Edmund Spenser



The Works of Edmund Spenser: A Variorum Edition, ed. Edwin Greenlaw, Charles Grosvenor Osgood, Frederick Morgan Padelford, Ray Heffner, Henry Gibbons Lotspeich, Rudolf Gottfried, et al., 9 vols + Index + A.C. Judson, Life of Spenser (Baltimore, 1932-58; reprinted in 11 volumes 1966).


None of Spenser's literary works is known to be preserved in his own handwriting. Neither is there any trace of the manuscript of at least parts of The Faerie Queene that had limited circulation in Spenser's circle before publication and which is effectively cited on numerous occasions in Marlowe's Tamberlaine. The nearest approximation to an extant ‘literary’ autograph manuscript by Spenser is a transcript of a letter in Latin from Erhardus Stibarus to Erasmus Neustetter, followed by two Latin poems, originally written on a blank leaf in Spenser's exemplum of Georgius Sabinus, Poemata (Leipzig, 1563), identified as his hand in the 1970s (SpE 64.5, SpE 64.8, *SpE 65).

Letters and Documents

Spenser's handwriting survives principally in a considerable number of letters and documents, some relating to his private affairs but mostly written in his official capacity as secretary in Ireland to Lord Grey and afterwards to Sir John Norris. Several scores of documents of this kind have so far been identified, principally among the Irish State Papers in the National Archives, Kew, and many other official papers bear Spenser's additions or endorsements. An index and discussion of the main documents allegedly in Spenser's hand, with facsimile examples, is in Roland M. Smith, ‘Spenser's Scholarly Script and “Right Writing”’, Studies in Honor of T.W. Baldwin, ed. Don Cameron Allen (Urbana, 1958), pp. 66-111. A listing of Spenser's letters and documents, besides comments on Spenser's handwriting, by Anthony G. Petti appear in The Spenser Encyclopedia, ed. A.C. Hamilton (Toronto, 1990), pp. 345-6. A selective listing of a considerable number of Irish papers believed to be written or inscribed by Spenser is in Christopher Burlinson and Andrew Zurcher, ‘“Secretary to the Lord Grey Lord Deputie here”: Edmund Spenser's Irish Papers’, The Library, 7th Ser. 6/1 (March 2005), 30-75, which also includes facsimile examples, and their edition Edmund Spenser Selected Letters and Other Papers (Oxford 2009). The latter, which also includes facsimile examples, comprises full texts of 46 letters and documents bearing what the editors believe to be Spenser's handwriting, 43 of them in the National Archives (SP 63 series), one at Hatfield House, and two in the British Library. It should perhaps be added that there is no absolute consensus about Spenser's handwriting. The identification of a formal italic hand among these documents, which differs considerably from his usual secretary and mixed italic scripts, is particularly controversial.

A document which Spenser wrote as secretary to John Young, Bishop of Rochester — a brief receipt for rent of the parsonage of Kirtling, signed ‘John Roffens’, 23 November 1578 — is now at the University of Kansas (MS uncat North 2C:2:1). A microfilm of this is in the British Library (RP 367). For other discussions and facsimiles, see particularly Hilary Jenkinson, ‘Elizabethan Handwritings: A Preliminary Sketch’, The Library, 4th Ser. 3 (1922-3), 1-34 (pp. 33-4); Henry R. Plomer, ‘Edmund Spenser's Handwriting’, Modern Philology, 21 (November 1923), 201-7; Greg, English Literary Autographs, Plates XXXIX-XL; Raymond Jenkins, ‘Spenser's Hand’, TLS (7 January 1932), p. 12; Jenkins, ‘Newes out of Munster, A Document in Spenser's Hand’, Studies in Philology, 32 (1935), 125-30; Jenkins, ‘Spenser with Lord Grey in Ireland’, PMLA, 52.i (1937), 338-53; Jenkins, ‘Spenser: The Uncertain Years 1584-1589’, PMLA, 53.i (1938), 350-62; Facsimiles of Royal, Historical, and Literary Autographs in the British Museum (1899), Plate 92; and Petti, English Literary Hands, Nos. 25-6.


Various early manuscript copies of, or extracts from, Spenser's poems are recorded in the entries below. Transcripts of poems from Complaints account for a number of entries. It is known that such copies were in circulation before 1591. The printer, William Ponsonby, tells the reader how he endeavoured to get hold of ‘such smale Poemes of the same Authors; as I heard were disperst abroad in sundrie hands, and not easie to bee come by, by himselfe; some of them hauing bene diuerslie imbeziled and purloyned from him, since his departure ouer Sea’. It seems likely, however, that most of the extant manuscript texts are of later date and transcribed from Ponsonby's edition. Their raison d'être is not immediately apparent. The only other poem by Spenser which seems to have had a modest circulation in manuscript is Sonnet VIII of the Amoretti (SpE 2-7).


Of Spenser's prose writings the only work extensively represented in the entries below is A View of the Present State of Ireland (SpE 45-64), scribal copies of which proliferated evidently since the work was of topical interest but — whether through outright denial or because official registration was not pursued — failed to obtain a license for printing (see SpE 47). Spenser's authorship of this work, which was not published under his name until 1633, and which is largely ascribed to Spenser in manuscripts after Spenser's death, has been questioned in intelligently argued articles by Jean Brink, although the balance of evidence is now generally accepted (by her as well) as being in favour of Spenser's authorship.

On the other hand, Brink's rejection of Spenser's authorship of A Brief Note of Ireland, which was included in the Variorum edition (and manuscripts of which are given entries below: SpE 42-44.5) — has been widely accepted.

A manuscript possibly, though not certainly, of A View of the Present State of Ireland that has not been given a separate entry below, although it would not seem to correspond to any of the manuscripts recorded here, is described as a folio manuscript of ‘State of Ireland, 1584. by way of a Dialogue’. It once belonged to Peter Le Neve (1661-1729), Norroy King of Arms and antiquary, and was sold in Wilcox's sale catalogue for 22 February 1730/1, p. 92, as lot 350, to Bacon. A similar item, but dated 1612, was lot 349, sold to West.


A few miscellaneous items relating to Spenser have also been given entries below. These include the two or three books which apparently belonged to Spenser (SpE 1, SpE 64.5, SpE 64.8); manuscripts of Latin versions of The Shepheardes Calender (SpE 27.2-27.120); a letter and manuscript commendatory verses concerning Spenser (SpE 66, SpE 67, SpE 85); two early critiques of The Faerie Queene, both by Sir Kenelm Digby, which had some circulation in manuscript (SpE 68-83); an anonymous Supplement of The Faerie Queene (SpE 84); and some printed exempla of that work which have notable readers' annotations (SpE 86-99).

One attribution to Spenser that can safely be dismissed is a small slip of paper with the words ‘Spenser [?] owes this booke’ which was recorded as a Spenser autograph in the printed catalogue of the R.B. Adam Library (1929), III, 225. The inscription, later in the Hyde Collection (Life, II 1, 42), is not in the hand of Edmund Spenser the poet.

Peter Beal