The gains doth seldom quit the charge: Henry Noel at the court of Elizabeth I

This is the third in my series of posts on a disparate group of courtiers in the 1570s and 1580s – for the purposes of this blog, I am calling them the Lost Elizabethans – who I first encountered researching The Favourite. Although well known in their day – I suspect both Noel, the subject of this post, and George Gascoigne were what we would now call minor celebrities – they are defined as much as anything today by their failure.

In many respects, although they were still exceptional men, it is their failure that makes them so interesting – and certainly more representative of their peers than an outlier like Ralegh. Their experiences struggling for preferment at the margins of the court are particularly revealing of the perilous hand-to-mouth realities faced by young ambitious gentlemen with little in the way of income to sustain either their present position or their future hopes.

I mentioned, in my post on George Gascoigne, a rebus on Ralegh which Gabriel Harvey noted in his copy of The Steele Glas. Harvey doesn’t say so, but the lines were spoken by Henry Noel, a young Leicestershire gentleman. Noel was an integral part of Ralegh’s circle in the late 1570s and early 1580s, and the ultimate failure of his career has much to tell us about Ralegh himself and the choices he made.

Indeed, as young men about town the had much in common. Both were younger sons in an age in which almost all wealth and privilege acrrued to the eldest son; well educated but under-employed, often deep in debt, as a class such men tended towards malcontent. ‘Where many younger sons, of younger brothers, have neither lands nor means to uphold themselves… there can it not be avoided but the whole body of the state (howsoever otherwise healthfully disposed) should suffer anguish by the grievance of these ill-affected members,’ Ralegh would later write. Moreover, although Noel was a few years Ralegh’s senior, like Ralegh he had left Cambridge without a degree and was trying to attract preferment at court.

Noel’s impromptu rebus on Ralegh’s name:

The enemy to the stomach, and the word of disgrace
Is the gentleman’s name, that bears the good face

was composed in response to Ralegh’s on his:

The word of denial, and the letter of fifty
Makes the gentleman’s name that will never be thrifty.

This was – characteristically for Ralegh – a painfully sharp observation. Noel was, in fact, notoriously extravagent: ‘Though his lands and livelihood were but small, having nothing known certain but his annuity and his pension, yet in state, pomp, magnificence and expense did equalize the barons of great worth’ runs his posthumous encomium in William Burton’s 1622 Description of Leicestershire. Sir Francis Bacon, looking back from 1625 remembered one of Noel’s mordant, self-deprecating witticisms: ‘Henry Noel would say that the courtiers were like the fasting days; they were next the holy days, but in themselves were the most meagre days of the week.’

Unsurprisingly, given this, Noel was often in debt. By the 1590s, he was reduced to sending Sir Robert Cecil, the influential son of Lord Burghley later instrumental in Ralegh’s ruin, a series of thinly disguised begging letters. ‘That bounty is admired which with a present gift offers an after hope,’ Noel wrote – somewhat ungratefully – after Cecil had arranged for him to receive the monopoly on the import of pottery and stoneware. Cecil certainly found Noel’s pleading irksome; he wrote to another correspondent shortly after of ‘Mr. Noel’s suit, of which [I] would fain be rid’.

But like all his peers, Ralegh included, Noel had to spend money – large sums, as Burton noted – to maintain his position at court. He was the epitome of that curious species, the courtier as adornment. Although he would see military service with Leicester in the Netherlands in 1586-7, Noel’s primary fame at court derived from his status as a lead participant in one of the most self-consciously extravagant spectacles in the court calendar, the Accession Day tilts.

Elizabeth’s accession on 17 November had not been particularly commemorated during the first decade of her reign. But beginning from the late 1560s, and given added patriotic impetus by the Northern rebellion of 1569 and Ridolfi plot of 1570 which shocked court and country alike, communities across England marked the day with bell ringing and feasting. It was a rare secular holiday – albeit one that accrued sacral elements as the cult of the Virgin Queen took hold towards the end of her reign – to replace the rich cycle of holy days in the old faith’s ritual year.

The tilts at Whitehall themselves – which took place in the royal tiltyard, which corresponds more or less exactly to the open spaces occupied by Horseguard’s Parade today – did not emerge as a feature until at least the 1570s, and would in fact have to wait until the following decade to reach their full bloom under the supervision of Master of the Armoury and Queen’s Champion, Sir Henry Lee.

The first recorded Accession Day tilt was in 1583 and the bulk of the participants were drawn, as they would customarily be, from the ranks of the Gentleman Pensioners, among whom are to be found several other pivotal figures from Ralegh’s early years in London: his friend and cousin, Edward Denny, was one; Ralph Lane, later intimately involved in Ralegh’s Roanoke project, was another; George Gifford, whom I have written about here, was a third.

An Accession Day tilt was held every year until the end of Elizabeth’s reign, with the exception of 1592. Henry Noel tilted in every one bar the last until his death in early 1597.

Aside from the social and therefore political cachet of participation, the tilts were an opportunity to create or reposition your image at court, to display, in Ralegh’s phrase ‘the false beauty of our apparent actions’. Each year, tilters spent months developing symbolic disguises or personae, which would then inform the designs on their armour, their horse’s furniture, the liveries of the serving men, and the chariots on which the tilters made their entry to the tiltyard – often drawn by exotic animals, such as lions or camels. The device would be explicated to the queen and the wider audience – the tilts drew thousands of spectators each year – by one of the tilter’s servants in a speech, often humourous but always pointed, and in an impresa, or painted shield, gifted to the queen on the tilter’s behalf.

This was a serious business; among those known to have been commissioned to work on such creations are Francis Bacon, William Shakespeare, Richard Burbage and Ben Jonson. Philip Sidney himself participated in several Accession Day tilts; in the second book of his Arcadia, there is a thinly disguised account of the experience of tilting against Sir Henry Lee, which underscores the extent to which participation was about spectacle and show, rather than competition. Lee, in the character of Lelius, is riding against Sidney, here named Philisides:

Lelius (who was known to be second to none in the perfection of that art) ran ever over his head, but so finely to the skilful eyes, that one might well see, he shewed more knowledge in missing, then others did in hitting. For with so gallant a grace his staff came swimming close over the crest of the helmet, as if he would represent the kiss, and not the stroke of Mars.

The poet and playwright George Peele, in fact, has left us a description of ‘noble minded Nowell’ from the 1590 tilt in his poem celebrating the event, Polyhymia

All arm’d in sables with rich bandalier,
That bawdrick wise he ware, set with fair stones
And pearls of Inde, that like a silver bend
Shew’d on his varnish’d corslet black as jet,
And beauteous plumes and bases sutable,
And on his stirrop waits a trusty train
Of servants, clad in tawny liveries

It is not hard to see how this emphasis on iconography and self-image could and did distort its participants sense of reality: idealised personae could be created, fashioned to reflect ambitions and desires, the unwanted or inconvenient conveniently shed, discarded like old friends. Ralegh and his peers were comfortable making and remaking themselves: ‘We labour hard to publish our abilities and conceal our infirmities,’ he wrote, ‘and our inquiries into ourselves is so slight and partial that few men are really what they appear to themselves to be.’ The difficulty came when the perfected idea of themselves, transposed out of the controlled, fictive, fluid environment of the court, collided with more stubborn unpliable realities.

Debt, of course, was the most persistent and pervasive of such realities; ‘it was a long time before he could brag of more than he carried at his back’, a friend later said of Ralegh. And given his necessary extravagance, it is no wonder that Noel, a younger son whose only meaningful sources of income were those he received as rewards from the queen, was chronically short of cash. Lupold von Wedel, a German visitor to the court in 1584, estimated that cost of the Accession Day tilts ‘amounted to several thousand pounds each’ for the participants. That was an exaggeration; but it could certainly cost hundreds each year. Sir Robert Cary spent over £400 in 1593 as an attempt to buy his return to the queen’s favour after a frowned-upon marriage.

Unfortunately for Noel, his other talents were equally ornamental. A skilled dancer and musician himself, he was friend to and sometime patron of the Catholic composer and lutenist John Dowland, who composed seven psalm settings for Noel’s funeral at Westminster Abbey. Thomas Morley, too – responsible for planting the Italian madrigal tradition in England and a no-less influential composer of sacred music – published an elegy for Noel the same year. ‘With angels now he singeth,’ the lyric runs, ‘That here loved music dearly.’

Noel also received dedications from another friend, the fashionably influential poet and playwright, Thomas Watson, both in 1585. In Amyntas,Watson wrote fondly of him, ‘how could I not remember such a welcoming expression, delightful talk and noble refinement as your own’. For the Compendium Memoriam Localis his praise is at once more formal and more exalting: Noel is ‘a man whom men consider to be the glory of time past, a jewel of the present, and a precious, splendid and virtually the only hope for the future; and finally a man whom they judge to be steeped in the knowledge of good literature, imbued with honourable qualities of character, and rich in heroic virtues’. Watson was an Oxford man later to become close to Christopher Marlowe and the Earl of Oxford, both part of Ralegh’s circle at different times; like Morley, Watson was a sometime Catholic and occasional spy.

Although Noel’s own religion is unknown, he was certainly sympathetic to the Catholic cause. As well as acting as patron to Catholic artists such as Dowland and Watson, he was a regular fixture in the predominantly Catholic – indeed, dangerously Catholic – circles around the aforementioned Earl of Oxford in the latter part of the 1570s. Noel also later kept a French monk in his household who spied for the French ambassador at court, and was one of those who had a copy of Charles Arundell’s vicious satire Leicester’s Commonwealth, which the government tried very hard to suppress. (Arundell was another alumni of Oxford’s cabal.)

Thus far, Noel seems an attractive, if slight figure – ‘one of the great gallants’ as Sir John Harington remembered him. But it is well to remember that this world of conspicuous extravagance, artful self-mythologising and cultural aspiration was built out of personal debt and a hand-to-mouth desperation, a visceral need to be useful. It wasn’t simply that these men needed employment; they needed a stage, an arena in which to both demonstrate and amplify their talents and worth. Anything which didn’t tend to their glory diminished their lustre. At once vain and insecure, they responded with contempt to restraint.

Consider Noel’s brushes with the law, which reveal something different to the gilded butterfly he made of himself at court, the idealised, jewel-encrusted figure who rode in the tilts. Noel was first arrested in May 1579 for his part in a fight with one John Parker, a gentleman, and his servants, in which one of Parker’s servants died. Four years later, in July 1583, Noel was in trouble again: he had to use his position and leverage at court when Sir William Fleetwood, the recorder of London, who clearly was all too familiar with Noel, sought his arrest for his involvement in an almost identical crime: the killing of a carman by one of his servants. Fleetwood complained wearily of Noel and his ilk to Burghey:

Mr Nowell and his man are like to be indicted. Whereof I am sure to be much troubled what with letters and his friends and what by other means as in the very like case heretofore I have been even with the same man. There are sundry young gentlemen that use the court that most commonly term themselves gentlemen; when any of these have done any thing and are complained of or arrested for debt then they run to me and no other excuse or answer can they make but say, ‘I am a gentleman and being a gentleman I am not thus to be used as a slave and a colious pander’. I know not what other plea Mr Noel can plead but this I say that is foul. God send him good deliverance. I think in my conscience that he maketh no reckoning of the matter

Fleetwood here captures the authentic tone of Noel, Ralegh and their peers: self-righteous, capricious, contemptuous; habituated to casual violence as a counter to boredom or constraint. Morality for these men was conditional: a mask to be worn in service of self-advancement, not an end in itself. But perhaps that does them a dis-service. It may be truer to say that they regarded personal success and the accrual of wealth as their highest moral calling. ‘Poverty is oftentimes sent as a curse of God; it is a shame amongst men, an imprisonment of the mind, a vexation of every worthy spirit… [it] provokes a man to do infamous and detested deeds,’ Ralegh later wrote. His early years in London gave him ample opportunity to observe the truth of his insight.

Noel died, unmarried and still waiting for some preferment that might secure his fortune, on 26 February 1597. A verse from Thomas Weelkes’ Madrigals of 5 and 6 Parts, Apt for the Viols and Voices, printed in 1600, perhaps offers the most generous epitaph:

Noel, adieu, adieu, thou court’s delight.
Upon whose locks the Graces sweetly played;
Now thou art dead our pleasure dies outright,
For who can joy when thou art in dust laid?
Bedew, my notes, his death-bed with your tears.
Time helps some grief, no time your grief outwears.

Weelkes – a brilliant but abrasive, drink-troubled composer – can’t have been much more than 20 when Noel died, and his tribute is therefore eloquent testimony to Noel’s stature in musical circles. But it is not difficult to see why Noel – perhaps fatally seduced by the praise he earned in the grave superficialities of courtly ritual – found it hard to gain meaningful employment in more practical fields. He was a man trapped by his reputation, his talents, between the dazzle and glamour of court display and the more intractable political realities such entertainments elided.

As far as I know, Fuller’s is the only source for the details of Noel’s death:

Being challenged by an Italian gentleman to play at baloun [according to the OED, baloun was ‘a game played with a large inflated ball of strong double leather, struck to and fro with the arm protected by a wooden bracer] he so heated his blood, that, falling into a fever, he died thereof, and by her majesty’s appointment, was buried in the Abbey of Westminster, and chapel of St Andrew

It seems somehow fitting that death found him playing a game at court.


NB. This is a greatly expanded version of material on Henry Noel from my book, The Favourite.

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