Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Puttenham, George
PUTTENHAM, GEORGE (d. 1590), and his brother Richard Puttenham (1520?–1601?) have each been independently credited with the authorship of an elaborate treatise entitled ‘The Arte of English Poesie,’ which was issued anonymously in 1589. The full title ran: ‘The Arte of English Poesie, contrived into three bookes; the first of Poets and Poesie, the second of Proportion, the third of Ornament,’ London, by Richard Field, 1589. It was licensed to Thomas Orwin on 9 Nov. 1588, and Orwin transferred it to Richard Field on 3 Feb. 1588–9. Field wrote and signed a dedication to Lord Burghley, dated 28 May 1589. The book, Field said, had come into his hands with its bare title and without any indication of the author's name. The publisher judged that it was devised for the queen's recreation and service. The writer shows wide knowledge of classical and Italian literature; in his sections on rhetoric and prosody he quotes freely from Quintilian and other classical writers, and bestows commendation on English poets that is often discriminating. He may fairly be regarded as the first English writer who attempted philosophical criticism of literature or claimed for the literary profession a high position in social economy. Compared with it, Webbe's ‘Discourse of English Poetry’ (1586) and Sidney's ‘Apologie for English Poesie,’ first published in 1595, are very slight performances. The ‘Arte’ at once acquired a reputation. Sir John Harington, in his preface to ‘Orlando Furioso’ (1591), and William Camden, in his ‘Remaines’ (1605), referred to it familiarly as a work of authority. Ben Jonson owned a copy, which is now in the Grenville Library at the British Museum. In 1598 Francis Meres borrowed from it the greater portion of the well-known ‘Comparative Discourse of our English Poets’ in his ‘Palladis Tamia;’ while William Vaughan, in his ‘Golden Grove’ (2nd edit. 1608), and Peacham, in his ‘Compleat Gentleman’ (1622), drew from it their comments on English poetry. But the writer's name long remained uncertain. Harington spoke of the author as ‘that unknown godfather,’ and Camden mentioned him anonymously as ‘the gentleman which proved that poets were the first politicians.’ In the second edition of Camden's ‘Remaines’ (1614) was included Richard Carew's essay on the ‘Excellency of the English Tongue.’ Carew included the name of ‘Master Puttenham’ among English writers who had successfully imitated foreign metres in English. Specimens of such imitations figure in ‘The Arte of English Poesie,’ but Carew does not mention that volume. About the same date, however, Edmund Bolton [q. v.], in his ‘Hypercritica,’ distinctly asserted that ‘The Arte of English Poesie’ was the work, ‘as the fame is, of one of the queen's gentlemen pensioners, Puttenham.’ Wood adopted this statement, which has been accepted by later writers. Of the rare original edition of ‘The Arte of English Poesie,’ two copies are in the British Museum. It was reprinted by Joseph Haslewood in his ‘Ancient Critical Essays’ (1811–16, 2 vols.), and by Dr. Edward Arber in 1869.
Although no official documents support Bolton's conjecture that one of Elizabeth's gentlemen pensioners was named Puttenham, internal evidence corroborates his statement that the author of the ‘Arte’ was one of the two sons of Robert Puttenham and a grandson of Sir George Puttenham, who owned property at Sheffield, near Basingstoke, as well as the manors of Puttenham and Long Marston on the borders of Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Robert Puttenham married Margery, daughter of Sir Richard Elyot [q. v.] and sister of Sir Thomas Elyot [q. v.], author of the ‘Governor.’ By her Robert Puttenham had two sons—Richard, born about 1520, and George—besides a daughter Margery, who married Sir John Throckmorton of Feckenham, Worcestershire. An epitaph on the latter is given in the ‘Arte,’ and Throckmorton is there described as ‘a deere friend’ of the writer, and ‘a man of many commendable virtues.’ Throckmorton is known to have held his brother-in-law George in low esteem (cf. Cal. State Papers, 1547–80, p. 607). There is great difficulty in determining to which of Throckmorton's two brothers-in-law—to Richard or to George Puttenham—this epitaph, with the rest of the work, should be assigned. Such evidence as is procurable points to the elder brother.
In 1535 Sir Thomas Elyot, in dedicating his ‘Education or Bringinge up of Children’ to his sister, Margery Puttenham, urges her to train up his nephews in the precepts of Plutarch. They appear to have quickly developed a marked taste for literature, but in adult life betrayed a very defective moral training. Both were guilty of gross breaches of the law.
The author of the ‘Arte’ claims to have been ‘a scholler of Oxford,’ and to have studied poetry ‘in his younger years when vanity reigned,’ but no student of the name of Puttenham figures in the Oxford University registers. The author further states that he was brought up in youth among ‘the courtiers of foreign countries … and very well observed their manner of life and conversation.’ ‘Of mine own country,’ he adds, ‘I have not made so great experience.’ He visited (he says) the courts of France, Spain, Italy, and the empire ‘with many inferior courts,’ and in Italy he was friendly with one who had travelled in the east ‘and seen the courts of the great princes of China and Tartary.’ He was present at a banquet given by the Duchess of Parma, regent of the Low Countries, in honour of the Earl of Arundel, which we know from other sources took place in 1565; and he was at Spa while François de Scépeaux, better known as Marshal de Vieilleville, was also staying there. The latter's visit to Spa has been conclusively assigned to 1569 (CROFTS). There is evidence to prove that Richard Puttenham was out of England during these and other years. His brother George is not known to have left the country. As a boy it is probable that Richard, who succeeded as heir to the property of his uncle, Sir Thomas Elyot, in 1546, accompanied Elyot on his embassies to Charles V. In 1550, when he purchased land about his father's estate at Sherfield, he was doubtless with his friends in Berkshire. But in April 1561 he was convicted of rape (Cal. State Papers, 1547–80, p. 175), and, although he appears to have been pardoned, he retired to the continent immediately afterwards for an extended period. He was absent, we know, from 1563 to 1566, and in all probability till 1570, when he received a pardon for having prolonged his sojourn abroad without a royal license. During these years George was at home, and a decree of the court of requests, dated 7 Feb. 1565–6, directed him to contribute to the support of his brother Richard's wife until Richard's return. Richard had married in early life Mary, only daughter of Sir William Warham of Malshanger, near Basingstoke, and he had a daughter Ann, who before 1567 married Francis Morris of Coxwell, Berkshire.
In 1579 the author of the ‘Arte’ says that he presented to the queen, as a new year's gift, a series of poems entitled ‘Partheniades.’ This collection is extant, without any author's name, in Cotton. MS. Vesp. E. viii. 169–78, and consists of seventeen attractive poems in various metres. The whole is printed in Haslewood's edition of the ‘Arte’ and some fragments in Nichols's ‘Progresses of Elizabeth’ (iii. 65). It is likely that the poems were a peace-offering from Richard, who, after his long absence and disgrace, was endeavouring to regain his lost reputation. If Mr. J. P. Collier's unsupported assertion that Richard was one of the queen's yeomen of the guard be accepted, it is possible that he received the appointment at this period. But Richard was soon in trouble again. On 31 Oct. 1588 he was imprisoned for a second time, and petitioned the council to appoint him counsel to speak for him in forma pauperis. He also contrived to interest in his misfortunes the lord mayor of London. The latter appealed to Thomas Seckford, the master of requests, who seems to have been Richard's prosecutor, to treat him mercifully. On 9 Nov. 1588 the anonymous ‘Arte’ was licensed to Thomas Orwin for publication. Richard had probably sold the manuscript secretly and hastily while awaiting trial, in order to meet some pressing necessity. On 22 April 1597 ‘Richard Puttenham, esquire, now prisoner in Her Majesty's Bench,’ made his will, leaving all his property to his ‘verily verily reported and reputed daughter, Katherine Puttenham.’ Mr. Collier says that he was buried at St. Clement Danes on 2 July 1601.
Besides the works mentioned above, the author of the ‘Arte’ claims to have composed several other pieces, none of which are extant. Among his dramatic and poetic essays he enumerates ‘Ginecocratia,’ a comedy, and two interludes called respectively ‘Lusty London’ and ‘Woer,’ as well as ‘Triumphals,’ in honour of Queen Elizabeth, and ‘Minerva,’ a hymn also addressed to the queen. Among his prose treatises were ‘Philocalia’ (showing the figure of ornament), ‘De Decoro’ (on decency of speech and behaviour), ‘Ierotechi’ (on ancient mythology), and a work tracing the pedigree of the English tongue.
The chief argument against the identification of Richard with the author of the ‘Arte’ lies in the fact that the latter further claims at the age of eighteen to have addressed to ‘King Edward the Sixt, a prince of great hope,’ an eclogue called ‘Elpine,’ from which he supplies a brief quotation. If the passage is to be interpreted to mean literally that the poem was written after Edward VI's accession to the throne in 1547, it is clear that the author, if only eighteen when he composed it, was not born before 1529. But Richard Puttenham, when he succeeded to the property of his uncle, Sir Thomas Elyot, in 1546, was about twenty-six years old. It is possible, however, that ‘Elpine’ was written some years before Edward ascended the throne—his precocity evoked much poetic eulogy in his infancy—and that the description given of him as king in the title of the eclogue is anachronistic.
George married Elizabeth, daughter of Peter Coudray of Herriard, near Basingstoke. He was her third husband, she having previously married, first, Richard Paulet, and, secondly, William, second lord Windsor (d. 1558). On 21 Jan. 1568–9 the bishop of Winchester expressed alarm lest George was to be placed (as rumour reported) on the commission of the peace, apparently for Hampshire. His evil life, the bishop wrote to Cecil, was well known, and he was a ‘notorious enemy of God's truth’ (Cal. Hatfield MSS. i. 393). In 1570 George was said to be implicated in an alleged plot against Cecil's life (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1547–80, pp. 363–4), and at the close of 1578 he was involved in a furious quarrel with his wife's family. Summoned before the council, he replied that he was intimidated from obeying, and in December 1578 he was apprehended with difficulty by the sheriffs of London and imprisoned. He sought distraction from his troubles by transcribing passages from the life of Tiberius, by way of illustrating the tyranny inherent in government (ib. p. 607). Throckmorton, his brother-in-law, while he appealed to Burghley to release him, denounced him as ‘careless of all men, ungrateful in prosperity, and unthankful in adversity’ (ib. p. 607; cf. Cal. Hatfield MSS. ii. 226). Richard, on his return to England, joined in the attack on his brother, but in the summer of 1579 a settlement was arrived at. George, however, continued to petition the queen to redress the wrongs he suffered from his kinsfolk, and in February 1584–5, having convinced the privy council that he had suffered injustice, he was granted 1,000l. (Cal. State Papers, Add. 1580–1625, p. 139; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. xii. 143). On 1 Sept. 1590 George, who was described as of St. Bridget's in Fleet Street, made a nuncupative will, by which he gave all his property to Mary Symes, widow, his servant, ‘as well for the good service she did him as also for the money which she had laid forth for him.’ Shortly before his death he wrote out with his own hand and signed with his name a prose ‘Apologie or True Defens of her Majesties Honorable and Good Renowne’ against those who criticised her treatment of Mary Stuart. A copy made from the original manuscript is in the British Museum Harleian MS. 831 (cf. Hist. MSS. Comm. 2nd Rep. p. 41).
[Crofts's elaborate Memoir of Sir Thomas Elyot, prefixed to the edition of Elyot's Governor (1883), vol. i. pp. xxxiv, clxxxi–viii; Introduction to Haslewood's and Arber's reprints. Ames, in his Typographical Antiquities, describes the author of the Arte as Webster Puttenham, an error in which he is followed by Ritson in his Bibliographia Anglo-Poetica.]