GASCOIGNE, George (by 1537-77), of Cardington, Beds. and Walthamstow, Essex.
Available from Boydell and Brewer
Family and Education
b. by 1537, 1st. s. of Sir John Gascoigne† by Margaret, da. and h. of Sir Robert Scargill of Thorpe Hall, Richmond, Yorks.1 educ.?Trinity Coll. Camb.;2 G. Inn 1555, ancient 1565. m. bigamously, Nov. 1561, Elizabeth, da. of John Bacon, wid. of William Breton of London, and w. of Edward Boys of Nonington, Kent, 1s. suc. fa. 1568.3
Dep. almoner at Elizabeth’s coronation 1559; govt. agent in Netherlands Aug.-Nov. 1576.4
Gascoigne, the poet, owed his elections to Parliament for Bedford to his father, a recorder of the town. The family owned part of the barony of Bedford. In 1572, presumably through the influence of Anthony Browne†, 1st Viscount Montagu, he was, according to a document addressed to the Privy Council, returned to the Commons for the Sussex borough of Midhurst. This describes him as having ‘lurked at villages’ until his election to Parliament was achieved, whereupon he ‘doth show his face openly in the despite of all his creditors’. After epitomizing him as a manslaughterer, ‘a defamed person’, ‘a common rhymer’, ‘a deviser of slanderous pasquils against divers persons of great calling’, ‘a notorious ruffian’, ‘a spy’, and ‘an atheist’, it concluded that ‘he is not meet to be of the council of the high court of Parliament’, and his name was deleted in favour of Thomas Holcroft on a list of MPs tentatively dated to the week before the opening of Parliament. On 9 June that year he was ‘brought in’ to give evidence to the Commons in a debate concerning his father.5
As a young man, Gascoigne by his own admission lived beyond his means. He was threatened with expulsion from Gray’s Inn for debt, and his father disinherited him, enfeoffing the family property to Thomas Colby I. Theoretically Gascoigne, who received livery of his lands in June 1569, could buy out Colby for £1,000, but in practice the will was designed to ensure that the lands remained under trusteeship. Gascoigne was not mentioned in his mother’s will of 1574, which he unsuccessfully contested.6
The scandal connected with his marriage may have been another cause of estrangement from his parents. His wife’s first husband, William Breton, died in January 1559, and by April the same year she married Edward Boys. There is no evidence of a divorce before her marriage to Gascoigne (though later Boys was ‘by due order and sentence in form of law’ divorced from the said Elizabeth), and Machyn’s diary for September 1562 mentions a great fray in Red Cross Street between two gentlemen, (‘Master Boysse and Master Gaskyn’), and their men, ‘for they did marry one woman, and divers were hurt’. Boys brought a suit against Gascoigne over William Breton’s inheritance, but in February 1569 the Queen took the case out of the court of wards (perhaps at the instigation of Sir Nicholas Bacon†, who was related to Elizabeth Gascoigne) and Gascoigne was granted the wardship of Richard Breton, Elizabeth’s eldest son. Another of his stepsons was Nicholas Breton, later the poet. After the settlement of this lawsuit, and of an inquiry by the lord mayor of London into the disposition of Breton’s property (Gascoigne having been accused of wasting it), the couple lived at Walthamstow, where William Breton had owned property. They were listed as not attending church there on 19 June and 2 Sept. 1572 and 11 July 1575, and in the month after Gascoigne’s death Elizabeth Gascoigne was listed as an outright recusant.7
One of Gascoigne’s early works, the Supposes, a prose adaptation of an Ariosto comedy, was produced at Gray’s Inn in 1566, where the Earl of Leicester may have seen it. Alternatively, Gascoigne may have been introduced to Leicester by Lord Grey of Wilton or by the 2nd Earl of Bedford, to both of whom he dedicated books. Certainly it was through Leicester’s patronage that Gascoigne eventually gained government employment, at a time when his financial difficulties seem to have been especially pressing. His career between 1562 and 1575, when Leicester employed him to write the Kenilworth entertainments, is difficult to follow. He was in France in 1563 and the following year, and after his return apparently occupied his old chambers at Gray’s lnn. Early in 1572 he went to Holland, perhaps to escape his creditors, returning by the autumn, when Lord Montagu employed him to write the masque for the double wedding of his son and daughter. In March the following year he was in the Netherlands, where he gained a commission under William of Orange, and fought at the siege of Middleburg. According to his own account, he was a prisoner of the Spaniards for four months.8
Soon after his release he came back to England and published editions of his poems. In a prefatory letter to the volume which appeared in 1575, he declared that he hoped to show sufficient skill in his writings to attract a patron and thus gain employment ‘in some exercise which might tend both to my preferment and to the profit of my country’. He achieved his purpose, since later in the year he was employed by Leicester to write the Kenilworth ‘pleasures’. During the royal visit he appeared on several occasions before Elizabeth, speaking his own farewell oration, and running beside the Queen’s horse until she stopped and spoke to him, thanking him for his services. He apparently accompanied her on her progress to Woodstock, where he was again responsible for part of the entertainment. Elizabeth liked his pastoral, Hemetes the Hermit, so well that she asked that ‘the whole in order as it fall, should be brought to her in writing’. Gascoigne prepared an elaborate manuscript, with French, Latin and Italian translations, and frontispiece showing the poet offering his work to the Queen. The dedication asked directly for employment and promised only profitable works, no more frivolous ‘Posies’ in the future.
At the time his request was ignored: in April 1576 he headed one of his writings, ‘from my lodging where I march among the muses for lack of exercise in martial exploits’. During the year he published several puritan and moral tracts, perhaps as a compliment to Leicester: he also visited Sir Humphrey Gilbert at Limehouse and helped him to publish his Discourse of a Discovery for a new Passage to Cataia.9
His ‘new and serious diligence’ impressed his patrons, Leicester and Bedford, and in August 1576 he finally received employment as government agent in the Netherlands, writing his reports directly to Burghley. His accounts, said to have been clear and vigorous, were approved and circulated among the Council, and when he returned to England in November he probably expected further employment in the near future. His eye-witness account of the sack of Antwerp, originally written as a report for the Privy Council, was published before the end of the year.10
His New Year’s gift in January 1577 to Sir Nicholas Bacon has survived—an emblem sketched in ink of a man on horseback, and a graceful letter of thanks for Bacon’s kindness to the writer. Gascoigne admitted, ‘I kept my coltish tricks much longer than was either for my credit or for my profit ... At last it hath pleased God to make reason my rider, and ... I hope so to go forwards as I may deserve in the end to be well placed in a prince’s stable.’ Typically, he added that he needed ‘some speedy provision of good fodder’ and was ‘enforced to neigh and bray’ to his masters for it.11
Already in poor health, he died 7 Oct. 1577, perhaps while visiting his friend and biographer George Whetstone in Lincolnshire, leaving to his wife and son ‘little but his blessing’. Whetstone mentions a will, but none has survived. On 2 Dec. 1578 letters of administration were granted to one John Campion of Woodford, Essex; these were revoked in 1597, a new grant being made to Gascoigne’s younger brother, John.