‘My heart throbbes, my eares tingle, my minde misgiues mee, since I heare such muttering of marry-ages in Rochester’ - Vicinia in Mother Bombie (1894)

John Lyly, dramatist, courtier, and parliamentarian, was born in Rochester or Canterbury in 1554. His father Peter was the registrar for Matthew Parker, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the year of his birth and baptism registers of St Alphege church in the city of Canterbury contain the names of 6 of the 8 children born to Peter and Jane Lyly. However Peter Lyly also acted as a lawyer in Rochester in 1550, so other sources name this as John’s birthplace.1 Peter owned the ‘Splayed Eagle’ in Sun or Palace Street, quite close to Canterbury cathedral, and at least two of his younger sons William and Peter attended the King’s School in Canterbury at the same time as Christopher Marlowe (c.1578-80) whose plays would later eclipse Lyly’s.2

Lyly studied at Magdalen College, Oxford, where his matriculation entry describes him as a Kentishman.3 In 1576, he moved to London where he was famed for publishing two prose romances, ‘Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit’ (1578) and ‘Euphues and His England’ (1580). He quickly gained a reputation as England’s most fashionable writer for his innovative style of writing which used similes from mythology and nature.4 ‘Euphues and His England’ was dedicated to Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, and follows the journey of Euphues and Philautus from Athens to England.

On their journey, Euphues describes England as ‘in fashion three cornered, where-off one side is toward Fraunce, the one corner of this side which is Kent, wher for the most part Ships ariue out of Fraunce… Of all the Inhabitaunts of this Isse, the Kentishmen are most ciuilest, the which country marcheth altogether vpon the Sea, and differeth not greatly from the manner of Fraunce.’5 Philatus who suffers from sea-sickness scarcely listens to his companion’s chatter and is ‘more ready to tell what wood the ship was made of than to answer to Euphues’ discourse’.6

As they approach the coastline, the Master of the ship points out: ‘the Yonder white Cliffes which easely you may perceiue, are Douer hills, wherevnto is adioyning a strong and famous Castle, into the which Iulius Caesar dyd enter, wher you shal view many goodly monuments, both strange and auncient.’7 The two men arrive at Dover exhausted from their journey and although desirous of sleep feel obliged to provide supper for the sailors: ‘therefore suppose them now in Douer Towne, in ye noble Isle of England, somwhat benighted, & more apt to sléepe then suppe: yet for manners sake they enterteyned their Maister and the rest of the Marchaunts and Marriners, wher hauing in due time both recorded their trauailes past, and ended their repast, euery one went to his lodging, wher I will leaue them soundly sléeping, vntill the next day.’8

After three or four days rest during which they ‘spent in viewing the Castell of Douer, the Pyre, the Cliffes, the Road, and Towne, receiuing as much pleasure by the sight of auncient monuments, as by their curteous entertainment, no lesse praising the persons for their good minds, then the place for the goodly buildings’9 they continued to Canterbury before heading to London. Lyly describes Canterbury as ‘an olde Citie, some-what decayed, yet beautifull to beholde, most famous for a Cathedrall Church, the verye Maicstie whereof stroke them into a maze, where they saw many monuments, and hard tel of greater, then either they euer saw or easely would beléeue.’ Here Euphues and Philautus meet a ‘comely olde man’ named Fidus, who is a beekeeper ‘as busie as a Bee, among his Bees’ and ‘borne in the wilde of Kent, of honest parents’.10

In 1583, Lyly took charge of Blackfriars Theatre, after his patron, Edward de Vere secured its lease. It was here that Lyly produced his plays ‘Campaspe’ and ‘Sapho and Phao’ which were performed privately for Queen Elizabeth, as well as publically. At some point in the early 1580s, Lyly’s patron, Edward de Vere, fell out of favour with Queen Elizabeth I and this may have affected Lyly’s fortunes.

In 1589, Lyly was hired by the government to write ‘Pappe with an hatchet. Alias, a figge for my godson. or Cracke me this nut’ (1589) as a reply to the seditious Martin Mar-prelate tracts that had illegally circulated England in 1588 and 1589 and which were highly critical of the episcopacy. He wrote: ‘These Martins were hatcht of addle egges, els could they not haue such idle heads’.11 He accuses Martin of insincerity saying ‘I sawe through his paper coffen, that it was but a cosening corse, and one that had learnde of the holie maid of Kent’.12 The Holy Maid of Kent was Elizabeth Barton, who had been executed for her condemnatory prophecies against Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.

After this, Lyly served as an MP between 1589-1601. The growing popularity of Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare led to decline in Lyly’s popularity and it is at this period that he wrote his ‘realistic’ comedy ‘Mother Bombie’ (1594) set in Rochester, which is a story of fathers who attempt to meddle in the marriage matches of their children. Mother Bombie who is described as cunning (possibly a witch) and ‘the good woman of Rochester’ offers advice to the characters as the farce unfolds.13

In Act 2 Scene 1 of Mother Bombie, Livia, the daughter of Priscius, says of her entangled affairs: ‘Pop three knaues in a sheath, Ile make it a right Tunbridge case and be the bodkin’ to which Riscio replies ‘Nay , the bodkin is here already ; you must be the knife’.14 Clarkson has argued that there is some evidence of leather-making in the Weald of Kent, with transportation of some of the materials via the ports of Rochester to London.15 It is possible that Lyly’s London audience would have known about Tunbridge leather sheaths or cases, and reveals his knowledge of the county.

Although the main action of Mother Bombie takes place in Rochester, Ashford and Canterbury are also mentioned in the play. Halfpenny, the page of Sperantus, is described as having acquired his love of drinking ‘sack’ “heere in Kent at Ashford”16 and Memphio’s page Dromio compared the price of two hackneys hired “for ten grotes a pece to saie seruice on sunday” as being “no more than a post horse from hence to Canterbury.”17. These lines give us a small insight into life in the county in the sixteenth century.

In 1601, Lyly hoping for advancement petitioned Elizabeth for the post of Master of Revels writing: ‘Thirteen yeres your highnes servant but yet nothing. Twenty friends that though they saye they will be sure, I finde them sure to be slowe. A thousand hopes, but all nothing; a hundred promises but yet nothing. Thus casting up the inventory of my friends, hopes, promises and tymes, the summa totalis amounteth to just nothing.’18 It was his second of three petitions for the post, but by this time he had fallen out of popularity with the court. He died in 1606 and is buried at St Bartholomew the Less, in the city of London.

This article was published: 24 August 2022.


  1. Hunter, G. K. (2004). “Lyly, John (1554–1606)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. 

  2. Hunter, G. K. (2004). “Lyly, John (1554–1606)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. 

  3. Hunter, G.K. John Lyly: The humanist as courtier. Routledge, 2022. 

  4. ‘John Lyly’ Britannica 

  5. Lyly, John. Euphues and His England (1580) 

  6. Lyly, John. Euphues and His England (1580) 

  7. Lyly, John. Euphues and His England (1580) 

  8. Lyly, John. Euphues and His England (1580) 

  9. Lyly, John. Euphues and His England (1580) 

  10. Lyly, John. Euphues and His England (1580) 

  11. Nashe, T. Anselment: Martin Marprelate, The Review of English Studies, Volume XVII, Issue 67, August 1966, Pages 258–267, https://doi.org/10.1093/res/XVII.67.258 

  12. Lyly, J., 1554?-1606. (1589). Pappe with an hatchet alias, a figge for my god sonne. or cracke me this nut. or a countrie cuffe, that is, a sound boxe of the eare, for the idiot martin to hold his peace, seeing the patch will take no warning. VVritten by one that dares call a dog, a dog, and made to preuent martins dog daies. London: Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/books/pappe-with-hatchet-alias-figge-my-god-sonne/docview/2248515915/se-2 

  13. Lyly, John. Mother Bombie (1594) 

  14. Lyly, John. Mother Bombie (1594) 

  15. Clarkson, L.A. ‘The Leather Crafts in Tudor and Stuart England.’ Agricultural History Review, 1966, 35. 

  16. Lyly, John. Mother Bombie (1594) 

  17. Lyly, John. Mother Bombie (1594) 

  18. Peter Beal. “John Lyly”. Catalogue of English Literary Manuscripts 1450-1700.