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Matthew Woodcock, Thomas Churchyard
by Harriet Archer

Woodcock, Matthew. Thomas Churchyard: Pen, Sword, & Ego. Oxford UP, 2016. xvi + 358 pp. ISBN: 978-0199684304. $81.00 cloth.

How to pin down the biography of a writer so intent on stage-managing the construction of his own life story, whose poetry is “everywhere and nowhere” in the period’s lyric tradition, and whose insistence on his identity on the printed page masks that identity’s transitional form? This is the question posed and, as far as possible, answered in Matthew Woodcock’s meticulous study of Thomas Churchyard’s life, works, and quarrelsome authorial voice. Although Churchyard is best known as one of Tudor England’s “soldier-poets,” and a contributor to the influential mid-century verse compilations, Tottel’s Miscellany and The Mirror for Magistrates, his works span a long, but less than glittering career—at least, less glittering than Churchyard would have liked. Woodcock’s new biography, the first attempt to untangle the facts from Churchyard’s bluster and self-deprecation since the nineteenth century, communicates the chronological and cultural range of his poetic output. Churchyard lived during the reigns of four Tudor monarchs, and saw first hand the front lines of sixteenth-century warfare as well as the cutting edge of Elizabethan literary change. Churchyard arrived at Westminster around the age of fourteen, and quickly gleaned the centrality of effective literary expression to his survival at court. His printed works encompass fashionable Henrician lyric, anti-curial “farewell” poems, oppositional commonwealth verse, and historical complaint, in addition to his military accounts, epitaphs and elegies, and chorography. Woodcock reconstructs the unfolding of Churchyard’s eventful and precarious existence on the fringes of royal favor, by turns contextualizing his writings and piecing together the narrative from their testimony. The book takes on the medium of life-writing as a subject as well as a methodology, to shed light on the ways in which the construction of an authorial persona and past was central to Churchyard’s oeuvre.

The volume is divided into eighteen chronological chapters, which break Churchyard’s life down into periods of various lengths, from a single year to up to a decade. The story begins in Shrewsbury, where Chapter 1, “Origins (to 1543),” traces Churchyard’s family tree and childhood, conditionally dating his birth to 1529, before following him to court in Chapter 2, “Roistering and Writing (1542-1543),” and on to “The School of War (1542-1547)” and military service with the Imperial army in Chapter 3. Especially in the delineation of these early years, Woodcock is frequently compelled to speculate about Churchyard’s experiences where minimal evidence is available, but compensates for sparse details of his subject’s life with colorful contextual material. The book therefore also acts as a primer on the vagaries of the martial and literary professions in the sixteenth century, including the grisly conditions faced by participants in English military campaigns, the seaminess of early Tudor court life, later Elizabethan ambassadorial intrigue, and the opportunism of the burgeoning London print market. In these sections, Churchyard’s autobiographical hints provide a thread which runs through a rich, evolving narrative about life in early modern England. Woodcock portrays the provincial young Churchyard attempting to establish not just a reputation but also a home in London, in between grueling campaigns abroad; Churchyard’s apparent success in talking his way out of captivity in the late 1540s speaks poignantly to his learned ability to ape the language and manner of the Henrician courtier, thanks to his time in Henry Howard, earl of Surrey’s service, but also of his ultimate exclusion from such ranks.

The first year to receive individual treatment is 1551, in Chapter 5, “To Speak in Print,” which marks the transformation of “Churchyard the soldier” into “Churchyard the social commentator and published author” (85). Woodcock is consistently careful to draw a distinction between Churchyard’s having written, and his identity as a writer, and stresses that Churchyard would not have considered writing to be his occupation at this stage. However, his involvement in the robust debate over his relatively slight “commonwealth” verse, Davy Dycars Dreame (1551), which hinted at Edward VI’s diminished autonomy under the protectorate, gave Churchyard a taste of the remuneration available to the professional pamphleteer. His stake in the controversy’s battle over the independence of poetic voice, and questions asked by the succession of broadsides including “to what extent [we are] expected to interpret abstract figurative representations as particular historical realities” (82), resonate, as well, with the dilemmas of the book as a whole. As the Davy Dycar furor unfolded, Churchyard’s innocence was shown to reside in the space between a poet’s intentions, and the multiple valency of their writings. While this hermeneutic smokescreen may even have saved Churchyard’s life, it necessarily vexes our grasp of his life story.

The chapter which lays out Churchyard’s involvement in the Mirror for Magistrates’s Marian phase of composition, Chapter 6, “Attack and Defence (1551-1556),” also foregrounds Churchyard’s metatextual concerns. Woodcock notes the Mirror’s preoccupation, in common with the de casibus tradition at large, with the “recorder of the falls of princes as an active, visible presence in the text’s rehearsal” (92), and observes how “[i]magining and representing the process of writing and reading a text was already a familiar working practice to Churchyard by the time the Mirror was composed” (93). His composition of the complaint of “Shore’s wife” for the project, dated to 1554-57, sews together the influence of female-voiced laments composed by Churchyard’s former master, Surrey, his association with Mirror contributor Thomas Chaloner, and via Chaloner, George Ferrers, through Surrey’s circle, and the probable intervention in the Davy Dycar contention by William Baldwin as “Western Will,” or “W. Watreman”; although, as Woodcock rightly notes, Shore’s lament “challenges the didactic efficacy” (96) of the de casibus model. Despite her having “fallen” in the terms of the Boccaccian tragic trajectory, Churchyard deploys in Shore’s complaint the first instance of the “verbal victory” (100) which Woodcock argues would become a hallmark of Churchyard’s rhetoric.

In Chapter 8, “Plying the Pen about the Court (1560-1567),” Churchyard returns to London and seeks to net an influential patron. After accounts of William of Orange’s near-bloodless Calvinist coup in Spanish-held Antwerp, and independent intelligence-gathering for William Cecil, Chapter 11, “Presentations (1572-1574),” opens with Churchyard’s relationship with the prolific and savvy printer, Thomas Marshe, and the marked gear-shift in Churchyard’s literary production with his translation of Ovid’s De Tristibus (1572). Chapter 12, “My Whole Workes,” is devoted to the publication in 1575 of Churchyard’s Chippes, a compilation which responds, Woodcock suggests, to “the growing fashion during the earlier Elizabethan period for publishing verse anthologies containing the work of a single author” (167), such as those of Googe and Gascoigne. Accessing the trope of the reformed prodigal, Churchyard’s Chippes, whose subtitle alluded to the twelve labors of Hercules, made a bold and definitive statement about its veteran author’s place on the literary scene, as well as acting as a retrospective of his poetic forays to date. Chapter 13, “Old Roads and New (1575-1577),” sees Churchyard encounter Philip Sidney for the first time; Woodcock notes the probable likeness between Sidney and Surrey as Churchyard had known him in the 1540s.

After an exhausting campaign in Ireland, Churchyard spent time as a letter-bearer between Francis Walsingham and English ambassadors in the Low Countries, as Gascoigne had the previous year, before being admitted, by special dispensation and for a substantial fee, to the Inner Temple. Chapter 14, “Occasions and Opportunities (1570-1580),” describes how Churchyard capitalized on the connections he had made around St Paul’s, and his contribution to royal entertainments in the late 1570s, as his schedule of print publication intensified, and he became more at ease with authorial self-promotion. In Chapter 16, “For Queen and Country (1580-1589),” Woodcock describes how the aging Churchyard ran into trouble in London and Edinburgh, despite the warm reception of Churchyard’s verbal dexterity at the Scottish court. But his ill health and failed petitions for favor are bested by his manuscript against political dissent, “A Rebuke to Rebellion,” which allowed, Woodcock implies, for his swift readmittance to court life, and took him back to the Low Countries as part of a starry retinue in 1582. Finally retired from active service in 1587, Churchyard’s Worthines of Wales unites dutiful service to Elizabeth I and his tireless engagement with writerly roles, perspectives and partialities, while his new contributions to the expanding Mirror for Magistrates corpus demonstrate “an even greater sense of proprietorial concern for his works” (232).

Chapter 17, “Rewards (1588-1597),” considers in what ways Churchyard truly hoped to be compensated for his lifetime of military, courtly and printed service, examining Churchyard’s delicate negotiation of the implied reciprocity of patronage, in the face of mounting debts and failing health. It was during this period that the extraordinary popularity of “Shore’s wife” was to come to fruition, in the fashion for female lament as embraced by Daniel, Drayton, Shakespeare and others. However, it seems that Churchyard’s authorship of the original poem was thrown into doubt, so that he was compelled, once again, to reassert his authorship, prefacing the poem’s republication in Churchyard’s Challenge (1593) with fighting talk, as “a genuine paternity case and a cause for which he would willingly shed blood, were it not for his age” (250). The book concludes with two appendices, the first on Churchyard’s eccentric habits of spelling, and the second on the Churchyards of Arley, including a Thomas mistaken for Woodcock’s subject in earlier scholarship.

Scholars of Spenser’s works will be interested in Woodcock’s volume, and its intention to challenge the assumption that “authorship is best studied through examining only the most popular or successful writers of the period” (3). Woodcock argues that “Churchyard pre-empts and, to a degree, enables the attempts at literary self-fashioning of perceived pioneers such as Spenser” (3), and glancing references to Spenser throughout the work have Churchyard anticipating various achievements. Woodcock’s approach to Churchyard’s semi-autobiographical reflections is informed by Richard McCabe’s observation about Spenser’s autoreferential writings, “that whether such information is strictly true or false matters less than the issue of why we have been given it at all” (8). [1] The hermeneutic challenges posed by the provision, withholding, and repackaging of biographical information among Spenser’s works are also productively brought to bear when Woodcock likens the re-presentation of Davy Dycars Dreame by Westerne Wyll to The Shepheardes Calender, as the playing-out of the Edwardian broadside dispute sees the transformation of Churchyard’s original text into a “discourse object” (80). Meanwhile, Woodcock mentions, although does not elaborate on, the fact that alongside Churchyard, Spenser is “the only other writer Elizabeth [I] rewarded with an annuity” (241). The chapter which devotes most attention to Spenser is the final one, “Last Things (1594-1604),” where Spenser’s demonstration of familiarity with Churchyard’s writings in The Shepheardes Calendar and Colin Clouts Come Home Againe is explored. Woodcock suggests that it is Churchyard’s anti-curial cynicism in particular on which Spenser draws, both in terms of content and handling.

Thomas Churchyard regularly circles back to the pairing of “pen” and “sword” in its subtitle—insinuated, too, by the use of the typographical dagger symbol to mark section breaks—emphasizing the extent to which “writing and fighting” (203) were interconnected for Churchyard as a product of the adopted court culture which imparted his facility with both. Chapters like the seventh, “Mars and Mercury (1557-1560),” which sees Churchyard preparing for war on the continent again while nurturing his burgeoning authorial identity, and Chapter 15, “Martial Art (1578-1580),” make the pairing their theme. The latter sets Churchyard among other professional soldier-poets like Rich and Gascoigne, as distinct from the aristocratic Surrey and Sidney, and explores his specifically military writings from that period, where instead of strategy or analysis, Churchyard focuses on martial history interspersed with first-hand reportage. Here, Woodcock considers the intersection of poetry, soldiery, and “performative masculine identity,” and the hoped-for “synthesis of the contemplative and active lives” (206), punctured in 1586 by Philip Sidney’s fatal confrontation with “the realities of the early modern battlefield” (207). But Woodcock reminds us, too, of the origins of Churchyard’s print career in the polemical commonwealth broadsides, which, although a far cry from Surrey and Sidney’s chivalric swashbuckling, present another facet of Tudor poetry’s combative potential; he agrees with Liz Oakley-Brown that the Worthines of Wales also exhibits this strain of “textual combat” (227). For the most part, the predominantly chronological structure does not preclude the detailed treatment of Churchyard’s texts themselves, and the volume balances its brisk narrative and carefully researched biographical conjecture with literary analysis and conceptual inquiry. Particularly fruitful are Woodcock’s brief digressive interrogations of specific terms or concepts raised by Churchyard’s writings: “court-going” for example, “gentleman,” and, at greater length, “friendship” are subjected to this illuminating scrutiny.

But what of the subtitle’s “ego”? While Woodcock’s book fondly pokes fun at the “Churchyardian impulse to make a performance out of failure or misfortune” (230), and acknowledges, along with Churchyard himself, the “acquisitive motives which guided him in his fighting and writing” (87), the picture which emerges is of a prickly yet endlessly resourceful figure, driven by his “frustration” and “restlessness” (202). Moreover, Woodcock’s dry humor and well-placed anecdotal tidbits leaven the moments when Churchyard’s own testimony might cast his career as a thankless slog. As interest in mid-Tudor personnel and the mechanisms of production behind sixteenth-century verse compilations, such as Tottel and the Mirror for Magistrates tradition, continues to develop, Woodcock’s book offers a productive and very timely reflection on a persistent and influential Tudor figure.


Harriet Archer
University of Colorado, Boulder

[1] See Richard A. McCabe, “Authorial Self-Presentation,” in The Oxford Handbook of Edmund Spenser, Oxford UP, 2010, edited by R. A. McCabe, pp. 462-82, at 463.


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Harriet Archer, "Matthew Woodcock, Thomas Churchyard," Spenser Review 47.3.51 (Fall 2017). Accessed May 23rd, 2024.
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