in a 16th century edition of Chaucer‘s works, a Florida professor has discovered a naughty poem in Latin, written by Elizabeth Leyburne, Duchess of Norfolk (1536–1567) to her former tutor, Sir Anthony Cooke (1504–1576). She was 17, he was in his 40s when their paths crossed. He was a hard-core Protestant; she was from a family of Catholic recusants.
Nothing interesting ever pops out of the books I open, except for the occasional shopping list, train ticket stub, or unpaid bill. Still … the articles that have been written about this long-lost, lovelorn poem in Latin have mostly grabbed the wrong end of the stick.
Press attention has focused on the sole risqué line in the entire, rather plaintive poem. Huffington Post rather prudishly calls it a “crude love poem” and “raunchy love poem” on the basis of this single line. Yet the line in question is not even an original – it’s pinched from Martial. Apparently, it still strikes modern people as a surprise that their forbears were not celibates, although our very existence would seem to argue to the contrary.
Cooke, the recipient of the letter, went on to become a mentor to Edward VI, the kid brother of Queen Elizabeth and also a Protestant hard-liner with a puritanical streak.
Elizabeth Leyburne went on to marry twice – at the age of 19 to Thomas Dacre, 4th Baron Dacre of Gilsland, and shortly after his death over a decade later, to the queen’s cousin, Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk. The poem was apparently written when she was a young mother and wife of Dacre, perhaps glancing back at what never was.
The articles seem to take no particular interest in who these people are, beyond the simplest outlines of their lives, and blithely wonder why she did not divorce to get it on with Cooke.
What is missed is a far more subtle, and nuanced tragedy of the terrible English Counter-Reformation. While I was reviewing Peter Ackroyd‘s Shakespeare: The Biography for the Washington Post, I noted the author’s confusion over Shakespeare’s Protestant and Catholic pals, as he tried to draw conclusions over the playwright’s religious affiliation. He overlooked the obvious conclusion: the government cared a lot more about theological distinctions and church affiliations than the people did.
For example, although he was a Protestant reformer, Cooke’s daughter Margaret became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Mary, the Catholic sister who succeeded Edward VI (the epithet “Bloody Mary” is not entirely fair, and could just as easily been bestowed on her half-siblings). Meanwhile, Cooke was exiled during Mary’s reign – he had backed the doomed nine-day reign of King Edward’s childhood pal, the scholarly Lady Jane Gray.
Cooke’s memorial at the Romford parish church notes his “exceptional learning, prudence and piety.” However, his recent biographer Marjorie Keniston McIntosh, describes him as “a strong protestant of a dark and unforgiving colour.”
Just the kind of glowering, older Heathcliff a young 17-year-old girl might want to die for.
The article goes quickly to cite what the professor calls Howard’s “cruelty” in not calling for a priest as his wife was dying in childbirth: “the Duchesse . . . desir’d to have been reconciled by a Priest, who for that end was conducted into the garden, yet could not have access unto her, either by reason of the Duke’s vigilance to hinder it, or at least of his continual presence in the chamber at that time.”
Not so fast. The Howard family was a prominent recusant family. Or was it? The line between “Protestant” and “Catholic” was much more fluid and complex than we assume it to be today. The nature of the Great Elizabethan Compromise was the queen’s promise to leave her subjects’ beliefs alone, as long as they attended her Church each Sunday. It was a subtle maneuver: How long can you keep your beliefs unaffected by your daily actions? Those who complied with her requirements, over the years, or over generations, became Protestant in their hearts. What you do is as important as what you think.
The battle was won, but the debt is being paid centuries later: A 2006 New Yorker article described how Elizabeth’s machinations led to a church which, founded on compromise, is now compelled to compromise itself out of existence in the 21st century.
The Great Compromise also set loose a network of government spies, headed by Walsingham. For the government knew that a man’s thoughts, not his compliance, were the true indicator of his allegiance, so thoughts became the enemy. Perhaps that’s why, in Shakespeare’s plays, there’s always someone behind a bush or arras, eavesdropping on a private conversation.
How, after all, could you find out what was in a man’s heart? However, only those who insisted on an outward fidelity, rather than merely an inward one, could be executed. So Howard’s reluctance to invite a priest in for last rites was probably mortal terror rather than religious scruples or hard-heartedness. Harboring priests could get you killed.
He got killed in any case, and for reasons mixed up with religion. As Elizabeth’s widower, would meet his own death after trying to negotiate (yet another) marriage with the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots, a rallying force for the Catholics in England and a fervent Catholic herself. The Scottish queen’s plotted alliance with a kinsman of Queen Elizabeth, and the richest man in the kingdom, would have further solidified her claims to the throne. The queen’s beloved coz was beheaded in 1572.
His son, Philip Howard, previously an aristocratic wastrel, converted to Catholicism and died a prisoner of conscience – and after long neglect of his wife, he became a devoted husband to boot.
As he lay dying in the Tower of London, he asked the queen if he could have a final visit with his wife and son, who was born during his imprisonment. The Queen responded, “If he will but once attend the Protestant Service, he shall not only see his wife and children, but be restored to his honors and estates with every mark of my royal favor.”
He replied: “Tell Her Majesty, if my religion be the cause for which I suffer, sorry I am that I have but one life to lose.”
Elizabeth Leyburne would have taken note with a motherly pride: The wife to her stepson was her own stalwart daughter, Anne Dacre, who has also been mentioned as a candidate for sainthood.
All of which makes a far more interesting story than one overheated line, recalling a love that was likely unrequited. Cooke seems rather a cold fish. One never knows, however. Even cold fish get fried.