Cyril Tourneur Biography


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

There is no documentation relating to Cyril Tourneur’s birth or early life. Scholar Allardyce Nicoll plausibly conjectures his connection with the Tourneur family of Great Parndon, Essex, suggesting that he might have been son to Edward Tourneur, a Middle Temple barrister. Nothing is known of Cyril Tourneur’s education. He might have accompanied the Cádiz expedition of 1596, perhaps under the command of Sir Christopher Heydon, to whom he dedicated his first published work, The Transformed Metamorphosis. He served as secretary of Sir Francis Vere, on whose death in 1609 he wrote a funeral elegy. The Atheist’s Tragedy depicts in its hero Charlemont a character resembling Vere in some respects. A lost tragicomedy by Tourneur, The Nobleman, was entered in the Stationers’ Register in 1612. As far as is known, the play was never printed, but it was performed by the King’s Men. Tourneur’s elegiac works on Robert Cecil, earl of Salisbury (wr. 1612), and Prince Henry (1613) complete the recorded corpus of his work, except for a 1613 reference to his being given an act of “The Arraignment of London,” a play of which no other record exists, to write for Philip Henslowe’s company. Some critics have tried to credit Tourneur with the composition of, or at least his hand in, other plays, but without significant evidence.

A career in military and public service surrounded Tourneur’s short period of literary activity. He served the Cecils and carried official letters to Brussels in 1613 and seems later to have been employed in Holland, where he saw military service in 1614. In 1617, Tourneur was arrested—on grounds that are not known—and released on the bond of Sir Edward Cecil, whom he accompanied as secretary of the Council of War and the Marshal’s Court on a voyage to raid Spanish treasure ships at Cádiz in 1625. On the way home from this abortive expedition, he died in Kinsale, Ireland, of an illness that attacked many of the crew. The petitions of his wife, Mary, after his death show that he died destitute.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Cyril Tourneur (TUR-nur), about whom little is known, was perhaps the son of Captain Richard Turnor, a follower of Sir Thomas Cecil. The young Tourneur, probably born about 1575, was a follower of the Cecils also, and he served the Vere family and the earl of Essex at different times during his career. Much of that career was spent in military or diplomatic service. He probably served with the English forces in the Netherlands in the early years of the seventeenth century.

A verse satire, The Transformed Metamorphosis, was published in 1600, and The Revenger’s Tragedy, which has traditionally been ascribed to Tourneur but is now generally attributed to Thomas Middleton, was published in 1607. Another surviving play, The Atheist’s Tragedy, was published in 1611 and is certainly Tourneur’s work. The Stationers’ Register contains an entry in 1612 of The Nobleman, a tragicomedy by Cyril Tourneur, but this play and The Arraignment of London, for which he wrote one of the acts for Henslowe’s company, have both been lost. Four other literary works are often ascribed, again with considerable uncertainty, to Tourneur: A Grief on the Death of Prince Henry (1913), a pamphlet titled Laugh and Lie Down (1605), the elegy “On the Death of a Child but One Year Old,” and the poem “Of Lady Anne Cecil . . . .”

Tourneur was a government courier in 1613 and a campaign soldier again in 1614. Imprisoned by the Privy Council in 1617, he was released on Sir Edward Cecil’s bond. In 1625 he accompanied Sir Edward on a naval expedition against Spain. As lord marshall of the fleet, Sir Edward appointed Tourneur secretary to the Council of War and secretary to the Marshall’s Court, but the first appointment was not approved. The expedition failed; Sir Edward’s flagship, the Royal Anna, was badly damaged, with many of the crew killed or wounded, among them Tourneur. The ship reached port in Kinsale, Ireland, where Tourneur was put ashore. He died there of his wounds on February 28, 1626.

Unlike many of the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists, Tourneur seems to have devoted most of his life to his active military career and relatively little of it to writing for the stage. T. M. Parrott considers him “a poet expressing himself in dramatic form rather than a professional playwright.” The morbid splendor of the surviving play traditionally attributed to Tourneur has attracted much critical interest.