Claire Jowitt – “Monsters and Straunge Births”: The Politics of Richard Eden. A Response to Andrew Hadfield


"Monsters and Straunge Births": The Politics of Richard Eden. A Response to Andrew Hadfield

Claire Jowitt

Published in Connotations Vol. 6.1 (1996/97)


Richard Eden is best known as the first English translator of Peter Martyr's De Orbe Novo Decades (1516).1) In this text, and in his 1553 translation of sections of Sebastian Muenster's Cosmographiae Universalis, Eden, for the first time, made available detailed information about the New World to an English speaking readership. Consequently, his texts are highly significant in determining the ways in which Spanish control of New World territory and riches was mediated to an English audience. Eden translated these texts in a troubled and unstable political climate. England officially reverted to the old faith in 1553 after nearly twenty years of Protestantism. Mary Tudor married Philip of Spain in 1554, and some commentators argued that England, similar to the New World, became little more than a vassal of Spain.2) Therefore, an analysis of this first English translation of descriptions of the New World is important in assessing whether Eden wanted his readership to support Spanish interests in the New World and England, or was urging the English nation to compete for territory abroad and remain staunchly independent of Spanish interference at home.

Recent accounts of Eden's politics have argued that, after the failure of the Wyatt rebellion in January 1554, Eden abandoned his Protestantism and "decided to throw in his lot with the new regime." Consequently, Eden has been found to be both "weak" and "vacillating" as, in order to safeguard his own position, he sacrificed his personal, religious and [→page 52] political integrity.3) What I want to suggest here is that the "Preface to the Reader" in Eden's 1555 translation of Martyr's De Orbe Novo Decades is not an attempt to ingratiate himself with Mary Tudor and her husband Prince Philip of Spain, but rather, a carefully encoded critique of the uneasy English political situation of the 1550s.

Andrew Hadfield has suggested that Eden's preamble should be read as an appeal for civil unity. As such, Eden's text is directed against Protestant malefactors whose "lyinge, rebellion, strife, contention, privie malice, slaunderynge, mutterynge, conspiracies, and such other devilysshe imaginations" have made England, according to Hadfield, a "perverse and unnatural motherland."4) Hadfield's analysis firmly allies Eden with the Catholic monarchs and there is indeed plenty of textual evidence to support such a reading. The text is dedicated to Mary and Philip. Furthermore, in his Latin epistle, Eden explains the inspiration for his composition. He describes how, intoxicated by the shows and universal acclamations which greeted the procession of the royal couple as they entered London on 18th August 1554, he debated how best to commemorate their wedding ceremony. He relates that, unable to conceive of any original composition sufficiently worthy, he was led to consider the marvelous discoveries, conquests, and empire of the Spaniards.5) Moreover, since it was hoped that children would be produced from this Anglo−Spanish union, Eden was able to imagine Spanish possessions as the inheritance of this anticipated royal infant. However, it seems that the authorities were dubious concerning the wholeheartedness of Eden's support for the Catholic monarchy. In September 1555, the month that the complete edition of his text was published, Eden was charged with heresy by Thomas Watson, Bishop of Lincoln, before Stephen Gardiner. Although Gardiner died on October 24th of that year, and it appears that the case did not come to trial, Eden lost his job in Philip's English treasury and "thereafter disappears from view for a number of years."6)

Watson and Gardiner may very well have been correct in their assessment of Eden's support, or lack of it, for the Marian regime. Eden's emphasis on monsters and strange births in the preface to Decades of the Newe World or West India complicates this apparently laudatory text. During the summer of 1555, as the thirty−nine year old Queen anxiously [→page 53] awaited the birth of the future heir to English and Spanish interests, such descriptions of "straunge births" appear, at the very least, astonishingly tactless. Was Eden criticising the Queen? Was he implicitly casting suspicion upon this hoped−for royal infant who might inherit English and Spanish interests?

Hadfield observes that Eden's association between New World monsters and the English political situation is an "astute rhetorical manoeuvre."7) Such a strategy allowed Eden to debate the most sensitive issues of contemporary politics in terms of a less overtly political tradition of writing about New Worlds. Early descriptions of the New World had frequently represented indigenous Americans as aspects of humanity so unusual that they could be classed as monsters.8) This was a theme which Eden discussed in his 1553 translation of part of book five of Sebastian Muenster's Cosmographiae Universalis. Entitled Of the newe India, Eden described "People deformed" with "greate mouthes, nosethrilles flyrtting upwarde and wyde, with greate eares and cruell eyes," "Giauntes" and "monsters" whose "eares [were] of suche breadth and length, that with one of them they might cover theyr hole head."9) Similar to the prefatory remarks of his 1555 translation, in his "Epistle to the Reader" in Of the newe India, Eden appropriates these New World monsters as a way of discussing contemporary English politics. There are two references to monsters in the epistle. He represents Spanish America as the place "where the Eagle (yet not in every place) hath so spled his winges, that other poore byrdes may not without offence seke theyr praye without the compasse of the same, I wyll speake nothing hereof, bycause I wold be loth to lay an egge, whereof other men might hatch a serpent."10) Here Eden's representation of discussion and speculation about English territorial competition with Spain as an unnatural birth—where a bird's egg might defy nature and hatch a serpent—ostensibly indicates his reluctance to advocate an explicitly hostile English imperial policy. Published less than a month before the death of Edward VI, Eden's statements have been seen as a politic method "of not compromising any future he might have in the civil service" upon the accession of Mary Tudor.11) However, his parenthetical remark "(yet not in every place)," implying that Spanish possession of New World territory is neither absolute nor indelible, [→page 54] indicates that Eden's attitude to Spain is not wholly positive. Here, Eden anticipates the ambivalent and hostile representations of the Spanish imperium which were to become commonplace in England during the late−sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, particularly after the 1588 confrontation with the Armada.12)

Eden's ambivalence towards Spanish dominion can also be detected at the end of his epistle. Eden returns to the theme of monsters, stating rather coyly:

I had intended here (well beloved Reader) to have spoken somewhat of suche straunge thynges and Monsters, whereof mencion is made in thys Booke, to th[e]ende that suche as by the narownes of theyr understandinge are not of capacitie to conceave the causes and natures of thynges, myghte partely have been satisfyed wyth some sensyble reasons. But beynge at thys tyme otherwise hindered, it shall suffise al good and honest wittes, that whatsoever the Lorde hath pleased, that hath he done in heaven and earth, and in the Sea, and in all depe places.13)

We can only speculate as to the events or schemes which were occupying Eden during this period—"beynge at this tyme otherwise hindered." Perhaps he was involved in the Duke of Northumberland's attempts, in the last few weeks of the dying King's life, to secure Edward's wish that the crown would descend through the Suffolk line.14) Certainly such activities would correspond to the publishing history of Eden's Of the newe India. This text was published in June 1553 and dedicated to Northumberland. It was in this month that it became apparent to Northumberland that Edward VI's tuberculosis would soon prove fatal and action needed to be taken swiftly to ensure that the king's Catholic half−sister did not succeed. Undoubtedly Eden's father and uncle, George and Thomas Eden respectively, as well as John Dee—all men associated with Northumberland—took part in the scheme to put Lady Jane Grey on the throne.15) Against this background Eden's rather cryptic and tantalising concluding remarks in his epistle begin to look very much like a comment about contemporary political events. But are the "straunge thynges and Monsters" he wishes, but is unable, to talk about Northumberland's fomenting rebellion or the spectre of Mary Tudor herself?

[→page 55] In this period monsters were commonly understood as one of the "signes and tokens, and things more than natural" by which God disclosed his will to humanity.16) As Kathryn Brammall has recently argued, in the mid−Tudor period the language of monstrosity was a powerful rhetorical tool for English writers as they attempted "to come to terms with and find a cure for the widespread political, religious and social tensions."17) There was, however, a key change in the ways images of monsters were deployed in the 1550s and 1560s. Instead of emphasising physical and visible deformity, the new language of monstrosity also denoted unnatural inner characteristics and qualities. Births of English monsters in the 1550s were, therefore, perceived as particular and immediate proclamations of God's displeasure at the way the kingdom was being governed. Between 1552 and 1556, and also from the 1560s, records of approximately thirty−five abnormal births have survived in broadsides and ballads and, perhaps more importantly, "the literate population believed that their numbers were increasing."18)

It is these mid−1550s descriptions of strange births which we need to examine in order to evaluate Eden's views of the Marian regime. Anti−Marian exiles, in particular, described the rise in the number of monstrous births in England under Mary Tudor as a reflection of God's displeasure with England since the country was governed by a Catholic Queen.19) By 1558, in John Knox's First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women and Anthony Gilby's Admonition to England and Scotland to call them to Repentance, the Queen was called a monster.20) Knox, for example, calls Mary Tudor "that horrible monstre Jesabel of Englande."21) Knox argues that women were not capable of rule since they were naturally passive; any woman who became monarch therefore did so in violation of God's teachings (Genesis III, I Timothy, and I Corinthians).22) In summary, according to Knox, Mary was a "monstre in nature" and "a thing moste repugnant to Nature."23) Knox's descriptions, then, are an early instance in which the new rhetoric of abnormality is used to define a variety of monster—a Catholic female monarch—which manifests no outward physical deformity. In this Calvinist Protestant rhetoric Mary's inner monstrousness was two−fold since both her gender and her Catholicism confirmed her deformed and unnatural status.

[→page 56] As early as 1556 anti−Marian exiles were linking the Queen with monstrosity. From Strasbourg, John Ponet, previously bishop of Rochester and Winchester, wrote a stinging invective against the regime entitled A Short Treatise of Politike Power.24) This text, like Eden's The Decades of the Newe World or West India, contains descriptions of the Spanish New World, accounts of contemporary monstrous births and representations of the English queen.25) All three of these topics are used to denounce the Marian regime. Spanish behaviour in the New World is condemned since "a great number of them [native Americans] (seeing them selves brought from so quiet a life to such miserie and slavery) of desperacion killed them selves."26) The enforced slavery of these "simple and plaine men" by the Spaniards is used as a portent of what will happen to the English due to Philip of Spain's excessive influence on the queen.27) Indeed, later in the text Ponet explicitly warns the English of "pride, crueltie and unmercifulnesse" of the Spanish.28) Furthermore, if the English continue to allow Spanish interests to grow unchecked in their nation then the Spanish shall "invade Englande, and [the English] shalbe by shiploades (if no worse happen unto you) caried in to newe Spaine, and ther not lyve at libertie … ye shalbe tyed in chaynes, forced to rowe in the galie, to digge in the mynes and to pike up the golde in the hotte sande."29)

In Ponet's descriptions of the three recent misbirths in Oxford, Coventry and London appeared a reflection of England's political chaos. The Oxford child of 1552 was born "wyth two heades and two partes of two evil shaped bodyes ioyned in one."30) This conjoined twin he read as a symbol of the "diverse governours"—either Catholic and Protestant, or Spanish and English—which now uneasily rule England.31) The turmoil caused by both Mary's reintroduction of Catholicism and her Spanish marriage have, according to Ponet, caused a division in the nation. The results of Mary's succession—where these two factions are "knytte together, but not in god proportion nor agrement"—is manifested in the body of the child.32) The Coventry child of 1555 was born "without armes or legges."33) This misbirth "without the principal membres to helpe and defende the body," Ponet saw as a reflection of England's debility since "the people of England shalbe helples, ready to be troden under the fote of every creature, and non to releve or [→page 57] succour it."34) Finally, in 1556 in London, an infant was delivered "with a great head, evil shaped, the armes with bagges hanging out at the Elbowes and heles, and fete lame."35) This last misbirth Ponet saw as a portent of the catastrophes awaiting England. The enlarged head indicated that "the governours and headdes of England [shall] sucke out the wealth and substance of the people."36) The "chief members (tharmes and legges)," in other words the nobility, were incapable of preventing such injustice since they were "so clogged with chaines of gold, and bagges of money" that they had become debilitated.37) In summary, these children were physical manifestations of the weakness and defencelessness of England resulting from Mary's reign. England, he argues, must take radical steps to save the country from these tyrannical rulers. He suggests that his readers empower the nation by severing the irreparably corrupt head, and then re−establish unity among the remaining members of the body politic.38)

Compared to Knox, Ponet's vitriol against the queen herself is restrained. Several times in A Short Treatise of Politike Power Mary is referred to as so weak and "womanly" that she is easily swayed by advice; from the bishop of London Edmund Bonner, the bishop of Winchester Stephen Gardiner, and from her husband.39) But Ponet's most interesting and most damning comments about the Queen are concerned with her pregnancy. For example, whilst attacking Pharaoh's eugenic policy to destroy all male Israelite children, Ponet broadens his argument to discuss:

those … that being desirous of chidren, procure the mydwyves to saye, they be with childe, whan their bely is puffed up with the dropsie or molle, and having bleared the common peoples eies with processioning, Te deum singing, and bonefire banketting, use all ceremomies and cryeng out, whilest an other birdes egge is layed in the nest.40)

Here, Ponet reflects contemporary fears that a substitute, healthy child will be put in the place of Mary's own. Mary's pregnancy—"the dropsie or molle"—is represented as both a misbirth and, more importantly, a physical manifestation of her inward sinfulness. It seems that whereas Knox's descriptions of Mary's monstrousness had been a non−physical reflection of her inward sinfulness (her Catholicism), in Ponet's [→page 58] descriptions this sinfulness is made manifest by the body of the misconceived child.41)

The queen had announced her pregnancy in the autumn of 1554; the child was therefore expected to be born sometime during May or June 1555. By the end of April she had withdrawn from public life and nobody except her women and her husband was admitted to her privy apartments. Though there were several false alarms through the early summer, by early July it became clear that the Queen and her physicians had been mistaken.42) In Acts and Monuments of the English Martyrs John Foxe reported that Isabel Malt, who had been safely delivered of a "man−child upon Whit Sunday in the morning, which was the 11th day of June" was approached by Lord North to part with him in secret.43) Rumours of a substitution plot had been in circulation in March and Antoine de Noailles, the French Ambassador, had been told that Mary's condition was the result of a tumour. Again in May, Noailles was told that the pregnancy was false, and that Mary's midwife—not daring to tell her the truth—was deluding the queen with stories of inaccurate calculations. As late as 25 July her physicians, and some of her attendants, were maintaining the pretence. However, at some point between then and the 4 August the symptoms of pregnancy must have subsided to the point at which even Mary was convinced that she had been mistaken. There was no official or public announcement, but the court moved from Hampton Court to Oatlands, a much smaller residence, and the nursery staff were dismissed.44)

Rumours of Mary's symptoms must have reached Ponet for him to be able to describe her condition as either the "dropsie or molle." Mary may have suffered a phantom pregnancy; but there are other possibilities. She may have been suffering from a tumour. Additionally, there had been a rumour that spring that she had passed "a lump of flesh." This condition, known as a "missed abortion," occurs when the fetus dies in the uterus, is partially reabsorbed and then discharged. Alternatively, conception may have occurred but the fetus and placenta may not have joined properly. In this situation the cells are cystically transformed into a "mole."45) Noailles reported that spring that Mary was suffering from a "mola."46) Foxe thought she was deceived by a "tympany," a morbid swelling particularly of the stomach.47)

[→page 59] Richard Eden, in The Decades of the Newe World or West India, also uses the word "tympane" when discussing "the byrth of perles." Eden writes:

Ageyne, the smaulest [pearls] differ from the byggest in a certayne swellynge or impostumation whiche the Spaniardes caule a tympane.48)

This description forms part of a catalogue of flaws which occur in pearls with the result that they become mis−shaped or partly formed. Such a description seems to be an attack on the queen who, similar to an "oulde muscle" (an oyster), had only been able to grow a "warte, whiche beynge rased from the shell with fyle, is rounde and bryght but onely of one syde, and not precious."49) The whole of the description of "the byrth of perles" is saturated with the language of childbirth; for example, when the Spaniards examine the opened oysters they "perceaved the pearles to bee inclosed in the myddest of their bellies, there to be norisshed and increase as an infante suckynge his moothers pappes within her wombe, before hee move to coome foorthe of her privye places."50) Eden's translation is also markedly different in these passages from Martyr's original.51) Though Martyr uses the phrase "Pati appellat Hispanus tympanum" the emphasis on misbirth, which is so strong in Eden's translation, is entirely absent.

The preface of The Decades of the Newe World or West India can also be read as a hostile comment on the queen's inability to bearchildren. King Ferdinand of Aragon, the grandfather of Mary and great−grandfather of Philip, is highly praised as both the instigator of the discovery of America and as someone from whom "noble braunches of isshewe were lyke to sprynge out."52) Phrases such as "many kynges shulde come furth of his loynes" appear either as highly ironic or politically suicidal in the months following the queen's hapless pregnancy.53) Furthermore, Eden ostensibly intends to correct the "dyvers interpretacions more monstrous then the monsters theim selves" which were in circulation concerning contemporary monstrous births.54) To this end, Eden pronounces the "signification of thy monsters":

Fyrst then consider that they are monsters of mankynde and not of other beastes. Secondarily marke well that in them al, the headde is perfect, so that [→page 60] the monstrositie groweth owt of the body, although not owt of the hole body but certyne partes therof. But not to go to farre.55)

Eden's explanation is, like Ponet's, a reading of the body politic. But, in contrast to Ponet, Eden argues that the heads of the misbirths were "perfect"; consequently Eden perceives the problem with England to be the fault of the body, the people, rather than the nation's rulers. Explicitly then, Eden appears to be attacking those that have failed to support the Catholic queen.

But this politic body can be read another way. When this passage is examined in conjunction with Eden's earlier emphasis on Ferdinand and his descendants' fertility, another interpretation emerges. This is of Mary herself producing a "monstrositie … owt of the body." Her child, if there was one, was obviously perceived by some commentators as a physical monster since it was variously described as a "wart," a "tympany," or a "mola." Moreover, the survival of this child, the heir of combined Spanish and England interests, was a monstrous threat to the independence of England. Under such a monarch England would decline to the position of a satellite state under the control of another, far more powerful, country. Eden's message of "Stoope Englande stoope, and learne to knowe thy lorde and master, as horses and other brute beasts are taught to do" seems designed to goad the English into competition and hostility with Spain.56) The central motivation behind Eden's "career trajectory" emerges as a constant desire to foster and encourage English expansion.57) Therefore, in Decades of the Newe World or West India Eden praises Spanish achievements to the extent that it will, he gambles, rile Englishmen into a competitive determination to go and emulate Spanish achievements. In his representations of monsters and monstrous births—images of Mary Tudor and her sinfulness—we can see Eden's guarded hostility towards Spanish imperium. Mary may have become the possession of Spain but, Eden hopes, England will not need to stoop for much longer.

The similarity between Eden's and Marian exiles' descriptions of Mary's progeny would seem to indicate that there was, at the very least, a sympathy of ideas. Eden emerges, therefore, as a less conformist figure than has been previously assumed, maintaining the robust opposition [→page 61] to Mary Tudor evident in his earlier works, only by more subtle means ("but not to go to farre"). Certainly, Eden's father and uncle felt so hostile to the Marian regime that they chose to live as exiles in Strasbourg. Perhaps, then, we can even go one step further, and speculate that Eden may have been a Protestant spy. Perhaps he was controlled by these Marian exiles with whom he shared a vocabulary of monstrosity as he, like Ponet, worked to undermine the credibility and legitimacy of Mary's Catholic regime?

University of Wales
Aberystwyth