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Nashe and Sir Robert Cotton

- were they friends?

Nashe published Haue with you to Saffron-walden in 1596. After its Epistle Dedicatorie and the epistle to the readers, the bulk of HWYTSW is in the form of dialogue between friends. These friends have evidently met for dinner, but before they go to their meal they hold a mock-trial in which they judiciously trash poor old Doctor Harvey. The five 'interlocutores' are called:

  1. Senior Importuno
  2. Grand Consiliadore
  3. Domino Bentivole
  4. Don Carneades de boune compagniola

  5. and
  6. Piers Pennilesse.

The identity of 'Piers Pennilesse' of course is not in doubt: he's Nashe. 'What, Tom, thou art very welcome. Where hast thou bin this long time...' is how he's greeted. And clearly, like him the other four friends are also not fictional characters but merely fictional names, thinly veiling the identities of men Nashe expected to be recognizable to at least some of his readership. Who were these men? 'There is, I think, nothing which enables us even to guess at the persons referred to in this and the following paragraph' is McKerrow's sensible comment on this matter. But who wants to be sensible? Let's start guessing.

The only clues we have are the brief descriptions Nashe gives, and that of 'Grand Consiliadore' at least has suggested an identity to some:

...Vnder Grand Consiliadore I allude to a graue reue-/rend Gimnosophist, (Amicorum amicissimus, of all my Frends the most zealous,) that as Aesculapius built an oracle of the sunne at Athens, so is his Chamber an Oracle or Conuocation Chappell of sound counsaile for all the better sort of the sonnes of understanding about London, and (as it were) an usuall market of good fellowship and conference.'

More about this portrait
         'Grand Consiliadore' - Sir Robert Cotton?

The image on the left is a detail from a portrait of the famous antiquary Sir Robert Cotton, painted in 1626. (For the full history of its rediscovery, and for more about Sir Robert, click the link underneath the image.) The painting's inscription celebrates Cotton as a scholar and preserver of antiquities, as he certainly was: his library contained some of the rarest manuscripts in England. But he was also a political thinker whose intellectual interests were far from being as dry as the word 'antiquarian' suggests. In the 17th century, the parliamentary radicals who were steadily challenging the crown's authority often did so by appealing to earlier precedents, preferring to believe they were not innovating but reforming - simply restoring the relationship between king and commons to a previous state. To an extent, their arguments were shaped by their interpretation of the past. Thus ancient documents were of more than academic interest, and access to them was vital. Cotton was

extremely liberal in permitting others to make use of his library. He was also open-minded about the future of governance, and although in the earlier part of his career he was consulted on public affairs by King James I, as time passed he attached himself to the parliamentary cause. Eventually he fell into strong disfavour with the Crown.

But that's looking far ahead. Sir Robert was clearly a man of real gravitas in 1626, a revered scholar and a political heavyweight. But what was he like thirty years earlier, when Nashe published HWYTSW? Would young Master Robert Cotton have met Tom Nashe for a meal? (If he did, no prizes for guessing who picked up the tab...)

Charles Nicholl, in A Cup of News, sounds pretty sure it was Cotton. Discussing the identity of 'Grand Consiliadore' he says:

This surely is Robert Cotton, 'dignissimus doctissimus Cottonus', who had been Nashe's host in 1593. Consiliadore's 'Chamber' is called an 'Oracle or Convocation Chappell of sound counsaile for all the better sort of the sonnes of understanding about London'. This is exactly the reputation of Cotton's town-house, in Old Palace Yard, Westminster. With its vast library, it 'was the meeting place of all the scholars in the country', men like Dee, Camden and Bacon. Consiliadore takes on the role 'censor or moderator' in Nashe's colloquium: apt for the learned young Cotton, already acknowledged as a 'master of precedents', fit to adjudicate in ticklish matters of international protocol.

But is it even certain that Nashe knew Cotton? Well, it beggars belief that two such intellectually lively men, though of very different social standing, would not at least have been aware of each other: but as far as I know there is no documentary evidence, nor does Nashe ever mention Cotton directly in his work. Nicholl's reference to Nashe having been Cotton's guest in 1593 is also not absolutely certain, though it is highly probable. Nashe claimed to have begun The Terrors of the Night during February 1593 while staying at a house in the country. His description of the place makes it sound very much like Cotton's country home at Conington in Huntingdonshire: Nicholl cites the 'ingenious argument' of C.G. Harlow, Review of English Studies, vol. XII as proof of this, and his brief rehearsal of Harlow's article makes it sound very convincing.(Okay, time to admit I haven't yet read Harlow's article.) There are other points in favour of the two men knowing each other, none quite clinching it completely, but altogether adding up to make it seem highly likely.

  • Nashe and Cotton were at Cambridge at the same time, though in different colleges.
  • Nashe was certainly a friend of William Cotton, who may have been a family connection of Sir Robert's.
  • Nashe had contacts with the Inns of Court, and Cotton was there 1588-91.
  • Cotton's chamberfellow at the Inns of Court was John Davies, whose unpublished work Nashe refers to in Strange Newes (1592).
  • Nashe was a friend and collaborator of Ben Jonson, who had been at Westminster School with Sir Robert and who certainly stayed at Conington.
  • Over Christmas 1593 Nashe was briefly part of the household of Sir George Carey, for whom Cotton later acted in some capacity and at whose Blackfriars house he lodged in the late 1590s.

On the whole, it's indisputable Nashe and Cotton had ample opportunity to have met; the description of 'Grand Consiliadore' agrees with what we know of Cotton; Nashe knew the manuscript work of Cotton's friend Davies in 1592, and in February 1593 he was stopping at a country house which can plausibly be identified with Cotton's Huntingdonshire residence. Lastly, as Nicholl points out, in the second edition of Piers Penilesse Nashe made an apology. He isn't big at apologizing, but this one was hurriedly made to any intelligent antiquary offended by PP's jokes about their more gullible brethren, because, far from ridiculing true antiquarianism, Nashe swears that as '...(God is my witnesse) I reuerence it as much as any of them all'.

I don't know about you, but I'm persuaded. IMHO Nashe did indeed know Sir Robert Cotton, and Cotton probably was 'Grand Consiliadore'.


That said, I would now like to introduce a small guess of my own. It's about the identity of Friend No. 4, Don Carneades de boune compagniola. Here is Nashe's description of him:

And for the subsequent or hindermost of the paire, who likewise is none of the vnworthiest retainers to Madame Bellona, hee is another Florentine Poggius for mirthfull, sportiue conceit & quick inuention, ignem faciens ex lapide nigro, which Munster in his Cosmography alledges/ for the greatest wonder of England,) that is, wresting delight out of anie thing. And this ouer and aboue I will giue in euidence for his praise, that though all the ancient Records and Presidents of ingenuous Apothegs and Emblemes were burnt, (as Polidore Virgill in King Harry the eights time burnt all the ancient Records of the true beginning of this our Ile, after hee had finished his Chronicle,) yet out of his affluent capacitie they were to be renewed and reedified farre better.

While I'm not sure exactly what the name 'Don Carneades de boune compagniola' means, or even what language it's meant to be in, I'm guessing the 'boune compagniola' bit refers to 'good fellowship', i.e. that this is someone who doesn't mind getting plastered with Nashe. The historical Carneades was an Athenian philosopher, a famous sceptic: Don Carneades is also described as 'a retainer to Madame Bellona' (the Roman goddess of war), therefore has some military background, though he evidently isn't quite in the same league soldiering-wise as Friend #3, 'Domino Bentivole', who gets a mention first and whose true resolution and valour are proclaimed to have 'hath ennobled his name extraordinarie'. A drinker, a sceptic, a soldier. Up to this point it all sounds very much as if it could even be William Cotton, and maybe it is: but Will Cotton is not my candidate. No, my candidate for Don Carneades is none other than - ta-daa! -

Ben Jonson


  • Jonson and Nashe worked together on The Isle of Dogs, so must have been friends by June 1597, when it had its ill-starred public run. This is not much removed in time from HWYTSW.
  • Jonson was by no means a teetotaller, and would probably boune compagniola whenever finances allowed.
  • Jonson had done some soldiering, and was proud of it.
  • Jonson already knew Robert Cotton.(They were both schooled under Camden at Westminster.)
  • The attributes of Don C which Nashe praises - mirthful, sportive conceit and quick invention - would fit a writer, and Jonson particularly. He was witty - famously he 'would rather lose his friend than his jest' - and he did evidently know quite a lot about emblems etc, since his masques are full of that class of thing. (And yes, I know he was notoriously slow at composition, but this was surely due to his laborious and careful reworking rather than any lack of 'quick invention' - especially since 'quick' may suggest 'fertile' rather than 'speedy'.)
  • 'lapide nigro' and 'coal': Um, not sure about this. Marston and Dekker satirised Jonson in Satiromastix as 'Horace'. I've only read an unannotated extract of this play, but in one scene the blustering Captain Tucca addresses Jonson-Horace as 'old Coal'. Why? Old King Cole, perhaps - who knows??? But just possibly there's a tie-in with HWYTSW here. I don't know why Jonson would be associated with the name Cole or the word Coal, but if he was, Nashe's inclusion of the quote about 'lapide nigro' was probably meant to allude to it.

Nicholl, I have to say, fancies Sir Roger Williams as Don Carneades, but I'm a bit troubled by the thought that Don C comes last in the batting order. Sir Roger Williams was an important man, with a serious military reputation. Calling him 'none of the unworthiest retainers of Madame Bellona' doesn't quite cover it. And precedence would surely dictate he was mentioned first anyway, as being higher-ranking than the likes of young Robert Cotton - who, however wealthy and learned he might be, didn't get his knighthood till James came in.

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