Thomas Churchyard: Pen, Sword & Ego by Matthew Woodcock

If, as every self-help book will tell you, persistence really were the key to success, Thomas Churchyard would surely have been the most successful writer of the sixteenth century. Reader, he was not – but it was not for want of trying.

One measure of Churchyard’s distant familiarity with fame is that Matthew Woodcock’s Thomas Churchyard: Pen, Sword, Ego is the first full-length study to be written. Churchyard himself was consumed by a visceral fear of being forgotten, and for centuries it seemed as if that fear was realised: critics mentioned him, if at all, merely to deride him. He was dismissed as little more than a bargain-basement Gascoigne, a drab adherent of dreary mid-century styles. It is only very recently that scholars – among them Adam McKeown and Liz Oakley-Brown – have begun to think him worthy of study at all. That is a pity, because, as Woodcock argues, there is a good case for saying that Churchyard’s work often prefigures that of more traditionally accepted pioneers, such as Nashe and Greene.

It is a surprise, too, in some respects, since there are few, if any, sixteenth-century literary lives we know about in such detail. Churchyard wrote about it himself voluminously – obsessively, even. His writings are a kind of palimpsest on his lived experience: the challenge is to discern the one beneath the other, particularly since Churchyard was not much of a one for personae and asserts authorial and personal authority in ways that require continual close attention. Woodcock follows Richard McCabe is using the term auto-referential, rather than autobiographical, to describe Churchyard’s self-fashioning. In pursuit of this, he deftly picks his way through Churchyard’s work, allowing the factual record and the writing to reflect back and forth, each illuminating the other, and restoring the man himself back to vivid – if often querulous – life.

Churchyard was born – most likely in 1529, Woodcock establishes – in Shrewsbury, close to the border between England and Wales. For a man who largely lived on the margins of his chosen professions, it was an appropriately liminal place to begin. His career in print would begin in 1551, although he was almost certainly writing in the late 1540s. His last known work marked the death of John Whitgift, Archbishop of Canterbury, on 29 February 1604, just a few weeks before he himself passed away. Over that five-decade period his output ranged through dream vision, epitaph, translation, verse essay, country house poem, reportage, military treatise, chorography, panegyric, royal entertainment and much else besides.

Concurrently, Churchyard had a career as a soldier in the Low Countries, Ireland and elsewhere that itself lasted several decades and which extended on more than one occasion into intelligence gathering and espionage. He was at the forefront of those who, like George Gascoigne, Sir Roger Williams and others, brought everyday military experience alive for the sixteenth-century English reader. Distinctively, Churchyard wrote from the ground up: “I hadde rather followe the truth of the matter, than the flatterie of the time,” he said. He avoided debates about military tactics and strategy; instead he is, in Woodcock’s phrase, “not just a soldier-author but the soldier’s author”.
His fatalistic worldview is that of the professional man-at-arms, but, as Woodcock shows, that refusal to see the bigger picture had two distinct effects. The first, unfortunately for Churchyard, was that he never progressed much up the ranks, and, when he did finally receive a royal pension in 1592, it was significantly less than those offered to more successful military men like Williams and Barnaby Rich.

The second, fortunately for us, is that his writing often an immediacy and sense of moment that can be wholly compelling, and he is a perceptive and acute witness to war and its effects. He was no Captain Bobadil, either, despite some areas where contemporary records do not bear out his own account of his activities. This is most obviously true of Churchyard’s claim that he led a 30,000-strong Calvinist force during the Antwerp uprising of March 1567, and, as Woodcock notes, the fact that his actions become bolder each time he retells the story is not in his favour.

Moreover, it seems out of tune with the tenor of Churchyard’s life: more than anything, he was a man of the margins, struggling to survive, whether it be among the army’s lower ranks, on the fringes of the court, or as a writer whose status was just a notch or two above hack. It was certainly a situation he was aware of, and fought against: a prolific writer of complaint poetry, he returns again and again to his lack of success, especially at court.

But his marginality is one of the things that makes Churchyard so interesting, however, not least because, as Woodcock amply demonstrates, it compelled him to innovate. It is no coincidence that Churchyard invented what Woodcock calls the “‘auteur’ royal entertainment”, or produced a printed anthology of his own work over 20 years before Jonson compiled his 1616 Folio, or wrote the first country-house poem. A more successful man might never have felt the need.

Woodcock is particularly good on Churchyard’s contradictions, too. He was a prodigious self-publicist: many of his works’ titles alliterate self-aggrandisingly on his name — Churchyardes Chippes, Churchyards Challenge, and so on — and his use of paratexts – referring back to previous works, commenting on works in progress, trailing works to come – has no rival in the period. Yet few, if any, of his peers seem so ambivalent about their talent or worth. The farewells to court seem, above all, to advertise their author’s failure. The 1575 poem ‘Churchyardes dreame’ closes with three pages of verse about his inability to live up to his poetic predecessors, which, as Woodcock notes, go far beyond the “performed modesty” we might expect and “openly invite criticism of his artistry and learning”.

The result of Woodcock’s labours is, in many respects, revelatory: a literary life of one of England’s first professional writers, through which one can see the profession itself — if that is what it is — being created. The author expresses the modest wish that his book will “provide a framework for subsequent, more detailed treatments of Churchyard’s individual works and the issues they raise”. It certainly does that. More importantly, perhaps, it brings Thomas Churchyard firmly back into the mainstream after centuries of neglect.

This review first appeared in the June 2019 issue of Renaissance Studies.

Read more of Mathew’s reviews here.

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