A young humanist on the make: Hercules Rollock in England, 1579-1580

Steven Reid, Principal Investigator

Hercules Rollock paraphrases Virgil in the closing lines of the first of two poems he wrote to Joseph Scaliger when he notes that he is 'about to see the Britons torn off from the rest of the world' ('Ecce tuus, reliquo divulsos orbe Britannos/visurus'), 1 and in Spring 1579 he did indeed set out for home from Poitiers. While crossing the English Channel his ship was attacked by pirates and his belongings stolen, which included a collection of his writings. However, the English government was able to apprehend the pirates and to return Rollock's papers to him. Following letters from James VI asking for compensation, Rollock was also awarded �20 sterling (approximately �240 Scots) by the English Privy Council. 2 The episode provoked a fawning 'sylva' (occasional poem) to Elizabeth I, 3 where Rollock argues (l. 1-46) that Elizabeth's virtues and merits are so extensive that to try and capture them in poetry would fail to do them justice, and in any event the attempt would overwhelm such a meagre poet as him. The second half (l.47-131) turns to an account of the rescue of Rollock's writings from the pirates and their return to their owner, prompting Rollock to swear that he will never publish them for profit. If he does, each will bear a dedication that states:

Vive libelle, manu quondam raptate latronum,
sed te facte tuis faelicior ipse periclis, 4
cui rediisse datum, regina vindice, salvo
regina aeternis merita superare libellis. (l.128-131)

[Live well, book, who was once seized by a band of robbers, but who is now made very happy through your perils; you whom a queen liberator has allowed to have returned safe, a queen who deserves to endure forever in eternal writings.]

Rollock's altercation with pirates marked the beginning of a short extended residence in England under the patronage of Sir Thomas Sackville, first baron Buckhurst and earl of Dorset (c. 1536-1608), with whom Rollock stayed on his estate in Sussex until at least early 1580. His compensation from the English Privy Council was to be delivered to him via Sir Thomas Heneage, the queen's treasurer and a close personal friend of Buckhurst's, and it is possible that Rollock met Buckhurst through him. 5 Buckhurst studied law and served as an MP in his early career before his appointment as joint lord lieutenant of Sussex in November 1569. He was then sent as ambassador to France in 1571 to negotiate a possible marriage between the Duc d'Anjou and Elizabeth. Buckhurst was an accomplished poet in his early career, and contributed a range of verse to the tragedy Gorboduc (performed at the Temple's Christmas revels of 1561-2), to the second part of William Baldwin's Mirror for Magistrates (1563), and to Sir Thomas Hoby's English translation of Castiglione's Book of the Courtier (1561). While he had a shared passion with Rollock for poetry, it is unclear what the exact nature and extent of Rollock's patronage was. Although Sackville was a commissioner for the trial of the Duke of Norfolk in 1572 and played a considerable role in the trial of Mary Queen of Scots in 1586-7, his biographers are universally silent about the intervening decade and a half in his career, spent mainly administering affairs in Sussex. 6

Rollock wrote six poems during this English sojourn, including the sylva addressed to Elizabeth and another one dedicated to Buckhurst 'at his home in southern England'. 7 In addition, Rollock also produced a poem dedicated to the English ambassador, Sir Amias Paulet (c. 1532-1588), who succeeded Dr Valentine Dale as English ambassador to France in September 1576 and who attended the French king in Poitiers. 8 Rollock's poetry to English dedicatees is markedly different from the more idealistic, and arguably more spontaneous, verses produced earlier in his career. The earlier works have a sense of a young and impassioned humanist trying to find his poetic voice, spurred on to write by the events and outrages he witnesses, and what they lack in terms of polish and ingenuity they make up for in depth of feeling. Conversely, nearly every poem to an English subject is more polished and clever but more superficial in its aim, as they all either speculatively ask for patronage, give thanks for help received, or beg pardon for debts incurred.

The poem to Paulet is the most strident case in point. A staunch Protestant, Paulet had administered the predominantly French-speaking island of Jersey since 1556 (initially alongside his father Sir Hugh Paulet, but then as sole governor from 1572) and had gained extensive experience in dealing with French Huguenot refugees to the island, which may explain why Elizabeth chose him as ambassador. 9 Paulet's surviving copy-book of correspondence from May 1577 to January 1578 narrates that he arrived in Poitiers between 22 June and 10 July. 10 It was probably at some point between these two dates when Rollock delivered this poem to Paulet, which playfully imagines Cynthius (Apollo in his capacity as god of poetic inspiration) chiding Rollock for wasting his time composing 'useless laudations' ('praeconia...irrita', l. 8-9) far off from home, when he could have a career in England, which is 'rich, bordered by the Caledonian kingdoms, teeming with people, fortunate in riches, in war celebrated, in peace unviolated, ignorant of sorrow, [and] unclouded in piety' ('Ipsa Caledoniis contermina regnis,/ foeta viris, faelix opibus, bello inclyta, pace/ intemerata, doli indocilis, pietate serena', l. 10-12).It also pays superficial tribute to the virtues of Elizabeth as a nymph whose beauty rivals that of Venus.

Rollock ends the piece with Cynthius inelegantly advising him that if he furnishes the ambassador with suitably stylish verses then perhaps 'he will present opportunities to you, and will fortify your spirits as you lie idle, and one day place you among the great poets, free from the touch of the people' ('Ille aditus pandet magnis tibi forsitan orsis, /sufficietque animos cunctanti, et grandibus olim/ inseret, assertum populi contage, poetis', l. 26-28). If Rollock entertained hopes of attaching himself to Paulet's coat-tails and becoming gentrified, it appears he was sorely disappointed. Paulet's account of his stay in the city (he left for Paris at some point between 19 and 30 October) outlines in detail several meetings he had with Henri III, Catherine de Medici, and the new Duc d'Anjou, and provides a full account of the meetings that led to the edict of Poitiers. He also says much about his relationships with his staff and his fellow ambassadors. However, he never mentions Rollock once.

Like the piece produced for Elizabeth, Rollock's sylva to Buckhurst is extremely superficial, extolling at length the virtues of Buckhurst's Sussex estate but providing little in the way of historical interest. Rollock also wrote three 'new year gifts' ('strena') given as presents at new year 1579/80, one to Thomas Travers (who is rather cruelly identified in the poem with the god Janus for being two-faced) and two to the queen's secretary and spymaster Francis Walsingham. 11 Walsingham's gifts are both wittily titled by Rollock as 'backwards' ('retrogradus') because they are actually petitioning Walsingham for patronage. The first expresses the standard wishes for good health and a long life for Walsingham and stresses Rollock's situation as a 'needy' ('egenus') poet, who is compelled through poverty to give a small poetic token as his only gift:

Dent tibi Di, tua quae voti mens conscia poscit
munera, virtutes, robur, et imperium.
Invidia procul et vivas, nomen stet avarum
laudis, mors vitae sit tua conveniens.
Interea tuus hic vates fert munera egenus
(segnis quae patitur nunc dare pauperies.)
Versiculos sibi qui vertuntur munera Phoebo,
aptaque Vertumni commoda et auspiciis.

[May the Gods give you the rewards, virtues, strength and dominion which your mind, sensible to prayer, demands. And may you live with envy far away from you, may your name stand eager for praise, may your death be fitting to your life. Meanwhile, here your needy poet brings rewards (which lingering poverty now suffers him to give), little verses which are turned by themselves into rewards fit for Phoebus, and well-suited to the good omens of Vertumnus.] 12

The second bluntly addresses Walsingham's ruthless and pragmatic nature, admitting that he praises him solely for the hope of financial reward:

Vis fera, non pia te ducit lex: aeris acervo
constat, non meritis laus tua nobilibus.

[Fierce strength, not pious law, guides you: your praise is [given] in accord with a pile of money, not with noble merits.]

His final English poem, to Walsingham's secretary Francis Milles, reveals Rollock's lack of care with money. 13 Rollock petitions Milles for a release from a substantial but unspecified debt, probably accrued through gambling. Milles' name, meaning 'thousand' in Latin, forms the central conceit of the piece:

Mille mihi angores mea fors, fastidia mille,
mille sali peperit taedia, mille soli.
Una dies pretium exhausit mihi mille laborum,
quod non mille queant restituisse dies.
Te Mille adjuro, qui mille per ora vagaris,
et faustum a Milli nomen et omen habes;
per quae virtutes te mille notantur in uno,
perque quibus crucior mille superque modos;
expedias me mille malis, et mille querelis,
addideris vitae mille superque dies.
Non tibi mille dabo nummum pro munere, praeter
cui restat, voces, votaque mille, nihil.
Sed tibi mille canam versus, encomia mille:
vateque me saeclis mille superstes eris.

[My luck brought forth for me a thousand anxieties, a thousand aversions, a thousand loathings for sunshine and wit. A single day has drained me of a thousand of wages, that a thousand days could not have replaced. I beseech you Milles, who strolls about through a thousand mouths, and has the favourable name and sign of 'Milles', on account of which a thousand virtues are known in you alone, and on account of whom I am put on the rack in a thousand ways and more; please set me free from a thousand evils, and a thousand quarrels, and you will have added a thousand days and more to my life.]

As Rollock himself remarks in his poem to Elizabeth, he is someone who is proud to 'repeatedly produce bespoke poems for every occasion' ('officiis qui cunctis sola repono/ carmina', l. 44-45), and it appears from the verses to his English connections that he had realised his poetry could be used as a means by which to further his career and to obtain financial reward. This was a tool that would serve him very well as he attempted to carve out a place for himself on his return to Scotland.


1: 'Ad Iosephum Scaligerum cum sphaerae machina', DPS, vol. 2, p. 380, l. 19-20.

2: John Roche Dasent (ed.), Acts of the Privy Council of England, vol. 11 (1578-80) (London, 1895), pp. 141-2.

3: 'Sylva V: Ad clementissimam Angliae, Franciae , et Hiberniae Reginam, Elizabetham', DPS, vol. 2, pp. 358-60.

4: Cf. Propertius, Elegies II.15.2

5: For the relationship between Heneage and Buckhurst, see Rivkah Zim, 'Dialogue and discretion: Thomas Sackville, Catherine de Medici, and the Anjou marriage proposal, 1571', Historical Journal, 40.2 (1997), pp. 287-310, esp. p. 291; and Historical Manuscripts Commission, 71, Report on the manuscripts of Allan George Finch (4 vols., London, 1913-65), vol. 1 (1913), pp. 13-18.

6: J. Swart, Thomas Sackville: a Study in Sixteenth-Century Poetry (Groningen, 1949), pp. 5-14; Paul Bacquet, Un Contemporain d'Elisabeth I: Thomas Sackville, L'Homme et l'Ouevre (Geneva: Droz, 1966), pp. 35-90, esp. p. 57; Rivkah Zim, 'Sackville, Thomas, first Baron Buckhurst and first earl of Dorset (c.1536-1608)', ODNB.

7: 'Sylva VI: Ad Generosissimum equitem, Torquatum Thomam Sacvillum, Buchurstiae Dominum, e sua domo in Australi Anglia', DPS, vol. 2, pp. 361-365.

8: 'Sylva III: Ad Reginae Angliae Oratorem, Pictavium ingredientem', DPS, vol. 2, pp. 351-352.

9: See Michael Hicks, 'Paulet, Sir Amias (c.1532-1588)', ODNB.

10: Octavius Ogle (ed.), Copy-book of Sir Amias Poulet's Letter's Written during his Embassy to France (A.D. 1577) (London, Roxburghe Club, 1866), esp. pp. 55-158; I am extremely grateful to Professor Paul Hammer of the University of Colorado for alerting us to the existence of this volume. These letters are also calendared in Arthur John Butler (ed.), Calendar of State Papers Foreign, 1577-1578 (London, 1901).

11: 'Strena cal. Ian. ad T. Traversaeum'; 'Strena retrograda, ad F. Valsingamium'; and 'Aliud retrogrado sensu', DPS vol. 2, pp. 383-384.

12: The god of seasonal growth, gardens and fruit trees.

13: 'Ad. F. Millum, F. Walsingami amanuensem', DPS, vol. 2, p. 384. On Milles, see Conyers Read, Mr Secretary Walsingham and the Policy of Queen Elizabeth, 3 vols (Oxford, 1925), vol. 2, pp. 319, 336; vol. 3, p. 45.