Edmund Spenser

1552 -1599

Queen Elizabeth the First was fond of Edmund Spenser, but he was never to have a seat in her court; the English-born poet would spend most of his life in Ireland, drawing a fifty-pound annual pension from the crown in order to write what would become the longest poem in the English Language, The Faerie Queen.

Released in two volumes of three books each (1590, 1596), the work presents an Arthurian world of magic and heroism. Weaving historical drama and contemporary politics into fantasy allegories, Spenser tells of the Knights of the Round Table, and their trials of virtue in service to their titular Faerie Queen, Gloriana. The text serves as a celebration of the Tudor Dynasty, and suggests that Elizabeth and her lineage are the direct descendants of King Arthur. ‘Gloriana’ became a common name for Elizabeth, and her royal portraits began to employ a fantastical iconography when capturing her likeness (although this was, perhaps, partially to draw attention away from her facial scarring, due to small pox).

The complex and unheralded Faerie Queen poem would never be completed, however. Although a series of twenty-four total books were outlined, Spenser was also writing controversial theses, such as “A View on the Present State of Ireland,” (1596) in which he suggested violent suppression of the native language and customs in the Irish Colonies. Although that thesis was suppressed in his lifetime, Spenser’s general attitude toward the Irish natives incited them to drive him from his home; in 1598, during the Nine Years War, Spenser’s castle was set ablaze. He escaped to London, where he died the following year.

Further Reading
The Faerie Queene (1611 edition)
The Life and Writings of Edmund Spenser, with a special exposition of the Faerie Queen, by John S. Hart (1847)