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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

IX. “A Mirror for Magistrates”

§ 1. The original design

A Mirror for Magistrates constitutes an important link between medieval and modern literature. It is a monument of industry, extending, in its most recent edition to more than 1400 closely printed pages, and retailing stories of misfortune and wickedness in high places, stretching from the time of Albanact (B.C. 1085) to that of queen Elizabeth. Its very title recalls a large class of earlier works, of which Gower’s Speculum Meditantis or Mirour de l’Omme is a conspicuous example. Its aim is medieval, whether we take the statement of its editor, Baldwin, in the address to the nobility—“here as in a loking glass, you shal se if any vice be in you, how the like hath ben punished in other heretofore, wherby admonished, I trust it will be a good occasione to move to the amendment”—or that in the address to the reader—“which might be as a mirour for al men as well nobles as others to shewe the slipery deceiptes of the wavering lady, and the due rewarde of all kinde of vices.” Its plan of stringing together a number of “tragedies” is medieval in its monotony—so much so that Chaucer put into the mouth of both Knight and Host a vigorous protest against it as adopted by himself in The Monk’s Tale. The scheme of the Mirror, with its medieval device of an interlocutor, was taken over directly from Lydgate’s translation (through Premierfait) of Boccaccio’s De Casibus Virorum Illustrium, of which, indeed, the Mirror is a continuation: originally, it was intended to be bound up in one volume with The Fall of Princes, and the first “tragedy,” in all the earlier editions, is entitled The Falle of Robert Tresilian. On the other hand, the Mirror had a large share in the development of historical poems and history plays in the Elizabethan period, and Sackville’s Induction is known to all who care for English poetry.

Warton’s ascription of the original design of the Mirror to Sackville still passes current, and even later historians leave the issue somewhat obscure. The assertion that Sackville was the originator of the whole work was not made by Niccols (editor of the 1610 version of the Mirror); Warton was misled by more recent authorities—that of Mrs. Cooper, perhaps, in the Muses Library (1738). It seems worth while to make the matter clear by quoting what Niccols actually says in his edition as to Sackville’s connection with the undertaking:

  • This worthie president of learning, intending to perfect all this storie himselfe from the Conquest, being called to a more serious expence of his time in the great state affaires of his most royall ladie and soveraigne, left the dispose thereof to M. Baldwine, M. Ferrers and others, the composers of these tragedies, who continuing their methode which was by way of dialogue or interlocution betwixt every tragedie, gave it onely place before the duke of Buckingham’s complaint.
  • There is nothing here ascribing to Sackville the original design. Indeed, the words “perfect” and “continuing” imply that Sackville’s undertaking was preceded by that of Baldwin, Ferrers and others; and this is plainly stated in Baldwin’s preface of 1563. When he proposed to read Sackville’s Induction
  • “Hath hee made a preface,” sayd one, “what meaneth hee thereby, seeing none other hath used the like order?” “I will tell you the cause thereof,” sayd I, “which is this; after that hee understoode that some of the counsayl would not suffer the booke to bee printed in such order as wee had agreede and determined, hee purposed to have gotten at my handes all the tragedies that were before the duke of Buckingham’s, which hee would have preserved in one volume. And from that time backward, even to the time of William the Conquerour, he determined to continue and perfect all the story him selfe, in such order as Lydgate (following Bochas) had already used. And therefore to make a meete induction into the matter, hee devised this poesie.”
  • Stanzas 76 and 77 of the Induction and stanza 2 of The Complaynt of Henry Duke of Buckingham show that Sackville intended to write other “complaints,” and there is some probability in0 Courthope’s suggestion that “when the Council prohibited the publication of the book, probably on account of its modern instances, he resolved to begin with ancient history.” According to the testimony of both Baldwin and Niccols, he intended to begin at the Conquest and to fill the gap between 1066 and 1388, which, as a matter of fact, was not filled until 1610. But that Sackville was one of the partners in the original design is doubtful, as he was only eighteen years of age when the first edition of the Mirror was being printed.

    Baldwin says in his “Epistle dedicatory” (1559): “The wurke was begun, and part of it printed .iiii. years agoe,” and this statement is borne out by a curious circumstance pointed out by W. F. Trench. The title-page of the first edition has survived at the end of a few copies of Wayland’s edition of Lydgate’s Fall of Princes, and, on the reverse, Wayland printed his licence, dated 20 October, 1553, and beginning: “Mary by the grace of God, Quene of Englande, Fraunce, and Ireland, defendour of the faith and in earth of the Churche of Englande, and also of Ireland, the supreme head.” Mary was relieved of the title “head of the church” by a statute passed 4 January, 1555, and it was informally dropped some months before that time. In the letter of John Elder to the bishop of Caithness, dated 1 January, 1555, and printed by Wayland, the letters patent are reproduced with the omission of the words italicised above. Wayland was a good Catholic and a printer of (mainly) religious books, and, naturally, he would make haste to conform with the law. Elder’s letter, printed in 1555, shows that he did so, and A memorial of suche Princes as since the tyme of King Richard the Seconde have been unfortunate in the Realme of England (so runs the original title-page) must have been printed in 1554.

    Wayland, however, was not the printer who originated the undertaking, and his attempt to carry it into execution was hindered by the lord chancellor, Stephen Gardiner. By the time that a licence had been procured through the influence of lord Stafford, Wayland had gone out of business, and the first editions issued to the public were printed by Thomas Marsh. The first editor of the Mirror, William Baldwin, apparently began his connection with the work of publishing as servant to Edward Whitchurch, who published his Treatise of Moral Philosophy (1547) and The Canticles (1549). On the accession of queen Mary, Whitchurch, who was a zealous protestant, apparently gave up business, and sold his stock-in-trade to Wayland and Tottel. Baldwin then entered the service of Wayland, who had taken over Whitchurch’s office at the sign of the Sun in Fleet street; and from his presses were issued Baldwin’s Brief Memorial (1554) and a new edition of the Moral Philosophy (1555). Whitchurch had in hand an edition of Lydgate’s Fall of Princes, and this was taken up by both Wayland and Tottel. Tottel’s edition bore a title-page including one of Whitchurch’s ornamental borders, marked with his initials; Wayland’s was issued from Whitchurch’s former office. Whitchurch, therefore, as Trench has shown, was the printer referred to in the extract from Baldwin’s address “To the Reader” given below (1559); and this conclusion is borne out by the fact that those concerned in the enterprise were, with the exception of Wayland, all protestants. It leads to the further inference that the book was first planned in the reign of Edward VI.

    The origin of the enterprise is best set forth in Baldwin’s own words in the following extract from his address “To the Reader” (1559):

  • When the printer had purposed with hym selfe to printe Lidgate’s booke of the fall of Princes, and had made privye thereto, many both honourable and worshipfull, he was counsailed by dyvers of them, to procure to have the storye contynewed from where as Bochas lefte, unto this presente time, chiefly of such as Fortune had dalyed with here in this ylande … which advice liked him so well, that hee requyred mee to take paynes therein.
  • Baldwin refused to undertake the task without assistance, and the printer, presumably still Whitchurch, persuaded divers learned men to take upon them part of the work.

  • And when certayne of them to the numbre of seaven, were through a generall assent at one apoynted time and place, gathered together to devise thereupon I resorted unto them, bearing with mee the booke of Bochas, translated by Dan Lidgate, for the better observation of his order: which although wee liked well yet would it not conveniently serve, seeing that both Bochas and Lidgate were deade, neyther were there any alive that medled with like argument, to whome the unfortunate might make theyr mone. To make therefore a state meete for the matter, they all agreede that I should usurpe Bochas’ rome, and the wretched princes complayne unto mee: and tooke upon themselves, every man for his part to be sundry personages, and in theyr behalfes to bewaile unto mee theyr greevous chaunces, heavy destenies, and woefull misfortunes.
  • Ferrers marvelled that Bochas had forgotten, among his miserable princes, those of our own nation—Britons, Danes, Saxons and English down to his own time.

  • It were therefore a goodly and notable matter, to searche and discourse our whole story from the first beginning of the inhabiting of the isle. But seeing the printer’s mind is to have us followe where Lidgate left, wee will leave that greate laboure to other that maye entende it, and (as one being bold first to breake the yse) I will begin at the time of Richarde the second, a time as unfortunate as the ruler therein.
  • The original design was, therefore, suggested to Whitchurch, and by him committed to Baldwin and his associates. Ferrers thought of beginning from the time of the ancient Britons, and it was the printer who decided that they should “follow where Lidgate left.” Baldwin intended to continue the story to queen Mary’s time, but he was fain to end it much sooner. “Whan I first tooke it in hand, I had the help of many graunted and offred of sum, but of few perfourmed, skarce of any” (“To the Nobilitie,” 1559). The original design of the Mirror was not carried out in its entirety until 1610; all the later contributions to it were contemplated in the plans of the original authors, and were, as we shall see, accomplished in consequence of their suggestions.

    What were to have been the contents of the original issue in folio, we do not know, except that they included the tragedies of Richard II and Owen Glendower, and, probably, most of those of part 1 (1559) and some of part II (1563).