John Earle, Bishop of Worcester and Salisbury



John Earle, Microcosmography, ed. Philip Bliss (London, 1811).


John Earle, Microcosmography, ed. Philip Bliss, reprinted with a preface and supplementary appendix by S. T. Irwin (Bristol and London, 1897).


Jane S. Darwin, The Life and Works of John Earle (unpub. B. Litt. thesis, Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, 1963) [Bodleian, MS B. Litt. d. 950].



John Earle, or Earles (as he himself invariably spelt his name), was a distinguished cleric and man of letters who is remembered today chiefly for one work: namely, his influential book of characters, Microcosmography. By remarkable good fortune, a manuscript of this work entirely in the author's own hand is still preserved (*EaJ 71). Sometimes cited as the ‘Bright MS’, it is Earle's own fair copy of fifty-one characters, prepared before, although not directly used for, the first published edition of 1628. That edition comprises a total of fifty-four characters and includes revisions which, as Darwin has argued (pp. 279-81), indicate that Earle himself supervised the printed text. This was also true of the two further editions in 1628, as well as the edition of 1629 in which Earle increased the number of characters to seventy-seven, and probably the reprint of 1633 which contains yet another character. When occasional changes were made in these editions, Darwin notes, they ‘must have been made by Earle himself, when he decided that he preferred an earlier idea [i.e. in the Bright Manuscript] after all’.

Although conceivably prepared by Earle for his own use sometime after the composition of the work (? in the summer of 1625), the Bright MS might instead represent, at an early stage, the collection which he was reluctantly induced to assemble for the press to counteract the dispersal of corrupt transcripts of Microcosmography. According to the publisher of the first edition, Edward Blount (in ‘To the Reader’), the author left his characters ‘lapt up in loose sheets, as soon as his fancy was delivered of them, written especially for his private recreation, to pass away the time in the country, and by the forcible request of friends drawn from him’. Yet, Blount continues, ‘passing severally from hand to hand, in written copies’, the characters ‘grew at length to be a pretty number in a little volume: and among so many sundry dispersed transcripts, some very imperfect and surreptitious had like to have passed the press, if the author had not used speedy means of prevention; when, perceiving the hazard he ran to be wronged, was unwillingly willing to let them pass as now they appear to the world’ (Bliss, p. xix).

Indeed, several examples of these generally ‘imperfect…written copies’ and ‘sundry dispersed transcripts’ of Microcosmography have survived, containing between thirteen and sixty-three characters each, as well as manuscripts containing extracts from the work (EaJ 71-83). They include at least two manuscripts comprising ‘a pretty number in a little volume’ (i.e. the Durham duodecimo manuscript (EaJ 76) and the Crewe-Milnes octavo manuscript (EaJ 83). While none of these transcripts compares in importance with the Bright Manuscript and editions of 1628-33, they are of great interest for the light they throw on the evolution of the work, on its manuscript circulation before 1628 (even though some of the extant texts were evidently transcribed into miscellanies at a later date from earlier texts), and on its dating (two manuscripts are specifically dated April 1627 and 14 December 1627). One of the transcripts (EaJ 72) can even be linked to specific members of Earle's immediate circle, for the subscription has been identified by Colum Hayward as being in the hand of John Newdegate (later Newdigate) of Trinity College, Oxford, who was a close friend and correspondent of Gilbert (later Archbishop) Sheldon, himself a good friend of Earle. In the 1620s Sheldon regularly sent Newdegate copies of literary works from Oxford (see his correspondence among the Newdegate Papers in the Warwickshire Record Office). These evidently included forty-eight characters of Microcosmography, of which Newdegate had his own transcript made (i.e. EaJ 72), this being, he notes, ‘so many of Mr Erles caracters as were bestowed vpon me by Mr G[ilbert] S[heldon]. April 1627’.


The authenticity of the autograph Bright Manuscript can be verified by comparison with a relatively few other surviving examples of Earle's hand. Chief among them are his letters. In addition to his dedicatory epistle to Eikon Basilike (EaJ 69-70), some fourteen original letters by Earle are known to survive in recent times, as well as others that preserve the texts in early copies. These letters are all given entries below (EaJ 87-109).

Earles's letters, which throw considerable light on his life, character and relations with his friends and contemporaries, must be but a minute portion of his original correspondence. There survives, for instance, none of the many letters he wrote to his wife both during the nine years of his exile away from her and during the periods of his journeying even after she had joined him on the continent in 1655. (Sir Edward Nicholas referred on 4/14 September 1658, for instance, to Earle's wife's being ‘much afflicted that she hath not heard from him this sevenight’: Bodleian, MS Clarendon 58, f. 279v).

Even more important is the loss of most of his correspondence with members of the intellectual circle to which he belonged during his Oxford days in the 1620s and 1630s. Earles was, in particular, a very prominent member of what may be called the Great Tew Circle: that is, the group of guests regularly invited after 1630 by Lucius Cary (1610-43), second Viscount Falkland, to his estate at Great Tew and Burford Priory in Oxfordshire, which, according to Aubrey, was ‘like a Colledge, full of learned men’ (Brief Lives, ed. Andrew Clark (Oxford, 1898), I, 151). The guests apparently included such notables as Edward Hyde, later Earl of Clarendon, Thomas Hobbes, Gilbert (later Archbishop) Sheldon, George Sandys, Edmund Waller, George (later Bishop) Morley, Henry Hammond, William Chillingworth and, probably, Sidney Godolphin. For a study of this circle, see Joseph Colum Hayward, The Mores of Great Tew: Literary, Philosophical and Political Idealism in Falkland's Circle (unpub. Ph.D. dissertation, Trinity College, Cambridge, 1982 [Cambridge University Library, Ph.D. 12243]). Only a very few of Earle's letters to such old friends from this circle as Clarendon and Sheldon survive.

The loss of most of his letters to Clarendon, with whom he engaged in an intimate and affectionate correspondence for twenty-five years, is especially regrettable, although light is shed on their exchanges by a few of Clarendon's letters to Earle, written in 1647. These chance to survive in retained copies by Clarendon's secretary, William Edgeman, and are now preserved in the Bodleian (Nos 2396, 2409, 2442, 2466, 2554 and 2674 in MS Clarendon 29, ff. 45r-v, 59, 100r-1v, 147r-8v, and MS Clarendon 30/2, f. 212r). Some of these are edited in Bliss-Irwin, pp. 318-25 and are cited in Darwin, passim). Among other things, it is curious to find Clarendon, who was not the most accomplished or elegant of penmen, remarking on the handwriting in Earle's letters: ‘I haue not thought any one halfe long enough, nor troublesome; otherwise then…under ye notion of ye vile Character, wch. is almost [a] Cypher wth. out a Key’ (MS Clarendon 29, f. 45r). Another letter to Earle, written towards the end of his life, survives in the original rough draft by Sheldon who, as Archbishop of Canterbury, strongly exhorted Earle on 23 January 1664/5 to accept the King's choice for an ecclesiastical appointment (Bodleian, MS Add. c. 305, f. 335v), while the retained copy of Richard Baxter's letter of complaint to Earle, on 12 June 1662 — which prompted Earle's letter to him (EaJ 000) — is still preserved among the Baxter Letters (Vol. I, ff. 98r-9v) in Dr Williams's Library.


Examples of Earle's signature alone are found in various other academic and ecclesiastical records. His earliest signature, barely distinguishable as his, is that of ‘John Earle’ in the Oxford University subscription register, when he matriculated at Christ Church in 1619 (*EaJ 110). He was subsequently accepted as a Fellow of Merton College, but that college's records do not appear to include any entries in his own hand. After his return to England at the Restoration in 1660, and during his last few years of ecclesiastical eminence (he became Dean of Westminster in 1660 and was consecrated a bishop in 1662), he signed innumerable documents, notably in response to petitions for benefices from Royalist churchmen who had suffered at the hands of Parliament. ‘In the first three months alone’, notes Darwin (p. 194), ‘Earle himself signed over fifty certificates of loyalty and orthodoxy, often adding in his own hand a note which showed how conscientiously he examined the petitions and any other relevant evidence’. These certificates and docketed petitions are preserved among the State papers in the National Archives, Kew (chiefly in SP 29/1, 4-8, 10-12 passim; SP 29/58/61.II; and SP 29/69/27).

It may be added that these and other examples should be distinguished from documents signed by another ‘John Earle’ (sic), who was a Norfolk man admitted to Lincoln's Inn on 30 January 1646/7. This Earle wrote letters on 26 February 1651/2 to John Hobart (Bodleian, MS Tanner 55, ff. 151-2v) and to Hatton Rich on 18 September 1664 (British Library, Egerton MS 2649, ff. 106-7v) and he signed (on every page) his will on 18 May 1666 (Bodleian, MS Top. Middlesex b. 3, ff. 39-47v).

Earles's Books and Personal Papers

On his deathbed, Bishop Earle made his wife, Bridget (née Dixey), his sole beneficiary (‘I give my wife all’: EaJ 112). She thus presumably inherited Earle's library. Of this only one volume apparently signed by him on p. 50 (unless by another ‘John Earle’) has been recorded in modern times: i.e. a printed exemplum of John Bodenham's Bel-vedere or The Garden of the Muses (London, 1600), sold at Parke Bernet Galleries, New York, 23 April 1946 (Frank Hogan sale), lot 10. Otherwise no trace of Earle's library is currently known, not even in Salisbury Cathedral Library, where he might otherwise have been expected to leave it.

His widow also received his papers — with, it seems, unfortunate results. Writing to Thomas Hearne on 13 September 1705, Thomas Smith relates the fate of the most ambitious of Earle's unpublished works, his ‘Latine translation of Hookers bookes of Ecclesiastical Polity, wch was his entertainmt, during part of his exile, at Cologne’ (original letter by Smith in Bodleian, MS Smith 62, pp. 129-32; his retained copy MS Smith 127, pp. 87-8). The manuscript of this work, he notes, was ‘utterly destroyed by prodigious heedlesnes and carelessnes: for it being written in Loose papers, onely pinned together, and put into a trunke unlocked after his death, and being looked upon as refuse and wast paper, the servants lighted their fire with them, or else put them under their bread and their pyes’. When the second Earl of Clarendon visited Earle's widow ‘about a year after the Bps death’, at the request of his father, Earle's old friend, intending ‘to receive them from her handes’, he saw only ‘severall scattered pieces, not following in order, the number of pages being greatly interrupted, that had not then undergone the same fate with the rest’. Even these ‘pieces’ have since disappeared — so little hope may be entertained for the survival of any other of Earle's papers left in her custody. She herself lived on at Stratford-sub-Castra, near Salisbury, until her death on 21 February 1695/6, apparently leaving the portrait of her husband which is now in the National Portrait Gallery to her niece, Charity Duke (née Thompson, d.1719): see Darwin, pp. 203-6, 241-5.

The Verse Canon

It is certain that Earle's extant works represent only a part — albeit, perhaps the greater part — of his original literary output. Anthony Wood notes that Earle's ‘younger’ years (at Oxford) ‘were adorned with Oratory, Poetry, and witty fancies’ and that ‘while he continued in the University, several copies of his ingenuity and poetry were greedily gathered up’ (Athenae Oxonienses (London, 1691-2), II, 251). Clarendon reports that he was considered ‘an excellent poet both in Latin, Greek and English’, although, as with so many other writers of his time who entered the clergy, he developed ‘an austerity to those sallies of his youth’ and suppressed them (Clarendon, Account of his own Life (Oxford, 1759), p. 26, quoted in Bliss, p. 219). Of Earle's English verse, no more than six poems can now be assigned to him — not all, however, with equal confidence: for instance, the elegy on Pembroke (EaJ 44-59) could well be by Jasper Mayne, and doubts have also arisen about the authorship of In Cladem Rhenensem (EaJ 39). All of these poems are represented in contemporary manuscript texts recorded in the entries below (EaJ 1-59).

A few other poems are occasionally, and erroneously, attributed to Earle. For instance:

Donne's The baite (‘Come live with mee, and bee my love’), in Bodleian, MS Ashmole 47, ff. 100v-1r

William Strode's ‘I saw faire Cloris walke alone’, in British Library, Add. MS 15227, f. 4r

and On the Duke of Buckinghams gallerye (‘View the long gallery laid with maps and say’), ascribed to ‘Earle, of Merton College’ in Bodleian, MS Ashmole 47, f. 70r, but also found in various other manuscripts usually ascribed to Dr William Lewis (1591/2-1667), Lord Chancellor Francis Bacon's chaplain.

Of Earles's Latin poems, only six are known. Three of them — his Hortus Mertonensis (written c.1620-32), Satyra Itineraria (written c.1625) and Ode ad B[en] J[onson] (written c.1631) — are represented in the entries below (EaJ 60-8). The other three are his contributions to occasional Oxford gratulatory publications: namely,

(i) “Congerite fasces struite lignorum pyras” in Carolus redux (1623), sig. D3v-4. Reprinted with the title Carolus, Walliae Princeps, ex Hispania Redux Anno 1623 in Musarum Anglicanarum analecta (Oxford, 1699), II, 298-300

(ii) “Magne Puer magni proles Augusta Parentis” in Britanniae natalis (1630), sig. H1r-H2v

(iii) Ad Ioannem Cirenbergivm Dantiscanum Virum Clarissimum, Ode (‘Foecunda Dantiscum bonis’) in Ad magnificvm…Dominvm Iohannem Cirenbergivm…carmen honorarivm (1631), pp. 14-17.

Of Earles's Greek verse, no example at all is known.

In virtually every case, extant manuscript texts of his verses occur in miscellanies associated with Oxford University — either directly so or via the familiar route of transmission through other student circles at Cambridge or the Inns of Court. One of the texts — an apparently unique copy of a mock elegy on Lord Falkland's brother, Lorenzo Cary, written in 1634 (EaJ 38) — occurs in a miscellany (Bodleian, MS Malone 13, pp. 29-30) which could well have been associated with the Great Tew circle. Besides the unlikelihood of this particular poem's having circulation outside this Circle, the manuscript volume includes a number of poems by Sidney Godolphin, Edmund Waller, and Falkland himself.

Another poem by Earle, the celebrated Hortus Mertonensis, occurs in a Christ Church miscellany owned by another member of the Circle: his friend George Morley (EaJ 65).

Yet another Latin poem, the lengthy and lively Satyra Itineraria, describing a journey to York probably undertaken in the summer of 1625, is found in two miscellanies (EaJ 67-8), but the erstwhile existence of other texts is clearly recorded elsewhere. Earle's former friend and correspondent William Sancroft, who was an avid collector of verse, took pains in 1675 to find a perfect text of this poem. In a letter to Sancroft which the recipient endorsed ‘…Dr Earle Iter Bor. MS’, Dr Matthew Smallwood (1611/12-83), Dean of Lichfield, wrote on 18 August 1675: ‘Now as to yr other comands, that concerne that precious MS, the excellent Bps Όδοιπορικόν you may be confident it shall be with all religion restor'd to you; but I brought it downe with me last time before this that I come from London, with purpose to compare it with another Copy wch I hope a Freind of mine in cheshire has whom I have not seene yet, but some years agoe he show'd mee, by wch I beleive divers defects and errors in yr copy, may be supplyd. I doe for my owne part remember in one place two whole verses left out, sub ipso initio, & some words mistaken wch you will finde corrected in yr owne Copy (by myselfe) when it is returned to you, wch if you dare advertise it, shall be done by the next Post after your orders, though for my part I would rather present it with my owne hands, then hazard a thing of that worth, so vncertainly’ (Bodleian, MS Tanner 42, ff. 173r-4v). On 20 November in the same year, Smallwood again assured Sancroft: ‘Sr. The Iter Boreale is a Sacred Deposition, & shall bee honestly restord very suddenly’ (MS Tanner 42, ff. 202r-3v). However, no copy of the poem is known to survive among Sancroft's papers (preserved chiefly in the Bodleian and Emmanuel College, Cambridge), nor is the fate of Smallwood's other copy known. Sancroft may conceivably have intended to submit the poem for inclusion in a collection of Latin verse with which, at about this time, he was assisting his old friend William Dillingham — namely, Poëmata (London, 1678) (see Sancroft's letters in the British Library, Sloane MS 1710, ff. 204-16v). However (assuming he eventually received Smallwood's text) he excluded the poem, perhaps because of its length. Thus the poem has remained unpublished to this day.

Lost Prose Works

What may be the most important of Earle's lost prose works is mentioned by Clarendon in a letter to Earle on 16 March 1646/7: ‘I would desire you (at your leasure) to send mee ye discourse of your owne wch you read to mee at dartmouth, in ye end of your contemplacons upon ye Proverbes, in memory of my Ld Falkland, of whom, in its place I intend to speake largely’ (Bodleian, MS Clarendon 29, f. 148r). Nothing more is known of Earle's Contemplations upon the Proverbs; but he responded to Clarendon's request by sending him the appended Discourse on Lord Falkland, which Clarendon later described, in a letter of 14 October 1647, as Earle's ‘most elegant and political commemoration of him’, one which threatened to inspire Clarendon to expatiate at undue length on Falkland in his History of the Rebellion (Bodleian, MS Clarendon 30/2, f. 212v: quoted and discussed in Darwin, pp. 102-3, 119-20). Although no text of this discourse is known, its effect is probably felt, as Darwin points out, in the succinct, generous and majestic tribute which Clarendon actually did pay Falkland in the final version of his History (see W. Dunn Macray's edition (Oxford, 1888), III, Book vii, paragraphs 217-34).

Yet another lost prose work is the translation of the Prayer Book into Latin which, at the request of his fellow bishops, Earle prepared together with John Pearson in 1662-4 and which he then revised with John Dolben in 1664-5 (see Darwin, pp. 197-8, 228-9). The reported loss of another of Earle's major Latin translations, however, may to a large extent be obviated. The destruction of the original manuscript of his prodigious translation into Latin of Hooker's Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, a translation on which he was engaged from about 1654 until probably 1664 and which was intended to bring the supreme defence of the Anglican Church within the grasp of the whole of educated Europe, has been described above. It is not clear whether or not Earle succeeded in translating all eight books of the Polity; but it is agreeable to report that a contemporary manuscript copy of his translation up to the end of Book V was discovered as recently as 1975 (EaJ 85).

One other major Latin translation by Earle — that of the Eikon Basilike, attributed to Charles I — was published in 1649, the year of the King's ‘martyrdom’. The edition included a formal dedicatory epistle to Charles II (reprinted in Bliss, pp. 233-6), but contemporary copies of what is likely to have been the original, more succinct, English version — that actually submitted for the King's perusal — are preserved among the papers of two of Earle's friends and correspondents, Clarendon and Sir Edward Nicholas (EaJ 69-70)

Sermons and Orations

An autograph copy of the Latin oration which Earle delivered on 11 April 1632 at the end of his term as a Proctor of Oxford University has been discovered by Mrs Darwin among the Public Records (*EaJ 84). Earle, who, according to Clarendon, was ‘a most eloquent and powerful preacher’ (Life, quoted in Bliss, p. 219), also preached innumerable sermons, none of which is known to have been published or to survive in any form. Brief accounts of eight of them, preached in Sir Richard Browne's chapel in Paris between 1649 and the early part of 1651/2, and of one more preached in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, 1660, are, however, given in John Evelyn's Diary: see the edition by E.S. de Beer, 6 vols (Oxford, 1955), II, 562; III, 37-9, 47, 49, 51, 54, 265; cited in Darwin, pp. 133, 143-9. Evelyn's notes on four of these sermons, as well as two others by Earle, preached at Paris in 1651, also occur in Christ Church, Oxford (Evelyn MS 49, pp. 34-5, 38-40, 43-4, 46-8 [see *EvJ 169]). Evelyn observes of one of Earles's sermons ‘I hardly in my whole life heard a more excellent discourse’ and of another ‘The Discourse was so passionate, that few could abstaine from teares’.


Various other documents and materials relating to Earles are to be found in academic, ecclesiastical and public records, as well as accounts of him in the writings of his contemporaries. For a number of references, see Darwin, passim. Earles's register as Bishop of Worcester in 1662-3, for instance — comprising four pages in a scribal hand recording his official acts and institutions — is now in the Worcestershire Record Office (b716.093 BA 2648/10(iii) and pp. 24-7). A brief biographical notice of Earle by White Kennett (1660-1728), Bishop of Peterborough, is in the British Library (Lansdowne MS 986, ff. 38r-9r). A set of silver gilt Communion Plate which Earle bought in Cologne and later presented to the parish church in Bishopstone, Wiltshire, is still preserved there (see Darwin, pp. 159-60, 223-4).

Earle's most important editor hitherto remains Philip Bliss, whose edition of Microcosmography appeared in 1811. Bliss's own heavily annotated exemplum of his edition, with related notes and correspondence (including his transcript of a petitionary letter by Earles's widow, Bridget, to Archbishop Sheldon, on 24 April 1669) is preserved in the Bodleian (MSS Eng. misc. e. 112-13). Another annotated exemplum of Microcosmography, in S.J. Irwin's edition of 1897, is that copiously marked up by George Thorn-Drury, KC (1860-1931), literary scholar and editor, in the Bodleian (Thorn-Drury f. 26).

Jane Darwin's unpublished biographical study of Earle, which contains a large amount of information not gathered elsewhere, is an invaluable scholarly aid. In her bibliography (pp. 278-93), Mrs Darwin makes reference to a number of the manuscript texts given entries below — chiefly those in the Bodleian, British Library and the National Archives, Kew — as does Colum Hayward in his thesis cited above, pp. 308-10.

Peter Beal