitty most thy last relaps (Poetical Works, 317).

Charles the First's disdain for the productions of his own poets is evident from his advice to Denham five years after the publication of Cooper's Hill: |Although he liked them well, he would have me write no more.

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