Martyrdom in the Literal Sense: Surrey’s Psalm Paraphrases

Martyrdom in the Literal Sense: Surrey’s Psalm Paraphrases

Simpson, James

Medieval and Early Modern English Studies, vol. 12 (2004) No. 1


Martyrdom produces biography, just as a given writer’s foreseen martyrdom produces autobiography. It is no accident, for example, that the first autobiography in the English vernacular, that of Margery Kempe, was produced by someone much whose life was spent travelling to the sites of martyrdom. The pain of Kempe’s own life comes into profile as an object worthy of narration in the bright light of saintly suffering. Neither is it an accident that John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments should be the source of so much biographical information; in keeping with a long tradition of pre-Reformation procedures of canonisation, Foxe assiduously collects biographical documents that bear witness to the exemplary status of the suffering martyr.

The subject of this essay was not a martyr in the formal sense: Henry Howard, Early of Surrey, was beheaded for political treason on 19 January 1547. He had been convicted on charges of having treasonously displayed royal arms in his coat of arms. Surrey spent most of the period between the date of his final arrest on 2 December 1546 and his execution almost seven weeks later in the Tower. The works that Surrey seems certainly to have written during this period of imprisonment are, however, very much those of a person who feels himself to be an evangelical martyr. Those works are as follows: Psalms 54, 72, and 87 (Vulgate numbering). There is circumstantial evidence that he also translated Psalms 30 and 50. Shortly before this final imprisonment, in, possibly, the spring of 1546, after his return from France in military disgrace, Surrey had produced paraphrases of Ecclesiastes Chapters 1-5 inclusive. At least one of these works seems to have been drawn upon by another Protestant martyr, and paraphrases of some of the same Psalms were produced by other Tudor courtiers who present themselves as martyrs.

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