Fulke Greville Biography

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(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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Fulke Greville, First Lord Brooke, supplied a structure for his own biography by having an epitaph engraved on his tomb at Warwick Castle that sums up his life in exemplary brevity: “Fulke Greville/ Servant to Queen Elizabeth,/ Councillor to King James,/ And Friend to Sir Philip Sidney,/ Trophaeum Peccati [Trophy of Sin].” His father, also named Fulke, married Anne Neville, who came from a family with landed wealth and a titled past. The relationship to which Greville gave most prominence on his tombstone, his friendship with Sidney, began when they entered Shrewsbury grammar school on the same day, October 17, 1564. Before he was fourteen, Greville matriculated at Jesus College, Cambridge. Sidney went to Oxford, but they were reunited when they were introduced to Elizabeth’s court in the late 1570’s. Both young men joined the political party of Robert Dudley, the earl of Leicester, Sidney’s uncle and an old friend of the Greville family.

Leicester’s radical Protestant party thought that religion should determine domestic and foreign policy and opposed the more conservative faction led by William Cecil, Baron Burghley, and his son Robert Cecil. Both Sidney and Greville wanted to engage in more adventurous activities than Elizabeth was willing to sanction. In their early thirties, they ran away from court to join Sir Francis Drake on a voyage to the West Indies, but the Queen sent after them. After Sidney ignored the first messenger, the second messenger brought with him an offer of employment for Sidney under Leicester in the Low Countries. Greville remained in England, and Sidney’s appointment ended tragically.

Sidney was wounded at Zutphen on October 12, 1586, and died three weeks later. The entire court went into mourning. Greville was overwhelmed. Later, he took upon himself the task of protecting his friend’s reputation as an author. Rather than let an inferior version of Arcadia be made public, Greville interested himself in which manuscript was to serve as the source for William Ponsonby’s 1590 quarto edition of the first two books and a part of the third. The chapter divisions, chapter summaries, and the arrangement of the eclogues were supplied by an “over-seer” who may have been Greville himself.

By 1594, Greville had joined the Essex circle, led by Robert Devereux, the earl of Essex, nephew to Leicester and political heir of Sidney. Essex had both married Sidney’s widow, Frances Walsingham, and established himself as the leader of the radical Protestant faction. The influence of Essex assisted Greville in obtaining his first important political appointment as treasurer of the navy in 1598. By 1601, Essex had rebelled against the Queen and had been executed for treason; the death of Essex and disgrace of his party enabled Robert Cecil, Greville’s great antagonist, to solidify his power. It was probably in 1601 that Greville destroyed his copy of Antony and Cleopatra because it might be interpreted as a political commentary on Elizabeth, Essex, and Cecil.

Prior to Elizabeth’s death in 1603, Greville expected to be appointed to the Privy Council, but when James came to the throne, he lost his position as treasurer of the navy. Because Cecil regarded him as a dangerous political opponent, it was not until after his death in May, 1612, that Greville was able to enter the phase of his life that he himself labeled “Councillor to King James.” Following Cecil’s death, Greville shrewdly sought (and bought) the favor of all the leaders of the important political factions at court. On October 1, 1614, he became chancellor and under-treasurer of the Exchequer and Privy Councillor. After a decade of retired life, Greville entered the politically corrupt Jacobean court to serve for seven years as a prominent and powerful official. In 1621, an aging man, he lost his position as chancellor and under-treasurer, but the king created him Baron Brooke of Beauchamp’s Court on January 29, 1621. Greville had requested two baronies so that he could leave two heirs, but the second, which he claimed on the basis of descent from Robert, Lord Willoughby de Broke, was denied.

Greville died on September 30, 1628, after having been stabbed by his servant Robert Hayward a month earlier. The servant’s motives remain in doubt, but Greville’s contemporaries speculated that Hayward might have felt angered by Greville’s will. He left Hayward only twenty pounds a year for life. Greville gave orders that if his assailant had escaped, no one should pursue him: He desired that no man “should lose his life for him.” The doctors replaced the “kell,” a fatty membrane around the intestines, with “fat thrust into the wound of his belly . . . which putrifying, ended him.” Ronald A. Rebholz, Greville’s modern biographer, has suggested that his “temperamental incapacity for a prolonged relationship with a woman” might have resulted from a “homosexual bias which he controlled or could not admit” (The Life of Fulke Greville: First Lord Brooke, 1971). A contemporary, Sir Robert Naunton, however, describes him as “constant courtier of the ladies.” His descendants quarreled over his property, taking opposite sides in the Civil War that was to divide England during the reign of Charles I. The last phrase that Greville caused to be placed on his tombstone, “sin’s trophy,” suggests the degree to which his youthful idealism had given way in his last years to a grim disillusionment.