William Elderton’s A proper new balad of my ladie marques, Whose death is bewailed To the tune of new lusty gallant features an apparition: Elderton says ‘Me thinkes I see her walke in blacke, / In euery corner where I goe’.  But Elderton is conflicted. Visions of the deceased marchioness appear in his mind’s eye, continuing the good works that she undertook in life, even though he knows that she is ‘dead and gone’.

The ghost of Hamlet’s father is probably the most famous literary apparition to demonstrate the confused role of the ghost in Reformation culture. The ghost claims that

I am thy father’s spirit,

Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,

And for the day confin’d to fast in fires,

Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature

Are burnt and purg’d away.[1]



Ludovico Carracci: An Angel Frees Souls from Purgatory

Notwithstanding the apparition’s assertions of paternal authority (and what appears to be a confirmation of the existence of purgatory), Hamlet instead sees a spirit of ‘questionable shape’. This forces him to ask


Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn’d,

Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,

Be thy intents wicked or charitable.[2]


As Peter Marshall has pointed out, though, Hamlet was ‘highly unusual among Elizabethan and Jacobean plays in explicitly addressing the question of whether the apparition is really the spirit of Hamlet’s father, or a demonic illusion, and making it central to the action of the play’.[3] Ghosts continued to be used in literature throughout the early modern period to show that the dead continued to care for their loved ones from beyond the grave, or to prick the conscience of the living in order to make them lead a better life.[4] Here again, the ghost of Hamlet’s father is a case in point, walking the battlements of Elsinore at night to persuade Hamlet to carry out his filial duty: avenging the murder of the king. Elderton’s apparition does not, it must be said, fit these literary norms. Instead, its literary function reflects the changed relationship between the living and the dead, the new cultural norms of the Elizabethan world. These have been examined in some detail by Marshall, who has shown that although Protestantism eliminated the need for extended rituals of remembrance such as trental masses and year’s minds, there remained a belief that the living were obliged to provide a decent burial for the deceased and to ‘offer succour for their children, friends and kin’.[5] Furthermore, J.S.W. Helt’s work on women’s wills in Elizabethan England shows that, after the Reformation, it was the bequeathal of gifts which joined the living in a commemorative relationship with the dead. This relationship ‘served to reinforce the social hierarchy’.[6]A proper new balad performs a similar commemorative role, binding those who are left behind to the deceased.

It seems that when the marchioness died, Elderton needed to find another mistress to serve in order to maintain his income. He expressed the belief that ‘sure I am, ther liueth yet / In court a dearer frinde to mee’. Elderton stresses that his apparition continues to carry out acts of charity, ‘to looke if anie bodie do lacke / A friend to helpe them of theyr woe’. This is not, however, because of any Catholic belief that these good works would help her soul progress more quickly through Purgatory. Far from it: through her acts of charity and supplication, Elderton’s ghostly vision of the marchioness functions as a reminder the ladies of the court to be charitable to Elderton himself.   Elderton’s spectral vision fits with a reformed expectation of the role of the dead: the marchioness walks in pious black to remind the ladies of the court to provide succour and relief for Elderton himself. The ballad describes an apparition who moves among the quick not to seek respite from the pains of purgatory, but to provide help for the living. She is a walking reminder that the ladies of the court have continuing obligations to those whom Elizabeth Parr, wife of the 1st marquess of Northampton, left behind.

[1] William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act 1 Scene 5, ll. 745-749.

[2] Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 4, ll. 669-671.

[3] Peter Marshall, Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England (Oxford: OUP, 2002), 258.

[4] Marshall, Beliefs and the Dead, 258.

[5] Marshall, Beliefs and the Dead, 266.

[6] J.S.W. Helt, “Women, Memory and Will-making in Elizabethan England,” pp. 108-225 in Bruce Gordon and Peter Marshall, eds. The Place of the Dead: Death and Remembrance in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: CUP 2000), 205.