Essex: The Cultural Impact of an Elizabethan Courtier, Symposium 26/10/2013, by Rachel White

On Saturday 26th October, Liz, Helen, and I journeyed down to Sheffield to attend a symposium on the Earl of Essex. The day was organised by Lisa Hopkins and Annaliese Connolly at Sheffield Hallam University, and marked the launch of their co-edited collection of essays: Essex: The Cultural Impact of an Elizabethan Courtier (Manchester University Press, 2013).

Within the relaxed and friendly atmosphere we enjoyed several papers from contributors to the book, all of which demonstrated a high calibre of research and were thoroughly engaging. Between papers, we had the opportunity to catch up with fellow scholars over coffee, and to purchase copies of the book, and a selection of others, which were kindly brought to the event by Matthew Frost of Manchester University Press.

At the beginning of the symposium, Lisa explained how the book had come into being from her conversation with a postgraduate student several years ago, to the publication we saw before us. Though the amount of time to have elapsed between the conception of the idea for the book and its publication seemed a rather long process, she explained that one of the reasons for this was the abundance of new research connected to the Earl of Essex. It was worth the wait though, as every paper provided fascinating insights into the life of Essex and his contemporaries, often using previously unknown material or reinterpreting it in light of more recent discoveries.

The first three papers of the afternoon raised questions of authorship, textual authenticity, copy-culture and imitation, and influence. The first paper was given by Richard Wood (Sheffield Hallam University), entitled ‘“Mine excuse must only be the worthiness of former precedents”: Gervase Markham’s English Arcadia and the Earl of Essex’s Sidneian Inheritance’. This paper discussed Markham’s processes of writing his English Arcadia, and took into account the cultural history of Philip Sidney’s Arcadia and how it became a source of inspiration for other writers.

The second paper of the afternoon, ‘More Poetry by the Earl of Essex?’, was given by Hugh Gazzard (St Hugh’s College, Oxford) and considered the authorship of the printed verse miscellany ‘The Muses Garland’. He considered how the poems might be interlinked and their possible authors, which include Sidney, Nicholas Breton and Essex. Gazzard was thorough in his consideration of the various issues surrounding this poetry from questioning the initials subscribed to the sonnets to the incorrect imprint of the printer’s initials, and the implications of these minutiae.

Andrew Gordon (University of Aberdeen) gave the penultimate paper of the day, entitled ‘From Imitation to Counterfeit: Essex’s Hand in Correspondence’. He considered the nature of writing from Sidney’s thought to the more practical skills of handwriting as outlined in Peter Bales’s The Scholemaster. This led to a discussion of penmanship and imitation in which the poet as penman is responsible for what he copies or imitates: bad poetry is synonymous with bad copying. He then spoke about John Daniel’s prosecution for having copied letters by the Earl of Essex, which brought up questions of purpose and the speculative space of letters. Gordon provided an interesting analysis of the culture of copying and penmanship in the context of the Essex’s patronage and politics.

Whilst all of the papers demonstrated a high quality of new research and were each fascinating, the final paper of the day was, for me, the icing on a very rich cake. Chris Laoutaris (Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham) and Yasmin Arshad University College London) presented their theory surrounding Marcus Gheeraerts’ portrait of a Persian lady: ‘”Still renewing wronges”: Gheeraert’s Persian Lady Revealed’. Through their own close analysis of the painting itself, they have been able to construct a narrative about the painting and believe that they may have identified the sitter of the painting itself as the Earl of Essex’s sister, Lady Penelope Rich. Their argument involved an awareness of the symbolism associated with Essex, his sister’s involvement in politics, and close scrutiny of aspects of the painting that had previously gone unnoticed, such as a bezoar stone and the species of bird in the background. They argued that the painting could have been Lady Rich’s gift to Elizabeth as an apology for her involvement in the political events surrounding her brother, Essex. The story is not done and dusted yet, however, and I look forward to hearing more about it as it develops.

Many thanks to Lisa and Annaliese for organising such an informative and interesting afternoon! I look forward to reading more on this fascinating topic in their book.