The 1570 "Homelie against Disobedience" and court sermons responding to the Northern Rebellion and the threat posed by Mary Stuart employ biblical figures to develop a spiritual interpretation of current events. Public sermons in 1587, the year of Mary Stuart’s execution, and in 1589 likewise use biblical typology which shades into nationalism. Recent critics see the Mercilla episode, in its idealization of Elizabeth’s attitude and inaccurate presentation of Mary Stuart’s trial, as evidence of Spenser’s bad faith or a sophisticated critique of power. Rather, his allegory recalls preachers’ use of typology to spiritualize recent events and present them as reflecting well upon Elizabeth and God’s care of England.
Occasional liturgies are scripts for religious services which respond to specific occasions: emergencies like plague (in 1563), Muslim invasions in Europe (in 1565 and 1566), bad weather (in 1571), the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the London earthquake of 1580, the Spanish invasion (expected from 1586 through 1588), or plots against the queen like Dr. Parry’s in 1585 and Babington’s in 1586. Two occasional liturgies from 1576 and 1585 offer readings and prayers for November 17, signalling that, like Pentecost and Christmas, Accession Day was part of the church year. Identifying England with Israel, liturgists treated Elizabethan current events and public figures as interchangeable with events and characters described in the Bible. Elizabethan churchgoers thus had abundant training in decoding allegorical narratives—a facility they could bring to a reading of The Faerie Queene.
Elizabethan preachers and homilists embraced providentialism, looking to history, both biblical and secular, to read universal moral principles and God’s eternal purposes in their contemporary scene. According to John Aylmer, Esther was a type of Anne Boleyn while Mordechai figured Archbishop Cranmer; Richard Curteys saw Athaliah as a type of Mary Tudor, and David foreshadowed Elizabeth. According to William Barlow, the Roman Coriolanus typified the Earl of Essex, while the earl perversely saw himself as David and Elizabeth as Saul—an identification Barlow took seriously enough to refute at some length. Thomas Holland, preaching on Accession Day, recounted the positive attributes and godly behaviour of the Queen of Sheba without explicitly identifying her with Elizabeth, demonstrating how adept sermon-goers were expected to be at the kind of allegorical reading The Faerie Queene demands.
Some 20th and 21st century literary critics treat allegoresis as a project fraught with psychological and philosophical complexity and The Faerie Queene as deliberately obscure or ironic. Most early marginal comments demonstrate that Spenser’s first readers found the poem’s allegorical message accessible and mainstream. Sermons, aspiring like Spenser (in this work) to orthodoxy, are similarly didactic. When a preacher addressed a public audience, biblical types of Elizabeth like Moses, David, and Hezekiah, appeared without reference to unedifying details. The implication for The Faerie Queene (though not for all of Spenser’s work): ostensible praise and blame may be taken at face value.
Sermon references to courtiers and court inveigh against ambition, luxury, pleasure-seeking, flattery, and intrigue while commending biblical courtiers like Joseph, Moses, David, and Nehemiah for their godliness and service to common people. Elizabethan courtesy, a Christian virtue reflecting the character of God, is properly manifested in court as well as contryside: by noblemen to those in distress and to commoners like shepherds, and conversely by hospitable householders like Abraham and Lot to their angel visitors, or Caelia to Redcrosse and Melibœ to Calidore. Its opposite is malicious slander like that personified in the Blatant Beast. Sermon references to court and courtesy show that Spenser’s treatment of these topoi, far from being subversive or jaded, is very conventional. Spenser’s Calidore had important biblical role models, particularly in Nehemiah and Moses.
Spenser described his allegorical epic to his friend Walter Raleigh as an alternative to straightforward moral and religious teaching. This book seeks to put Spenser’s project in context by introducing readers to Spenser’s reference point—16th century sermons, homilies, and liturgies—particularly their use of biblical types for contemporary individuals and concerns. In contrast to deconstructive, gender-based, or psychoanalytic studies, this book attempts to read The Faerie Queene as its first readers might have done. Sermon studies by A. F. Herr, Peter Blench, Millar MacLure, and Peter McCullough and his collaborators are useful guides; many printed sermons are available on the database Early English Books Online. An outline of the book’s nine chapters and acknowledgements close the introduction.
Scriptural tradition and the close of The Faerie Queene
Preachers had reminded the queen of her own mortality from time to time throughout her reign: Thomas Drant in 1570, Richard Curteys in 1575, the anonymous "L.S." in 1593, and Anthony Rudd in 1596. In the context of the memento mori sermon, the Cantos of Mutabilitie, in particular the two stanzas of the "unperfite" eighth canto, emerges as a nunc dimittis in Elizabeth’s voice, meant to be understood as the queen’s response to Mutabilitie’s challenge and Nature’s vindication of Cynthia. The pun on Sabaoth/Sabbath in the final line echoes a pun in a 1589 Accession Day sermon by Thomas White (Elizabeth/Eloi Sabaoth/Eloi Sabbath), preached and printed while Spenser was in London overseeing the 1590 publication of The Faerie Queen.
When the Spanish invasion force of 1588 met with successful English resistance and disastrous weather, losing thousands of men and 62 of 130 ships, contemporary observers and participants on both sides believed the outcome reflected God’s intervention. English sermons used Bible stories to develop a patriotic and providentialist interpretation of the gathering threat and subsequent Spanish defeat. Sermons before the attempted invasion, by Thomas Drant, Meredith Hanmer, and William Gravet, demonstrate the comparison preachers drew a between Islam and Roman Catholicism (as Spenser created a Muslim sultan to represent the Roman Catholic Spanish threat). Sermons celebrating the English victory, by John Prime, Thomas White, Roger Hackett, and Stephen Gosson, show that Spenser and the preachers drew on the same biblical theme of God’s judgment and motifs of horses, chariot, and hardware.
Edmund Spenser and the first readers of The Faerie Queene routinely heard their national concerns—epidemics, political plotting, recent Tudor history—discussed in biblical terms. This book samples contemporary sermons, homilies, and liturgies to demonstrate that religious rhetoric, with its routine use of biblical types (for Elizabeth, the Spanish threat, and Mary Stuart, among many others) trained Spenser’s original readers to understand The Faerie Queene’s allegorical method. Accordingly, the first three chapters orient the reader to allegorical and typological reading in biblical commentary, occasional liturgies, and sermons. This pulpit literature illuminates many episodes and characters within the poem, and subsequent chapters discuss some of these. For instance, the genealogies Guyon and Arthur discover in Book Two parallel sermon lists of Elizabeth’s kingly forebears as well as biblical commentary on the genealogies provided for Jesus in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Florimell’s adventures in Books Three and Four, like contemporary marriage sermons, develop an allegory of the superiority of marriage over the single state. Likewise, the preachers’ treatment of the Northern Rebellion and the threat posed by Mary Stuart show biblical typology in the service of nationalism, much as the allegory of Book Six finds a way to celebrate Elizabeth’s execution of her cousin. In these cases, as in the Souldan episode, Book Six’s analysis of courtesy, and the Mutability Cantos, Elizabethan religious rhetoric lends support to traditional readings of the poem, indicating that Spenser’s original readers probably found The Faerie Queene less conflicted and subversive than many do today.
Genealogy in biblical exegesis and the Legend of Temperance
Elizabethans thought genealogy offered a key to character, as shown by their analyses of the discrepancies between the lists of Christ’s forebears in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Since spiritual kinship was a criterion for inclu¬sion in such a list, preachers like Richard Curteys and Edwin Sandys demonstrate that Elizabeth’s family tree properly included biblical ancestors. In the chronicle history cantos, Spenser, with a similar concern to capture Elizabeth’s essential nature, provided the queen with spiritually significant ancestors from pre-history and from invention. Awareness of the cultural resources Spenser used in creating (and his first readers used in making sense of) these lists of ancestors relieves us of the burden of distilling a consistent moral and political message from Briton moniments and Antiquitie of Faerie lond.