Who were the University Wits?

University Wits is a term invented by literary historians to identify a handful of writers, some well known, others less so, who first appeared in the early 1580s and had almost completely vanished from the record by the mid-90s.  Some were students together at the Merchant Taylor’s School during the period when the boys performed plays for the Court.  Some were together at Trinity College Oxford and then at the Inns of Court in the Holborne district of London.  Some wrote poetry, some tales, some plays, some all three.  For some we have almost nothing but their reputations.  All wrote in “pre-Shakespearean” styles that separated them from the writers of the previous “drab era.”  As David Horne, author of the only biography of George Peele, puts it: “All were learned and classical in their tastes and interested in courtly literature” (70).  Several are the accepted authors of works that Shakespeare “rewrote” in the ’90s, and most of them have been assigned an assortment of the many anonymous works of that period.

Most interesting perhaps is how several of them are the favorites for authors of those Shakespeare plays that the so-called “disintegrators” like to assign to someone other than Shakespeare:  George Peele and Robert Greene lead the field in this, but almost all of them have been assigned to all or part authorship of at least one of his plays by some Shakespeare scholar.  In other words their styles in some places are so close to early Shakespeare that scholars can’t tell the difference.

The leading name is that of Robert Greene (“died” 1592), poet, pamphleteer, proto-novelist and playwright.  Though not the first to appear in print––his first pamphlet, Mamillia, was registered with the Stationers in 1580, the year after John Lyly’s Euphues––but he was the most prolific: 20 works published over the next 12 years (with a number of anonymous works attributed to him later).  He was also the first to disappear (I use the term advisedly) in 1592.  Described by his fellow pamphleteers and even by himself as a profane and profligate ne’er do weel––something utterly belied by his works––Greene’s biography is too weak to take seriously.  For these and other reasons, we (myself and one other authorship scholar) believe that the real Robert Greene was a front for a Court writer.

The second most prominent member of the group in terms of published material and talent is Thomas Nashe (1567-1601).  He and Greene should be credited with launching the English periodical press as a viable industry.  Their volley of pamphlets throughout the latter half of the 1580s and the early years of the ’90s showed the world that there was a market in England for serial publications of quality.  Like his senior, Nashe’s works proclaim him as one of the most highly educated, erudite writers of his time, qualities his official biography doesn’t support.  I stand with the Baconian Edward George Harman in claiming that Nashe was a front for Francis Bacon.

Most famous of all, Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) is not on every list (he attended Cambridge, not Oxford, and was never a student at the Inns), but he was obviously involved with some of the others.  The popularity of his play Tamburlaine in the late 1580s was what turned the London Stage into an industry strong enough and popular enough to withstand its enemies’ continuous efforts to take it down.  His assassination in 1593 by government agents was the opening bell for the disappearance of the entire group, who were all dead or fled shortly after (that is, all but Nashe, who continued to get published until 1599).  It also proves that he was who he said he was, for no one would bother murdering a proxy, leaving the real writer to strike again under another name.  In fact, for the most part his biography is a model for what we should expect to find for any gifted and popular writer of the period.

John Lyly (1553-1606) is the earliest of the Wits, both in age and in public awareness.  The first thing to bear his name, the proto-novel Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit, made him famous, both in his own time and ever after, carrying to a peak its ornate style, known ever since as euphuism.  Licensed in December 1578, published the following spring, it foretold the kind of literature that would be coming from the University Wits for the next decade.  His name is also attached to a series of Court plays performed by the children’s companies throughout the ’80s.  Lyly had attended Oxford (Magdalen), though earlier than the other Wits (BA 1573, MA 1575).  However, like Greene and Nashe, his biography fails to support his claims to authorship, chiefly because although Euphues was one of the most popular books of the time, and although he continued to live in London and was apparently in desperate need of work and money, it seems he produced nothing from the disbanding of Paul’s Boys in 1590 until his death in 1607––17 years of inexplicable silence.

Thomas Watson (1555-1592?), one of the first to arrive was also one of the first to vanish.  Primarily a Latinist, his best known work in English is the Passionate Century of Love, over a hundred poems, some translations, many in the style of 15th-century Italian poets, published in 1582 (and dedicated to the Earl of Oxford).  A variety of things were published under Watson’s name including lyrics to madrigals set to music by William Byrd.  However, despite the obvious popularity of the works published in his name, what we have in the way of a biography simply can’t support them.  That both he and Robert Greene, another biographically-challenged writer, supposedly died within days of each other at the outset of the literary holocaust of the ’90s suggests that both were fronts for the same Court writer.  (The only evidence for Watson’s death at that time is a single line in the parish register of St. Batholomew the Less.  For Greene there’s nothing.)

George Peele (1556-1596) appears in the literary record at about the same time as Watson, both shortly after Greene.  A graduate of Christ Church College Oxford (mat 1571, BA 1577, MA 1579), having returned to London, his home town, in 1581, he wrote for the Stage until 1590, at which point he broke with his earlier career as a Wit, providing official encomia and writing and directing pageants for the City and his alma mater.  He’s credited with writing the only play to be identified with the first Blackfriars Theater (The Arraignment of Paris) in 1581, while suggestions that he was the author of the various other plays claimed for him are too uncertain to take on faith.

Thomas Lodge (1558-1625) connects with this group through all three factors: time, location, and works.  Educated at the Merchant Taylor’s School during the period when the students occasionally performed at Court, then at Oxford during the period that John Lyly and George Peele were attending (he got his BA in 1577 and his MA in 1581).  Once out of college he became a member of Lincoln’s Inn, located in the neighborhood of High Holborn where Peele and others were also located.  His first appearance in print in 1579 was in response to the Church-promoted attack by Stephen Gosson on the playwriting Wits.  Although his biographer has a poor opinion of his talent (Sisson 184-9), he did produce one work that was later turned into a masterpiece by Shakespeare: As You Like It.  But that he was more than a front is clear from the many mediocre tales published under his name and several serious translations and medical works he published later.  As a contributor to the literary legacy of the University Wits he fades from the scene following the publication of his last pastoral tale in 1596, having turned to the study and practice of medicine that will dominate the rest of his life.

Thomas Kyd (1558-1594) was a Londoner like Peele, and a student at the Merchant Taylor’s School during the same play-giving period as Thomas Lodge and Edmund Spenser.  The son of a scrivener, what today we would call a professional secretary, there is little solid evidence that Kyd was ever much more than that for clients like Lord Strange.  His authorship of the groundbreaking play The Spanish Tragedy is based on nothing more than three words by Meres and a passing mention by Thomas Heywood 30 years later, which, if nothing else, has made him a favorite with scholars as the purported author of dozens of anonymous works including the mythical Ur-Hamlet.  Arrested by Cecil’s agents in May 1593, Kyd was imprisoned and racked into turning state’s evidence against Marlowe.  Though released following Marlowe’s assassination, he died the following year, shortly after the murder of their patron, Lord Strange.

Lesser names

Sir George Buc (1560-1622) is known best as Master of the Revels for the first two decades under James.  What he was doing earlier, during the period in question, is unclear.  Wikipedia calls him a “minor poet,” and minor he must have been, or one that used a pseudonym, as it’s hard to find any of his poetry.  Better known as the author of a biography of Richard III (Buc’s ancestor was a member of Richard’s retinue), he’s also famous as the antiquarian who discovered important documents that vindicate Richard, not that it did either one of them any good with historians that prefer to keep that much maligned Plantagenet as history’s arch-villain.

Thomas Acheley (or Achelow) is the most obscure of the Wits, although it seems he was well known in his time since he was praised in 1589 by Nashe in Menaphon, in 1597 by Meres, and in 1607 by Dekker (as belonging to an earlier era).  England’s Parnassus, an anthology published in 1600, contains 13 passages attributed to him.  He was still alive and living in the Inns community in 1599 when Mathew Royden swore out a “surety of the peace” against him (Horne 67), but if he published in the ’90s it was not under his own name, though possibly a tract in verse published in 1602 as by T.A. was from his pen.

Gregory Downhall (died 1614) was a “founding scholar” at the Merchant Taylor’s School (founded in 1561), where he would have been acquainted with the real Edmund Spenser.  He took his BA at Pembroke College Cambridge in 1574, followed by advanced studies at Oxford at the same time as several of the other Wits, and at one of the Inns of Chancery during the ’80s.  Since the single poem attributed to him in Watson’s Passionate Century is the only work found under his name, he was probably included there as a friend or patron of the group.  Secretary to the Ld Chancellor (Hatton?), “one of his friends was the Countess of Pembroke,” i.e., Mary Sidney (Horne 68).  Someone by his name served in Parliament (from Saltash in Devon) in 1597-’98 (wiki).

Matthew Roydon (died 1622) got his MA from Oxford in 1580.  Although the only works to survive are his dedicatory poem in Watson’s Passionate Century (1582), another in Peckham’s True Report (1583), and one in his elegy to Sidney, published first in 1593, and several times after that, he was clearly a poet of acclaim.  Like Marlowe, he’s seen as one of the members of Raleigh’s circle (DNB) due largely to the fact that his friend George Chapman dedicated his School of Night to him in 1594, as well as his Ovid’s Banquet of Sense the following year (wiki).  According to Chapman, Royden was friendly with Marlowe’s patrons, Ld Strange and Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, and also with George Carey, patron of Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (1597-1603) and the 5th Earl of Sussex.  Other complimentary mentions came from Nashe (1589), Meres (1598), and John Davies of Hereford (1611), while the actor Robert Armin referred to him as a “poetical light” in 1609.  A court record places him in Westminster (the Inns community) in 1599. It’s possible that Roydon was connected to Oxford though his uncle Arthur Golding, who married Ursula Roydon of Kent

It should be noted that the rake-hell reputation that has adhered to the Wits like barnacles to an old tanker vanishes on even the most cursory glance at what’s actually known about them.  It’s true that Thomas Lodge was a spend-thrift in his youth and that Thomas Watson was a rascal (if he’s the same Watson who attempted to con Sir William Cornwallis into marrying his daughter to Watson’s brother-in-law), but even the most cursory examination of the records shows that the bad reputation pinned on the whole group was of the nature of the bad reputations pinned on Robert Greene (mostly by himself) or on George Peele (by a posthumous pamphleteer) whose biographer spends most of his text proving that Peele was nothing of the sort.  Most of these young writers were educated men with respectable reputations in their own time, who went on to respectable careers in later life as secretaries to statesmen and members of Parliament.

It’s my opinion that the mystification that surrounds these writers and their proxies is only an extension of the mystification that surrounds Shakespeare.  It seems clear that some of them are real and some are proxies for Court writers.  It also seems clear that, whether masked or not, these names represent writers who came together in the 1580s at Fisher’s Folly, under the aegis of the Earl of Oxford, the ones referred to by Burghley as Oxford’s “lewd friends.”  Brought together to provide plays, propaganda, and other writings necessary to the functioning of Walsingham’s operation, they vanished from the literary scene following his death in 1590.

Why all of this remains such a mystery after so many centuries is not nearly so mysterious once we understand that the lack of evidence for the Wits, who they were, what brought them together, and where they were located, is not the result of a peculiar lack of interest on the part of the readers of the time, nor of any natural fire or flood loss of records, but of a more or less calculated effort on the part of particular members of the Court community to eliminate their own or their family’s connection to these writers and their works.  For more on this, check The Cecils and History and Missing from the Record.

13 thoughts on “Who were the University Wits?

  1. Any thoughts on any of the names found in Anne Cornwaley’s commonplace booke? J. Bentley seems to have scrawled a signature under each of the scrawled poems in the booke. The same question for Edward Dyer.

  2. Brian: refresh my memory on this. I don’t recall the information (if I ever knew it). Where did you read it? Was J. Bentley the actor? Did Edward Dyer sign the book?

  3. Barrell’s introduction: http://www.sourcetext.com/sourcebook/library/barrell/21-40/26earliest.htm

    Apparently the names are G.M, Sir Edward Dyer, Sydney, Spenser, and Oxford. So, really there are only two names that could possibly represent Wits. The J. Bentley in question has apparently scrawled his signature under poems written in the commonplace book. The handwriting of the J. Bentley poems is worse than that of he rest of the poems, which were apparently written by the same person.

    Arthur F. Marotti has written a twenty-two page essay on the manuscript which I have not yet read.

  4. It doesn’t matter which of the four Cornwallis women named Anne first owned the book, that the book exists and that it contains the names and the poems it contains with the various ascriptions is extremely important as one of the few bits that we have connecting the theater community to Fisher’s Folly, which Oxford sold to William Cornwallis in 1588.

    Considering the presence of the names Cornwallis and Oxford, connecting the book to Fisher’s Folly, with Oxford’s proven connection to the theater community via John Lyly, I think we’re pretty safe taking the “J. Bentley” to mean the actor John Bentley. Since John Bentley’s will is dated 1585, this puts at least part of the book well within the period when Oxford and (we believe) the Wits were functioning out of Fisher’s Folly. Whether or not the particular Anne Cornwallis whose book it was originally ever actually occupied Fisher’s Folly after 1588, as did William Cornwallis, this argues that she was involved with members of that group well before he bought it from Oxford.

    It would be interesting to know which poems were signed by Bentley.

  5. Good question. Neither has ever been considered a member of the Wits.

    Daniel was in his twenties in the 1580s, so he would have been the right age, but during that period he was living in the household of Mary Sidney (Countess of Pembroke) at Wiltshire, tutoring her two young sons, far enough from London to keep from getting involved with Oxford and the Wits at Fisher’s Folly. As Philip Sidney’s sister and the Earl of Leicester’s niece, Mary was deeply invested at that time in their rivalry with Oxford and Hunsdon for ownership of the Court stage, so she would have become extremely jealous had one of her retainers gotten involved with Oxford’s crew.

    Jonson was ten years younger than Daniel, so was still in his teens in the 1580s, probably working as a brick-layer’s apprentice before signing on to fight in the lowlands. He was one of the writers who led the second generation of playwrights, who actually had hopes of making a living at it. During the Folly years, the Wits were not able to earn a living by writing plays. They were dependent on Oxford and Walsingham.

  6. First of all I want to say excellent blog! I had a quick question that I’d like to ask if you don’t
    mind. I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your mind before writing. I have had a difficult time clearing my thoughts in getting my thoughts out there. I do enjoy writing but it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are generally lost just trying to figure out how to begin. Any suggestions or tips? Thanks!

    1. I’ll be happy to respond. Every writer is different, but there are some things that are true for all of us. I think I’ll wait until after the holidays so I can give it more thought.

      1. It’s after the holidays, and I guess the best that I can offer is that you really are very lucky if it only takes you 15 minutes before you can begin. Sometimes it takes me all day. Sometimes several days.

        This is because the kind of writing you probably do, certainly the kind I do, is a process of aligning a mass of interconnected points on a subject into a linear arrangement, with points that in the mind are interconnected in a multi-dimensional cloud into a point-by-point linear sequence, with each point leading in an understandable way to the next, ending so that the final statement connects with the first in a meaningful way.

        It is the process of taking some chunk of knowledge or set of ideas from their comfortable home in the right brain, and processing them into this linear arrangement by means of the left brain into words and sentences. Apart from using music or images (film) to communicate, it’s the only way to get ideas and knowledge from one brain to another. From the right brain cloud to the left brain sequence the message transfers by spoken or written word into the left brain of the reader, hopefully reassembling ultimately into a cloud of understanding in their right brain.

        This is excellent exercise for the brain, but wearing. It’s why so many writers turn to substances to help them, which unfortunately usually only makes the process more difficult. It takes time, privacy, patience, and an understanding family.

  7. As an early member of the University Wits, I think it’s extremely dubious that Lodge had anything to do with the plays and most of the pamphlets that bear his name except allowing his name to be used. The only things we can be certain of are the serious works of history and medicine he wrote later in life.

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