Edmund Spenser

(1552 - 1599)


Edmund Spenser was probably born in East Smithfield, London, the son of John Spenser, who was possibly a journeyman clothmaker.


In 1561 (9) he joined the Merchant Taylor’s School, which was then under the liberal regime of Richard Mulcaster, a man of original mind and a distinguished classical scholar. In May 1569 (17) Spenser entered Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he was befriended by Gabriel Harvey, at that time a young don. After taking his BA in 1573 (21) and MA in 1576 (24) Spenser left Cambridge for Kent, where he acted as secretary to Dr John Young, former master of Pembroke College and newly appointed Bishop of Rochester.

First poetry

It was probably here that he composed the Shepheard’s Calender, which was printed in 1579 (27). He dedicated the poem to Sir Philip Sidney, who was the centre of a literary group, which included Sir Edward Dyer, the Countess of Pembroke (Sidney’s sister) and Fulke Greville. The group exchanged poems in manuscript, and composed poems on set themes in the manner of the poetic academy in Florence under Ficino. They called themselves the ‘Areopagus’, after the hill near the Acropolis in Athens where the Athenian Upper Council met, but though Spenser knew both Sidney and Dyer, there is no evidence that he participated in the poetic activities of the group.

Employed by Robert Dudley the Earl of Leicester

By Spring 1579 (27) he had been accepted into the employment of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and was living in Leicester House in the Strand. At this point he wrote to his friend Harvey about his hopes of being employed on an extended diplomatic mission for Leicester.

First marriage

In the same year, he married Machabyas Chylde, by whom he was to have two children.

Posted to Ireland

In 1580 (28) he was appointed secretary to Arthur, Lord Grey de Wilton, who was leaving England to take up office as Lord Deputy of Ireland. This was almost certainly a disappointment, which he described in Colin Clout’s Come Home Again (published 1595, 43) as:

...my lucklesse lot

That banisht had my selfe like wight folore

Into the waste, where I was quite forgot.

Leicester had fallen from favour during 1579, when his marriage to Lettyce Knollys had been revealed, and references in the Shepheard’s Calender to these events may well have proved an embarrassment to those in power at court.

Literary life in Ireland

In Ireland he met and befriended Lodowick Bryskett, a fellow civil servant, who was preparing an English version of a work by G Giraldi Cinthio concerning the education of a gentleman, published in 1606 (d7) as A Discourse of Civill Life. In the preface Spenser explains that he has already written a work intended to show in heroical verse all the virtues, each one represented by a knight, in whose actions and feats of arms the virtue is embodied, and whose enemies represent the vices and unruly appetites opposed to that virtue.

Property and travel in Ireland

He took a lease on property confiscated by the crown after the Desmond rebellion, situated on the banks of the Liffey and bordering the Bog of Allen, features that were to weave their way into the landscapes of The Faerie Queen. As secretary to Lord Grey, Spenser probably travelled extensively in Ireland, most of which was still wild and dangerous country, and he may well have been present at the massacre in Smerwick.

Produces a pamphlet critical of London

He produced a Vue on the Present State of Ireland (1633, d34), a pamphlet, in which he advocated the dispatch of an English military force in strength and the immediate offer of an amnesty, followed by a major military campaign. He also implied that the policies of Lord Grey had not succeeded because the Crown had failed to support him. Grey himself returned to England in 1582 (30) to Royal displeasure. He was replaced by Sir John Perrot, and Spenser became Clerk in Dublin to the Council of Munster (one of the four regions of Ireland, comprising the South West quarter), an appointment which meant close attendance on Sir John Norris, the President of Munster, and later his brother, Sir Thomas Norris.


A policy of plantation was begun, whereby English settlers were encouraged to occupy lands and bring them under cultivation. In 1586 (34) Spenser was given 3,000 acres near Doneraile from the seized lands of the attainted Earl of Desmond, including the castle at Kilcolman.

Meets Raleigh : publishes the first part of the Faerie Queen

Around 1589 (37) he made the acquaintance of Sir Walter Raleigh, who had a neighbouring estate in Munster, and it was Raleigh who, after reading the Faerie Queen, persuaded him to visit London in 1590 (38), where he presented Spenser and his poem to the Queen. In recognition Elizabeth awarded Spenser £100. It was also at this time that Spenser arranged for the publication of the first three books of the Faerie Queen. But he seems to have caused offence to Lord Burghley, who he lampooned in the text of Mother Hubbard’s Tale for preventing the payment of the sum promised by the Queen, and he returned to Ireland in early 1591 (39) without further preferment.

Colin Clout

His recent experiences found their way into his poetry with Colin Clout’s Come Home Again, which chronicled a shepherd’s journey from his pastoral idyll into sophisticated society and back again.

Second marriage

In June 1594 (42) he married Elizabeth Boyle, an event which he celebrated in the sonnet sequence Amoretti and Epithalamium (1595, 43), which detailed the course of love during his courtship, and celebrated its consummation in his marriage.

Publishes second part of Faerie Queen

In 1596 (44) Spenser returned to London to arrange the publication of the second part of the Faerie Queen (Books IV to VI), but though he stayed for almost a year he failed to secure a position at court, and again returned to Ireland.

Becomes Sheriff of Cork

In September 1598 he was appointed Sheriff of Cork, but his tenure was shortlived. Hugh O’Neill had defeated the Queen’s army at Blackwater in August, and by September the whole of Munster was in rebellion. Spenser fled his home, and was shortly afterwards despatched to London with letters for the Queen. He took up lodging in King’s Street, and it was here that he died in January 1599.


He was buried in Westminster Abbey, his tomb close to that of Geoffrey Chaucer.