Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Tusser, Thomas
TUSSER, THOMAS (1524?–1580), agricultural writer and poet, was born at Rivenhall, near Witham in Essex. Fuller says he came of an ancient family, and he himself claims to have been of gentle birth, but the family cannot be traced back further than to his grandfather. The date of Tusser's birth is uncertain. Dr. Mavor places it in 1515, on very slender grounds. This date is, however, supported by the entry in the register of the church of St. Mildred, which makes Tusser about sixty-four at his death, and the tablet in the church at Manningtree, which makes him sixty-five. If we accept the tradition referred to by R. B. Gardiner (Admission Reg. of St. Paul's School, p. 463), that he was at St. Paul's School when Lily was headmaster, we should have to place the date of his birth even a few years earlier. As, however, Tusser was elected to King's College, Cambridge, in 1543, and as he would have been ineligible at the age of nineteen, the date of his birth is more probably about 1524.
He was the fourth son of William Tusser and of Isabella, a daughter of Thomas Smith of Rivenhall (Visitations of Essex, 1558, 1612, Harl. Soc. 1878, xiii. 117, 304–5). At an early age he was sent as a chorister to ‘Wallingford College,’ i.e. the collegiate chapel of the castle of Wallingford in Berkshire, where, as would appear from his own account, he was ill-treated, ill-clothed, and ill-fed. He was hurried from one place to another ‘to serve the choir, now there, now here,’ by people who had license to press choristers for the royal service. At last, through the influence, it would appear, of some friends, he became a chorister in St. Paul's Cathedral, under John Redford [q. v.], organist and almoner, ‘an excellent musician.’ Hence he passed to Eton, where he studied under the famous Nicholas Udall [q. v.], of whose severity he complains in some well-known lines. Harwood (Alumni Etonenses, p. 160) erroneously gives his name as William, and the date of his entry as 1543.
After leaving Eton Tusser stayed for some time in London, and then went to Cambridge. Though he does not mention the fact in his autobiography, he was elected to King's College in 1543 (Hatcher, MSS. Catalog. Præpos. Soc. Schol. Coll. Regal. Cambr.) He removed to Trinity Hall, and has recorded the happy life he passed there among congenial companions. Sickness compelled him to leave the university, and he joined the court as ‘servant’ to William Paget, first baron Paget of Beaudesert [q. v.], in the character of musician. This is conclusively proved by his own words in the dedication of his ‘Hundreth Points’ (1557) to that nobleman: ‘A care I had to serve that way,’ and he contrasts his life at court with his subsequent labours: ‘My music since hath been the plough.’ In the service of Lord Paget, who was ‘good to his servants,’ Tusser spent ten years, and then leaving the court—against the wishes, it would seem, of his patron—he married and settled down as a farmer at Cattiwade in Suffolk. Here he composed a ‘Hundreth Good Pointes of Husbandrie.’ He also introduced into the neighbourhood the culture of barley. But his wife fell ill, and ‘could not more toil abide, so nigh sea side,’ so Tusser removed to Ipswich, where she died. About the name and the family of this first wife we know nothing; she left Tusser no children. Shortly after her death he married Amy, daughter of Edmund Moon, a marriage which it may be conjectured was not very successful, for Tusser laments the increased expenditure in which ‘a wife in youth’ involved him. By this wife he had three sons—Thomas, John, and Edmond—and one daughter, Mary.
Tusser then settled down at West Dereham in Norfolk; but in 1559 on the death there of his patron, Sir Robert Southwell [see under Southwell, Sir Richard], he removed to Norwich. Here he found a new protector in John Salisbury, dean of Norwich, through whose influence he got a living, probably as singing-man in the cathedral. Sickness, however, forced him again to migrate, this time to Fairsted in Essex, the tithes of which place he farmed for some time with little success. He then came to London, and his third son, Edmond, was baptised at St. Giles's, Cripplegate, on 13 March 1572–1573. But the plague which raged in London during 1573–4 forced Tusser to take refuge once again in Cambridge, where he matriculated as a servant of Trinity Hall, at what date is not certainly known. Cambridge would seem, from Tusser's own account, to have been his favourite residence, but he did not settle there, returning to London, where he died on 3 May 1580, a prisoner for debt in the Poultry counter. He was buried in the church of St. Mildred in the Poultry, and his epitaph is recorded by Stow (T. Milbourn, History of the Church of St. Mildred, 1872, p. 34; Stow, Survey of London, ed. Strype, bk. iii. p. 31).
The first germ of Tusser's work was the ‘Hundreth Good Pointes of Husbandrie, imprinted by Richard Tottel, the third day of February, An. 1557.’ In the same year (1557) John Daye had license to print the ‘Hundreth Poyntes of Good Husserie’ (Register Stationers' Hall, A. fol. 23 a). In 1561 Thomas Hacher had license for a ‘dyalogue of wyvynge and thryvynge of Tusshers,’ a poem which was later incorporated with the ‘Husbandry.’ Editions of the ‘Hundred Points’ are also thought to have appeared in 1562 and 1564. In 1570 was published ‘A Hundreth Good Pointes of Husbandry, lately maried unto a Hundreth Good Poyntes of Huswifery.’ In 1573 they were amplified to five hundred, ‘Five Hundreth Pointes of Good Husbandry united to as many of Good Huswifery,’ and to this edition was prefixed an autobiography in verse, which was amplified in succeeding editions. The 1573 edition was reprinted in 1574 (Brit. Mus.), an edition strangely overlooked by the modern editors, Mavor and Herrtage. Further reprints appeared in 1577, 1580, 1585, 1586, 1590, 1593, 1597, 1599 (twice, both by Peter Short in London, and Waldegrave in Edinburgh), 1604, 1610, 1614, 1620, 1638, 1672, 1692. All these sixteenth and seventeenth century editions are in black letter. In 1710 appeared ‘Tusser Redivivus,’ a reprint of the more practical part of Tusser's work in monthly issues. In this Tusser was brought up to date, and explained in a commentary (by one Daniel Hillman) inserted at the end of each stanza. Another edition of ‘Tusser Redivivus’ appeared in 1744.
In 1810 the incorrect 1599 edition by Short of Tusser's ‘Five Hundred Points’ was reprinted in Sir Walter Scott's edition of the ‘Somers Tracts’ (iii. 403–551). At the same time a reprint of the ‘Hundred Points’ appeared as part of Sir Egerton Brydges's ‘British Bibliographer,’ vol. iii. sub fin.; this edition was also reprinted separately in a neat thin quarto volume. In 1812 appeared Mavor's standard edition; in 1834 the ‘Hundred Points’ were again reprinted from the private press of Charles Clark of Great Totham, Essex; in 1848 a selection was printed at Oxford; in 1878 appeared the English Dialect Society's edition, edited by W. Payne and S. J. Herrtage. This consists of a reprint of the ‘Five Hundred Points’ from the issue of 1580 and of the ‘Hundred Points’ from that of 1557. Tusser's works also appear in Southey's ‘Select Works of the British Poets, from Chaucer to Johnson,’ 1831, pp. 143–199.
Southey, who appears to have been a careful student of Tusser (see Commonplace Book, 1851, i. 171–4, 497, 498, ii. 325, 331, iv. 290), speaks of him as a ‘good, honest, homely, useful old rhymer.’ His verses are not without practical agricultural value, and he has even been styled ‘the British Varro’ (Davy). ‘There is nowhere to be found,’ says Sir Walter Scott, ‘excepting perhaps in Swift's “Directions to Servants,” evidence of such rigid and minute attention to every department of domestic economy. … Although neither beauty of description nor elegance of diction was Tusser's object, he has frequently attained, what better indeed suited his purpose, a sort of homely, pointed and quaint expression, like that of the old English proverb, which the rhyme and the alliteration tend to fix on the memory of the reader.’ It is indeed surprising how many English proverbs can be traced back to Tusser. It has been customary to contrast the shrewdness of Tusser's maxims with the apparent ill-success of his life; this idea is dwelt on in Peacham's ‘Minerva’ (1612), in an epigram which also appeared in a terser form as follows:
Tusser, they tell me when thou wert alive
Thou, teaching thrift, thyself couldst never thrive;
So, like the whetstone, many men are wont
To sharpen others when themselves are blunt.
The same idea runs through Fuller's account in his ‘Worthies of England’: ‘This stone of Sisyphus could gather no moss;’ ‘He spread his bread with all sorts of butter, yet none would stick thereon;’ ‘None being better at the theory or worse at the practice of husbandry.’[Tusser's Metrical Autobiography, in the 1573 and later editions of his Husbandry; Coxe's Select Works of Benjamin Stillingfleet, vol. ii. pt. ii. p. 563; Fuller's Worthies of England, Essex, 1662, i. 335; Warton's Hist. of English Poetry, ed. Price, 1840, vol. iii. § liii. pp. 248–57; Ritson's Bibliographia Poetica, 1802; Davy's Athenæ Suffolcienses apud Addit. MS. 19165 f. 225; Hawkins's General Hist. of Music, 1858, ii. 537; Sir Walter Scott's sketch in Somers Tracts, iii. 403–7; Mavor's Tusser, 1812, pp. 5–34; Payne and Herrtage's Tusser, 1878, pp. xi–xxxi; Notes and Queries, 1st ser. xii. 119, 193, 5th ser. xi. 416, 6th ser. x. 49.]