Henry Constable



The Poems of Henry Constable, ed. Joan Grundy (Liverpool, 1960).


Heliconia, comprising a Selection of English Poetry of the Elizabethan Age: written or published between 1575 and 1604, ed. T[homas] Park, 3 vols (London, 1815), vol. II.


The Arundel Harington Manuscript of Tudor Poetry, ed. Ruth Hughey, 2 vols (Columbus, OH, 1960).


The Harleian Miscellany, ed. Thomas Park, 10 vols (London, 1808-13), vol. IX (1812).


Henry Constable led an active early public life on diplomatic missions for the English government, writing polemics on their behalf, before he declared his conversion to Roman Catholicism, a step he unsuccessfully hoped that James I would also take. While constantly protesting his loyalty to the Crown, which he supported in polemics urging toleration and opposing more extreme Catholic positions, he oscillated between London and Paris, pursuing an uneasy relationship with the English Court, and enduring more than one spell of imprisonment.

While some of Constable's political polemics were published in his lifetime, others, including one he is known to have sent in manuscript to Anthony Bacon in January 1595/6, have not apparently survived. The prose section below is distinguished by a single entry that denotes the erstwhile existence of a tract by Constable attacking Cardinal Allen, of which only one page, bearing only the title, is preserved (CoH 164).


A more significant legacy, however, is the substantial body of poems Constable wrote, for which he was justly celebrated by his contemporaries. They comprise principally sonnets, for the most part either paying court to his literary ‘mistress’ Diana — the first sonnet sequence of its kind to follow Philip Sidney's — or else ‘Spirituall Sonnettes To the honour of God and hys Sayntes’. Most of the poems in the former category were published in his lifetime in Diana, the first edition of which in 1592 contained twenty-three sonnets, the 1594 edition being expanded to twenty-eight sonnets (plus poems by others). A few of his other lyrical or commendatory poems in comparable vein were published elsewhere. But for one or two exceptions, however, such as one of his poems ‘To our blessed lady’ (CoH 100-110) which got incorporated in the 1635 edition of John Donne's Poems –- nearly all the religious sonnets in the second category had to wait for publication until the nineteenth century.

Besides the appearance of a few poems in contemporary or near-contemporary manuscript miscellanies, there are three major manuscript collections of poems by Constable. The best-known, containing 38 poems of both categories and generally cited as the ‘Todd MS’, is Victoria and Albert Museum, MS 44. This was first edited by Park in 1808-13 —- and is the principal copy-text for Grundy's edition (1960). The second is British Library, Harley MS 7553, which contains seventeen ‘Spiritual Sonnets’ and which forms Grundy's copy-text for those poems. The third, not hitherto used by editors, is Berkeley Castle, Select Books 85, which contains twenty-one ‘Spiritual Sonnets’, copied out by the household tutor Henry Sanford (d.1616).

As is clear from the entries below, the canon accepted here is that established by Grundy, plus four hitherto unpublished poems found only in the Berkeley MS (CoH 18, CoH 19, CoH 117, CoH 139).


None of Constable's writings are known to survive in his own hand except for his letters. Ten letters by him in his generally cursive italic hand, chiefly among the Talbot Papers now in Lambeth Palace, one in the National Archives, Kew, were mostly published in Edmund Lodge's Illustrations of British History (1838) – and are given entries below (CoH 165-179). It is quite possible that more letters by Constable will come to light in due course.

Peter Beal