Oxford’s “Sweet Speech” given at the 1581 Tilts

This text comes from a 1592 pamphlet published by Cuthbert Burbie, discovered by Carl Pforzheimer and published by  Charles Wisner Barrell in 1947, and again by Mark Alexander on his website.  The missing words are due to the poor condition of the original.  Still smarting from the fight with Howard and Arundel over what he claimed were their plots against the Crown, this parable compares the Court to a Forest, where Oxford, as knight-errant, finds himself protected by the worthiest tree of all, the Queen herself, from villains out to harm them both.

If there were any confusion over its date or authenticity the style confirms both, as it is purest euphuism in the style of the recently published Euphues novels, attributed to Oxford’s secretary, John Lyly, but clearly by Oxford himself, based on his adventures in Italy.  Two months later Oxford will find himself in the Tower for impregnating one of the Tree’s handmaidens (so much for his passionate loyalty to the Tree), at which point his style will begin to move away from euphuism towards what we know call Shakespearean.

THE EARL OF OXENFORD: January 22, 1581.

BY THE TILT stood a statelie Tent of Orange tawny Taffeta, curiously embroidered with Silver, & pendants on the Pinnacles very sightly to behold.  From forth this Tent came the noble Earl of Oxenford in rich gilt Armour, and sat down under a great high Baytree, the whole stock, branches and leaves whereof were all gilded over, that nothing but Gold could be discerned.  By the Tree stood twelve tilting staves, all which likewise were gilded clean over.  After a solemn sound of most sweet Music, he mounted on his Courser, very richly caparisoned, when his page ascending the stairs where her Highness stood in the window, delivered to her by speech this Oration following:

THIS KNIGHT (most fair and fortunate Princess) living of a long time in a Grove, where every graft being green, he thought every root to be precious, found at the last as great diversity of troubles as of Trees: the Oak to be so stubborn that nothing could cause it to bend: the Reed so shaking, that every blast made it to bow; the Juniper sweet, but too low for succour; the Cypress fair, but without fruit; the Walnut tree to be as unwholesome to lie under, as the bud of the Fig-tree unpleasant to taste; the Tree that bore the best fruit, to be fullest of Caterpillars, and all to be infected with worms; the Ash for Ravens to breed; the Elm to build: the Elder to be full of pith and no perfection, and all Trees that were not fertile, to be fit for fuel, and they that were fruitful, but for the time to please the fancy. Which trying, he forsook the wood, and lived a while in the plain Champion: where, how he was tormented, it were too long to tell, but let this suffice, that he was troubled, when every Moat fell in his eye in the day, and every Ant disquieted him in the night: where, if the wind blew, he had nothing to shield him but head and shoulders, if the Sun blazed, he could find the shadow of nothing but himself, when seeing himself so destitute of help, he became desperate of hope.

Thus wandering a weary way, he espied at the last a Tree so beautiful, that his eyes were dazzled with the brightness, which as he was going unto, he met by good fortune a Pilgrim or Hermit, he knew not well, who being apparelled as though he were to travel into all Countries, but so aged as though he were to live continually in a Cave.  Of this old Sire he demanded what Tree it was, who taking this Knight by the hand, began in these words both to utter the name and nature of the Tree.

This Tree fair Knight is called the Tree of the Sun, whose nature is always to stand alone, not suffering a companion, being itself without comparison: of which kind, there are no more in the earth than Suns in the Element.  The world can hold but one Phoenix, one Alexander, one Sun-Tree, in top contrary to all Trees: it is strongest, & so stately to behold, that the more other shrubs shrink for duty, the higher it exalteth it self in Majesty.

For as the clear beams of the Sun cause all the stars to lose their light, so the brightness of this golden Tree, eclipseth the commendation of all other Plants.  The leaves of pure Gold, the bark no worse, the buds pearls, the body Chrisocolla, the Sap Nectar, the root so noble as it springeth from two Turkeies (Turquoises), both so perfect, as neither can stain the other, each contending once for superiority, and now both constrained to be equals.  Vesta’s birth sitteth in the midst, whereat Cupid is ever drawing, but dares not shoot, being amazed at the princely and perfect Majesty.

The shadows hath as strange properties as contrarieties, cooling those that be hot with a temperate calm, and heating those that be cold with a moderate warmth, not unlike that Sun whereof it taketh the name, which melteth Wax, and hardeneth Clay, or pure fire, which causeth the gold to shine, and the straw to smother, or sweet perfumes, which feedeth the Bee, and killeth the Beetle.

No poison commeth near it, nor any vermin that hath a sting. Who so goeth about to lop it, lanceth himself, and the Sun will not shine on that creature that casteth a false eye on that Tree, no wind can so much as wag a leaf, it springeth in spite of Autumnus and continueth all the year as it were Ver (Spring).

If, Sir Knight you demand what fruit it beareth, I answer, such, as the elder it is, the younger it seemeth, always ripe, yet ever green.  Virtue, Sir Knight, more nourishing to honest thoughts, than the beauty delightful to amorous eyes; where the Graces are as thick in virtue, as the Grapes are on the Vine.

This fruit fatteneth, but never feeds, wherewith this Tree is so loaden, as you cannot touch that place which virtue hath not tempered. If you enquire whether any grafts may be gotten, it were as much as to crave slips of the Sun, or a Mould to cast a new Moon. To conclude, such a Tree as it is, as he hath longest known it, can sooner marvel at it than describe it, for the further he wadeth in the praise, the shorter he cometh of the perfection.

This old man having ended, seeming to want words to express such worthiness, he went to his home, and the Knight to his Sun Tree, where kissing the ground with humility, the princely tree seemed with . . . . to bid him welcome. But the more . . . . zed on the beauty, the less able he w. . dure the brightness, like unto those th. . . . king with a steadfast eye to behold th. . . . brings a dark dazzling over their sight.

At the last, resting under the shadow, he felt such content, as nothing could be more comfortable. The days he spent in virtuous delights, the night slipped away in golden Dreams; he was never annoyed with venomous enemies, nor disquieted with idle cogitations.

Insomuch, that finding all felicity in that shade, and all security in that Sun: he made a solemn vow, to incorporate his heart into that Tree, and engraft his thoughts upon those virtues, swearing, that as there is but one Sun to shine over it, one root to give life unto it, one top to maintain Majesty: so there should be but one Knight, either to live or die for the defence thereof.  Whereupon, he swore himself only to be the Knight of the Tree of the Sun, whose life should end before his loyalty.

Thus cloyed with content, he fell into a sweet slumber, whose smiling countenance showed him void of all care.  But his eyes were scarce closed when he seemed to see dy . . . . dermining the
 Tree behind him, that . . . er suspecting the Knight to give the . . . . , might have punished him in her . . . . t failing of their pretence, and seeing how they struck to light upon their own brains, they threatened him by violence, whom they could not match in virtue.

But in clasping the Tree, as the only Anchor of his trust, they could not so much as move him from his cause, whom they determined to martyr without colour.  Whereupon, they made a challenge to win the Tree by right, and to make it good Arms.  At which saying the Knight being glad to have his Truth tried with his valor, for joy awakened.

And now (most virtuous and excellent Princess) seeing such tumults towards for his Tree, such an Honourable presence to judge, such worthy Knights to Joust: I cannot tell whether his perplexity or his pleasure be the greater.  But this he will avouch at all assays himself to be the most loyal Knight of the Sun-tree, which who so gainsayeth he is here pressed, either to make him recant it before he run, or repent it after.  Offering rather to die upon the points of a thousand Lances, than to yield a jot in constant loyalty.


The speech being ended, with great honour he ran, and valiantly brake all the twelve staves. And after the finishing of the sports: both the rich Baytree, and the beautiful Tent, were by the standersby, torn and rent in more pieces than can be numbered.

Courtesy of Mark Alexander

One thought on “Oxford’s “Sweet Speech” given at the 1581 Tilts

  1. This is so beautiful. Of course it can be no one else but the same word master whose plays the world heralds like the sun. I so enjoyed reading it aloud. Please make guesses for the missing words and put them in a different color or parentheses. THANK YOU!!!

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