William Alabaster


J. S. Alabasterg

John S. Alabaster, A Closer Look at William Alabaster (1568-1640) (Alabaster Society, Occasional Monograph, No. 1, 2003).


The Sonnets of William Alabaster, ed. G.M. Story and Helen Gardner (Oxford, 1959).


Unpublished Works by William Alabaster (1568-1640), ed. Dana F. Sutton (Saltzburg, 1997).


William Alabaster was a scholar, academic dramatist, poet, and prose writer, who acquired some degree of notoriety in his own time because of his oscillations between Catholicism and Protestantism: being first Protestant, then converting to Catholicism in 1597, followed by a period of conflicting loyalties, until returning to the Church of England c.1611, after which his studies progressed to occultism and cabbalism.

Verse and Dramatic Works

Besides his Latin tragedy Roxana (AlW 264-268), first performed at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1588? but not published until 1632, Alabaster's most significant and enduring work is his religious verse, in both Latin and English. A lengthy series of religious sonnets by him was never published in his lifetime but survives in several manuscript copies, notably those (each comprising 64 sonnets) now in St John's College, Cambridge, T.9.30, and Huntington, HM 39464, as well as Bodleian, Eng. poet. e. 57 (43 sonnets) and Oscott College, MS, shelf RZZ 3, case B. II (13 sonnets). Other poems by him are collected notably in Bodleian, MS Rawl. D. 283 and Bodleian, MS Rawl. D. 293. The sequence of manuscript copies of these poems, in Latin and English respectively, are given entries below according to Sonnet numbers as edited in Story and Gardner's edition and then, the miscellaneous poems, largely according to their ordering in Sutton.

Ironically, given Alabaster's own religious vacillations, the most popular of his poems, copied in numerous manuscript miscellanies both in Alabaster's original Latin and in the English rendition by Hugh Holland, was that beginning ‘Bella inter geminos plusquam civilia fratres’ (AlW 147-167; translations AlW 168-185). The poem celebrates the well-known case, subject to contemporary amusement, of the two brothers John and William Reynolds, one of whom was originally Protestant, the other Catholic, but who then reversed the situation by converting to each other's religion.

Besides another group of English and Latin poems written to celebrate the ill-fated marriage of Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, and Frances Howard, which is preserved in the original presentation manuscript (British Library, Royal MS 12 A. XXXV), the most notable other Latin poem by Alabaster, not published in his lifetime, is his unfinished early epic Elisaeis. Begun probably in 1588 to celebrate the reign of Queen Elizabeth, Alabaster only completed one ‘book’ and then, after showing it to Edmund Spenser in 1591, lost interest in it. The unfinished work, not published until 1979, survives in four contemporary copies (AlW 134-137), at least one of which, judging by the quality of the handwriting and layout, may have been prepared for presentation.


Alabaster's poetical output in manuscript may be supplemented by his prose account, c.1598, of his conversion to Catholicism, preserved in two manuscripts in the English College in Rome (AlW 253-254), and by apparently unpublished documentation arising from a theological dispute c.1605 between Alabaster and Bishop Bedell (AlW 256-262).


There are also two recorded autograph letters by Alabaster (AlW 269-270). Others may surface in due course.

Peter Beal