Back to top

The Laste Epistle of Creseyd to Troyalus: Introduction

The unique copy of this late sixteenth- or early seventeenth-century poem survives in volume XIII of the fifteen volumes which comprise the collection known as the Hawthornden MSS in the National Library of Scotland, amongst poems known to have been written by William Fowler (1560-1612), Secretary to Queen Anne, the wife of James VI of Scotland and I of England. When the works of Fowler were edited for the first time The Laste Epistle of Creseyd to Troyalus was included in the category "Poems of Doubtful Authenticity," and indeed there is no compelling reason for attributing the poem to Fowler (Meikle, I, 379-87). "Verces writen by sundrie hands" is how Sir William Drummond, the eldest son of Fowler's rather better known nephew, the poet William Drummond (1585-1649), described the miscellany collected in volume XIII in a note, dated 1665, pasted on the first folio. Moreover, the gathering in which the Epistle is preserved appears originally to have formed a separate MS. The majority of the poems in this gathering are written in the same handwriting, but it is not Fowler's, while internal evidence, including recurring images and phrases, indicates that they are almost certainly by the same poet. From one of these other poems we learn that the poet was a young Scottish courtier who had been present at one of the king's Yuletide celebrations at Stirling Castle (I, 371, lines 31-42), sometime before 1603 when James moved to London following the Union of the Crowns. Perhaps he was associated with the king's Castalian band: some years ago Helena Shire ventured the opinion he could have been the young Alexander Hume, who was about the court in the 1580s (p. 203). A late sixteenth- or very early seventeenth-century date of composition for the Epistle would certainly relate it to the period in which Creseyd's story, as developed by Henryson, had become well known to Scottish and English poets (Rollins, pp. 400ff.).

The Epistle, like the other poems in the gathering, is highly anglicized, but then much of the poetry produced by James's literary circle was written in English rather than Scots even before 1603. The poet writes in heptameters, with the rhyme scheme abcb, a measure he clearly preferred as several of the other poems in the gathering attest, and one recommended by James VI for longer poems (Shire, p. 199). Selective use of alliteration is also a distinguishing feature of his poetry, with certain phrases appearing in more than one poem (e.g., "lothed lyfe," "swelling seas"), and in the Epistle it is noticeable that, as in the Testament, the use of alliteration increases at moments of emotional intensity.

The Laste Epistle of Creseyd to Troyalus was inspired by both Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde and Henryson's Testament of Cresseid, possibly, as Mapstone has suggested, by the combination as printed by Thynne (1532) and subsequent editors who included The Testament of Cresseid in editions of Chaucer's Works without acknowledging Henryson's authorship (pp. 105-06). The name "Creseyd" may reflect the influence of Thynne's anglicized text in which the form is always Creseyd or Creseyde, whereas it is invariably Cresseid or Creisseid in Charteris' 1593 Scottish edition.

The debt to the Testament is most evident at the beginning and end of the Epistle. When the poem opens Creseyd is anticipating the end of her "lothed life" as an exile and leper, and has been moved to write a last letter to Troylus C just as Henryson's Cresseid had written her testament C following a chance meeting with her former lover in which neither recognized the other; along with the letter, which closes with instructions for her burial, she returns a ring Troylus had given to her in happier times. The idea of a letter obviously derives from Chaucer's Troilus in which a number of letters are exchanged by the lovers and indeed echoes of some of these are present in the Epistle. A further influence on the poet's decision to adopt the epistolary form for what is essentially a lament may have been Ovid's Heroides which was translated into English for the first time in 1567 by Turberville (whose own abiding interest in the Creseyd story, including Henryson's version, is evident in his poetry) and regularly reprinted thereafter until well into the seventeenth century. Most of the details of Creseyd's account of her life before leprosy, notably her relationship with Troylus, her father's defection to the Greek camp, her exchange for Antenor, and her fickleness in yielding to Diomede, are drawn from Chaucer; the verbal echoes of Book V are particularly notable. The account of the causes of the Trojan war (lines 33-60), which had such terrible personal consequences for Creseyd, probably derives from a source other than the Troilus, although there is little to indicate that the poet had read the medieval authorities BenoTt and Guido, and nothing to suggest that he had read Lydgate's Troybook or Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, first registered in 1603.

The letter form encourages the reader to see things from Creseyd's point of view, with the apostrophes to Troylus and the pervasive use of the present tense contributing a dramatic sense of immediacy. Creseyd regards herself as the victim of "cruell goddes" (line 17) and her misery as the inevitable effect of a "deadlye doome / The fates ay from my birthe did threat / Uppon my head should come" (lines 98-100), just as she believes that the cause, course and outcome of the Trojan war can be attributed to "the fates, the froward fates" (line 43). Her cursing of the "hatefull hower" (line 87) she had to leave Troy, reminds us of her angry railing against Venus and Cupid in the Testament, but in the Epistle a resigned acceptance of her fate underlies even her most spirited defiance of the hostile and contemptuous powers that she believes direct her destiny:
Than out on all these dreyry dames
That destenyes dothe dispyse,
And out on Fortune, fy on hope,
The weaver of my woes. (lines 101-04)
She welcomes the prospect of death for the escape it will bring: the only way she could suffer more is if her life were prolonged (lines 107-08). In other words, like the Testament, this later Scottish poem explores the pathos of Creseyd's plight: she is presented C or presents herself C as a woman made vulnerable by her father's defection, the separation from Troylus, and the removal against her will to the Greek camp where she became the victim of the wily and deceptive Diomede. But while the extent of the sympathy created for their heroine by both Chaucer and Henryson has occasioned much critical debate, largely focused on the roles played by their narrators as ironic commentators on her thoughts and conduct, the degree of irony present in the Epistle is even harder to decide precisely because her words are not mediated by a male narrator, indeed not framed in any way. Yet the most striking irony surely has to be the attribution to Creseyd, whose name had become synonymous with inconstancy in Medieval and Renaissance traditions, of the kind of Heroidean epistle long associated with betrayed women. At the same time, the role of poets in creating and perpetuating those same traditions is foregrounded early in the Epistle when Creseyd laments that she survived childhood to become a woman whom men could cite as an example of faithlessness (lines 25-28).

Readers who know the Testament are likely to be wary of a Creseyd who continues to blame external forces and others for her misery. It is difficult not to conclude that she is shifting the blame instead of acknowledging her own failing when she calls Diomede a "traytour" (line 249) and identifies him as the one who has "falsed . . . his faithe" (line 253). On the other hand, while there may not be the explicit and impassioned self-accusation reiterated so poignantly by her counterpart, "O fals Cresseid and trew knicht Troilus" (Testament, lines 546, 553), there is sincerity in her frequent expressions of regret and remorse, and dignity in her refusal to present excuses for her conduct. What is more, there is a down-to-earth quality about this Creseyd, most evident in the blunt and often idiomatic comments she makes about herself and others. For example, the self-pity which leads her to wish that as a child she had been devoured by some wild beast and to believe that her life would have been different if only the course of history could have been altered, is undercut when she chides herself: "But why doe I thus wish & woulde? / I waste but tyme therby" (lines 79-80). Just as her belated recognition of the true value of Troylus' faithful love wrings from her this acknowledgement of the futility of wishing to change the past, so, too, hindsight affords her a true assessment of the perfidious Diomede. The Greek's boasts about his illustrious ancestry and empty promises about making Creseyd a queen are wonderfully debunked when she likens them to a brisk wind which doesn't take hold, and his talk as, at least initially, making so little impression that it went in one ear and "at t'other streight dothe goe!" (line 150). There is, perhaps, even humor in the way she portrays his urgent wooing on the morning after she arrived in the Greek camp, as "faste he prayes, desyres, intreates" (line 193) her to show him some mercy, and an almost grim satisfaction in recollecting how she denied him, for a time: "But yet he frustrate was as then, / Althoughe his harte should burste" (lines 199-200). Of course Diomede does prevail in the end, largely through his powers of persuasion, and this is one aspect of Creseyd's story the poet chooses to amplify in his own short poem. Inspired no doubt by Chaucer's references to Diomede's "tonge large" (Troilus, V, 804) and readiness to employ "sleghte" (V, 773) to seduce Criseyde, the Epistle's portrait of Diomede with "his sleated lipps," "subtill will," and "tongue [tipped] with retoricks sweit" (lines 123, 125, 127) allows us to see him from Creseyd's viewpoint, a viewpoint coloured by his subsequent callous rejection of her, first imagined by Henryson. Although the author of the Epistle may not have been aware of his debt to Henryson specifically, he clearly learned from the older Scottish poet's example. The conciseness, for which Henryson is justly admired, also characterizes the Epistle: remarkably the poet takes only three hundred and eight lines to retell Creseyd's story as it is presented by Chaucer and Henryson, in his own way.

Go To The Laste Epistle of Creseyd to Troyalus
Select Bibliography


National Library of Scotland Hawthornden MS 2095, fols. 30v-33v.

Previous Edition

Meikle, Henry, ed. The Works of William Fowler. Vol. I. STS n.s. 6. Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Son for the Scottish Text Society, 1914. Pp. 379-87.


Benson, C. David. "True Troilus and False Cresseid: The Descent from Tragedy." In The European Tragedy of Troilus. Ed. Piero Boitani. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989. Pp. 153-70.

McKim, Anne. "Tracing the Ring: Henryson, Fowler and Chaucer's Troilus." Notes & Queries (Dec. 1993), 449-51.

Mapstone, S. L. "The Laste Epistle of Creseyd to Troyalus." In Sentences for Alan Ward. Ed. D. Reeks. Southampton: Bosphorous Books, 1988. Pp. 105-17.

Rollins, Hyder E. "The Troilus-Cressida Story from Chaucer to Shakespeare." PMLA 32 (1917), 383-429.

Shire, Helena M. Song, Dance and Poetry of the Court of Scotland under King James VI. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.