Sir John Suckling was born in February, 1609, into a prominent gentry family. His father, also Sir John, was a longtime member of Parliament who held a number of minor positions at court; in 1622, he purchased the office of Comptroller of the King’s Household, which he occupied until his death in 1627. The poet’s mother, Martha, was the sister of Lionel Cranfield, later first earl of Middlesex and, until his impeachment in 1624, Lord Treasurer of England. Although his mother died in 1613, Suckling maintained close ties with the Cranfield family; his uncle’s disgrace, countenanced by the royal favorite the duke of Buckingham, alienated Suckling from the inner circles of the court.
Suckling matriculated at Trinity College, Cambridge, between 1623 and 1628; he was admitted to Gray’s Inn in 1627. He may have served in the English expedition against the French on the Ile de Ré in 1627 and definitely fought in Lord Wimbledon’s regiment in the Dutch service in 1629-1630. In October, 1631, Suckling joined the embassy to Gustavus Adolphus led by Sir Henry Vane, who was negotiating with the Swedish monarch for the return of the Palatinate to Charles I’s brother-in-law, the Elector Frederick. Vane sent Suckling to England in March, 1632, with dispatches for the King. His mission complete, Suckling remained in England and plunged into a course of gambling and womanizing that lasted for the rest of the decade. During this period, according to John Aubrey, Suckling invented the game of cribbage. To recoup the vast sums he lost at cards and bowling, Suckling entered into a prolonged courtship of the northern heiress Anne Willoughby. Although the king supported his suit, Suckling’s prospective in-laws did not; after a series of challenges, threatened lawsuits, and pitched battles between the two families and their allies, Suckling ceased his attentions. Shortly after this abortive courtship, Suckling entered into a relationship with the woman he called Aglaura, probably Mary Bulkeley of Beaumaris, Anglesey. Despite the intensity of feeling that Suckling expresses in his few surviving letters to Aglaura, the affair flickered out by 1639, when Mary married a local squire. During the remainder of his life Suckling’s closest emotional ties were with his Cranfield relatives, his uncle and his cousin Martha, Lady Cary.
Suckling had begun writing poetry during adolescence, but the lyrics for which he is best known were composed during the mid-1630’s. In 1637, he turned seriously to drama; his tragedy Aglaura was produced with great fanfare in February, 1638, by the King’s Company at Blackfriars. Suckling provided Aglaura with a tragicomic ending for a performance before the king and queen in April, 1638; the play was printed in a lavish folio edition later that year.
The outbreak of trouble in Scotland in 1639 put an end to Suckling’s literary activities. Raising a troop of one hundred horsemen, whom he clad at his own expense in white doublets and scarlet breeches, Suckling joined King Charles in the north. Because of illness, perhaps dysentery, he saw little action and was later accused of cowardice in the campaign. With the Treaty of Berwick in June, 1639, Suckling returned to London and was elected to the Short Parliament as a member of Parliament for Bramber, Sussex, in a by-election. Suckling returned to the border country in August, 1640, for the Second Bishops’ War. After the defeat of the king’s forces at Newburn, he participated in the general retreat, during which he reportedly lost his coach and a wardrobe worth 300 to the Scottish commander Leslie.
With the opening of the Long Parliament in November, 1640, Suckling began to assume a more active role in politics. He became involved in a conspiracy to stage a coup d’état that would have dissolved Parliament and returned effective political power to the king. The plans of the plotters were discovered; after a preliminary examination by the House of Commons, Suckling...
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