Edmund Spenser: The Boyhood of a Poet

By Bruce, Donald | Contemporary Review, February 1994 | Go to article overview

Edmund Spenser: The Boyhood of a Poet


Bruce, Donald, Contemporary Review


EDMUND Spenser was born in 1553, the waning year of both King Edward VI and the English Reformation. Throughout the land the flux of sectarianism was renewed: Anglican against Catholic, Puritan and Anabaptist against Anglican. Into that renewal of religious controversy Spenser was thrust from his earliest years, so that his first publication, whilst he was still a schoolboy, was a set of verse-translations for an evangelical tract. Spenser's family, although impoverished, was of patrician descent. John Spenser, his father, was a jobbing cloth-worker from Lancashire, yet accepted as a cousin by the family of Sir John Spencer of Althrop (probably as one of the Spensers of Hurstwood, near Burnley in Lancashire), which makes Edmund Spenser the collateral ancestor of both Sir Winston Churchill and the present Princess of Wales.(1)

Already in Tudor times it was not thought incongruous for the sons of the landed gentry to engage, however menially, in trade. The historical Dick Whittington was the youngest son of Sir William Whittington, a landed proprietor in Gloucestershire, who apprenticed him to a London mercer. Sir Thomas Gresham himself derived from the Norfolk squire-archy and graduated at the University of Cambridge before becoming a merchant's apprentice in the City of London. The gentry were not always welcomed by the established merchants. Luke Frugal, a newly rich trader in Massinger's play, The City Madam, complains that they are more likely to be found playing tennis, or whoring on Bankside, or feasting at a tavern, than attending to their business:

The masters never prospered Since gentlemen's sons grew 'prentices: when we look To have our business done at home, they are Abroad in the tennis court, or in Partridge Alley, In Lambeth Marsh, or in some cheating Ordinary.

John Spenser, grimly pressed as an older man with his own family which he supported on a daily wage, certainly frequented neither tennis-courts, nor the brothels in Partridge Alley on Bankside, nor swindling hostelries.

For a younger son in the junior line of a distressed family of farmers, the cloth-trade offered the widest opening. Between 1540 and 1600 the highest proportion of London workers (one in five) was employed in making clothes for the rich and their underlings. Like Shakespeare's noblemen in King Henry VIII, many 'broke their backs by laying manors on 'em'. Upon those resplendent backs rose such clothiers as Sir Thomas Gresham who, for one, spent his money better. In the tracks of Gresham and his kind drudged, less successfully, Spenser's father, who was obliged to enter his son as a 'poor boy' on the register of the Merchant Taylors' School when it was opened in 1561.

In his Prothalamion of 1596 Spenser acclaims London:

mery London, my most kyndly Nurse That to me gave this Lifes first native source; Though from another place I take my name, An House of auncient Fame.

London may have been his 'kindly nurse' in that he received his education there; yet he grew up beyond its wall. His precise friend, Gabriel Harvey writes of Spenser as a native of Middlesex. At that time Middlesex stretched an arm around the City of London from Bethnal Green to the Isle of Dogs, and included East Smithfield. Two eminent antiquaries born within ninety years of Spenser's death, William Oldys and George Vertue, independently recorded East Smithfield as the place of Spenser's birth.(2)

East Smithfield was a handy suburb for a man who worked in Bow Lane, where John Spenser was in the service of Nicholas Peele. Bow Lane was at the eastern end of Cheapside, not far west of Merchant Taylors' Hall and the Company's alms-houses on Tower Hill. Since the clothiers were active in the east of the City, East Smithfield, as a cheap locality between the Tower and Whitechapel, would have suited an indigent cloth-worker well. Outside both the wall and the ditch of the City of London although with easy access to it, since the wall had crumbled and the ditch was silted up, East Smithfield was a group of houses haphazardly built around a green which had served as vineyard in the time of King Henry I. …

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