1. Born to a farming family in Waddesdon, Buckinghamshire, in 1563, John Ross attended Westminster School and entered Trinity College, Cambridge as a sizar, a student whose expenses were covered by servile work NOTE 1 Without taking a degree, he enrolled, after preparatory work at Lyon’s Inn, at the Inner Temple where he began his studies in 1584, becoming a barrister nine years later — somewhat longer time than the usual seven years. He continued to reside among Inner Templars until his death in 1607. His younger brother, Gabriel, also studied at Westminster and Trinity College but was destined for the clergy. John led an active professional life, cultivating friendships, or at least contacts, among the great. He had come to know William Camden, second master when he attended Westminster, and in his will asks that the aged scholar handle his bequest of five pounds, “to be bestowed in bookes uppon theire newe librarye.” NOTE 2 A disbound copy of Ross’s Britannica exists in the library of his and Camden’s school.
2. One young law student who knew Ross counted on the fact as proof of his seriousness. On 18 June 1586 George Manners, a recently arrived kinsman to the Earl of Rutland, assured his father that he had “cleane abandoned” one Mister Blackwell and had lately “used the company of Barristers, those of 7 or 8 years standing, the best for calling [i.e., to the bar], as my Lord Buckhurst soons, Mr. Rose and such like.” NOTE 3 Manners obviously adds a few years to Ross’s and the Buckhursts’ standing for rhetorical purposes; a “barrister” then could be either an inner barrister, a law student, or an “utter” (outer) barrister, meaning one who had been called to the bar. At this early point he had also acquired a reputation as a Latinist, writing commendatory poems for Sir James Dyer’s casebook, Cy ensount ascuns novel cases (1585) and Sir John Ferne’s important work on heraldry, The Blazon of Gentrie (1586). In the latter, an English poem by Ross accompanies his Latin one. Ferne belonged, albeit in his old age, to a set of notable antiquarians and historians admitted to the Inner Temple. Others were Peter Manwood, Thomas Gainsford, and William Burton, who probably began writing his Description of Leicestershire while there. The neighboring Middle Temple could claim Henry Ferrers (a friend of Camden), Francis Tate, Richard Carew, and George Salterne, whose Of the Ancient Laws of Great Britain (1605) shares Ross’s enthusiasm for legendary British history. Such scholars contributed to the reputation of the inns of court as England’s third university.
3. One of the sons of Lord Buckhurst (that is, Elizabeth’s treasurer Thomas Sackville, the co-author of Gorboduc), mentioned above, was his third, William Sackville, born about 1570, admitted to the Inner Temple in 1585. NOTE 4 In 1589 he left the society to serve with Willoughby’s expedition in support of Henry of Navarre. Knighted by this king, he lost his life in battle in 1592, and his death was mourned by Ross in a long funeral elegy that survives in manuscript, “Th’Authors Teares upon the Death of His Honorable Freende Sir William Sackville.” Ross had less heroic acquaintances among the aristocracy, members of the Essex circle who were either punished or suspected after the Earl’s rebellion, including Roger, Francis (later sixth Earl of Rutland and Shakespeare’s acquaintance), George Manners, and Sir William Constable, one of those knighted by Essex in Ireland. On 14 April 1601 the Privy Council ordered Constable “confyned by bond to remaine at one Mr. Rosse’s chamber in the Inner Temple till the first day of the next Terme.” He is allowed to confer with his creditors, “so as he go not abroade other then in the company of the said Mr. Rosse and do retourne at night to the said Mr. Rosse’s lodging to the which he is restrayned.” NOTE 5 Constable never did face trial, but he reemerges in history much later as one of the judges who signed King Charles’s death warrant.
4. Ross knew two important figures in the later and more infamous conspiracy, the Gunpowder Plot, which elicited his long poem, Ad Praesens Tempus Apostrophe. In his will he leaves several memorial rings to acquaintances, one of which went to Mary Digby, wife of the plotter Sir Everard Digby, another to the chief prosecutor, in whose orbit he frequently moved, Sir Edward Coke. Mary Digby endured many indignities as a consequence of her husband’s crime, and although she converted to Catholicism with her husband, at the urging of the also ill-fated Father Gerard, she hailed from Ross’s home county and must have been seen as a tragic victim. In the “Apostrophe” Ross names all the plotters except Digby, though the knight was much deplored as the highest ranking member of the cabal. Guy Fawkes entered the plot late in the game as a technical expert, and was one of the lower ranking persons executed. Mary would earn later fame as the mother of the talented Sir Kenelm Digby.
5. Ross, who died aged 44, seems to have led a comfortable lawyer-bachelor life, and apparently never married. In one of his manuscript poems he takes stock of himself at age 35: “I go without sleep, I speak, read, write, work; but the profit I long for is not yet mine.” He cannot advance, he says, because he cannot promote himself. NOTE 6 He continued to serve the Inner Temple, auditing the steward’s accounts in November 1601 at the request of the society’s parliament chaired by Coke; investigating, at the request of the same body, the high cost of commons in 1604 and 1606; and inquiring into the matter of the gardener’s killing of the under-cook’s horse. NOTE 7 Britannica was printed in February 1607 — Ross died in November of that year — from the Frankfurt printer Matthias Becker, owner of one of the larger printing shops of the city; a 1611 catalogue lists the book as still available, from the bookseller Lazarus Zetzner. NOTE 8 There could have been some interest in the part of the book dealing with the Gunpowder Plot, as the trials and executions had occurred less than a year earlier. Also, in all likelihood Ross believed his country’s mythic history should be broadcast abroad, even that it might find a more learned, therefore sympathetic, reception from Continental readers.
2. WORKS: BRITANNICA
6. Any account of the seemingly quixotic motives behind celebrating English legend as if it were true history must begin with Ross’s concluding essay, Tractatus Apologeticus, on the veracity of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. Ross realized that few scholars in the England of 1607 would have viewed Geoffrey’s Historia Regum Britanniae as a work of real history. He knew of the Tudor controversies over the legend of Brute beginning with Polydore Vergil’s debunking in his 1534 Anglica Historia (I.19) NOTE 9 and Leland’s defense in Codrus (1536), then the defenses, including Bale, Grafton, Lambarde, and Holinshed — whose Chronicles furnished a primary channel of Geoffrey’s narratives for English readers. Geoffrey still had not been published in England. Even Camden, one of Ross’s oldest acquaintances, and dubious about the Galfredian tales, would not totally disallow the historicity of Brute’s story: “Absolutely to reject it were to wage war against Time, and to fight against receiv’d Opinion.” NOTE 10 By the beginning of the seventeenth century, however, the opinion of Selden and Stow, that the stories were utterly fabulous, prevailed among scholars. Camden’s mention of “Opinion” touches on a theme of Ross’s essay, the dangers of opinio at large in the society of his time. He laments that no idea can be accepted, all is subject to question. “For this variety of opinion has grown to such an extent that the proverb has almost come to pass: ‘The world is ruled’ — I would rather believe destroyed — ‘by opinions.’”
7. Ross’s own opinio relies neither on philological evidence nor new manuscript discoveries but on select authority and an uncritical respect for antiquity. As a common lawyer, hence a searcher after precedent, Ross was something of a historian, also something of an enemy of the competing school of lawyers, the “civilians,” who followed the laws and traditions of Roman civil law. The leading thinker among the common lawyers, Edward Coke, in his sixth Report and fourth Institute, quoted from the fifteenth-century believer in the myth of the ancient and unchanging common law, Sir John Fortescue, that “the kingdome of England [grew] out of Brutes retinue of the Troyanes, which hee broughte out of the Coastes of Italie and Greece.” Through the times of the Britons, the Romans, the Saxons, and Normans, “this realme was stil ruled with the selfe same customes, that it is now governed withall.” NOTE 11 Professionally and personally, then, Ross is caught up in a mythic atmosphere of patriotism which may explain his choice to publish Britannica abroad, even though it was at one time apparently intended for the London market. NOTE 12 He may well have believed that if his “British history” were to be discredited, the very basis for the English legal system would be subject to erosion.
8. Ross colors his poems with a sense of the entire Galfredian history as a single woven fabric. This era is the classical antiquity of his country. King Bladud studied at Athens, returned to build baths at Bath, and studied magic to learn to fly. Dunwallo Mulmutius wrote down the Molmutine laws, later augmented by Belinus (who, with Brennus, twice repulsed Caesar using superior tactics), translated into Latin by Gildas, then conveyed into English by King Alfred. NOTE 13 These are like the first bronze tablets of Rome with their simplicity and impartiality. Surprisingly, Arthur receives less attention that some of the other kings, and his noble story gives way to a growing anxiety, a sense of fin de siècle, fully voiced in the speech of Britain’s penultimate king, Cadwallo, taking refuge across the channel with his mentor King Salomon. “Religion is despised... The seat of justice has become a commodity... [T]he plowman becomes prey to the greedy landlords; splendor at court is sustained by rural hardships.” The last king, Cadwallader, presiding over the fugitive remnants of the Britons, cannot reestablish his rule, as his land suffers under a plague much like that which his readers would recall from 1603 and other plague years. “Those who flee the towns die in the empty fields... Decaying corpses infect the pure air with their stench: no one digs graves for the dead. The shepherd deserts his sheep, the merchant his ships, the farmer his plows.” This is the will of God, the poet declares. Britain, having long been “the world’s glory,” had enjoyed “too much good fortune” and like Thyestes began to devour her own children.
9. A coda to these poems is Ad Praesens Tempus Apostrophe, a long poem on the Gunpowder Plot. Cadwallader’s shade appears from the underworld, following all those ghosts of tyrants, traitors, and victims from English historical poetry in the Mirror for Magistrates tradition (appropriated in Shakespeare’s hauntings of Richard III). The shade encounters the nymph Alethia (Truth), “the daughter of Time,” and reports seeing a man, revealed as the plotter Catesby, entering Hell and asking the infernal lords to support his plan to destroy the royal family and the government of England. Alethia informs him of Catesby’s near-accomplished scheme; Cadwallader laments the decay of religion and public morality in the land. Most of Ross’s story existed in various printed accounts of the trials of early 1606, but some details, such as the physical description of Catesby, may rely on direct experience. Terrorist bombing was still an unimaginable fact of political life, and Ross’s language echoes a widely shared feeling. Could any man plan so casually to destroy such innocent people as the queen, her ladies, and baby Charles, not to mention Prince Henry, the young hope of the country’s future? NOTE 14
10. Two of Shakespeare’s Galfredian plays, contemporaneous with these poems, deserve attention here. King Lear was performed at Court 26 December 1606, in the same month that Britannica was licensed for printing, but the play saw public performance as much as a year earlier. In Ross’s poem on Lear (poem 7) the king himself is not the main focus so much as Cordelia’s pietas. Ross dwells on the violation of hospitality as does Shakespeare, but not Geoffrey, Holinshed, or the anonymous 1605 King Leir. What Shakespeare calls Cordelia’s “plainness” at the outset, and Ross labels as simplicitas, is absent from Geoffrey. The image of Lear’s “clothing in rags” (Ross) is unique to Shakespeare among Ross’s possible sources. In Leir the king and his Kent-like follower Perillus exchange their expensive clothes for sailors’. Finally, both Ross and Shakespeare isolate Cordelia from her husband when she and her father meet. No other source centers on this meeting quite as these two versions do. The conclusion must be that Ross had seen Shakespeare’s play. On the other hand, Ross did not write entirely under Shakespearian influence. The happy ending and Lear’s journey to France come from the anonymous King Leir. Ross’s poems on the time of Cymbeline (poem 22, poem 23) reflect a crux shared with Shakespeare’s play of 1609. At the end, Cymbeline says he will pay the tribute to Rome, but in Act III his stepson Cloten and he refus to do so in a seeming act of patriotism. This reversal seems to be Shakespeare’s invention. In Ross the refusal to pay is the act of Guiderius, Cymbeline’s son, “which pleased the fickle people,” suggesting that the Britons had dealt unfairly with Rome. Was there a tradition to this effect among lawyers or historians, and does that mean Cloten is standing in as the one who caters to “the fickle people?” In both texts, at any rate, there seems something wrong in the Britons’ refusal to pay up NOTE 15
3. WORKS: PARERGA
11. The best evidence for the authorship of this Folger Library manuscript (V.a.171) rests in the handwriting. Sewn into the binding of this manuscript book is a smaller leaf containing poems on the floods of April 1606 and on the Puritan Andrew Melville. The hand is identical to that of some pages in the Bodleian manuscript of Britannica. An eighteenth-century hand misidentifies the author as John, a clergyman and great grandfather of the current rector Thomas Ross, but that person was named Edward, not John. NOTE 16 Many of the poems refer to the law, to London events of the kind not likely to involve a rural cleric, or to persons of the Inner Temple like Coke, the Manners family, Sir Anthony Sherley, and Sir John Davies. An “Epitaph on the Author’s Mother” is dated 1600, and the Waddesdon parish register reports that “Ales Rosse” (John’s mother’s name) was buried that year. Parerga shares with Britannica a fondness for Grecisms, and for unusual terms like vulpileo, dente Theonino, and regula Lesbia. Both books are dedicated to King James.
12. The title Parerga is explained in the dedication, where Ross says the poems (mostly in elegiac couplets) were “fragments or miscellanies jotted down at various times as occasion served.” Alexander Gill the younger used the name for his collection of 1632. Brief glimpses of current English society abound: tavern swaggering “captains” who sell their clothes to survive, over-dressed “geldings,” users of cosmetics and tobacco, an old military hero who killed himself with drink, the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, and the plottings of Mendoza, Lopez, Gowrie, Essex, and Tyrone. The folly of the Islands Voyage is matched by the folly of the Spanish attempt to ambush English ships the same year. Penal laws have no teeth, but magistrates are often too intemperate in sentencing. Law courts “give without judgment what they seize without right,” and have degenerated into spectacles of personality. Essex, an honorary member of the Inner Temple, is viewed as a tragic hero who may have been tactless but was a good leader. His troops’ cowardice, not his bad judgment, led to the failure in Ireland There are two love poems from the 1580s, but otherwise little that is really personal. The whole collection amounts to an Elizabethan journal, deserving attention from anyone interested in this period.
4. MISCELLANEOUS WORKS
13. Ross’s longest poem in English, preserved in manuscript (Bodl. Douce 277), is the elegy for Sir William Sackville, mentioned above and reproduced in Poems (as are the other poems in this section): “Th’Authors Teares upon the Death of His Honorable Freende Sir William Sackville Knight of the Ordre de la Colade in Fraunce: Sonne to the Right Ho: the Lord Buckhurst.” It is an elegant manuscript, perhaps intended for presentation, with commendatory poems by Henry Fanshaw and Thomas Williams, both of the Inner Temple. Like most such verse it is thin on details and fat with generalized pieties throughout its 168 sixains. The hero fought at the sieges of Paris and Rouen, and, with Henry of Navarre looking on, won in a single combat with a French knight. After his death Henry (called “the Christian king”) also testified to Sackville’s exceptional qualities in battle.
14. Ross’s abilities as a Latin versifier seem to have drawn the attention of his betters beginning with his early years in the society. In 1585 he provided a commendatory poem to Sir James Dyer’s summary of legal cases, Cy ensuont ascuns novel cases, sharing the honors with Gabriel Goodman, Dean of Westminster, who owned a part of the living at Waddesdon. Was John’s brother, the future clergyman Gabriel, named for him? What I am calling Ross’s poem is signed I. R., but all bets must be on him. Two encomiums in Sir John Ferne’s Blazon of Gentrie (1586), one Latin, one English, and then, in the 1612 edition, another, brief, Latin poem are by Joannes Rosse I. C. (i.e. Iurisconsultus, lawyer), and Templarius (member of the Temple). An English translation of this 1612 couplet appears, among poems by John Owen, in Robert Hayman’s Quodlibets of 1628. Although Owen became an Inner Templar early in his career, he came to be known as one of the leading Latin poets of Europe. The minister of the Temple, William Crashaw (father of Richard, the poet), had a reputation as a Puritan, but “I. R. of the Society of the Inner Temple,” whom I believe to be Ross, applauded his anti-Catholic book, Falsificationum Romanarum...Liber (Crashaw furnishes the date of September 1606). As with Dyer’s dull book, Ross says that the author will earn eternal fame because of this screed against papal censorship. Finally, there are the two manuscript poems sewn into the Folger manuscript of Parerga, dealing with the great floods in the west country and with the preacher Andrew Melville. In 1606 the latter was summoned to London after his attacks on the liturgy and was sent to the Tower. On 20 January 1607, floods swamped Gloucester, Somersetshire, and parts of Wales and Cornwall; Ross adds an apocalyptic note in these recalling the poems at the end of Britannica and his Gunpowder Plot poem.
5. STUDIES OF JOHN ROSS
15. Ross has barely escaped oblivion in modern scholarship. Leicester Bradner mentions his Britannica in Musae Anglicanae (London, 1940), a history of Anglo-Latin poetry, and T.D. Kendrick includes him in his survey of the Renaissance reception of Geoffrey of Monmouth, British Antiquity (London, 1950). In addition to Poems on Events of the Day, 1582-1607 (Delmar, NY: Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, 1991), my edition, with translation, of Ross’s Parerga, the Sackville elegy, the Apostrophe on the Gunpowder Plot, and miscellaneous poems, I have published: “Humanism and History at the Inns of Court: John Ross of the Inner Temple,” Res Publica Litterarum 1 (1978) 101 - 12; "Geoffrey among the Lawyers: Britannica (1607) by John Ross of the Inner Temple," Sixteenth Century Journal 23 (1992) 235 - 49, and "Unnoticed Contemporary Analogues of King Lear and Cymbeline by John Ross of the Inner Temple (1606)," Humanistica Lovaniensia 44 (1995) 270 - 81.
NOTE 3 Rutland MSS (H.M.C. 12th Rept., Pt. IV), I.195f.
NOTE 9 Over the course of the sixteenth century, the authority of Geoffrey’s transitions was simultaneously being questioned by such prominent Scottish historians as Hector Boece (Scotorum Historia VII.54) and, later in the sixteenth century, George Buchanan (Rerum Scotarum Historia V.25).
NOTE 10 William Camden, Britannia, in his initial address To the Reader (§ 10). The best account of the controversy over the legendary kings is Thomas D. Kendrick, British Antiquity (London, 1950). Bullstrode Whitelock, writing his posthumously published Memorials of English Affairs (1709) in the later seventeenth century, still assumed that English history began with the coming of Brute.
NOTE 11 On Coke and Fortescue, see Philip Styles, “Politics and Historical Research in the Early Seventeenth Century,” in Levi Fox (ed., English Historical Scholarship in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (London, 1956) 55.
NOTE 12 The book exists in manuscript in the Bodleian Library (Bodl. MS Douce 573), mostly in a scribal hand but with several corrections in Ross’s hand. The prose dedication and Tractatus Apologeticus are entirely in Ross’s hand. The licenser Owen Gwyn signs the statement, “I do allowe this poeme to be imprinted Decem. 3. 1606.” The date of the Tractatus in the printed text, 16 February 1606 (i.e., 1607), means it was added after Gwyn saw the earlier part of the manuscript. For a fuller discussion of matters covered in the foregoing analysis, see Richard F. Hardin, “Humanism and History at the Inns of Court: John Ross of the Inner Temple,” Res Publica Litterarum 1 (1978) 101 - 112.
NOTE 14 I discuss this poem and other Gunpowder Plot verse, in the context of René Girard’s theory of scapegoating, in “The Early Poetry of the Gunpowder Plot: Myth in the Making,” English Literary Renaissance 22 (1992) 62 - 79.
NOTE 16 See Hardin (ed.) Poems, 20f. That edition contains the text and translation of Parerga. This identification was especially important for me in opening up this interesting writer’s life, work, and significance.