George Ferrers: A Fleetingly Famous Gentleman (this is the first chapter of a book i have been
working on for some time . . . . )
I am Ferris, the lord off misrule . . .
On the 4th of January, 1552, George Ferrers, the “Lord of Misrule” over the Christmas court of
fourteen year old King Edward VI of England, took an early morning barge from Greenwich
Palace upriver to the wharf adjacent to the Tower of London, for a round of festivities in the city
that showcased his talents as a Tudor Renaissance court entertainer. It was likely that the wintry
weather was particularly brutal for the short river excursion. While the normal temperature
would have been 45f (8C) this time of year, during the previous December and into the new year
southeastern England had been assaulted by raging winds, thunder and hail storms, coastal
flooding, and dangerous tidal surges that churned the Thames all the way to Richmond. It is
possible that a respite from these volatile conditions occurred that day, but even foul weather
would hardly have dampened the spirits of a man who was on that day the most famous
personage in the city of London.
By this tenth day of Christmas, Ferrers “reign” as “Lord of Misrule” had been acclaimed a
smashing success, earning for him a momentary flash of fame that would follow him for the
twenty-five years remaining to his life. The diverse entertainments already produced were
apparently just what the doctor had ordered for a supposedly emotionally ailing King Edward,
to take his mind off the impending execution of his uterine uncle and convicted felon, Edward
Seymour, Duke of Somerset, at least according to Richard Grafton, grocer, historian, and printer
to the underage Tudor king. Nevertheless, whatever the motivation behind his appointment as
lord of misrule, Ferrers took full advantage of this opportunity to unleash his intellectual and
creative talents, driving master of the revels Thomas Cawarden to distraction with his petulant
and incessant daily missives concerning costumes and props, which were backed up by the
authority of John Dudley, duke of Northumberland and Lord President of the Privy Council
which governed in King Edward’s name. Historically, holiday lords of misrule, a relic of
classical paganism, were often boisterous characters whose behavior could easily lapse into the
lewd and the profane, a particular form of holiday social inversion that was a long standing
tradition within the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, as well as within the households of
great noble houses and the Inns of Court, where Ferrers undoubtedly gained the experience for
his reign as a mock king.
Indeed, Ferrers, a man conversant in both courtier and intellectual circles, was the perfect
choice to revive an “office” that had gone dormant for over sixteen years and give it a
Renaissance make-over for the discernment of the superbly educated and militantly Protestant
Edward VI. Often characterized as a prim Protestant prig, in reality Edward liked to be
entertained, proving himself a worthy son to his father Henry VIII, another talented Renaissance
entertainer, with his hands on approach concerning the type of productions he wished to see
presented, some of which he participated in himself. According to Grafton, Ferrers was “a
gentleman both wise and learned” who provided highly entertaining interludes that combined
representations of humanist Renaissance imagery with breathtaking spectacle, bawdy humor,
and just the right touch of Edwardian Protestant political correctness, to the withering disgust of
Jean Scheyfve, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s resident ambassador, on account of its its
satirical anti-Catholic representations. But we can assume that most of the people who
populated Edward VI’s court that Christmas season were suitably dazzled by Ferrers’ slate of
entertainments, such as the recently knighted William Cecil, secretary to the Privy Council, as
well as the youthful Robert Dudley, a member of King Edward’s Privy Chamber. Perhaps
“magus” John Dee, a client of Dudley’s father Northumberland, and soon to be Ferrers’ lifelong
arch-enemy, also beheld these Christmas festivities.
While Ferrers was the consummate showman on stage, behind the scenes he was a bundle of
nervous excitement, as deadly serious about producing his entertainments as he was writing and
performing them. By this tenth day of Christmas, Ferrers’ painstaking attention to detail had
already resulted in an extravaganza unrivaled in the annals of Tudor courtly performance,
setting an enduring benchmark for later Elizabethan and Jacobean holiday revels. Thirty years
after the fact, Grafton’s great rival John Stow offered a glowing review of his performance,
George Ferrers, Gentleman of Lincoln’s Inn, being
lord of the merry disports all the twelve days, who
so pleasantly and wisely behaved himselfe, that the
King had great delight in his pastimes.
With the wind of success at his back, following some last minute wardrobe changes, Ferrers
landed at Tower wharf, where he and his “court” marched in triumph first to Tower hill, and
then to Cheap Street, where a scaffold had been erected. According to diarist Henry Machyn,
Ferrers had with him,
Yonge knights and gentyllmen a gret nombur on [horseb]ake sum
in gownes and cotes and chynes abowt ther nekes, every man having
a balderyke of yellow and grene abowt ther nekes . . .
all of whom “declayng my lord grett, and then the mores danse dansyng with a tabret, and
afor xx of ys consell on horsbake in gownes of chanabulle lynded with blue taffeta and
capes of the sam . . .
After this flock of peacocks had danced their way to Cheap Street, the articles of “punishment”
were put on display, including the axe, the gibbet, and the stocks, all representative of the
“judicial” power of The Lord of Misrule. As Ferrers and his “consell’ assembled themselves on
the stage, they drank a toast before the axe was used to “smite” the head off a hogshead of wine,
so that “every body mytht drynke,” an act perhaps in tribute to Somerset, Ferrers’ former patron,
and his enduring reputation as “the good Duke” who cared for the welfare of the English
people. Ferrers and his “court” then proceeded on to the house of the Lord Mayor of London,
Sir George Barne, for a dinner “as youe have [never] sene.” Barne later sent Ferrers off with “a
standing cup with a cover of silver and gilt of the value of ten pounds,” as well as a hogshead of
wine, a barrel of beer, and the unrestrained esteem of himself and the Londoners. Continuing
his triumph, the Lord of Misrule stopped for a visit to the Lord Treasurer’s and he was off to
entertain the crowds once more at Bishop’s Gate before returning to the Tower wharf and back to
Greenwich Palace, to enjoy the final two days of his reign.
Ferrers’ success guaranteed him a return engagement as Lord of Misrule the following holiday
season. Ferrers’ and his collaborators, William Baldwin and the Chaloner brothers Thomas and
Francis, labored like scholars to top the previous year’s festivities, as their encore performance
featured a Renaissance smorgasbord of characters, including classical deities, divines,
philosophers, an astronomer, a poet, a physician, an apothecary, and various clowns, jugglers,
and friars. It appears that these men thoroughly enjoyed this creative process; in his later work,
Beware of the Cat (1570), Baldwin playfully described Ferrers’ humorous, easy going manner,
revealing a man who clearly enjoyed composing works combining artistic and intellectual
themes with music and dancing. Contemporary descriptions of the entertainments devised for
this final Edwardian Christmas sound much like an early modern form of vaudeville with a
Calvinist edge, but the reviews for Ferrers’ second “reign” were as positive as they had been for
the first, as King Edward, in the last year of his life, continued to employ Ferrers and his cohorts
for entertainments beyond the conclusion of the Christmas festivities.
The diverse cast of characters featured in Ferrers’ stage productions was mirrored by the
diversity of the experiences of his own life; his fame as lord of misrule was but one episode in
the multidimensional life of this Tudor Renaissance gentleman. Ferrers was, in fact, fleetingly
famous during much of the sixteenth century in England, earning contemporary praise and
notoriety primarily for diverse and momentary bursts of fame rather than for a body of sustained
achievements within any specific context. Today, his historical shade is only visible within a
fragmented assemblage of literary, documentary, and narrative sixteenth century primary
sources, which, collectively examined, reveals both the deficiencies and the limitations of current
paradigms of early modern historical and literary research. For instance, while cultural
historians are quite familiar with Ferrers’ reign as Lord of Misrule, sixteenth century English
literary scholars know him as a substantial contributor to various editions of a volume
published several times over the course of Elizabeth I’s reign entitled The Mirror for Magistrates,
as well as one of the authors of the numerous entertainments performed for Elizabeth during her
memorable visit to Kenilworth Castle in 1575. But cultural historians and literary scholars are
not necessarily concerned or aware that Ferrers was the translator of the first English language
version of Magna Carta three decades prior to Kenilworth, or, as an MP in the House of
Commons, that he provided the context for Henry VIII’s most famous pronouncement on the
theoretical relationship between king and parliament in 1542.
Ferrers’ failure to achieve a more lasting and durable fame is due to the fact that his career
defies a conventional categorization; his resume was so variegated that his achievements have
never been collectively celebrated. Indeed, he seems to have eluded the interest of scholars for
precisely this reason; the various facets of his life and career are compartmentalized within a
number of specific contexts, encompassing legal, military, and parliamentary histories, literary
criticism, foreign affairs, and a handful of brief, sometimes bizarre, mentions in narrative
sources, state papers, and local archives. The most substantial secondary sources describing
George Ferrers are brief biographical sketches in various editions of the Oxford Dictionary of
National Biography and the History of Parliament series. While these essays do a fine job of
creating a timeline, there is neither analysis nor speculation concerning the possible motivations
behind the twists and turns of Ferrers’ life. Indeed, the sheer diversity of his career renders his
life a puzzle difficult to piece together; at various stages times he was a poet, soldier, historian,
lawyer, courtier, entertainer extraordinaire, and an acquisitive landlord with an exacting
management style. From his vantage point at the royal courts of the Tudor monarchs Henry VIII,
Edward VI, and Mary I, Ferrers possessed the uncanny ability to survive the falls of a series of
powerful patrons and repeatedly land on his feet as he negotiated the often turbulent political,
economic, and religious changes that characterized the Tudor century.
This book assembles and contextualizes the disparate strands of Ferrers’ achievements against
the backdrop of the history of his times. With this methodology, the emergent narrative of
George Ferrers’ life casts fresh light upon our current understanding of the relationship between
the Tudor royal court and the periphery of local government, Humanism and the English
Reformation, and the symbiotic relationship between culture and history within the context of
the English Renaissance. This in itself makes the George Ferrers story well worth the telling.
Like the protagonist of Natalie Zemon Davis’ classic The Return of Martin Guerre (1985), Ferrers
spent the vast majority of his life in obscurity, like most of his countrymen, only to occasionally
become the focus of contemporary notice. He was, in fact, a textbook example of what Stephen
Greenblatt has termed a Renaissance “self-fashioner,” moving from the rural periphery of the
middling ranks of the gentry to a coveted place at the epicenter of the Tudor royal court Where
his life differed considerably from other, more celebrated Renaissance figures from Thomas
More to Edmund Spenser was that, despite his abilities and opportunities, Ferrers, at critical
junctures of his life, seemingly chose to live under the radar of significant and sustained national
historical recognition, preferring the pleasures of his country estates, where he wrote history and
poetry, and exercised local power and influence as a ‘big fish’ in the smaller pond of
Hertfordshire politics and society. Thus, while most of George Ferrers’ life is lost to us today, it
is those momentary flashes that survived in the historical record, those occasional blips on the
Tudor radar, that compel us to ask startlingly original questions about our supposed certitudes
about Tudor political, social, and economic life, from the perspective of a man whose life story is
neither “history from the top down” nor ‘history from the bottom up” but rather somewhere on
the upper levels of in-between. Because Ferrers spent most of his life in relative obscurity,
however, uncovering and interpreting the narrative thread of his life against the backdrop of the
sixteenth century requires a good deal of cross referencing with the experiences of other
individuals with similar class origins, education, and opportunities for economic and political
The Pastimes of George Ferrers
While much of Ferrers’ life and work is lost to us today, the following brief outline describes
what can only be described as the life of a true Renaissance gentleman. Born in 1510 (or perhaps
1500) in the town of St. Albans, just thirty five miles north of London in the pleasant provincial
backwater of Hertfordshire, Ferrers was the son of a municipal property owner and a Devonshire
heiress. . His first discernible career was as an undergraduate at Cambridge, where in 1531 he
received a bachelor’s degree in Canon Law while still in his early twenties. His college days
encompassed those momentous years in the middle of Henry VIII’s reign when the “kings’ great
matter,” the quest for a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, transformed into the English
Reformation, as young and ambitious lawyers clamored to fill the administrative ranks of what
G.R. Elton famously termed the ‘Tudor Revolution in Government. ’
But Ferrers remained a scholar; in 1533 bearing the primary responsibility for editing and
translating The Great Boke of Statutes, and the next year, the first published English translation
of Magna Carta. In November 1534 Ferrers was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn to practice law.
Ferrers turned out to be a more than competent lawyer; the noted antiquarian John Leland
considered him a particularly skillful orator and litigator. His legal prowess and obvious
scholarly talents were attributes that could have easily lent themselves to a promising
administrative career in royal government. Instead, Ferrers apparently craved the glitz and
glitter of the courtier’s life without any discernible desire for an office in royal government. By
the mid 1530s Ferrers obtained the notice and goodwill of the best of all possible patrons for that
particular moment in time, Thomas Cromwell, secretary to the King’s Privy Council, who found
him a place in his ministerial household, most likely because of his scholarly and legal
achievements. By 1538, Ferrers had risen high enough in Cromwell’s esteem to rate inclusion as
a gentleman “most mete to be daily waiters upon my said lord and allowed in his house.”
By the time of Cromwell’s fall from power and execution in 1540, however, Ferrers had reached
the pinnacle of mid-Tudor social and political achievement, catching the eye of Henry VIII
himself, who apparently liked what he saw and heard from the man referred to as ‘Young
Ferres,’ entering the King’s privy chamber in 1538. The next year, 1539, ‘Young Ferres’ was
styled a ‘squire’ in the categories of personages slated to welcome Henry’s fourth wife Anne of
Cleves’s upon her arrival to England, and later serving as man of the spears, signifying his social
status as a gentleman seemingly on the fast track to knighthood, a status Ferrers never obtained
over the course of his long life. Fortunately, proximity to the royal person of the king translated
into prestige as well as patronage. Ferrers had been friends with another gentleman of the privy
chamber, Humphrey Bourchier. Bourchier’s wife Elizabeth came from a long line of gentry in
the Caddington region of Hertfordshire, specifically in the region close to what used to be
Markyate priory, a nunnery situated on a prime parcel of real estate which had been dissolved in
the late 1530s along with all the rest of the former monasteries and religious lands in England.
Bourchier had a lease on the lordship of Markyate, but was having a hard time coming up with
the cash for outright purchase when he died in 1540. In December of 1541, at the age of 31,
George’s bachelorhood ended when he married Bourchier’s widow Elizabeth, the first of his
Ferrers’ marriage and initial land acquisition coincided with the onset of his parliamentary
career. In 1542, Ferrers was elected MP for the borough of Plymouth, accepting a satin doublet
in lieu of wages, as he undoubtedly recognized the wisdom behind dressing for success while
sitting in the Commons. It was during this session that Ferrers had his first brush with fame,
following his arrest for an unpaid debt he had provided surety for, which prompted the king
himself to make his most famous statement on the Tudor constitutional theory, as he
acknowledged the right of members of parliament to enjoy immunity from arrest while
parliament was in session, assuring Ferrers a footnote in parliamentary histories for the
following five centuries. Indeed, this episode is sometimes considered his most famous
performance; the online encyclopedia Wikipedia article on George Ferrers only mentions this
incident and nothing else about his life at all! Ferrers continued to enjoy Henry VIII’s favor until
the end of his reign, accompanying the king on his final continental military escapade in 1544,
which resulted in the capture of French city of Boulogne.
Like many other figures resident at the Tudor court, Ferrers proved adept in locating and
attaching himself to the ever-changing locus of power at court. By the time Henry VIII died in
January 1547, Ferrers had already ingratiated himself with the Duke of Somerset, who dominated
Edward VI’s minority regime as Lord Protector until his fall from power in October 1549, and
Somerset’s younger brother, Thomas Seymour, Lord Sudeley. Although only nine years old
upon his accession, Edward VI was a providential prodigy, intellectually and religiously, who
also had a keen admiration for successful martial exploits conducted in the heat of battle, as the
young king paid careful attention to the Scottish policy of his uncle, Protector Somerset, the
“Hammer of the Scots.” It is not surprising, then, that such a well-rounded figure like Ferrers
would appeal to the young king; Ferrers was no stranger to the battlefield, and was in Somerset’s
train during the 1547 Scottish campaign, as was William Cecil, who served as Somerset’s
secretary. A gentleman named William Patten wrote a firsthand account of this campaign,
referring to Ferrers as “a gentleman of my lord Protector’s and one of the commissioners of
carriages in this arm.” Ferrers obviously distinguished himself sufficiently during the
campaign; the king himself presented Ferrers with a copy of an account of the 1547 Scottish
campaign written by one Le Sieur Berteville, although he was not knighted, as was his lifelong
friend and literary collaborator Thomas Chaloner.
Following the 1547 Scottish campaign, Ferrers reaped a patronage windfall, obtaining a grant
of the reversion of the premises of what had been a large chunk of Marykate priory, in the areas
of Flamstead and Caddington in northwest Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire, with a yearly value
of 28l 3s 71/2d . This patronage plumb augmented Ferrers’ initial acquisition of key lands in
this region, begun by his marriage to Humphrey Bourchier’s widow. For the rest of his life,
Ferrers endeavored to increase his holdings in the regions of western Hertfordshire surrounding
Marykate, including portions of the areas of Caddington and Flamstead.
As he consolidated his landholdings, Ferrers also returned as an MP to the House of
Commons, perhaps aided by Sudeley, who apparently helped him obtain his seat for the
borough of Cirencester in Edward’s first parliament. By this time, George had married again,
this time to Jane, daughter of John Southecote of St. Albans, following the untimely (or perhaps
convenient) death of his first wife Elizabeth, who had provided Ferrers with his original interest
in Markyate priory. Despite his presence at the epicenter of the Henrician and Edwardian royal
courts, George always saw fit to marry a Hertfordshire heiress. His appointment as justice of the
peace for Hertfordshire in 1547, a post he held until 1554, may very well have been the summit
of George’s social and political aspirations. In fact, it appears that, rather than seeking a post at
the center of royal government, Ferrers sought the ultimate form of local post, which ostensibly
represented the interests of the crown, yet still allowed such office holders wide latitude in the
civil and criminal jurisdictions of their home counties. For Ferrers, the top of the Tudor greasy
lay in Hertfordshire, and not Westminster nor Whitehall.
Nevertheless, Ferrers’ power and influence in the periphery of Hertfordshire was directly
related to his connections at the metropole of the royal court. The Seymour connection could
have been a serious liability by the end of 1549, as the reckless Thomas Seymour had been
attainted for treason and beheaded the previous March, while Somerset was toppled from power
in October by a coup led by John Dudley, later duke of Northumberland, who dominated the
governance of the minority as a de facto regent for the remainder of the reign. As Ferrers made
the leap from Cromwell to Henry VIII, he negotiated a similar transition from Somerset to
Northumberland, as did his contemporary William Cecil. This time, however, it was a rockier
road, but one that nonetheless demonstrated Ferrers’ adaptability to changing political
circumstances. In April 1550, Ferrers had been apprehended and put under house arrest in
Northumberland’s house in Greenwich on suspicion of writing inflammatory pamphlets in
support of Somerset. However, a year and a half later, he found himself appointed to reign as
‘lord of misrule’ over Edward’s Christmas court of 1551/1552, while Edward’s uncle, the newly
convicted felon Somerset, was incarcerated in the Tower of London under a death sentence.
The story of Ferrers’ reign as lord of misrule, as we have seen, constituted his most famous
historical performance, at least to his sixteenth century contemporaries. But despite
Northumberland’s outward show of approval, Ferrers never received a more permanent and
lucrative court post, such as an appointment to Edward’s privy chamber, which he had enjoyed
under Henry VIII, nor did he gain any political office under Northumberland. This is not
necessarily proof of any smoldering animosity on Northumberland’s part, indeed Ferrers may
not have even wanted a court post at all, which he had not obtained from Somerset either.
Indeed, as we shall see, Ferrers would later enjoy indirect patronage during Elizabeth’s reign
from Northumberland’s son, Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, and royal favorite extraordinaire,
who provided Ferrers with the venue for his final moment on the Tudor historical stage. By
1552, as the teenaged Edward VI was transitioning to his majority rule, Ferrers may have
bypassed Northumberland completely when he was granted possession of Flamstead manor,
probably by Edward himself, although a lease on the property still existed, which later
developed into a legal dispute in Mary’s reign.
Nevertheless, Ferrers’ fame proved a double-edged sword following King Edward’s untimely
death (6 July 1553). During the reign of his half-sister and successor, the Catholic Mary I (1553-
1558), Ferrers’ activities acquired a decided murkiness in the historical record, as various
Elizabethan editions of John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments identified Ferrers as being arrested
soon after Mary’s accession in August 1553 and then attending her coronation in October, while
several editions of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography assert that Ferrers served as
Lord of Misrule for her first Christmas court.
The next occasion when an individual appears in the historical record who was indisputably
George Ferrers was during the Wyatt Revolt, which erupted at the end of January 1554, over
Mary’s determination to take her Catholic Hapsburg cousin, prince Philip of Spain, as her
husband. In Edward Underhill’s account, Ferrers remained prestigious enough to be sent by
Mary’s Privy Council to Lord William Howard, who was in charge of the watch at London
Bridge. After Ferrers joined Underhill’s party, they approached Ludgate, which was locked. Of
the three men in their party, Ferrers was the most well known, as he attempted to use his fame to
get inside the city walls, a tactic that failed miserably. Nevertheless, after the Queen’s forces
had crushed the revolt, Ferrers was rewarded with £100 for his efforts.
Despite his show of bravery and loyal support for the queen, it was Ferrers’ other passion, as a
dedicated Humanist, that got him into trouble with Mary’s regime. It seems more than ironic
that Ferrers began contributing to the work, originally titled A memorial of suche Princes, that
later became The Mirror For Magistrates, at the precise moment he stopped being a magistrate,
when his tenure as Justice of the Peace for Hertfordshire was abruptly terminated in 1554. The
impetus for this project came from Ferrers’ friend and collaborator William Baldwin, which was
ostensibly a continuation of John Lydgate’s fifteenth century poetic history, The Fall of Princes,
which included descriptions of historical figures from the late fourteenth to the late fifteenth
centuries, whose moral failings were meant to serve as warnings to contemporary political
figures. Indeed, the very first chapter of this work was Ferrers’ poetic history of the career of
Robert Tresilian, who flouted the law at the instigation of Richard II, and was later executed by
the Lords Appellant during the Merciless Parliament of 1388. As literary scholar Scott Lucas has
suggested, a Memorial of suche Princes was actually a politically charged critique of both
Northumberland’s minority regime and Mary I’s subsequent reign; which Mary’s Lord
Chancellor Stephen Gardiner censored just prior to publication. Given the fact that Ferrers had
hitherto displayed conspicuous loyalty to Mary’s regime, particularly during the Wyatt revolt, it
seems likely that Ferrers’ lost his Justice of the Peace commission because of his involvement in
the abortive a Memorial of suche Princes project, in which he seemingly traded his own
magistracy to write about historical magistracies as cautionary tales for his own
contemporaries. But other more speculative evidence points towards Ferrers’ own
compartmentalized attitudes toward law and government, which produced highly conflicting
behavior and attitudes that also ultimately backfired upon him during the first year of Mary’s
reign, and ultimately sent him into the Tudor political wilderness.
For a man of Ferrers’ apparent adaptability to changing political circumstances, his failure to
enjoy favor under Mary I stands in stark contrast not only to his own previous experience under
Henry VIII and Edward VI, but to the experience of individuals whose circumstances were not
all that dissimilar to his. William Cecil, William Paget, and Ferrers’ friend Thomas Chaloner all
found employment in Mary’s government in various capacities, as did the radically Protestant
William Baldwin, who was among the founders of the Stationer’s Company incorporated in 1556,
the same year he produced a “highly elaborate spectacle” for Mary’s 1556 Christmas court.
Even the previously rabidly Protestant Nicholas Udall found employment at Mary’s court for his
entertainments. In stark contrast to many of his contemporaries, it appears that once Ferrers lost
his justice of the peace commission, he left the royal court for good, never to return, after a
highly successful run under Henry VIII and Edward VI.
Nevertheless, five months later, in May 1555, Ferrers again came to the attention of the Privy
Council, in what may have been a last ditch effort to mend his fences with the Marian regime,
when he accused John Dee and several other men of trying to predict the deaths of Mary and
Philip, at Princess Elizabeth’s alleged instigation, following which Ferrers later claimed that one
of his children died and the other was struck by blindness. Following this bizarre chain of
events, Ferrers, drops from the historical record of Mary’s reign, with the exception of a property
case arising from one of Edward VI’s final grants to Ferrers. Considering the way in which
Ferrers’ accusation against Dee, a grudge he bore apparently to the end of his life, reflected upon
Elizabeth at a critical moment in her life as an imperiled heir to the throne, as she was wrapping
up a yearlong house arrest in Woodstock, that his days as a courtier were over for good. Ferrers
does not appear to have enjoyed any discernible favor directly from Elizabeth, but he suffered
no ostensible retaliation either, and in fact he enjoyed the office of escheator in Bedford,
Hertford, and Essex over the course of the 1560s. However, Ferrers’ principle occupation during
Elizabeth’s reign was composing works of scholarship, writing poetry, most of it now lost, and
contributing to various editions of A Memorial of suche Princes, rechristened The Mirror for
Magistrates, which first appeared in 1559, and subsequently in 1563, 1574, and 1578. Ferrers’
contributions to the Mirror were, in fact, the most durable of his literary accomplishments, a
work which remained perennially popular well into the seventeenth century.
During the 1560s Ferrers shied away from Elizabeth I’s royal court but continued to maintain
his standing in local Hertfordshire society, culminating in his third marriage, to Elizabeth
Preston in 1569, who bore him five children in the final decade of his life. In the 1570s, however,
he returned for two decidedly different but memorable appearances upon the Elizabethan
national stage. Despite his obvious devotion of letters, George once again donned the hat of
national politician, elected to parliament in 1571 as MP for St. Albans. During the session,
Ferrers was drawn into the web of John Lesley, the Scottish Roman Catholic Bishop of Ross, who
had penned a work entitled A Defence of the Honor of Marie, Queene of Scotland (1569),
supporting the claim of Mary Queen of Scots to the English throne. Resident in England, Lesley
was Mary’s chief advisor, and in 1571 gave his consent to the plot hatched by the Catholic
Florentine banker Roberto Ridolfi, which aimed to depose Elizabeth and replace her with the
Queen of Scots. Elizabeth’s government had been kept abreast however, and Lesley was
arrested. In a deposition dated 26 October 1571, Lesley stated that a certain Talbott, a servant of
Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, and a “Corrector to the Prynters” had consulted
Ferrers for his legal opinion on a number of writings, including Lesley’s, concerning Elizabeth’s
title to the throne, and those of her would be successors, including the by then deceased
Catherine Grey and Mary Queen of Scots. According to Lesley, Ferrers showed Talbott a book
he had written in Latin concerning the right title to Elizabeth’s throne. Furthermore, Ross also
identified Ferrers in his deposition as one of his sources for information concerning the
proceedings of the 1571 parliamentary session earlier that year.
Ferrers’ activities as an informant for Lesley could have been political dynamite in the year of
the Ridolfi Plot, but it appears, though, that no harm came to him for his actions. This could
have been due to a number of reasons; the Privy Council may have simply considered him a
harmless crank, while his book on the succession may have simply fallen through the cracks of
the Elizabethan censors, given Ferrers’ relationship with Talbott. Another possible explanation
is that Ferrers may have had a well placed patron at the center of power in a position to cushion
his fall. It was perhaps no coincidence that Ferrers soon found a place under the wide umbrella
of the Earl of Leicester’s patronage of humanist scholars and poets. Ferrers’ affinity with poet
George Gascoigne, who also enjoyed Leicester’s patronage, may also have been a crucial link
that made possible the opportunity for Ferrers’ lofty poetry to reach the ears of Queen Elizabeth
as she entered Kenilworth castle on the evening of 9 July 1575, when she was regaled by an
oration penned by Ferrers and voiced by King Arthur’s lady of the lake.
If Ferrers had any ambitions about enjoying the personal favor of Elizabeth as he had enjoyed
from Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary, this was as close as he came. Ferrers lived only three
and a half years beyond his ultimate Elizabethan moment. Another edition of the Mirror for
Magistrates appeared in 1578, this time with essays on the fifteenth century Humphrey, duke of
Gloucester and his notorious wife Eleanor Cobham, an obvious allusion to John Dee, a grudge,
perhaps acerbated by Dee’s enjoyment of the kind of favor and patronage from the queen that
Ferrers had never enjoyed, that he apparently carried with him to the grave. The following
January Ferrers died intestate, but presumably peacefully in his own bed.
The Life and Times of a Tudor Renaissance Gentleman
Explaining and interpreting the life briefly described above requires doing the same for much of
the English sixteenth century, as the following chapters contextualize Ferrers’ life over a wide
swath of the Tudor century. As shall be demonstrated, George Ferrers demonstrated the “art of
the possible” that the English Renaissance and Reformation provided for him, evincing a
singular autonomy that does not easily fit into any established category of class or sectarian
behavior or consciousness. Ferrers comprehended the Tudor century from a much different
vantage point than the monarchs he served at court, and made choices and passed on
opportunities in often stark contrast to so many of his contemporaries who went on to achieve
more enduring fame than his own. Neither unknown nor totally famous, blessed with a plethora
of talents, and possessed with the wit and discipline of a scholar, he may very well be the
quintessential Renaissance man, whose diversity of achievements , never collectively celebrated
until now, have remained hidden from view for over four centuries.
Underhill, Edward. “The Watch at the Court and in the City, on the Eve of Wyat‟s Attack”. The
Chronicle of Queen Jane and of Two Years of Mary. ed. John Gough Nichols. (London: Camden
Society, 1850), 129-30.
The Loseley Manuscripts, ed. Alfred John Kempe (London: John Murray, 1836), 22.
“The Isles Project.” http://islesproject.com/2007/11/26/1100ce-1598-weather-history-more-uk-
Richard Grafton, Grafton’s Chronicle (London: 1569), 526-27.
Sandra Billington, Mock Kings in Medieval Society and Renaissance Drama (Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 1991), 31-40.
Documents Relating to the Revels at Court in the Time of King Edward VI and Queen Mary- The
Manuscripts ed. A. Feuillerat (London, 1914), 47.
Calendar of State Papers, Spanish, Vol. X, ed. Royall Tyler (London, 1910), 444, 18 Jan. 1552.
Marie Axton, The Queen’s Two Bodies, (London: Royal Historical Society, 1977), 8-10.
John Stow, The Chronicles of England, from Brute, unto this present year of Christ 1580 (London,
Henry Machyn The Diary of Henry Machyn, ed. John Gough Nichols (London, 1848), 13-14.
Raphael Holinshed, Holinshed’s Chronicle of England, Scotland, and Ireland , vol. III (London,
William Baldwin, Beware the Cat and the Funerals of King Edward the Sixth, ed. William P.
(New London, Conn., 1963), 26-28.
Acts of the Privy Council in England (afterwards referred to as APC) ed. John r. Dasent (32
vols) (London, 1890-1907), IV, 210.
Ferrers’ relative fame as a parliamentarian, literary scholar, and entertainer filtered down to the
of the sixteenth century to receive several mentions in the histories of John Stow and Raphael
Holinshed (cited below), and in Francis Meres’ Palladis Tamia (London, 1598) who wrote, “so
these are the best for tragedie (tragicke poets) Lorde Buckhurst, maister Edward [George] Ferris,
the author of The Mirror for
Magistrates . . . 285. But by the middle of the seventeenth century his fame had dissipated to the
that he failed to receive a single mention in the chapter on Hertfordshire notables in Thomas
History of the Worthies of England (London, 1660). In the early twentieth century edition of the
Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 1917, 1247-48), Sidney Lee has speculated that one
explanation for Ferrers’ obscurity is that late sixteenth century commentators such as George
Puttenham and Francis Meres mistakenly identified Ferrers as Edward, instead of George.
Nevertheless, this only accounts for Ferrers’ fame as a writer, which was but one facet of his
H.R. Woudhuysen, “Ferrers, George,” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 19 ed. H.
C.G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford, 2004) 425-427, S.T. Bindoff, The History of
Parliament: The House of Commons 1509-1558 (London: History of Parliament Trust, 1982), 129-
131, and P.W. Hasler, The History of Parliament: The House of Commons 1558-1603 (London:
History of Parliament Trust, 1981), 114-15.
C.S. Lewis remarked that Ferrers was “a lawyer and courtier who had a knack of surviving many
unfortunate patrons.” C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama
Clarendon Press, 1954), 240-41.
Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1980), 1-9.
Cecil S.F. Ferrers, The Ferrers Family History (Torquay, U.K.: privately printed, 1900) 1-16.
John Venn, J.A. Venn, Alumni cantabrigienses: a Biographical List of all known students,
graduates, and holders of office at the University of Cambridge, from the earliest times to 1900
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922), 134.
G.R. Elton, The Tudor Revolution in Government (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
George Ferrers, The Boke of Magna Carta (London, 1534).
Samuel Ireland, Picturesque Views, with an Historical Account of the Inns of Court in London
Westminster (London, 1800), 107-163.
Leland also composed a Latin elegy for Ferrers. Leland, John. “Poem CCLV- To George
Ferrers”. John Leland Epigrammata 1589. Ed. Dana F. Sutton. 19 April 2007. Web. 09 Jan. 2011.
M.L. Robertson, Thomas Cromwell’s Servants: The Ministerial Household in Early Tudor
Government and Society (unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles,
Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII (afterwards referred to as L
vol. XIII- Pt. II ed. James Gairdner (London, 1893), 494.
Susan Brigden, London and the Reformation (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989), 326-27.
L & P, vol. XIV, pt. II, ed. James Gairdner and R.H. Brodie (London, 1895), 199-202.
Retha Warnicke, “The Court” in A Companion to Tudor Britain ed. Robert Tittler and Norman
(Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), 64-70.
The Victoria History of the Counties of England: A History of Hertfordshire, vol. II ed. William
(London: Constable, 1908), 193-201.
For a recent study of Edward VI’s reign, see Charles Beem, “Have Not Wee A Nobyle Kynge?
Minority of Edward VI” in The Royal Minorities of Medieval and Early Modern England ed.
(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 211-248.
William Patten, The Expedition into Scotland in 1547 (London, 1548), dx, regno- verso.
The National Archives (afterwards referred to as TNA) , E 305/16/F47, Edward VI to George
Ferrers, Court of
Augmentations Deeds of Purchase and Exchange, 14 October 1547, also recorded in Calendar of
the Patent Rolls, Edward VI, Vol. I A.D. 1547-1548 (London, 1924), 314-315.
J.L. Chester and G.J. Armytage, Allegations for Marriage Licenses Issued from the Faculty Office
Archbishop of Canterbury at London, 1543 to 1869 (London, 1886), 7.
Steve Hindle, “County Government in England” in A Companion to Tudor Britain, 98.
Stephen Alford, Burghley (New Haven,: Yale University Press, 2008), 39-42.
“The Letters of Richard Scudamore to Sir Philip Hoby, September 1549-March 1555” ed. Susan
Camden Miscellany XXX (Camden Fourth Series vol. 39) (London: Camden Society, 1990), 127.
According to the Online John Foxe Project, Ferrers is identified in several Elizabethan editions of
Monuments as a “Feries” that was imprisoned in the Tower in Aug. 1553, perhaps in support of
the Jane Grey plot to displace Edward VI’s elder half-sister Mary in the royal succession, and a
“Lord Feris” who was present at Mary I’s coronation in October. While this identification may
be correct, the DNB’s assertion that Ferrers served as Lord of Misrule for Mary I’s first Christmas
is unfounded. According to E.K. Chambers, the notion that Ferrers had served as lord of misrule
for Mary’s 1553 Christmas court stems from a letter from Ferrers to Cawarden (FSL L.B. 289) that
was transcribed by A.J. Kemp as “this daye being Saynt John’s Daye, ano 1553” which was 27
December. As Chambers has pointed out, the letter was actually written during the 1552
Christmas, as the hobby horses and garments requested are in the accounts for that year’s
Christmas celebrations. Chambers concluded that “neither Mary nor Elizabeth seems to have
revived the appointment of a lord of misrule at court.” E.K. Chambers, The Mediaeval Stage
Vol. I (Oxford, 1903), 407, n. 4. See also The Loseley Manuscripts and Other Rare Documents ed.
Alfred John Kempe (London, 1836), 36-37, 52.
“Names of certain lords and gentlemen that were with the queen against the rebels.” TNA, SP
11/3 no. 6, printed in Calendar of State Papers Domestic Series of the Reign of Mary I 1553-1558
ed. C.S. Knighton (London: Public Records Office, 1998) 52.
For a discussion of this work, the proto-type for The Mirror for Magistrates, see Scott Lucas, A
Magistrates and the Politics of the English Reformation (Amherst: University of Massachusetts
Press, 2009) 18-66. For a discussion of the relationship between Lydgate and The Mirror For
Magistrates, see Paul Budra, A Mirror for Magistrates and the de casibus Tradition (Toronto:
University of Toronto Press, 2000), 1-93.
George Ferrers, A Mirror For Magistrates (London, 1559), aiii-bi.
See Scott Lucas, “The Consolation of Tragedy: A Mirror for Magistrates and the Fall of the
“Good Duke” of Somerset” Studies in Philology vol. 100, no. 1 (Winter 2003), 44-70.
For an interpretation of the scope of the intended audience for The Mirror, see Jessica Winston, “
Mirror for Magistrates and Public Political Discourse in Elizabethan England” Studies in
101, n. 4 (Fall 2004), 381-400.
England Under the Reigns of Edward VI and Mary (2 vols.) ed. Patrick Fraser Tytler (London,
1839), 479, APC, V, 142.
John Stow alleged that Ferrers was the author of the portions on Mary I’s reign that appeared in
Grafton’s Chronicle, first published in 1569. See John Stow, The Annals of Englande (London:
For a discussion of Elizabethan praise for The Mirror, see W.F. Trench, A Mirror for Magistrates:
Origin and Influence (Edinburgh: privately printed, 1898) 71-88.
A Collection of State Papers Relating to Affairs in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, From the year
1596 . . . ed. William Murdin (London, 1759) 30.
Historical Manuscripts Commission, Calendar of the Manuscripts of the Marquess of Salisbury
London, 1883) 560, n. 1710.
Eleanor Rosenberg, Leicester: Patron of Letters (New York: Columbia University Press, 1955),
There are two contemporary description of the Kenilworth festivities, A Letter: Whearin parts of
Entertainment, unto the Queenz Maiesty, at KILLINGWORTH , (known as Laneham’s letter) and
Gascoigne, Princelye Pleasures at the Courte of Kenelwoorth (London, 1576), both are reprinted
Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth (3 vols.) ed. John Nichols (London, 1828),
As Lily Campbell has suggested, Ferrers’ story of Elianor Cobham, which first appeared in print
in the 1578 edition of The Mirror, possessed striking similarities to Dee’s alleged attempt to
Mary I’s death in 1555, which, as late as 1592, Dee was still protesting his innocence over. See
Campbell, “Humphrey duke of Gloucester” pp. 141-155.