Orn in or near 1552 to a family of modest means, Edmund Spenser was possibly the son of John Spenser, a free journeyman clothmaker resident in East Smithfield in London, though this relationship is far from certain. Whatever his parentage, it is likely that the Spensers (or Spencers) originated in Lancashire, where they would have been connected with prominent local families such as the Nowells and Towneleys. Spenser seems to have had at least one sister, Sarah, and a number of brothers. As a boy, the future poet entered the Merchant Taylors' school, probably at its opening in 1561 under the celebrated humanist and pedagogical writer Richard Mulcaster; his place there may have been secured by the patronage of one Nicholas Spenser, the warden of the Taylors' Company at the time and possibly a relation. While at the school, Spenser was supported at least in part by the generous bequest of Robert Nowell, brother of Alexander Nowell, dean at St. Paul's. The curriculum of the school, entirely at the discretion of its headmaster, seems to have pursued the standard humanist course of the day: boys were taught and examined on the works of Cato, Caesar, Horace, Lucan, and Homer; nursed on the rhetorical models of Cicero, Erasmus, and Vives; and trained assiduously in Latin language and composition. The boys of the school may also have received a few years of training in Greek and Hebrew, slightly unusual for the time. Spenser later wrote in The Shepheardes Calender (December, 37-42) that it was his 'shepherd peres' at the Merchant Taylors' school and Mulcaster (probably the 'good olde shephearde, Wrenock') who first encouraged him to write verse.
In May 1569, Spenser left school and matriculated as a sizar at Pembroke Hall (now Pembroke College), Cambridge, receiving a further ten shillings from the Nowell bequest to support him. Although he had to work for his meals and accommodation, and may often have been ill during his studies, this appears to have been an important and productive time for the young poet. At Pembroke, Spenser came to know the master John Young, later Bishop of Rochester, and probably met Lancelot Andrewes, the future Bishop of London and privy councillor, who had also been at the Merchant Taylors' school. The most important influence on Spenser during this period, though, was undoubtedly his intimate friendship with Gabriel Harvey, himself admitted as a Fellow of Pembroke Hall in 1570. While Spenser's relationship with Harvey was later satirized by fellow students in a play titled Pedantius, Harvey appears to have introduced Spenser to a number of important connections and potential patrons, including Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. After taking his B.A. (1573) and M.A. (1576), Spenser left Cambridge for Kent, where he acted as secretary for John Young, recently created Bishop of Rochester. It was there that the poet probably composed The Shepheardes Calender, which seems to represent the Kentish landscape and certainly refers to Harvey (as Hobbinol), Young (as Roffy), Archbishop of Canterbury Grindal (as Algrind), and Spenser himself (as Colin Clout); The Shepheardes Calender was printed in 1579.
Spenser may have been employed by the Earl of Leicester as early as 1577, perhaps carrying messages to Leicester's brother-in-law Sir Henry Sidney, then Lord Deputy in Ireland; this speculation is very uncertain, though Spenser claims to have witnessed the execution of Murrogh O'Brien in July of that year. By spring 1579, at any rate, Spenser had been accepted into the employment of the Earl of Leicester, and was living in Leicester House on the Strand. While in Leicester's home and service, Spenser came into contact with Sir Philip Sidney and Sir Edward Dyer, then young men at the center of an artistic culture in Elizabeth's court. With several others, including Harvey, Daniel Rogers, and Thomas Drant, these men seem to have constituted an informal intellectual society called the 'Areopagus', discussing matters of law, philosophy, and poetry (for Sidney's inclusive, 'architectonic' theory of poetry among the disciplines, see his Apology for Poetry). It was at this time that the well-known printer Henry Bynneman put out two short volumes containing letters exchanged between Spenser and Harvey, letters that discuss trendy intellectual topics of the day and give a good deal of biographical information about Spenser's new contacts in London.
Probably through Leicester's influence, Spenser was in July 1580 appointed secretary to Arthur, fourteenth Lord Grey de Wilton, then leaving England to take up office as Lord Deputy of Ireland. Arriving shortly thereafter in Dublin, Spenser accompanied Grey on his famous and tortuous overland march to Munster, where the Lord Deputy's forces besieged, captured, and executed a much larger and better provisioned Papal and Spanish force in the Fort d'Oro at Smerwick. In March 1581 Spenser was appointed clerk of the Chancery for Faculties in Dublin, probably a sinecure post inherited from Lodowick Bryskett, a former travelling companion of Sidney's. He obtained a lease of Lord Baltinglas's Dublin home in 1582, and in August 1582 leased New Abbey, County Kildare, serving as Commissioner of Musters for Kildare in May 1583 and July 1584. When the lands of the attainted Earl of Desmond were set out in plantation in 1586, Spenser was allotted 3,028 acres near Doneraile, including the old castle at Kilcolman. He seems to have moved to Munster sometime within the following two years, perhaps in the company of his sister Sarah, although the royal grant of his estate was not confirmed by fiant until 1591. In June 1588 he inherited, again from Lodowick Bryskett, the post of Clerk of the Council of Munster, by which time he certainly appears to have been resident near Cork, where the Council met. Spenser was at this time, and for many years following, involved in protracted legal wrangles with Maurice Viscount Roche of Fermoy, an Old English neighbor financially and socially threatened by the incursions of the New English undertakers in the area. By 1589 at the latest, Spenser appears to have made the acquaintance of Sir Walter Ralegh, at that time living on his Munster estate and serving as mayor of the city Yougal. It was Ralegh who, reading through Spenser's draft of The Faerie Queene, encouraged him to join him on a trip to London in 1590, where he presented the celebrated poet to the Queen.
Spenser used his time in London to publish the first three books of The Faerie Queene, and seems to have attempted to secure enough court patronage to make it possible for him to remain in England. Although the Queen promised him a handsome pension for his labors, her generosity was questioned and moderated by the intercession of Lord Burghley, whom Spenser went on to lampoon in Complaints, printed and almost immediately suppressed (or 'called in') in 1591. Judging from a commentary on the scandal recently discovered in a contemporary letter, Spenser seems to have returned to Ireland in the early months of 1591 as a direct result of the offense he had caused to Burghley. Resuming his residence at Kilcolman, the poet shortly thereafter fell in love with and courted Elizabeth Boyle, daughter of James Boyle, himself a kinsman of Richard Boyle, later first earl of Cork. On 11th June 1594, the couple were married, an event celebrated in Spenser's Amoretti and Epithalamion, published in London in the following year. According to Amoretti 80, the poet had completed the second instalment (Books IV-VI) of The Faerie Queene shortly before the marriage, although it was not to be printed until 1596. Spenser returned to London for the publication of the second half of The Faerie Queene, and probably remained there for almost a year, living in Essex House (formerly Leicester House) in the Strand as a guest of the Earl of Essex. It was probably during this stay that he began work on A vewe of the present state of Irelande, a treatise on the social and political reformation of Ireland. Shorter works published during this period include Fowre Hymnes and Prothalamion.
By the time that A vewe appeared on the Stationers' Register in April 1598, Spenser was probably back in Munster, disappointed with his failure, once again, to secure court favors. By order of the Privy Council, he was in September 1598 appointed Sheriff for County Cork; the letter of appointment described him as 'a gentleman dwelling in the county of Cork who is well known unto you all for his good and commendable parts, being a man endowed with good knowledge and learning, and not unskilful or without experience in the wars'. His tenure of this post, which itself might well have led to further elevation, was destined to be short. The 'upstart' Earl of Tyrone, Hugh O'Neill, had defeated the Queen's army at the Yellow Ford of the Blackwater in August of 1598; by the following month, all of Munster was in rebellion, and Spenser and his family fled to the city of Cork for safety. He was shortly thereafter dispatched by the President of Munster, Sir Thomas Norris, to London with messages for the Privy Council. Arriving late in 1598, he took up residence in King's Street, and died there, according to Ben Jonson 'for lake of bread', on a Saturday in January 1599. It is not clear how a poet so well-loved by so many, an official so highly-regarded by so many, and a man so politically well-connected to so many, could have died in the fabled penury to which Jonson later testified. Camden recorded that the Earl of Essex paid for his funeral, and that poets carried his coffin, throwing their verses and pens, along with many tears, into his grave. His tomb is situated, appropriately enough, adjacent to that of Geoffrey Chaucer in Westminster Abbey.
Spenser was known to his contemporaries as 'the prince of poets', as great in English as Virgil in Latin. He left behind him masterful essays in every genre of poetry, from pastoral and elegy to epithalamion and epic. Although his prose treatise on the reformation of Ireland was not published until 1633, it showed even then a shrewd comprehension of the problems facing English government in Ireland, and a capacity for political office as thorough as his literary ability. Milton was later to claim Spenser as 'a better teacher than Aquinas', and generations of readers, students, and scholars have admired him for his subtle use of language, his unbounded imagination, his immense classical and religious learning, his keen understanding of moral and political philosophy, and his unerring ability to synthesize and, ultimately, to delight.
Sources: Entries for 'Edmund Spenser' and 'Sir Philip Sidney' in the Dictionary of National Biography; Alexander Judson, The Life of Edmund Spenser; William Barker, 'Merchant Taylors' School', in A. C. Hamilton, ed., The Spenser Encyclopedia; Willy Maley, A Spenser Chronology