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A rather strange fish
WELL-KNOWN WORK: Barnabe Barnes wrote two plays, including The Devil’s Charter (1607), a tragedy dealing with the life of Pope Alexander VI.
Barnabe Barnes was buried at Durham in December 1609 but spent his life putting pen to paper and causing a few feuds on the way.
Barnabe Barnes (1571 to 1609), was an English poet. He is known for his Petrarchan love sonnets and for his combative personality, involving feuds with other writers and culminating in an alleged attempted murder.
THE reign of Queen Elizabeth I was beyond doubt the Golden Age of English literature, a time when some of the greatest literary geniuses in history, with William Shakespeare at their forefront, created some of the finest writings ever penned. Some, along with their works, are still wellremembered and applauded while others are all but forgotten.
One who falls into this last category, a master writer of sonnets and an acquaintance and one-time benefactor of the great Shakespeare himself, found his last resting place in one of Durham City’s quiet places. His name was Barnabe Barnes and to use an idiom of his times, he, like his father, could at times be “rather a strange fish”.
Barnabe, or Barnaby, Barnes was one of the sons of Dr Richard Barnes, a churchman who rose, gradually but determinedly, to the exalted position of Bishop of Durham.
Unlike such powerful and ambitious predecessors as Langley, Flambard, Neville and Pudsey, Richard Barnes did not leave behind a reputation such as they had, although, like them, he never worried if he was unpopular, which he often was.
Born in 1532, Dr Barnes attended Brasenose College, Oxford, from 1552, was ordained into the church and married Fridismunda Gifford; their first child was born in 1561.
During their married life, she bore him nine children and was buried in 1581, in St Andrew’s Auckland.
In 1571, he was elected Bishop of Carlisle and, six years later, became Bishop of Durham.
In 1582, Dr Barnes married Jane Dillicotes in the chapel of Durham Castle.
When he died, in Bishop Auckland in 1587, his body was taken to Durham and buried in the choir of the cathedral, leaving one third of his considerable estate to his wife and the rest to his children.
Although on leaving Oxford Barnabe based himself in London and the South of England, his siblings did not stray far from home.
Two of his uncles and his youngest brother, Timothy, had jobs and property in and around Darlington.
His eldest brother, Emmanuel, was Rector of Wolsingham, in Weardale, one of the richest in Durham.
The brother with whom he had most dealings was John, chancellor of the diocese of Durham and clerk of the peace.
Both Emmanuel and Timothy were married while John and Barnabe remained bachelors.
John lived in Durham’s North Bailey, near the cathedral, and his burial is recorded in the register of the parish of St Mary-le-Bow, in July 1613.
One of Barnabe’s uncles, James, was buried further along the Baileys, at St Marythe- Less.
Barnabe had been born in 1568 or 1569, probably in Stonegrave, one of his father’s properties in North Yorkshire and was baptised at St Michael-le-Belfry, in York.
He must have spent much of his early life in Durham, where he would have known well the North and South Bailey, streets adjacent to the cathedral. On special days, “high days” and “holy days”, the children and young men and women of each of the parishes would compete with a neighbouring group in a variety of activities and a poem from early Elizabethan times, set out here in plainer English, explains a meeting between teams from the North Bailey and Elvet:
In lusty may the north bailey
At Elvet here did meet,
There was disguising, piping and dancing.
The maidens came dancing
When I was in my mother’s bower.
I had all that I would.
The bailey beareth the bell away,
The lily the rose, the rose I lay.
According to an article written in 1945: “The disguising was some form of the St George play and in it the players wore copes, which had been cast out of the cathedral at the reformation, one of them woven of blue and gold ornamented with gold flowers, the borders embroidered in different coloured silks with scenes of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.The material of which it was made was perhaps one of the three pieces of cloth of gold of blue colour with flowers interwoven given to the prior of Durham in 1355 at the funeral of Ralph, Lord Neville in return for the privilege of burial within the cathedral. These copes were long used by the boys and girls of Durham for their May games but were finally restored to the cathedral about 1625 to the great indignation of the puritans. It is easy to imagine Barnabe coming out of one of the houses in the North Bailey on a May morning to go through the (then) arch of Bow church, up Lygate (Lychgate, the corpse road) by the cemetery, from which the scent of the white hawthorn mingled with that of the apple blossom in his Uncle James’ orchard.”
The article continues to describe how the young Barnabe Barnes: “Must often have gone in this direction to wait on Bishop Tobie Matthew, who continued to be a friend and patron of himself and his bothers. Here in the street he might encounter the boys and girls of the parish holding a return meeting with those of Elvet, the boys flaunting the stained and tattered, but still magnificent copes once wrought for the glory of God and worn in the great cathedral that towered over the whole scene. Through the pleasure of the spring, sunshine and flowers and singing girls, there was a faint note of sorrow and loss, from the cemetery where the hawthorn grew, the desecrated copes, the house whose walls were built with the gravestones of monks.”
LIKE his father, Barnabe attended Brasenose College, Oxford, but, having received his share of his father’s inheritance, he left before graduating.
In 1591, he spent two months with the Earl of Essex’s expedition in Normandy, fighting the Catholics and the Duke of Parma.
Barnes is perhaps best remembered for an interest-free loan he made to William Shakespeare’s acting company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, in the 1590s.
This loan gave the company the capital necessary to keep it solvent and to rent theatre space until the construction of the Globe Theatre in 1599.
It has been suggested that Shakespeare immortalised his gratitude for this favour in Act I, Scene iii of All’s Well That Ends Well.
Another fairly plausible theory is that Barnes wrote parts of some of Shakespeare’s history plays, but his essential fame rests in his first and greatest work, Parthenophil and Parthenope of 1593, a sequence of poems.
This was followed in 1595 by A Divine Centurie of Spirituall Sonnets in 1595, Four Bookes of Offices in 1606 and an anti-papal drama called The Devil’s Charter.
All of these are quite difficult for readers and students today to understand and appreciate.
The Dictionary of Literary Biography describes Barnes as “one of the most important minor sonneteers to write during the reign of Elizabeth I. A member of the leisured rich, he moved easily in literary circles and managed to make friends and enemies among the most luminous courtiers and writers of his day. Although much of his biography is shrouded by the usual blankness typical of Renaissance authors, scholars have been able to piece together enough of his life to appreciate him as a fascinating, if brash, figure in Shakespeare’s England.”
While admittedly not as widely-read, scrutinised and written about as many Elizabethan writers, Barnes was criticised by some of his contemporaries.
One said of him that he was a bad poet, had dreadful dress sense and had been a coward on the field of battle during the wars in France.
It was claimed by some of his enemies that “Barnes had gone to the general to complain that war was dangerous, highly illegal and he wanted to go home at once and despite six burly captains offering to be his personal bodyguard, that home he would go and nothing would stay him”.
In 1598, Barnabe Barnes was prosecuted for attempting to murder one John Browne, initially by offering him a poisoned lemon and then by sweetening his wine with sugar laced with mercury sublimate.
Fortunately, both men were lucky in that Browne survived the murder attempt and Barnes escaped from prison before the legal case against him was concluded.
Fleeing to the North, he lived out most of the rest of his life in and around Durham.
Despite often being short of money and living from hand to mouth on his wits, he was typical of young Elizabethans of his class – full of life, not afraid to break the law, always seeking adventure.
He was prepared to try anything once – poetry, drama, politics, love, war and the law.
It was said of him that “he died in his prime before he had exhausted life’s possibilities”.
The burial of Barnabe Barnes, aged only 37, took place at St Mary-le-Bow, in December 1609. He had probably died at the house of his brother, John, in North Bailey.
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