The Country Master of Shakepeare’s England

Gervase Markham by Burnet Reading, published by  Thomas Rodd the Elder, after  Thomas Cross
Gervase Markham, by Burnet Reading, published by Thomas Rodd the Elder, after Thomas Cross, line engraving, early 19th Century. Accessed via Wikipedia.

Whenever I browse the antiquarian titles in the NSLM’s F. Ambrose Clark Rare Book Room, the name “Markham” comes up again and again. It’s not a surprise. Gervase Markham (1568-1637) was, in many ways, the typification of the Renaissance man: soldier, poet, and author of a great number of titles.

Markham spent his early years as a soldier of fortune in the Low Countries and in Ireland. Upon his return to England, he took up writing and benefited from the patronage of the Earl of Essex. Markham’s early works were poetic, but his career focused in many ways on the pragmatic topics touching on country life in England. For Markham, country life was closely tied to national identity.

Markham was a contemporary of William Shakespeare, and it’s likely that Shakespeare was acquainted with Markham’s work. In his 1960 book, Sir Robert Gittings argued that Markham is the subject of satire in the form of the character Don Armando in later drafts of Love’s Labour’s Lost.

The Problem is to find an English Arcadian whom Shaekspeare could have parodied in the same terms as [Antonio] Perez. It can hardly be doubted that the most prolific and persistent author of Arcadian conceits during the years 1594-97, and one moreover particularly associated with the Essex group, was Gervase Markham.
— Robert Gittings, Shakespeare’s Rival, 1960

By the time Shakespeare brought Love’s Labour’s Lost to publication, Markham had established himself as an authority on horsemanship and country life through a discourse on the subject published in 1593. In 1595, he translated and edited The Book of Saint Albans, the landmark title on “Hawking, Hunting, and the Blasting of Arms.” His farriery book Markham’s Masterpiece would go through many editions and reprintings.

Plan for the design of a fish pond, Gervase Markham, from Cheape and Good Husbandry, Eighth Edition, 1653. National Sporting Library & Museum, gift of Jacqueline B. Mars.

In 1601, Markham’s career hit a significant setback with the downfall of his noble patron, the Earl of Essex. Markham was forced to reinvent himself as an author, focusing less on poetic works and instead expanding his reach into practical guidebooks. He wrote on riding, farriery, animal husbandry, and even a complete manual for housewives. Of note was Markham’s willingness to gear his works toward an audience outside the wealthy classes, often advertising this fact with titles such as Cheap and Goode Husbandry.

Gervase Markham, Cheape and Good Husbandry, Eighth Edition, 1653. National Sporting Library & Museum, gift of Jacqueline B. Mars.

Markham was masterful at realizing as much revenue as possible from his publications. He often recycled material or issued a book under a new title. Printing in multiple editions allowed for multiple dedications to noble lords, who might be disposed to become patrons for future works.

In fact, Markham was so successful that by 1617 English book printers were imploring him not to write again on animal medicine, as his influence was preventing others from being able to publish on the topic. Although he isn’t widely known today, Markham’s books continue to be a valuable source of information on the daily lives of the people and animals of early 17th Century England.

Wedding Photography by Spiering Photography

John Connolly has served as the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Librarian at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM) since early 2014. He is responsible for the care of the Library collections, including books, magazines, photographs, diaries, letters, and much more. The NSLM collections span over 350 years of the history of equestrian sport, as well as fly fishing, wing shooting, and other field sports. Have a question? Contact John by e-mail



Leave a Comment

  1. Thank you! So interesting-especially because my long time home & historic research has been on Historic figures from Markham, VA! Named by Chief Justice John Marshall after his mothers maiden name when his patents moved to Markham, fauquier coutu/then Fairfax Co, I think. Its name had been The Hollow!

    Best regards,

    Julie Martin Matheson



  2. I loved this article about Gervase Markham. His ability to reinvent himself, so many times, so many ways, so successfully, is really amazing.

    With all of our technology today, most of us would still be hard pressed, to turn out so much written material on so many topics. Let alone, make a living at it.

    I picture him, with quill in hand, by candle or fire light, writing for his livelihood, and hanging with the Bard of Avon!

    Thanks for the interesting read!


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