The life of George Gascoigne, probably the greatest writer of the early years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, illustrates some of the worst and some of the best aspects of the life of the Renaissance gentleman. An elder son of prosperous parents, young Gascoigne first undertook the study of law but then chose to pursue life at court. As presented and popularized by the Italian Count Baldassare Castiglione in The Courtier (1528), the ideal courtier was to be gracious, attractive, witty, intelligent, learned, wise, and skilled in warfare and in the arts and sciences; such a servant of the king was worthy of fame and fortune. In reality, few people had the character or ability even to approach such an ideal, and the extravagance and intrigue associated with life at court were not often conducive to strength of character. Gascoigne’s adult life was characterized by legal difficulties, many of which were caused by his own financial excesses and strained personal relationships. His literary accomplishments, however, were extraordinary: He did much to prepare the way for the greater writers who followed him, and he earned a solid reputation as a lyric and satiric poet.
Relatively little is known about Gascoigne’s early life, the period before his admission to Gray’s Inn in 1555. His father, Sir John Gascoigne, had inherited a considerable estate at Cardington and had married Margaret Scargill, coheir to the estate of her father, Sir Robert Scargill of Yorkshire. Although Sir John served as a public official in his shire, legal records indicate that he and his men became violent with a neighbor over hunting rights, that Sir John was taken in adultery with a female servant, and that he could be unscrupulous in financial dealings. None of the father’s failings, however, seems to have seriously damaged the family’s fortune. The family could well afford the sort of education necessary to a young gentleman of prosperous family. Sometime between 1547 and 1555, George Gascoigne entered Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1555, he was admitted to Gray’s Inn, to study and practice law. Probably while still pursuing a legal career, Gascoigne entered Parliament on January 20, 1558, and was probably present to hear announced the death of Queen Mary and the succession of Elizabeth. As a substitute for his father, Gascoigne assisted as almoner in the coronation proceedings. Soon afterward, he gave up the idea of a law career in order to take up life at court.
Apparently sharing some of his father’s tendencies, Gascoigne seems to have spent money extravagantly and to have earned a reputation as a ruffian. In any case, he did not soon gain preferment at court, and his financial dealings led to expensive legal actions. His marriage to Elizabeth Breton Boyes, the widowed mother of later poet Nicholas Breton, did little to repair Gascoigne’s finances, though she had inherited substantial wealth from her...
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