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Shakespeare and the Peters in History.

Editor's Note

Scholars participating in the Forum on A Funeral Elegy (Shakespeare

Studies 25) were invited to respond to any points raised in that general discussion. The responses of those who accepted this invitation are presented below.

With a freedom that is hardly warranted by the fullness of the available evidence, a few scholars have indulged in fantasy about William Peter. Leah Marcus considers the Elegy in its cultural context and, rising above hysteria to history, rightly endorses a Shakespearean attribution; yet even Marcus's welcome "Plea for Literary History" has its lapses. At one point Marcus determines that William Peter was "considerably more prosperous" than his killer, Edward Drew.(1) She bases her inference on my observation in Elegy by W.S. that while Peter carried a fashionable rapier, the Drews had only swords. Had I foreseen that so much would be inferred from so little, I would have couched the remark. By the standards of the better-heeled Devon gentry, Will Peter was hard-pressed. Though he was the first descendant of Mayor John Peter to graduate from university, he attended on a fellowship. When Otho Peter died in 1607, William as the younger son inherited 100 [pounds sterling] outright, plus poor land in Marldon and Ipplepen having an annual income of just 5 [pounds sterling]. Peter's financial situation improved by his marriage to Margaret Brewton in 1609, but barely.(2) Shortly after his funeral, his widow was ordered to confer with the Orphans' Court of Exeter to answer for her husband's desperate debts.(3) Those debts were paid through her subsequent marriage to Edward Cotton--but Cotton received Peter's property. The two daughters, Rose and Margaret, married poor.(4)

By way of comparison, Peter's killer, Edward Drew, inherited in 1598 the chief messuage, mansion house, barton, and demesne lands of Combe Rawlegh, Devon. His three sisters received 1,800 [pounds sterling] just for their wedding gifts (cf. Will Peter's 5 [pounds sterling] income). John and George Drew, younger sons, received annuities for life (John, 30 [pounds sterling], and George, 40 [pounds sterling]); and the eldest son, Thomas, received everything else--a sizable fortune in real estate.(5) Their mother, Bridget, even in her widowhood received a pension of 20 [pounds sterling] granted by Queen Elizabeth to her husband (the error was discovered in 1603 by the Privy Council and the pension halted).

Marcus was drawn into a discussion of A Funeral Elegy by circumstance. Her own ongoing work demands--as does every scholar's--her best attention. She could not have gleaned the above information from published sources, nor should she be expected, upon being enlisted to review claims for the Elegy, to book a flight to London and then motor down to Devon, where such evidence can be mined. Still, there is something substandard in the assumption that William Peter's and Edward Drew's relative wealth can be weighed by consulting a trivial fact such as the weapons they carried on a particular day. This judgment is so far beneath Marcus's usual shrewdness that it can only be ascribed, I think, to a notion generated by the media that the attribution of A Funeral Elegy was achieved by computer. That the media would take this approach is inevitable. The World Wide Web is swarming, and as I write in the summer of 1997, technology stocks drive the market higher. Academics, encountering crass dreams of a computer-appointed rosy future, may seek a rational foothold outside the madness. Hence, I imagine, Marcus--assuming that the computer has presumed to speak oracularly--makes her stand for "old-fashioned literary history." But to rely on Wallace Macaffrey's 1958 text on Exeter for information on the Devon gentry is too old-fashioned, as Marcus herself knows: at the end of her essay she cites the perfectly reliable 1963 text of Mark Eccles, but even there displays scruples, noting that everything found in Eccles "needs to be checked against the manuscript sources."(6)

Those original sources have already been consulted. I have said before and may need to say again that it is not the computer but scholarship that has established W.S.'s identity. Archival sources--in seven English counties--have played a larger role in that determination than the press has given out. Though I have not yet found a convenient moment to publish a history of William Peter and his circle, I must add enough here to what is already in print to overthrow wrongful assumptions evident in the 1997 forum.

The use of predestinated in the first line of the Elegy, and once again in a later line, has caused Leah Marcus and Katherine Duncan-Jones to assume that W.S. is a Calvinist. Duncan-Jones mentions further that predestin- occurs only once in canonical Shakespeare, from which she infers--quite apart from generic considerations--that the word was not to his liking (though "free will" occurs just once, too, in Antony and Cleopatra).(7) As it happens, predestinated was available vocabulary even to Anglo-Catholics and Anglicans, as is attested by five instances in the Rheims New Testament, against two instances in the Authorized New Testament. Unlike most Calvinists, the elegist blames "fate" for his own failure to sustain a full hope in bodily resurrection; he equates predestination with personal death and universal doom, not with eternal salvation; and it is "fate" and even time, not God, that is blamed for Peter's death (FE 1-2,490-98, 561-68).(8) But there are stronger, historical, reasons to doubt the slipshod attempts by Duncan-Jones to figure W.S. as a Puritan, and by Marcus to link William Peter with Puritanism.

Far from being stridently or even moderately Puritan, the Peters of Exminster, Bowhay, and Whipton were vigorously anti-Puritan from the Anglican Reformation through the Civil War and beyond. Nor did the quarrel between Edward Drew and William Peter spring from religious difference. (The Drews were high church or Catholic as well.) The quarrel originated rather in a loan for a horse purchased by Edward Drew. When Drew defaulted on the loan, the seller asked Peter to intervene with an appeal to Drew's mother. Peter willingly complied--and died for it.(9)

Marcus is right to follow MacCaffrey in noting that there were many Puritans among Exeter's merchant elite. There were even a few devout Calvinists among Peter's own extended kin, such as the Southcotts of Mohuns Ottery and the Peters of Cornwall. Peter's eldest first cousin, Sir Thomas Ridgway (1565-1631), secretary of wars in Ireland, was famed for his severity toward Irish Catholics--but Ridgway may be glanced at in the disdainful remark about "some in nothing famous but defame," such as lurk in "the Ridgway ... / That leades to ruine" (FE 41-42, original italics). William Peter and his father and brother and sister and wife and children were all, like their ancestors, Roman Catholic, or at least high church, and they bore no sympathy with Puritan zealots.

The Peter family monument, built probably by John, for father Otho's tomb in 1607, comes close in its sepulchral inscription to a papist reading of Christ's words to Simon Peter as the rock of the Church. A year after Otho died, Peter's mother married Sir Christopher Harris of Plymouth, whose brother was "specially favored of the earl of Northumberland" and had been suspected in 1605-6 of complicity in the Gunpowder Plot.(10) William and Margaret Peter's eldest daughter Rose in 1630 named her only child Philip (a daughter), a popular name among Devon Catholics. William, of course, perished in 1612, but his elder brother fought [he Puritans to his death. During the Civil War, John Peter gave his only daughter in marriage to Allen Apsley, governor of the Fort of Exeter during the Puritan siege. The Peter family manor at Bowhay was burned, possibly in 1646 by parliamentary forces. John Peter and his fifteen-year-old son and Margaret Cotton (William Peter's widow) were buried in 1642-43 during the hostilities, their cause of death unrecorded.

William Peter's wife and in-laws, the Brewtons, were anti-Puritan as well. A year after the murder, Margaret Brewton Peter preferred her dead husband's boyhood friend, William Ford, a high churchman, to the living of East Coker; in 1647, a Puritan Parliament sequestered his rectory. On 2 February 1612/13, Margaret married Edward Cotton, son of William Cotton, the fiercely anti-Puritan bishop of Exeter. Edward shared his father's convictions, and he, too, paid for his beliefs in 1647, at which time the Puritans sequestered from him the rectories of Duloe (Cornwall), Shobrooke, and Bridestow (Devon).

Confronted with spotty documentary records, it is tempting for historians and literary scholars to generalize from the few historical facts already at hand. In 1891, for example, in excavations near the Rougemont Castle, workers unearthed a human skeleton of unusually large proportions. Because the skull was caved in, a local historian--who knew nothing of the Peter elegy but who knew of Peter's death from the Martin inquest in the Devon Record Office--concluded that the skeleton must be that of William Peter of Whipton, who had lived and died nearby, and perished from a blow to the head. The local press, pleased to assign "the giant" a local habitation and a name, renamed him "Will Peter."(11) Similarly wishful thinking has moved Katherine Duncan-Jones to rename Peter's elegist "William Sclater." But the historical William Peter (whose body was laid to rest in the Exminster church on 1 February 1611/ 12), and the real W.S., invite better history.


(1.) Leah S. Marcus, "Who Was Will Peter? Or, A Plea for Literary History," Shakespeare Studies 25 (1997): 219.

(2.) Otho Peter, P.C.C. 69 Huddleston (prob. 4 July 1607); Elizabeth Brewton, P.C.C. 26 Wood (prob. 19 Nov. 1624).

(3.) Book Proceedings of the Orphans' Court (1611), Devonshire Record Office, Exeter, Minute n.d., [February or March] 1611/12.

(4.) Edward Cotton, P.C.C. 2 Essex (prob. 31 Jan. 1647/8). Rose (d. 1630) married John Kittey of Plymouth, and Margaret, Edward Gould of Heavitree.

(5.) Edward Drew [Sr.], P.C.C. 44 Lewyn (prob. 16 May 1598).

(6.) Mucus, "Who was Will Peter?" 228, n. 12, n. 21.

(7.) Katherine Duncan-Jones, "Who Wrote A Funerall Elegie?," Shakespeare Studies 25 (1997), 195; Marcus, "Who was Will Peter?" 219.

(8.) William Shakespeare, attrib. A Funerall Elegye. By W.S. (London: G. Eld [for T. Thorpe], 1612).

(9.) Margery Waldron, [Deposition, 8 April 1612], Exeter City Chamber. Act Books, 7 (1611-12), art. 29, Devonshire Record Office, Exeter.

(10.) M. S. Giuseppi, ed., Historical Manuscripts Commission Calendar of the Manuscripts ... at Hatfield House, pt. 17 (London: P.R.O., 1938), 489-90.

(11.) Mr. and Mrs. Frank Drew of Duncan, B.C. (Letter to the author, 2 January 1996). I thank the Drews for alerting me to their family's tattered clipping of this story, evidently from Exeter's Western Morning News (1891).

DONALD W. FOSTER, Jean Webster Professor of Dramatic Literature at Vassar College, is completing a two-volume collection of medieval and early modern writing by women while restructuring Shaxicon, his text-analysis database, for access on the World Wide Web.
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Publication:Shakespeare Studies
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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