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Unexpected find sheds new light
on Elizabethan literature, politics

December 15, 1997

In a remote county record office in Northamptonshire, England, about 100 miles north of London, Richard Peterson unexpectedly made a discovery about a leading scandal of the Elizabethan Age.

A 1,600-word letter found by Peterson provides the first proof that in 1591, Edmund Spenser, the Queen's unofficial poet laureate, published a poem that was censored or called in by government officials and its unsold copies confiscated or destroyed.

Peterson, a professor of English, spent several years doing historical research on the letter, to find out about the people and events mentioned in it. His work even involved research at the Vatican library by means of correspondence and faxes.

According to Peterson, the letter is an eyewitness account of the public stir created by the poet Spenser's Mother Hubberds Tale, a poetic beast fable. In the tale, a wily fox and ape, who stand for the Queen's powerful first minister Lord Burghley and his ambitious son Robert Cecil, take over the kingdom until they are exposed and punished.

In 1590, a year before Mother Hubberds Tale was published, Spenser had published the Faerie Queene, a romantic epic in praise of Queen Elizabeth. He had been rewarded with a yearly pension to supplement his regular income in Ireland as a government secretary and colonial settler.

"Spenser's decision to publish this outrageous satire so soon after the public success of the Faerie Queene may have been rash, but it shows he believed a poet laureate was not a cheerleader - rather an adviser to the great who should stay at arm's length. In the tale, an ape steals a lion's skin - a symbol of royal power - as a disguise to intimidate the other animals. This is a clear warning to the Queen that her authority can be compromised by her closest political advisers," Peterson says.

"Though we're apt to think of Spenser as a venerable poet who enjoyed high favor as England's 'poet laurel,' Peterson shows us how risky this poet's position really was at the time he went off to Ireland in the late 16th century," says John Gatta, head of the English department.

The Times Literary Supplement, the prestigious British journal, recently published an article written by Peterson about his discovery, "Spurting Froth Upon Courtiers: New Light on the Risks Spenser Took in Publishing Mother Hubberds Tale." A longer article, including other previously unknown information about court politics of the time, will soon be published as a monograph in the journal Spenser Studies.

"Peterson's essay reflects an impressive blend of scholarly detective work and critical interpretation," says Gatta."Peterson uses his discovery of a previously unnoticed letter by Sir Thomas Tresham to demonstrate the politically controversial - and boldly satiric - character of Mother Hubberds Tale."

The letter, written in 1591 by Tresham, a leading Catholic recusant and owner of extensive estates, was sent to Lord Mordaunt, a county neighbor and fellow Catholic, who had been summoned to London by the authorities.

Peterson found the letter that he says was "written in the almost undecipherable script favored by private secretaries of the time" while working on a different project."I called up several bills and deeds listed in the archive's catalogue," he says, "and this wonderful unknown thing popped out. This happens sometimes with archival stuff. You never know what you're going to find."

Sherry Fisher