Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Enter John Lyly

From time to time, Shakespeare Authorship aficionados query after the name “John Lyly”.  This happens surprisingly little given the outsized role the place-seeker, novelist and playwright played in the lives of the playwright William Shakespeare and Edward de Vere.  So pronounced a link between the names of the Earl and the playwright makes Lyly as important as any figure in the debate.

But still, few seem to have taken the time to read (much less study) his works.  Only a small number of the facts of his life are widely known.   Some have even suggested that the name was an alias for Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.

The best source of information on Lyly is the exceptional introduction to Warwick Bond’s edition of The Complete Works of John Lyly (Clarendon Press, 1902).  Little new information has been added over the years regarding Lyly.  The references to the Earl of Oxford, though dated, remain helpful.

Bond tells us that the first certain information about the man comes from registrars’ rolls for Magdalen College, Oxford, where his B.A. and M.A. degrees were duly entered in 1573 and 1575 respectively.  Between the two we also have a Latin letter, dated May 16, 1574, written by Lyly to “Viro illustrissimo, et insignissimo Heroi Domino, Burgleo, totius Angliae Thesaurario, Regiae Maiestatis intimis a consilijs, et patron suo colendissimo J. L.[1]

Most illustrious man, and most distinguished Heroic Lord, Burgley, Treasurer of all England, privy councilor to the Queen, and most attentive patron of John Lyly.
He gives the English translation in a footnote.  The young scholar requests that “his patron,” Lord Burgley, intervene with the Queen in his behalf, such that she might order the Magdalen College to bestow a fellowship upon him.


What the letter makes clear is that William Cecil, the Baron Burgleigh, and Lyly already have some sort of relationship.  Some have written that the young man was the son of a distant cousin.  I’ve never been favored with a source for the claim.  Whatever the basis of their relationship, it is strong enough that a mere scholar could think of asking “his patron” to interceded in his behalf with the Queen.  That Burgley has already been supportive in unspecified ways is also made clear.

The Queen’s order was not forthcoming and the documentation for Lyly’s life 1575-79 consists only of an entry in Cambridge University records incorporating his Oxford M. A. there in 1579.[2]  A reference from Gabriel Harvey’s Pierce’s Supererogation places the two adversaries both living and first meeting in The Savoy Hospital complex in about 1578.


During the reign of Queen Elizabeth, The Savoy Hospital had been stripped of the lands the rents from which had previously supported its Hospital and charitable operations.  It was forced to make up as much as it could by renting out the buildings in its modest complex for apartments.  After a crisis, due to mismanagement, Burleigh had come to control it through the hospital manager.  The Savoy being not far from the Burleigh House, on the Strand, the Lord Treasurer may have deposited his young charge there in order to have him on hand for piece work of one sort or another.

It is likely, then, that Lyly wrote Euphues, the Anatomy of Wyt (1578) while living in The Savoy.  It was a grand and immediate success.  Many of the readers that lauded it to the literary world of the Court and London surely also lived at or regularly availed themselves of bed and board at The Savoy.

A number of documents show that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, lived and received guests at The Savoy when in London, in 1573.  Moreover an entry was made in the Savoy records that he was found in arrears of rent in that year for two tenements.  His floor space, then, was considerable.  By various estimates he continued there perhaps as late as 1578.  The overlap between the probable Savoy timelines for the two men make all but certain that they met there in 1577 or 1578.  Again Harvey informs us that Lyly became secretary to the Earl at about that time.  The dedication of Euphues and his England to the Earl in 1580 suggests that year as the latest possible start date for their arrangement.



[1] Lansdowne, MS. xix. No. 16.
[2] Bond takes this piece of information from Charles and Thompson Cooper’s Athenae Cantabrigienses which does not give exact information on the whereabouts of the entry in the university records.


  • Desperately Seeking Bridget (de Vere).  August 24, 2014.  "Even most people who assert that the Earl of Oxford was the poet and playwright Shake-speare (a group to which I resoundingly belong) do not seem to know that she was engaged, in 1598, to William Herbert, soon to inherit the Earldom of Pembroke,..."
  • Shake-speare and the Influence of Ronsard.  May 22, 2014.  "If Shake-speare were actually born in 1564, the question should naturally arise as to why so many of the sources for his works were written between 1560 and 1580,..."

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