Anon. Leicester's Commonwealth



Leicester's Commonwealth, ed. Dwight C. Peck (Athens, Ohio, 1985)


The tract published in 1584 as The Copy of a Letter Written by a Master of Arts of Cambridge to his friend in London, which soon became known as Leicester's Commonwealth, is perhaps the most notorious libel circulated in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. A vehement attack on the Earl of Leicester and on the Protestant Government itself, it was evidently printed in France and hundreds of copies were secretly imported into England. Steps were soon taken by the Queen and her Privy Council to have the book banned, with penalties imposed even for owning a copy of it. Substantial numbers of copies were consequently seized by government agents at ports. An obvious consequence of these measures was that he work was widely and surreptitiously circulated to meet demand and that very many manuscript copies were made, presumably when printed copies became scarce. At present, counting a few untraced items and manuscripts of extracts, some ninety-one manuscript copies can be recorded (LeC 1-91), including a particularly interesting copy (LeC 49), only recently identified as produced by Sir John Harington and his family. It also contains, in Harington's hand, the apparently unique text of an English translation of an especially scathing ‘Addition’ to the work.


The authorship of the tract, evidently by one or more anti-Government Catholic polemicists on the continent, has long been disputed. One theory is that it was by a collaboration of English Catholic conspirators in France, including Charles Arundell and Lord Paget. The most common contemporary attribution, however, is that it was written entirely by Robert Persons (1546-1610), the Jesuit polemicist and conspirator, who was certainly at least involved in the printing of the work. From the style and contents of the tract, vis à vis his other known writings, it now seems most likely that Persons was the author after all.

Peter Beal