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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A common mode of discussing personal lives in medieval and Renaissance literature is the exemplum, a device whereby figures from history or literature typify human virtues or vices such as heroism, devotion, or greed. As if conditioned by a habitual way of reading experience, many lives of actual sixteenth century literary figures fulfilled a seemingly fictionalized pattern, glossed by Richard Helgerson in his book The Elizabethan Prodigals (1976). The life of George Gascoigne provides a fine example of this “pattern of prodigality,” in which youthful folly is coupled with writings in such “vain” literary forms as amatory verse. Gascoigne discusses his wasted youth and later reformation in many prefaces and poems, and although his efforts to reform were aimed at very practical financial goals, they were doubtless also sincere. Among Gascoigne’s most important poems, in fact, are introspective accounts of his poor record of worldly successes.
Gascoigne began life from a secure position in a wealthy if litigious family of landed gentry. Like many other young Elizabethan gentlemen of means, he discontinued his formal education (in law) to pursue advancement at court, where he soon exhausted his patrimony and yet found no position. In addition, his reputation was sullied by various legal disputes and by a series of troubles over the legality of his marriage in 1561, as a man in his early years, to Elizabeth Bacon Breton, a much older widow with attractive property. By 1565, with friends at court but no chance of success there, the poet began to search for a means of making a living. He renewed his legal studies at Gray’s Inn, where he spent most of his time in literary efforts; soon he had relocated in the country for an unsuccessful try at farming.
Gascoigne turned in 1571 to a new project for recouping his fortunes: He volunteered as a soldier in the Netherlands’ campaign...
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