Portrait of a Woman, thought to be Lady Katheine Knollys – Steven van der Meulen

William Elderton’s A proper new balad of my ladie marques, Whose death is bewailed To the tune of new lusty gallant was not the only eulogy published in 1569. Thomas Newton penned a steadfastly Protestant panegyric to Lady Katherine Knollys. Katherine, who may have been the illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII, was also a confidante of Elizabeth I. Sally Varlow commented that ‘it was often noted that Katherine was, in the words of Thomas Newton’s verse epitaph on her, ‘In favour with our noble queen, above the common sort’, possibly reflecting the inadmissible fact that they were half-sisters’.[1] Katherine and her husband, Francis, had been among the more prominent of the Protestant exiles to flee abroad rather than face execution for heresy under Philip and Mary. Newton describes how throughout her life, Katherine ‘…traced had so cunningly, / the path of vertues lore, / Prefixing God omnipotent, / her godly eyes before’.[2]


The mid-Tudor ballad epitaphs predate the development of the funeral sermon as ‘the definitive Protestant instrument of commemoration’ in the later Elizabethan and early Jacobean period.[3] But the themes of female piety displayed by Elderton and Newton were used by both Catholics and Protestants. The first extant broadside elegy for a woman was published in 1558, following the death of Mary I. The title of the copy held in the library of the Society of Antiquaries, London, Epitaphe vpon the Death of the Excellent and our late vertuous Quene, Marie, deceased, augmented by the first Author, suggests that it may not have been the first version to be published.[4] Hyder E. Rollins described the ballad as an ‘exaggerated eulogy’ written by ‘an ardent Catholic, very probably a priest’, and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography suggests that its author may have been Leonard Stopes.[5] The balladeer describes how Queen Mary drew strength from her faith: ‘In greatest stormes she feared not, for God she made her shielde, / And all her care she cast on him, who forst her foes to yelde’.[6] Nevertheless, the Epitaphe is a much less confessional ballad than the one written by Richard Sheale for the Catholic Margaret Stanley, countess of Derby, which can be found in Bodleian Library Ashmole 48.  In fact, a ballad epitaph for the Protestant monarch Edward VI is similar in many ways to that of his half-sister Mary and, furthermore, all the contemporaneous eulogies of dead women contain commonplaces such as ‘mirrour of all womanhed’.[7] Although the anonymous balladeer praises Mary’s mercy upon those that opposed her rule and commends her steadfast faith in God, he also praises her sister Elizabeth now that she has come to the throne. Whilst this show of support for the reigning monarch was standard practice, it could also demonstrate a hope that Elizabeth would maintain her half-sister’s Catholic revival.


But it was not only the aristocracy who were lauded by balladeers. Peter Marshall has suggested that ‘the recurrent association of commemoration with generous benefaction raises another issue, that of whether a result of the changes in mortuary culture consequent upon theological change was to make postmortem commemoration increasingly a prerogative of the socially important, and thus narrow the circle of community, and increase social divergence’.[8] In July 1570, the wife of London’s then lord mayor, Sir Alexander Avenon, died. Lady Avenon may not have been a member of the aristocracy, but she was certainly the wife of a prominent member of the London merchant community. Her life was celebrated by John Phillips in a broadside ballad entitled An Epitaph on the death of the vertuous Matrone the Ladie Maioresse, late wyfe to the right Honorable Lorde (Alexander Auenet) Lord Maior of the Citie of London, who deceased the vij daie of July, 1570.[9]

Perhaps, then, printed ballad epitaphs also provided the sixteenth century equivalent of celebrity gossip, setting stories about the deaths of well-known individuals to catchy tunes. Folk songs in oral culture have always addressed the lives and deaths of prominent members of society, showing that there was an interest in, for example, the activities of military personnel and the aristocracy. Sensationalism was also popular, with tales of natural wonders and hideous monsters fulfilling a need for excitement, with the added bonus of editorial comment to explain how such events carried a supernatural message. These broadsides and ballads played to people’s natural curiosity and played on their fear of God’s wrath. The early modern audience was able to enjoy salacious details of abnormal births, while in the process receiving warnings about God’s punishment of those who did not amend their wicked ways.  The epitaph ballads were similar, in that they supplemented their celebrity stories with religious instruction.

[1] Sally Varlow, “Knollys , Katherine, Lady Knollys (c.1523-1569),” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online ed., ed. Lawrence Goldman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, January 2009), accessed November 19, 2013, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/69747.

[2] Thomas Newton, An epitaphe vpon the worthy and honorable lady, the Lady Knowles (London: William How, for Richarde Iohnes, 1569), Early English Books, 1475-1640 / 387:07, accessed November 19, 2013, http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2003&res_id=xri:eebo&res_dat=xri:pqil:res_ver=0.2&rft_id=xri:eebo:citation:99856980.

[3] Marshall, Beliefs and the Dead, 268.

[4] Anon., Epitaphe vpon the Death of the Excellent and our late vertuous Quene,Marie, deceased, augmented by the first Author; Library of the Society of Antiquaries, London, collection of ballads and broadsides fol. 46r.

[5] Hyder E. Rollins, Old English Ballads 1553-1625: Chiefly from Manuscripts([S.l.]: Cambridge University Press, 1920), 23; Sarah Elizabeth Wall, “Stopes, Leonard (d. c.1608),” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online ed., ed. Lawrence Goldman (Oxford: Oxford University Press), accessed November 19, 2013, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/26584.

[6] Rollins, Old English Ballads, 24.

[7] Rollins, Old English Ballads, 25.

[8] Peter Marshall, Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 285.

[9] John Phillips, An epitaph on the death of the vertuous matrone, the Lady Maioresse, late wyfe to the right honorable Lorde, (Alexander Auenet) Lord Maior of the citie of London. Who deceased the vii. daie of Iuly. 1570 (London: By Richard Iohnes, 1570), Early English Tract Supplement / A3:4[22b], accessed November 19, 2013, http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2003&res_id=xri:eebo&res_dat=xri:pqil:res_ver=0.2&rft_id=xri:eebo:citation:99887600.