Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Elizabeth Dacre hidden in a book

The benefits of looking at books holistically, whether they are manuscript or print books, is borne out by my discovery in March 2010 of a Latin love poem written in the sixteenth century. While I was visiting West Virginia University to give a lecture at the invitation of Professor Pat Conner, I dropped into the university's Special Collections to examine some early books with an undergraduate class. The librarian, Harold Forbes, had kindly got out a sixteenth-century edition of Chaucer's Works to show me. I have always been interested in writing outside of the main text-block--marginalia, annotations, ex libris ownership inscriptions, and bits of paper stuck into books--and to my delight, there was a handwritten text pasted into the back board of the Chaucer edition. I could tell from the writing that this was a sixteenth century work, and astonishingly, a name 'Elizabeth Dacre' appeared pasted beneath the main text. I asked what it was, but no one knew, so I transcribed five or six lines to look up when I had finished lecturing. When I looked up the lines, they appeared nowhere. This poem, then, had never been seen since its rebinding into the book cover, never been published, and probably never been read in recent centuries. 

As it turns out, the poem was written by Lady Elizabeth Dacre, an English aristocratic woman (c. 1536-1567), to Sir Anthony Cooke, tutor to Edward VI, and father of the Cooke sisters--famous scholars in their day. The poem is full of love and longing, a personal lament for the 'tristis amor', the 'sad love', which seems to have been Cooke and Dacre's secret. The Latin poem is fourteen lines long and full of classical references to those who shared deep and silent passion, and it ends with a scurrilous Martial epigram. Evidently, Elizabeth took great care to preserve a fair copy, by putting it safely in the book of Chaucer's Works that she herself owned. 

Despite her apparent love for Cooke--whether real or imagined--Elizabeth Dacre never married him and there is no record of their relationship. Instead, she was twice married: to the fourth Baron Dacre first; and then shortly after his death in 1566, to the fourth Duke of Norfolk, the most powerful of all the English aristocrats. Norfolk was ostensibly a Protestant, while Elizabeth was an ardent Catholic. She died in childbirth within months of marrying Norfolk, and during her dying moments while in labour, he refused to allow her access to her priest for the last rites. Her sad death at the age of only about thirty resulted in her subsequent loss to history--remembered only by and through her noble daughters Anne and Elizabeth. Since the late sixteenth century, then, she has been consigned to the footnotes of history, without even a tomb marking her passing. Now, however, with the emergence of this wonderful and personal piece of writing, and the sure knowledge of her classical education and her ownership of Chaucer's Works, something of this extraordinary woman has been brought to life. It goes to show that while we usually focus on the main contents of books, there can often be a great deal to be discovered hiding elsewhere between the covers.

For full details, see my article '"Tristis amor": An unpublished love letter from Lady Elizabeth Dacre Howard to Sir Anthony Cooke’, Renaissance Studies (Print-ahead-of-Publication, 2011), DOI 10.1111/j.1477-4658.2011.00765.x. For recent news coverage, see