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The King’s Man

The Works of Walter Quin: an Irishman at the Stuart Courts, edited with an introduction and notes by John Flood, Four Courts Press, 294 pp, €49.50, ISBN: 978-1846825040

The anniversary next year of Hugh O’Neill’s death in Rome in 1616 will not go unremarked. Coinciding as it does with the commemoration of the Easter Rising, the demise in exile of the Great Earl serves as a reminder of how long the path was which led to the GPO. It also makes clear that there was no direct route to the modern state: a sixteenth century nobleman’s conception of nationhood is necessarily different from that of early twentieth century school-teachers and publishers and poets. It seems inevitable, given the proximity of the anniversaries, that we will be invited to reflect on the variousness of their aspirations for Ireland, but it might be just as relevant to consider, in both cases, the role in our history played by the Irish abroad.

The international dimension of 1916 is well-established, and not just because James Connolly spoke with a Scottish accent and Eamon de Valera held a US passport. Military negotiations with Germany, funds sent from America, and the presence of Irishmen in the trenches of Europe all brought their influences to bear: events in Dublin were at the centre of a wide-reaching network of often conflicting hopes. An international cast also featured in O’Neill’s plans for Ireland. He looked for support in the Low Countries, in Spain and eventually in Rome, where he settled; his followers, a cohort of scholars and priests, established themselves in the courts of Europe to plead his cause, and they aligned their plans for Ireland’s future with the interests of their hosts.

As with the Easter Rising, there was in the early modern period more than one vision in play of Ireland’s destiny. Walter Quin, born in Dublin about 1575, was to die in 1640 “an ancient servant to the Royal family” – but in his case the royal family meant the Stuarts rather than the Hapsburgs or Borghese, with whom O’Neill had lodged Ireland’s hopes. Quin was a poet and sometime tutor at the Stuart courts in Scotland and then in England. In literary terms, he is a marginal figure. His output of prefatory verses, occasional poems, anagrams, and other texts for his patrons – here assembled through the painstaking detective work of John Flood – is notable for its engagement with literary fashions, and for its linguistic versatility: Quin wrote fluently in English, Latin, French and Italian. The chief interest of the collection, however, may lie in its politics. Quin’s affiliation with the Stuart cause, and his determination to establish Ireland’s place under their rule, provides a fascinating side-show to the drama unfolding around O’Neill.

Quin’s early career is obscure. He matriculated in 1590 at the University of Ingolstadt, the Bavarian alma mater of Holy Roman emperors, and, a little later, of Victor Frankenstein. It was there that Quin published his first Latin verses in the poetry collections then commonly produced by universities as memorials to deceased colleagues and patrons. The men Quin praised in these works were both Catholic bishops, and Ingolstadt was a Jesuit institution, which makes the Dubliner’s next appearance in history, in the register of the University of St Andrews, a little unexpected: he seems to have decided, in 1600, to take a degree in theology at that fiercely Protestant institution. A religious conversion is hardly out of the question, although Flood canvasses the more glamorous possibility that Quin was a spy – perhaps one of the go-betweens involved in the Scottish king’s negotiations in Catholic Europe about his claim to the English throne. Either way, it is as a supporter of that claim that he appears in English intelligence reports. His work carefully skirts religious controversy, but from 1595 onwards he was earning his place at the Scottish court with a body of writing arguing firmly for James VI’s rightful place as successor to Elizabeth.

The Anagrammata in nomen Jacobi sexti (Anagrams on the name of James VI, 1595) is the earliest surviving example of Quin at work for the Stuarts. This manuscript collection of anagrams on the name of the king (for example Charles James Stuart: love the wise, just king) includes efforts in Latin, Italian and French. The anagrams themselves suggest a certain amount of creative leeway – not just the cheerful swapping of letters, seen in the example here, but also in terms of the names themselves. The addition of Charles to the king’s name appears from p 49 onwards in this volume, but is not explained until p 69, in the preface to Quin’s next publication, Sertum Poeticum (A garland of poetry) of 1600, which is an expansion of the material of the Anagrammata. This explains that the rogue Charles comes from Charles IX, king of France, who was James’s godfather. The reader’s pleasure in Quin’s ingenuity both in the anagrams and the poems which accompany them does not depend on strict accuracy, but an editorial note to the Anagrammata might have prevented some bafflement over the issue of the unfamiliar name.

The matter of the poems is compelling. Both in the Anagrammata and the Sertum Poeticum Quin’s virtuosity serves as a platform for an unmistakeable political statement. The Tudors had for three generations been supporting their position on the English throne by claiming the legendary King Arthur as their ancestor. Spenser’s Faerie Queene, in which Arthur features as the ultimate knight errant, and Merlin pops up conveniently with prophecies about Elizabeth, is just one of the many literary texts designed to strengthen the association. Quin edges on to that territory, decoding “Charles James Stuart” to reveal the destiny lurking in the king’s name: “Claimes Arthur’s seat” and “Cease lets, I am Arthur”. He appropriates another Tudor myth – that they were descended from the Trojans, and thus, from the Romans whose city they founded after the fall of Troy: “Charles Jacques Stuart: Qui est là? César, Arthus” (who is there? Caesar, Arthur). James, as Quin puts it, has “the bravery and the good fortune of a Caesar” and the “clemency and mildness of an Arthur”: who better to rule?

The Arthurian imagery may tread on the toes of the Tudor myth-makers, but it is also an argument for the union of Scotland and England. Legend associated Arthur with a period of peaceful unity, and Quin was ready to apply this to the kingdoms in play around 1600: Arthur was “by law and destiny the great monarch of the islands”, and the territory of those islands was clearly established: “The Orkney fisherman, the wealthy harvester of the great plain bounded in the middle island, and the homeland of the Irish, with joy of heart render [James] homage.” Most versions of the Arthur story do not list Ireland among his realms, but Quin was specific about including it in his vision of James’s domain. His description of the Scottish royal arms argues for an Irish dimension to the king’s ancestry: “Nor would the three lyres [harps], which Ireland adds to the coat of arms, be though unbecoming of your honour, since these are the insignia of this ancient kingdom, from which the venerable origin of Scottish kings emanated.” Flood suggests that Quin’s nationality might have made him a welcome figure in James’s train – his acquiesence as an Irishman in these plans giving substance to the king’s notion that he could unite the three kingdoms.

In supporting these ambitions, Quin was setting himself up in opposition to Catholic support for the claims of the Spanish Infanta to be recognised as Elizabeth’s heir. Flood deals with this briefly, making the intriguing argument that the Anagrammata might have been produced in response to the famous Conference about the next succession to the crowne of Ingland (1594/5). This text made a significant attack on the rights of James in respect of the succession, claiming that he was unfit to rule on the grounds of his religion, and also, that both the English and the Scottish were resistant to the idea of union. (The arguments on this head, that England would be impoverished by the dependence of her less wealthy neighbour, and that Scotland would not relish losing her independence, are markedly topical once again.) The Conference was written under the collective pseudonym of “R. Doleman”, which certainly covered the English Jesuit Robert Persons, and possibly included other English exiles like the printer and polemecist Richard Verstegan. Flood suggests it might also have concealed the identity of Richard Stanihurst, the Irish writer and priest. There is no further discussion of this possibility in the text, and not much development of the political dimension of Quin’s writing, but these can hardly be said to be within the scope of the edition, which is quite a hefty tome as it stands. It is clear, however, that Quin’s vision of a future for Ireland within a Stuart monarchy was prescient, and that this edition will be a valuable tool for historians interested in the variousness of Irish identity and ambition in the early years of the seventeenth century.

Not all of Quin’s writing is concerned with union. He produced works on many of the standard topics which might be expected of a court poet: celebrating the king’s escape from an assassination attempt in 1600 (an event which prompted a general outpouring of sonnets); mourning the death of James’s own heir, Prince Henry (again, an occasion for widespread poetic effort); celebrating the Stuart ancestry. His poetic achievement is not remarkable, although his pattern poems are ingenious and his long work in heroic couplets recounting the life of Bernard Stuart features some notably Byronic effects: his decision to rhyme “th’usurping house of Aragon” with the “duke of Milan, egging on” is like one of the more outrageous passages in Don Juan, although without, perhaps, the same sense of irony. That last is in some doubt, however, because Quin was certainly respected in poetic circles. He was associated with several of the better-known writers of his day, like Thomas Coryate and William Alexander, to whose Darius (1603) he contributed a prefatory sonnet. The source for this poem is identified in the notes as a 1591 verse by Henry Lok, another foreigner and possible spy at the Scottish court; however, it seems even more likely to be Petrarch’s Canzoniere 187, a well-known text which underlies Lok as well as similar poems by Henry Howard and Thomas Hoby. This petrarchism, along with his versatile engagement with other fashionable forms of his day, makes Quin a rewarding, if not precisely an inspiring, figure for further study.

Four Courts has produced a handsome volume, and although there seem to be some slips in the transcription of the Bernard Stuart poem where a word seems an unlikely choice or the metre falters, these are minor when set against the achievement of tracking down and then editing Quin’s very scattered rhymes. The work of Flood and his team of translators is impressive – although it must be said that the translators deserve more prominence. David Butterfield, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin rendered Quin’s Latin and Italian writings into English, and given the importance of their contribution, and the bulk of the work involved, their names might have appeared at least at the head of their translations rather than in the acknowledgements. Their versions appear, naturally, in contemporary English, but I question the sense behind the presentation of Quin’s original texts in modernised form. This was clearly a point on which the editor expended a great deal of thought, as there is a two-page note on the subject, but his defence – that “the first edition of [Quin’s] work should reach the widest audience possible” – is, alas, not one that stands. Specialists will be grateful for the unstinting research that underlies this volume, but they will still have to consult the manuscripts if they wish to quote Quin in his original spelling (as they will, because Flood argues so convincingly for his worth); and until the reading habits of the general public change and there is a clamour in the streets for popular editions of complimentary poems about the Stuarts, this is a book for which the widest audience is the specialist historians and literary critics who will receive it with enthusiasm as a valuable contribution to our knowledge about Irish politics and writing in the renaissance.


Deirdre Serjeantson lectures in early-modern literature at the University of Essex. She is currently completing a monograph on early-modern translations of Petrarch’s Canzoniere.


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