I’ve been doing a lot of work on ballad epitaphs in recent months, inspired by a William Elderton ballad entitled A proper new balad of my ladie marques, Whose death is bewailed To the tune of new lusty gallant. The first thing that caught my attention was the fact that the epitaph had a named, known tune; the second, nowhere in the ballad does Elderton name his Lady Marques.Back in November last year, Notes and Queries published online my article identifying the lady in question as the Marchioness of Northampton, Elizabeth Parr.1   The ballad also features quite heavily in my. forthcoming piece for Literature Compass. What I’d like to talk about over my next few blog posts are a few aspects of the ballad that didn’t make it into the final cut of either article, but that I. nevertheless think are very interesting.   Elderton’s ballad fits into a tradition of verse eulogies and topical song, utilising the familiar sixteenth-century theme of female piety. But frankly, it’s odd that he didn͛t include the Ladie Marques’s name, because the purpose of an epitaph is to keep the deceased in the minds of the  living. That Elderton chose to leave out her name is fascinating, not least because the marchiones’s character is central to the song. In fact, when we know the marchioness͛s name, a multivalent reading of the ballad is possible. The song is not simply an epitaph, it is a genre-defying chimera. It speaks to different audiences about different things. It’s a ballad containing universal themes that everyone encounters; it reflects changes brought about by the Reformation; it is clearly intended to raise money through sales but it also directly begs for charity from the ladies of the court! In addressing audiences both at court and on the street, the song demonstrates the overlapping markets for cheap print. Finally, knowing the marchioness͛s name helps to explain why the balladwas published in 1569, some time after her death.

William Elderton is probably the best known of the mid-Tudor balladeers, but, like so many of his popular song-writing contemporaries, we know very little about his life. An Elderton is known to have been at court during the reign of Edward VI, when he took part in the 1552 Christmas festivities as an actor.2  His first known ballad, The panges of loue and louers fits, was published in 1559.3  By the late 1560s, William Elderton was an experienced and apparently successful balladeer. The eminent ballad scholar, Hyder E. Rollins cites John Stow and Henry Machyn as evidence that duringthe 1560s Elderton was also an attorney in the sheriff’s court at the Guidhall.4

Nevertheless, it appears that the Ladie Marques had been Elderton’s patron, someone for whom he could “spend the time to speake and writte”. As she was the daughter of George Brooke, baron Cobham, Elizabeth was also a niece of the court poet, Sir Thomas Wyatt. It is possible that this relationship accounts for her interest in Elderton. Although Elderton’s doggerel verse and Wyatt’s lyric poetry are hardly comparable in literary terms, Elizabeth Goldring commented that “There seems little reason… to doubt that Elderton was well known in Elizabethan literary circles, even if his contemporaries found his capacity for alcohol more noteworthy than his poetry”.5 But Elderton clearly had more than one string to his bow if he were an actor as well as a balladeer, so maybe it was in the position of acting that he had been, in some way, Elizabeth Parr’s client.
____________________________________

1 Jenni Hyde,’William Elderton’s Ladie Marques Identified’, Notes and Queries,  260:4, pp. 541-2. 

2 Elizabeth Goldring, ‘Elderton, William (d. in or before 1592)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online ed., ed. Lawrence Goldman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), accessed November 19, 2013; http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/8614.

3 William Elderton, The panges of loue and louers ftts, (London: 1559), STC (2nd ed.) / 7561.

4 Hyder E. Rollins,’William Elderton: Elizabethan Actor and Ballad-Writer’, Studies in Philology 17:2, pp. 205-6.

5 Goldring, ‘Elderton, William (d. in or before 1592)’.