Chidiock Tichborne

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Chidiock (Charles) Tichborne (1558–September 20, 1586) is remembered as an English conspirator and poet.

He was born in Southampton in 1558 to Roman Catholic parents. Given the recent succession of Elizabeth I to the throne over Mary I, he was allowed to freely practice his religion for most of his early life. However in 1570 the Queen was excommunicated by the Pope for her support of the Protestant religion and in retaliation ended her tolerance of the Catholic Church. Catholicism was made illegal, and Roman Catholics were once more banned by law from practicing their religion.

Tower of London, Traitor's Gate
Tower of London, Traitor's Gate

In 1583, Tichborne and his father were arrested and questioned concerning the use of "popish relics." Though they were released without charge, records suggest that this was not the last time they were to be questioned by the authorities over their religion.

In June 1586, Tichborne agreed to take part in the Babington Plot to murder Queen Elizabeth and replace her with the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots who was next in line to the throne. The plot was foiled by Sir Francis Walsingham using double agents, most notably Robert Poley who was later witness to the murder of Christopher Marlowe, and though most of the conspirators fled, Tichborne had an injured leg and was forced to remain in London. On August 14 he was arrested and he was later tried and sentenced to death in Westminster Hall.

While in custody in the Tower of London on September 19 (the eve of his execution), Tichborne wrote to his wife Agnes. The letter contained three stanzas of poetry that is his only known piece of work, Tichborne's Elegy, also known by its first line My Prime of Youth is but a Frost of Cares. The poem is a dark look at a life cut short and is a favourite of many scholars to this day.

On September 20, 1586, Tichborne was executed with Anthony Babington, John Ballard, and four other conspirators. They were disembowelled while still alive on specially erected gallows in St Giles Field, London as a warning to other would-be conspirators; however, when the Queen heard reports of these particularly gruesome executions, she gave orders that the remaining seven conspirators were to be allowed to hang until 'quite dead' before being disembowelled.

Tichborne's Elegy

My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feast of joy is but a dish of pain,
My crop of corn is but a field of tares,
And all my good is but vain hope of gain;
The day is past, and yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
My tale was heard and yet it was not told,
My fruit is fallen, and yet my leaves are green,
My youth is spent and yet I am not old,
I saw the world and yet I was not seen;
My thread is cut and yet it is not spun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
I sought my death and found it in my womb,
I looked for life and saw it was a shade,
I trod the earth and knew it was my tomb,
And now I die, and now I was but made;
My glass is full, and now my glass is run,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

This is the first printed version from Verses of Prayse and Joye (1586). The original text differs slightly: along with other minor differences, the first line of the second verse reads "The spring is past, and yet it hath not sprung," and the third line reads "My youth is gone, and yet I am but young."

Critical Appreciation

Tichborne's Elegy uses two favourite Renaissance figures of speech - antithesis and paradox - to crystallize the tragedy of the poet's situation.

Antithesis means setting opposites against each other: prime of youth / frost of cares (from the first line". This is typical of Renaissance poetry, as for example in Wyatt's "I find no peace, and all my war is done", with the lover freezing/burning. We also see it the poem by Elizabeth I, "I grieve and dare not show my discontent", e.g., "I am and not, I freeze and yet am burned."

A paradox is a statement which seems self-contradictory, yet is true, e.g., "My tale is heard, and yet it was not told", or "My glass is full, and now my glass is run."

Often a Renaissance poem will begin with antithesis to establish circumstances and reveal its themes through paradox.

  • Original version from RPO
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