An Encomium on Henry VIII and Elizabeth I by George Etheridge — British Library Royal MS 16 C X

The Text

The Encomium was composed for the purpose of presentation to Elizabeth I on the occasion of her visit to Oxford in 1566. In the course of her arrival a series of orations were delivered in her honour by representatives of the city and the university, including one in Greek by Giles Lawrence, the Regius Professor of Greek, to which the Queen made a brief response in the same language.[1] As a former holder of that position, it would once have been George Etheridge's place to give such an address, but he had been expelled from the post in 1559.[2] Instead he composed this text for presentation to the Queen. Many other Oxford scholars also wrote poems or orations, generally much shorter, on the occasion of her visit, mostly in Latin but occasionally in Greek.[3]

The author’s explicitly stated aim was to ingratiate himself with the Queen with an eye to improving his own diminished circumstances, and, ostensibly at least, to gain favour for the university as a whole.[4] It is not known for certain whether the work was intended to be delivered orally, but given Etheridge’s lack of a university post and the official disfavour under which he suffered it is unlikely that he would have had any opportunity to recite it.[5] It was probably always meant only to be presented in the form of the manuscript in Etheridge’s own hand which is edited here. Certainly a reference to the Queen perusing it at moments of leisure, and his declared decision to conclude the work even though he had other things to write, rather than other things to say, indicate that he considered it essentially as a written text.[6] It retains nonetheless the tenor of formal oratory, structured in the manner of blank verse and characterised by frequent rhetorical questions, emotional exclamations and direct address to the recipient. It culminates in a crescendo of invocations to an imagined national audience, which Etheridge likens to an oratorical address.[7]

The choice of Greek as the language of the Encomium was probably influenced by the fact that his former academic posts had been in Greek studies and his hopes for future preferment were presumably focused on the same field, although with his reputation as a physician an appointment to teach medicine might also have been a possibility.[8] It must also have been in part a compliment to the Queen’s education, as Etheridge makes clear in the work’s preface.[9] It is accompanied by a summary of its content in Latin, following the Greek preface, presumably for the benefit of the less learned.

The linguistic character of the work seems to reflect a conscious effort to impress by displaying the author’s erudition. It exhibits his knowledge of obscure words, and makes use of the archaic Attic grammatical peculiarity of the dual number, while also being laced with word forms drawn from other ancient dialects and manners, primarily the Homeric. This eclecticism was clearly preferred to any effort at writing in one harmonious ‘pure’ style, though the prominence of epic terminology is evidently intended to reflect the heroic character of its subject matter.

A more awkward issue in the context in which Etheridge was working was the question of pronunciation, a matter of controversy in sixteenth-century England. It is likely that Etheridge himself favoured the modern pronunciation of Greek over the reconstruction of ancient pronunciation proposed by Erasmus. In the dispute over pronunciation among English Hellenists, the traditional practice of employing the modern pronunciation was associated with intellectual and religious conservatism, the new Erasmian system with humanist and Protestant reform.[10] The firm conservatism of Etheridge's mature opinions would seem more consistent with the rejection of Erasmianism, while his tutor John Shepreve had been a staunch opponent of the 'new learning'. There is also evidence in the oration itself that it was the modern pronunciation that came naturally to him. He repeatedly made spelling mistakes of the itacism type, in which the correct vowel is replaced by another whose pronunciation is effectively identical in modern Greek, such as eta for iota.[11] In the Erasmian scheme, however, the sound of these vowels is clearly distinguished, reducing the likelihood of this kind of confusion. However, with Elizabeth's accession the Protestant scholarly circle strongly linked with Erasmian pronunciation had come to power in the nation and in academia, and in a work intended to win the Queen's favour the employment of that system would have been politic.[12] The fact that the work was probably not delivered orally would have enabled Etheridge to avoid directly confronting the dilemma.

In making use of other texts, its linguistic frame of reference is somewhat more restricted. The direct quotation of ancient texts is restricted almost exclusively to the early books of the Iliad, together with the odd expression from the Odyssey. In this and in more general reference to the heroes of the Trojan War, as in the choice of language, Homer is the predominant element in the work’s cultural background. Etheridge otherwise quotes only when presenting in support of his appeal a story from Plutarch’s Life of Artaxerxes about a ruler’s magnanimous generosity in response to a subject’s humble gift.[13] This restricted literary palette may reflect doubts as to the extent of the Queen’s own familiarity with classical literature.[14] Whereas citations recognised by the reader could be gratifying and establish shared ground between writer and recipient, those that went over the reader’s head would at best be wasted and at worst might irritate. Etheridge may thus have been playing on the safe side by keeping largely to the opening sections of the most prestigious work of classical literature. The choice may also reflect a particular fondness for poetry, suggested by accounts of the author’s own compositions. The Life of Artaxerxes was clearly a favourite of his, as he cited another story from that text, again with apologetic intent, in the preface to another of his works, his Greek translation of the second book of the Aeneid.[15] Personal interest, and perhaps also personal vanity, presumably lie behind another textual reference, an allusion to the Greek theological works of Justin Martyr, which Etheridge himself translated into Latin.[16] Other textual references are less individual: the Bible is cited repeatedly, while Etheridge also alludes to the philosopher-king of Plato’s Republic, a thoroughly conventional feature for a text in praise of a monarch drawing on the classical tradition.[17] Apart from Justin Martyr, his references to the post-Biblical Christian tradition in Greek are restricted to a list of some of the Fathers of the Church.[18]

The chief obstacle Etheridge faced in composing the text was the same stumbling-block which had benighted his career: his adherence to Catholicism in a country now under Protestant rule. Given that public affairs in England had been dominated by religious controversy for the past four decades, finding ways to glorify a monarch who had recently restored the country to Protestantism inevitably presented difficulties for a committed Catholic. This awkwardness was compounded by the fact that he was lobbying for a return to the favoured position which he had held under the preceding Catholic regime, notorious for the persecution of Protestants in whose most prominent episode Etheridge had himself played an active part.[19]

This fundamental problem must underlie the most striking feature of the work: the fact that, although addressed to Elizabeth and aimed at winning her goodwill, the principal subject of its praise is not the Queen but her father Henry VIII. Even where Elizabeth’s own virtues are discussed, the example of Henry’s excellence remains a prominent reference point.[20] Elizabeth’s generally positive attitude to her father, despite his instigation of her mother’s execution and the declaration of her own bastardy during her early childhood, supplied the necessary conditions for this method of flattery to be effective.[21] The use of Henry as an exemplar helped Etheridge to avoid confronting the issue of the religious reforms which had dominated Elizabeth’s reign to date. The complexities of Henry’s own oscillating religious policy presented ample opportunities for constructive ambiguity. As long as he avoided specifics, Etheridge could square the circle by commending as a pious exemplar a king whose rule had remained closer to the author’s favoured religious stance than the present regime, while not offending Protestant sentiment.[22]

The second great advantage of focusing on Henry was his patronage of academia, and most importantly of Etheridge himself, the causes whose betterment lay at the heart of the Encomium’s purpose. In practice, the King’s establishment of chairs and colleges had been offset by the damage inflicted on the universities by his dissolution of monastic institutions, while the new colleges he founded were endowed out of the properties of existing ones which had been seized and dissolved.[23] However, it enabled Etheridge to hold him up as an exemplar of the conduct he wished Elizabeth to emulate, underpinning this exhortation to promote scholarship by expounding at some length on the value of education and the merits of rulers who favoured it.[24] He naturally bolsters his argument by appeal to classical authorities and comparisons: Plato’s philosopher-king, Alexander the Great’s relationship with Aristotle, and Ptolemy I’s assemblage of books and scholars in the great library and Museum of Alexandria.[25] Calling upon Elizabeth to emulate her father in all things, Etheridge could have found no better template for his more particular personal purposes than the man who had raised the author himself to a position of rich distinction and profit, a point he did not blush at spelling out, even to the extent of quoting his former salary.[26] Hoping for a favourable reception for the present work, he was also able to point to the King’s kindness in welcoming earlier compositions which Etheridge had presented to him.[27]

While the King’s promotion of learning in general and of the author’s career in particular was clearly the most important component of Etheridge’s acclamations, the greatest prominence is given to Henry’s military activities. His generalship (‘στρατηγημάτων’) is cited in the title of the main body of the work and the two campaigns he commanded in person against the French, the first leading to the capture of Tournai and Therouanne and the second to that of Boulogne, dominate its early passages.[28] This focus may be a further reflection of Etheridge’s efforts to negotiate the religious issue: victory over traditional foreign enemies, in wars unconnected with Europe’s religious struggles, offered a unifying patriotic theme transcending the sectarian divide. Although ruinously expensive and bringing prizes that proved to be hefty liabilities rather than assets, Henry’s escapades on the continent carried a sufficient aura of success to be the basis for panegyric, and could be cast in a favourable light by comparison with the military mishaps of his successors.[29] It has also been suggested that the Boulogne campaign may have made a particular impression on the young Elizabeth.[30] Etheridge contrasts Henry’s conquests with the allegedly harmful cession of Boulogne that followed, enacted, though he does not spell this out, by Edward VI’s regency under the firmly Protestant Duke of Northumberland.[31] Thus glorifying Henry’s deeds also offered a means of discreetly criticising a Protestant regime which had acted against Etheridge himself, sublimated through patriotic sentiment. In his lamentation of the decline of English fortunes against the French, Etheridge is silent regarding the more serious loss of Calais under Mary.

Martial virtue was in any case a crucial component of any traditional eulogy of a king. A further advantage of Etheridge’s concentration on Henry was that it enabled him to sidestep the difficulty presented by the unsuitability of a female monarch for fulfilling the conventional image of the warrior king. The martial theme had particular value for a panegyrist wishing to highlight classical learning, as it afforded ample scope to introduce conventional comparisons between the work’s subject and the heroes of antiquity, inevitably to the former’s advantage. Here Etheridge naturally concentrated his attention on the ancient Greek tradition, adhering to the standard comparators for such flattery: Alexander and the heroes of the Trojan War. Henry is presented as the synthesis of all virtues, matching particular individuals in the areas in which they excelled while surpassing them in other respects. The emphasis here is on his possession of pacific qualities that complemented his martial excellence. Etheridge makes a virtue of the limited scope of Henry’s military career, attributing it to clemency and moderation, and turns to his rule at home.[32] Together with piety and the promotion of scholarship, Henry is praised in particular for his wisdom and justice, in particular in defence of the poor.[33] One noteworthy assertion here is the claim that Henry secured obedience through persuasion rather than fear.[34] However starkly at odds with the reality of the King’s reign, the author’s injunction to the reader to remember this point is a further expression of his particular concerns as a harried Catholic under Protestant rule.

Besides holding up this image of Henry as an exemplar for Elizabeth to imitate, in the latter part of the text Etheridge appeals to her directly, firstly on the delicate issue of the succession.[35] Along with religious reform, the question of the Queen’s marriage and provision of an heir had dominated the early years of her reign, and by the time of the work’s composition her advancing age had introduced a rising note of urgency to the pleas of her advisors and parliaments that she should marry without delay.[36] This issue formed part of a thematic continuum with Etheridge’s emphasis on Elizabeth’s inheritance of her crown and virtues from her father, one which he also extended backwards in an allusion to Henry’s analogous inheritance from his own father Henry VII.[37] In urging Elizabeth to supply an heir, Etheridge was raising a potentially touchy subject, but was also safely aligning himself with the consensus of national opinion. As with the glorification of Henry’s military deeds, stressing the benefits to the kingdom’s security of a clear line of succession provided a patriotic theme that sublimated sectarian divisions. Particular dynastic circumstances may have given it an added appeal as a means of furthering Etheridge’s pursuit of rehabilitation. In the absence of a direct heir, the line of succession at the time ran most naturally to the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, who became the focus for Catholic hopes of regaining control in England.[38] By urging forcefully that the Tudor succession should be secured, Etheridge may have hoped to dissociate himself from any such aspirations and give an assurance of his own loyalty.[39]

At the climax of the work, Etheridge focuses his attention squarely on exhorting Elizabeth to excel in two areas in particular: the promotion of learning and the virtue of mercy, the qualities that would be most vital in underpinning the response that the author sought. Their central importance in his agenda may account for Etheridge’s one departure from his otherwise exclusive employment of the Greek tradition when enlisting classical examples: his reference to Julius Caesar’s reputation for clemency. Presumably the closeness of Caesar’s traditional identification with that virtue made the allusion too apt to omit. With regard to patronage for scholarship there was no need for such a divergence, as the ancient Greek world offered in Ptolemy the ideal historical exemplar to set beside the image Etheridge had painted of the work’s presiding figure, Henry VIII.

Christopher Wright

  1. Penry Williams, ‘Elizabethan Oxford: State, Church and University’, The History of the University of Oxford, Vol. 3: The Collegiate University (Oxford 1986), ed. James McConica, pp. 397-440 at pp. 397-9; Charles Plummer, Elizabethan Oxford: reprints of rare tracts (Oxford 1887), pp. 119, 176-7, 199.
  2. The Author.
  3. Plummer, op. cit., pp. 207-44.
  4. Encomium, ff. 2r-v, 3v-4r, 36v-37v.
  5. The Author.
  6. Encomium, ff. 2v-3r, 37r.
  7. Encomium, ff. 38r-v.
  8. The Author.
  9. Encomium, ff. 1r-v.
  10. Winthrop S. Hudson, The Cambridge Connection and the Elizabethan Settlement of 1559 (Durham 1980), pp. 43-6; Maria Dowling, Humanism in the Age of Henry VIII (Beckenham 1986), p. 101; John Guy, Tudor England (Oxford 1988), p. 224.
  11. Encomium, e.g. ff. 1r, 2v, 9v, 12r.
  12. Guy, op. cit., pp. 253-4.
  13. Encomium, ff. 4r, 36v-37r.
  14. Elizabeth’s education is known to have included the works of Sophocles and Isocrates as well as the New Testament in Greek: David Starkey, Elizabeth: Apprenticeship (London 2000), p. 80.
  15. George Etheridge, Publii Vergili Maronis Aeneidos liber secundus Graecis versibus redditus (London 1553), f. ivr.
  16. Encomium, f. 31r; The Author.
  17. Encomium, ff. 16v-17v, 20r-22r, 30v-31r, 34r.
  18. Encomium, f. 19v.
  19. The Author.
  20. Encomium, ff. 35r-36v.
  21. Starkey, op. cit., pp. 23, 30-2, 51-2.
  22. By contrast, Etheridge avoids making more than the briefest direct mention of the intervening reigns of Edward VI and Mary I, the one thoroughly Protestant and the other vehemently Catholic, discussion of which would have precluded any such artful circumlocution.
  23. Dowling, op. cit., pp. 101-7; Joan Simon, Education and Society in Tudor England (Cambridge 1966), pp. 202-4, 210-4.
  24. Encomium, ff. 18r-21r, 24r, 25r, 35v-37r.
  25. Encomium, ff. 20v, 24r, 35v.
  26. Encomium, ff. 1v, 19r.
  27. Encomium, ff. 37r-v.
  28. Encomium, ff. 7r, 8v-11v.
  29. Guy, op. cit., pp. 84, 99, 190-2.
  30. Starkey, op. cit., p. 34.
  31. Encomium, ff. 9v-11r; Guy, op. cit., pp. 218-9.
  32. Encomium, ff. 8r-v, 22v-27r.
  33. Encomium, ff. 11v-12r, 14v-16v, 21r-22r, 26v-27r.
  34. Encomium, f. 15r.
  35. Encomium, ff. 28v-30r
  36. David Loades, Elizabeth I (London 2003), pp. 138-45, 171-2; Guy, op. cit., pp. 270-1.
  37. Encomium, ff. 15r-v.
  38. Guy, op. cit., pp. 268-70.
  39. It was even possible for him to do so without entirely betraying hopes for an improvement of the Catholic position in England. At the time of writing, the leading candidate for the Queen’s hand was the Hapsburg Archduke Charles (Loades, op. cit., pp. 171-3). This prospective match had the potential to increase Catholic influence and colour the upbringing of any offspring, perhaps easing any qualms Etheridge had about pursuing this line of argument.