ccd-leicesterhead1.jpg (9571 bytes)Dwight Peck's reprint series

Leicester's Commonwealth: The Copy of a Letter Written by a Master of Art of Cambridge (1584) {file 3}

Scanned and reprinted from
Peck, ed., Leicester's Commonwealth (Athens and London: Ohio University Press, 1985).

Leicester's Commonwealth

The Copy of a Letter
Written by a Master of Art of Cambridge to his friend in London, concerning some talk passed of late between two worshipful and grave men about the present state and some proceedings of the Earl of Leicester and his friends in England.

Conceived, spoken and published with most earnest protestation of all dutiful good will and affection towards her most excellent Majesty and the realm, for whose good only it is made common to many.



Printed and Manuscript Forms of Leicester's Commonwealth


The 1584 quarto first edition of Leicester's Commonwealth1 has the following title page, all of which is set within an ornamental border except the date at the end, which is set into an ornamental base:

THE / COPIE OF A / LETER, WRYTEN BY A / MASTER OF ARTE OF CAMBRIGE, / TO HIS FRIEND IN LONDON, CON-/ cerning some talke past of late betwen two wor-/ shipful and graue men, about the present state, and / some procedinges of the Erle of Leycester and/ his friendes in England./ CONCEYVED, SPOKEN / and publyshed, wyth most earnest protes-/ tation of al duetyful good wyl and affe-/ ction, towardes her most excellent Ma./ and the Realm, for whose good onely it is / made common to many./ Iob. Cap. 20. Vers. 27./ Reuelabunt coeli iniquitatem eius, & terra confurget / aduersus eum./ The heauens shal reueile the wicked mans iniqui-/ tie, and the earth shal stand vp to beare witnes / agaynst hym./ ANNO M. D. LXXXIIII.

The present text has been prepared from a collation of nine copies of the 1584 edition, namely, those in the Folger Shakespeare Library; the Bodleian Library, Oxford; the Yale and Cambridge University Libraries; the Libraries of the Universities of London and of Durham; the Archbishop Marsh's Library, Dublin; and the two in the British Library. There are only a handful more extant that have not been consulted. Only three variant readings have emerged from these mentioned, none of them of any consequence:

1. On page 112 above, for the phrase "so that it redounded," one copy has "which redounded" (Marsh's).
2. On page 126, for "no man durst accuse," two have "no men" (London and Durham).
3. In the scriptural quotation at the end of the text, for "fire that needeth no kindling," one has "fire that neede have kindling" (Yale).

In 1585 a French translation appeared entitled Discours de la vie abominable, ruses, trahisons . . . le my Lorde de Lecestre, which evidently emanated from the same Paris-based group of men. It follows its original very closely but appends twenty-two pages of additional material, discussed and printed here (see Appendix B) in a contemporary retranslation into English.2 The English original appeared in several forms in London in 1641. There was a quarto version that differs in no substantial way from the first edition: Leicester's Commonwealth: Conceived, Spoken and Published with Most Earnest Protestation of All Dutiful Goodwill and Affection towards This Realm.3 There was also, similarly faithful to the original, an octavo with the same title, which appeared both by itself and (under a cancel title page) with the long poem "Leicester's Ghost" appended in abridged form.4 And there was a sixteen-page quarto version, Leicester's Commonwealth Fully Epitomiz'd, "contracted in a most brief, exact, and compendious way with the full sense and whole meaning of the former book, every fragment of sense being interposed."5

Just why the book should have been reprinted in 1641 is unclear; the "fully epitomiz'd" version even seems like an attempt to capitalize upon a hot market. J. H. M. Salmon feels that it was one of many books "approving resistance" that were reprinted just before the Civil War,6 but this seems unlikely since while the Commonwealth may imply a need for resistance, all that it approves of is legal retribution against Leicester through Elizabeth's courts of law. In "Fully Epitomiz'd" a curious addition has been made: "But it is very strange to see what a contemner of the Prerogatives of England he is, and how little account he maketh of all the ancient nobility of our realm"7 - perhaps suggesting that the editor was rather a royalist than otherwise. Derek Wilson suggests that the republication was connected with the trial of the Earl of Strafford, another royal favorite whom many believed the realm could spare,8 but the book seems to have appeared some months after Wentworth's execution in May. Dr. Thomas Clancy's suggestion (letter 10 September 1970) is the most plausible one, that with the weakening of controls upon printing in 1640 and 1641, the public's taste for "racy reading" was here being gratified. And "Fully Epitomiz'd" bears him out in this, for of all the deletions there undertaken, scarcely one salacious detail of the Earl's crimes has been omitted. In any case, the revival of interest in the tract caused offense in some quarters. On 13 October 1641, Sir Edward Nicholas, clerk of the Privy Council, wrote to Bourne and Parker, wardens of the Company of Stationers:

Sirs, I hear there is now printing at one [John] Dawson's, a printer in Thames Street, a book called Leicester's Commonwealth, which I am told is very scandalous to divers of the Lords' ancestors, and a book unfit to be divulged. It is one [William] Sheares that joins with Dawson in the printing of it. I pray give order forthwith to stay the printing or dispersing of any of those books until the Lords of Parliament or the Lords of the Privy Council shall meet, which will be Wednesday next. [S.P. 16/484/75.]

The Commonwealth was reissued again several times in the early eighteenth century by Dr. James Drake. He claimed, on the title page of the 1706 edition, that he was using "an Old Manuscript never Printed," and he may have been, but more likely he was using as copy text one of the 1641 reprints; he almost certainly was not using the 1584 first edition.9 In 1904, the librarian of the Lambeth Palace Library, F. J. Burgoyne, brought out an unannotated reprint of the 1641 quarto (L.968), which he entitled History of Queen Elizabeth, Amy Robsart, and the Earl of Leicester. Two very brief extracts also appeared in British Pamphleteers, edited by George Orwell and Reginald Reynolds (1 [1948]: 36-39). And recently the Scolar Press has issued an unannotated facsimile reproduction of the 1584 edition (the Cambridge University copy) in its English Recusant Literature series (no. 192). These represent the printed forms that the Commonwealth has taken to the present day.


As the 1584 printed text began to grow scarce through government efforts to limit its circulation, a great many copies were made of it by hand and others were made from these. The number of such manuscripts surviving should suffice to demonstrate the great interest aroused by the book in its own time; there are now several times more such texts extant than there are printed copies. Of the fifty-eight manuscripts related to the Commonwealth that have been studied for the present edition, only the "Letter of Estate," discussed hereafter, is in any way remarkable. Despite speculation in the past about some of them having been early drafts, all of the others turn out to be derived from the printed edition, copied either directly from it or from an intervening manuscript; each of them contains variants that are plausible misreadings of the original and which at the same time introduce errors of fact or sense into the text. Of the vast number of variant readings, nearly all are merely scribal errors or conjectures; thus, "one Gates" becomes "John Gates," "Bald" Buttler becomes "Baldwin," in the same way that Cardinal Chatillon becomes "Charlion." There are a few instances of significant interpolation, however, such as the addition of Gabriel Bleke' s name and the marginal account of the Drayton Basset riot, and these have been recorded in the annotations. The following is a list of the manuscripts studied for this edition (it appears that I have not seen only about five known manuscripts):l0

1. Complete. The first category includes all those manuscripts that represent more or less successful attempts at full and accurate transcription of the 1584 edition and which have survived substantially undamaged (forty-four MSS.):

British Library, Harleian MSS. 405, 557, 2245, 2290, 4020, 4282, 6021.
British Library, Lansdowne MS. 265.
British Library, Stowe MSS. 156, 270, 271.
British Library, Hargrave MS. 311.
British Library, Sloane MSS. 1303, 1566, 3273.
British Library, Additional MSS. 6130, 33,739.
Cambridge University Library MSS. Ff.2.3, Gg.2.28, 1i.5.1., Mm.4.33, Mm. 6.33.
Cambridge, Trinity College MSS. R.5.9, R.5.18.
Cambridge, St. John's College MSS. L.11, S.46.
Cambridge, Emmanuel College MS. 1.3.28.
Oxford University, Bodleian Library, Additional MS. A93.
Oxford, Exeter College MS. 166.
Trinity College, Dublin, MSS. 480, 481, 483.
University of Kent at Canterbury Library.
Inner Temple Library, Petyt MS. 538 (v.45, no.8).
Pierpont Morgan MS. MA 1475.
Folger Shakespeare Library MSS. G.a.7, G.a.8, G.b.11, G.b.13, V.bA1.
Huntington Library MSS. HM 90, HM 267, EL 1161.
Harvard University Library, fMS. 1121.

2. Imperfect. The second category includes those that were intended to be full and accurate transcriptions but which have been substantially damaged through time (six MSS.):

British Library, Harleian MS. 7582.
British Library, Lansdowne MS. 215.
Cambridge University Library MS. Mm.6.63.
Yale University Library, Osborne Collection, MS. F.a.3.
Folger Shakespeare Library MS. G .a.9.
Alnwick Castle, Northumberland 11

3. Incomplete. The third category includes all those that are largely only paraphrases or summaries of the full text or that reveal deliberate omission of substantial portions (five MSS.):

Cambridge University Library MS. Ii.A.33.
Oxford University, Bodleian Library, Jones MS. 32.
Trinity College, Dublin, MS. 482.
Pierpont Morgan MS. MA 662.
Folger Shakespeare Library MS. G.b.12.

4. Extracts. The fourth category includes those that are listed in their respective catalogues as copies of the Commonwealth but which actually are only brief collections of passages drawn from it (two MSS.):

British Library, Hargrave MS. 168 (fols. 395-403).
British Library, Sloane MS. 874 ("The Earl of Derby's Historical Collections," fols. 7-12v).


One related manuscript requires special notice. The "Letter of Estate" (S.P. 15/28/113, fols. 369-88v) was written, apparently in 1585, by an anonymous ill-wisher of Leicester who leaned heavily upon Leicester's Commonwealth in form and content but who wrote independently of the refugee courtiers for his own purposes, with several new charges. Confusion has been caused, however, by the fact that several scholars have mistaken the "Letter" for an early draft of the Commonwealth. A reconstructed text of the badly damaged manuscript, with a discussion of its circumstances, appears in D. C. Peck, "'The Letter of Estate': An Elizabethan Libel," Notes and Queries, n.s. 28 (1981): 21-35.


1. S.T.C. 19399 (sub "Parsons"); in the revised edition of S.T.C. it will have the number 5742.9. In Allison and Rogers's Catalogue of Catholic Books, it is no. 261.

2. There was also a Latin adaptation by Julius Briegerus, the Flores Calvinistici, falsely imprinted Naples, in early 1586.

3. Wing, Short-Title Catalogue. . . 1641-1700, 2: L.968.

4. Ibid. L.969. "Leicester's Ghost," a rhyme-royal complaint in the manner of the Mirror for Magistrates, was written by Thomas Rogers of Bryanstone in about 1605, largely paraphrased from the Commonwealth. The abridgement appended to L.969 also appeared separately in quarto in 1641 (Wing, L.970), but the original manuscript has been edited for the Renaissance English Text Society (vol. 4), by Franklin B. Williams, Jr. See also Bowers, "Kyd's Pedringano," pp. 248-49, and F. Williams's article, "Leicester's Ghost," which contains a full bibliographic analysis of the 1641 editions.

5. Wing, 2: L.969A. The quotation is from the title page. Unlike the 1584 edition and the other 1641 versions, this text seems to have become very rare, but has been reprinted in Harleian Miscellany, 4: 576-83.

6. Salmon, French Religious Wars in English Political Thought, p. 82.

7. Wing, 2: L.969A, p. 14; Leicester's Commonwealth, p. 174 above.

8. D. Wilson, Sweet Robin, p. 267.

9. Drake, Secret Memoirs of Robert Dudley and Perfect Picture of a Favorite. Reprinted as The Memoirs of Robert Dudley, as Collectanea adamantaea, no. 24, in four volumes (privately printed, 350 copies, 1887-1888).

10. It should be pointed out that many of these are listed in their respective catalogues under the name Robert Parsons.

11. As published by Burgoyne, Collotype Facsimile and Type Transcript of an Elizabethan Manuscript Preserved at Alnwick Castle, Northumberland.

Appendices with Related Notes
Appendix APrinted and Manuscript Forms of Leicester's Commonwealth
Appendix BThe French Translation, 1585, and its Addition
Appendix CSidney's Defense of Leicester
Appendix DFurther Notes
Appendix ERelated Documents
Appendix FGenealogical Tables
BibliographyBibliography of Printed Works Cited
PDF version, 2006 (2.0 MB)

bookpen.gif (2870 bytes)Please do not reproduce this text in any form for commercial purposes; all other uses are okay, with acknowledgement. This text has been scanned from the printed copy, published by Ohio University Press, 1985 -- this is an imperfect process and if you should want to quote something and have any doubts about you see here, please feel free to ask. Feedback and suggestions are welcome, . Posted 13 March 2004, updated 28 August 2004.



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