John Hoskyns



David Colclough, ‘“The Muses Recreation”: John Hoskyns and the Manuscript Culture of the Seventeenth Century’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 61 (1998), 369-400.


Louise Brown Osborn, The Life, Letters, and Writings of John Hoskyns 1566-1638 (New Haven & London, 1937).


Baird W. Whitlock, John Hoskyns, Serjeant-at-Law (Washington, DC, 1982).


John Hoskyns (who invariably spelt his name so) was an outspoken Member of Parliament and a lawyer of the Middle Temple who rose to the office of serjeant at law. He was perhaps almost equally well-known in his lifetime for his wit, which according to Aubrey could be ‘bitterly satyrical’ as well as convivial. These traits, as well as his scholarly learning and command of Latin, are clearly represented in the poetry he wrote, and for which he is best remembered today.


As with so many other poets of his time who never published their verse, his writings survive in widely scattered manuscript copies, none of them in his own hand. According to John Aubrey (Bodleian MS Rawl. D 727, f. 93v) Hoskyns ‘had a booke of Poems neatly written (by one of his Clerks) bigger then Dr Donns Poems, wch his sonn Benet lent to he knowes not who about 1653. & could never heare of it since’. For lack of such a collection today, the canon of Hoskyns's poems is therefore uncertain. Even the most famous (or notorious) poem associated with him, the hugely popular verses on ‘the Parliament fart’, could perhaps be partly by others, or else, as has been suggested, written originally by Hoskyns in Latin and translated by John Reynolds.

The verse canon, both English and Latin, accepted by his editor, Louise Brown Osborn, with a few revisions by Whitlock and Colclough, is consequently based chiefly on ascriptions in manuscript sources. While the majority are probably valid, some of the poems can also be found ascribed to other poets; moreover yet other poems not incorporated by Osborn can be found ascribed to him. One particularly well-known epitaph on Sir Walter Ralegh, for instance, that beginning ‘Great heart who taught thee so to die’, is ascribed to Hoskins in at least one contemporary manuscript copy (Wiltshire and Swindon Archives 865/500, f. [33r]), and Hoskyns knew Ralegh when they were both confined in the Tower. This widely circulated poem is not, however, given entries below.

Osborn also includes (pp. 297-9), among her ‘Doubtful Verses’, various epigrams which were published in Camden's Remaines (1605), some of which are found in one of Camden's own compilations (British Library, Cotton MS Julius F. XI, f. 98r). These items are anonymous, however, and must remain among verses on the fringes of this already provisional canon.


In the field of prose writing, Hoskyns is reported by Aubrey to have written ‘severall Treatises’, including ‘a method of the lawe (imperfect)’ and ‘his own life (which his grandsonne Sir John Hoskyns, knight and baronet haz)’. The only one of these writings known today is his Directions for Speech and Style, of which three manuscripts survive (HoJ 339-342). His participation in the Middle Temple Christmas revels of 1597-8 led to his comic Fustian Speech (HoJ 342.5-344). Moreover, his career as a Member of Parliament led to him giving sometimes controversial Parliamentary speeches, one of which. led to his imprisonment in the Tower from 8 June 1614 to 8 June 1615. As recorded by parliamentary scribes, his speeches generally survive as summary abridgements, a few of which are recorded below (HoJ 345-353). A systematic search of the numerous extant parliamentary journals of the period would no doubt bring many more copies to light. For an extensive account of Hoskyns's participation in Parliamentary debates, see Whitlock, passim.

Letters and Documents

Another notable contribution to Hoskyn's writings is his ‘familiar’, or personal, letters, which Aubrey declared ‘were admirable’ and whose ‘arresting vividness’ has been warmly praised by the author's modern editor. Of the 34 letters by him recorded below (HoJ 354-388), thirty of them, dating from 1601 to 1629, preserved in Sizergh Castle, Westmorland, were printed for the first time in Osborn (pp. 62-97). Nearly all of them are autograph, the majority to his first wife, some to his step-daughter. The Sizergh muniments also include the earliest of three extant wills written by Hoskyns (HoJ 391-394).

Various other documents relating to Hoskyns are recorded in Whitlock, passim.

Peter Beal