John Brownswerd or Bronswerdus, as he writes himself, a most noted master of the Latin tongue, was born, as I conceive in Cheshire,and had a considerable part of his education in this university [Oxford], but mostly, as ’tis thought, in Cambridge, where I presume, he took one, or more degrees. After his retreat thence, he settled at Macclesfield in Cheshire, where he taught the free-school with very good success, and having obtained a good report, and honourable advancement in the Latin empire, was deservedly numbred amongst the best Latin poets that lived in the reign of qu. Elizabeth.
So the seventeenth century Oxford antiquarian in Anthony à Wood in Athenae Oxonienses, the only significant biographical sketch yet written NOTE 1 (it is repeated without significant addition in the Dictionary of National Biography), although, as we shall see, Wood managed to omit what most modern readers will regard as the most significant episode of Brownswerd’s life.
2. Wood was nevertheless right about John Brownswerd’s NOTE 2 quality, as his contemporaries recognized and appreciated. It is striking that, although his poetry was only collected and published posthumously by his former pupil Thomas Newton in 1589, he was already being publicly praised more than a decade earlier, in Walter Barker’s preface to Edward Grant’s 1575 Graecae Linguae Spicilegium, a verdict that was made all the more prominent in the following year by being reprinted in the same volume with Nicholas Car’s De Scriptorum Britannicorum Paucitate (p. 23). We can deduce that some of his poetry must have circulated fairly widely in manuscript. Further signs of contemporary esteem are reflected by the fact that the volume published by pupil Newton required a second printing in 1590, and that in his 1598 Palladis Tamia (p. 279) the judicious Frances Meres placed Brownswerd in some pretty heady company:
As these neoterics Jovianus Pontanus, Politianus, Marullus Tarchaniota, the two Strozae, the father and the son, Palingenius, Mantuanus, Philelphus, Quintianus Stoa and Germanus Brixius have obtained renown and good place among the ancient Latin poets, so also these Englishmen, being Latin poets, Walter Haddon, Nicholas Carr, Gabriel Harvey, Christopher Ocland, Thomas Newton with his Leyland, Thomas Watson, Thomas Campion, Brownswerd & Willey, have attained good report and honourable advancement in the Latin empire.
3. Although published at the end of the 1580’s, most if not all of Brownswerd’s work appears to have been written in the 1560’s, and so, together with Giles Fletcher the Elder, he may well deserve to be regarded as England’s best Latin poet of his generation. More particularly, he was perhaps England’s best practitioner of the Horatian ode prior to William Gager.
4. Born in Cheshire ca. 1540, he received his education at Witton in the Northwich district of Cheshire under the hand of the schoolmaster John Bretchgirdle, a Christ Church man whose last will and testament displays Calvinist leanings. Bretchgirdle appears to have been an enlightened Humanist, and the statutes of his school reveal a conviction that a schola grammaticalis ought to be operated along the lines set down by Colet and Erasmus. NOTE 3 Then in 1560 Bretchgirdle became vicar of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-on-Avon, and on April 26, 1564, he baptized William Shakespeare. He was obviously concerned with the career of his former pupil (whose university record, despite Antony à Wood’s testimony, is undocumented). NOTE 4 After Brownswerd had served a year as schoolmaster at the grammar school attached to the Old Church at Macclesfield (and evidently had taught briefly at nearby Poynton — cf. 7.82ff.), Bretchgirdle landed him a teaching job at Warwick. Things were not going well at Stratford. A visitation of the plague in 1563-64 led to the temporary closure of the local free grammar school, The King’s New School. NOTE 5 This left the schoolmaster, William Smart, at loose ends, so, being a man of holy orders, he assisted Bretchgirdle at the church. Maybe the vicar was overburdened with pastoral responsibilities, or perhaps his health was already beginning to fail. At any rate, when it was deemed possible to reopen the school, Smart was retained at the church, and surely we can see Bretchgirdle’s hand in the selection of Brownswerd as his replacement as schoolmaster. In April 1565 he entered into a two-year contract with the Stratford bailiff and burgesses to serve in this capacity, and the bailiff, Shakespeare’s father John, was charged with the responsibility of fetching him, his wife and goods over from Warwick. Then, on June 21, 1565, Bretchgirdle died NOTE 6 and the Earl of Warwick appointed Smart his successor. It places no great strain on the imagination to suppose that, after the death of his friend and mentor, Brownswerd ran out of enthusiasm for his new job. He dutifully served out the term required by his contract, but then returned to Macclesfield, where he lived out the rest of his life.
5. These Stratford years are not well represented in Brownswerd’s surviving poetry. His three poems addressed to Bretchgirdle (7, 8 and 9) are all more or less clearly written while the latter during Bretchgirdle’s Witton period. The only Stratford item in the collection is 35, addressed to Richard Lucy, brother of the local squire, Sir Thomas Lucy of Cherlecot (Shakespeare is supposed to have gotten in trouble by poaching his deer). Richard was member of the Inner Temple, and it would appear that Brownswerd thought the young man’s morals could stand some improvement and employed this poem as a gently diplomatic means of telling him so.
6. So in terms of factual information or immediate insight, Brownswerd’s poetry seems to have little to teach a student of Shakespeare. But, taking a larger view, he is very informative indeed. Brownswerd’s poetry makes an interesting companion piece to the Latin poems of the Cornishman Charles Fitzgeoffrey and Sir John Stradling of Glamorganshire, South Wales. When the works of these regional poets are read together, a remarkable picture begins to emerge of the attainments of Humanistic learning and the rich and sophisticated culture of Elizabethan England in the provinces. In all three cases we see highly intelligent, cultured and creative men well content to live quiet lives in districts that could all too easily be written off as outlying backwaters. Also, in his magisterial two-volume William Shakspere’s Small Latine & Lesse Greeke, T. W. Baldwin attempted to ascertain how much Latin Shakespeare is like to have known by conducting a detailed investigation of English secondary education: teaching methods, texts used, and so forth. He compiled an amazing treasure-trove of facts, but his study is perhaps liable to the objection that he failed to put a human face on the whole business of Elizabethan secondary education. Brownswerd’s poems go far towards making good this deficiency. He is, to be sure, capable of displaying an academic’s love of obscure lore (for example, he can never write plainly of Moses, only obscurely of “the son of Amram”), but this is done in the spirit of sprinkling his poems with little puzzles for the amusement of his readers. More generally, his poems radiate wisdom and intelligent good humor, and he is about as far removed from the droning pedant, the sadistic birch-wielding ogre, or other contemporary comic stereotypes of the schoolmaster, as could be imagined. It is all to easy to jump to the conclusion that Holofernes in Love’s Labor Lost is a portrait of some schoolmaster in the playwright’s own past. If Brownswerd’s successors were anything like him and Bretchgirdle, this conclusion may be very mistaken indeed.
7. It strikes me that Brownswerd’s poetry is by no means irrelevant to the Shakespeare Controversy, to the extent (and it is probably a considerable one) that the fundamental assumption of those who would attribute Shakespeare’s works to Oxford, Bacon, or a Marlow who lived to exit Mary Bull’s Deptford tavern, is that a bumpkin from the benighted shires could not possibly have had the intellectual sophistication to have written them. Brownswerd (like Fitzgeoffrey, Stradling, and probably a number of other writers yet to be identified) goes to show the wrongness of this assumption of intellectual life in the provinces, which was in fact capable of attaining remarkable sophistication.
8. Ioannis Brunswerdi, Macclesfeldensis Gymnasiarchae Progymnasmata Quaedam Poetica was printed at London by Thomas Woodcock in 1589 (Short Title Catalogue 3944, Early English Books reel 876), and an exact reprint, typographical errors and all, was issued in 1590 (S. T. C. 3945, E. E. B. 412). I wish to thank my Berkeley colleague Alan H. Nelson for drawing Brownswerd to my attention and suggesting his poetry as a possible addition to The Philological Museum. The illustration on the frontispiece shows the courtyard of the King’s New School with the church in the background.
NOTE 1 Anthony à Wood, Athenae Oxonienses (ed. Philip Bliss, London, 1815, repr. New York - London, 1967) I.552.
NOTE 2 His surname is also encountered in the secondary literature in such spellings as Brownsword and Brunswerd. Both Brownsward and Brownsword are amply-attested English surnames.
NOTE 3 For Bretchgirdle as a teacher cf. Edgar I. Fripp, Shakespeare Man and Artist (Oxford, 1938) I.37. A good deal of the facts I am relating here depend on Fripp’s antiquarian Stratford research in this work and in Shakespeare Studies, Biographical and Literary (Oxford, 1930). I have also profited from T. W. Baldwin, William Shakspere’s Small Latine & Lesse Greeke (Urbana, 1944) index s. v. Brownswerd, Samuel Schoenbaum’s William Shakespeare, A Compact Documentary Life (New York, 1977) index s. v. Bretchgirdle and Brownswerd, and the same author’s Shakespeare’s Lives (2nd ed., Oxford, 1991) 500f.
NOTE 4 On the strength of Anthony à Wood’s statement he is registered in both Joseph Foster, Alumni Oxonienses (London 1891-92) p.199 and J. and J. A. Venn, Alumni Cantabrigienses (Cambridge, 1922) I.241, although no independent records exist of his matriculation or receipt of degrees. Note, however, that in his gratulatory epigram Hugh Winnington gives him the title Dominus, so Winnington knew or at least believed he had taken the B. A. degree.
NOTE 5 For the early history of this school founded by Edward VI, cf. Baldwin I.464-93.
NOTE 6 The text of his will (containing, interestingly, a list of of his books) was printed by Fripp, Shakespeare Studies 23 - 31. Some older scholarship, such as the brief D. N. B. biography, wrongly states that Bretchgirdle was vicar of Holy Trinity Church until 1569, but Fripp’s research has exploded this idea.