W.S. Gentleman – Elizabethan Editor

Who was W.S. – MusarioVeritatis – Gentleman?

“TO THE MOST VER-tuous and learned Lady, my most dear and soveraigne Princesse ELIZABETH, by the Grace of GOD, Queene of England, Fraunce, and Ireland: Derfendresse of the Fayth.&c.,

. . . And although this be of itselfe so clear and manyfest that it cannot bee denied, yet could not I forbeare (most renowned sovereigne) being as it were, inforced, my your Maiesties late & singular clemency, in pardoninge certayne my undutiful misdemeanour, but seeke to acknowledge your gracious goodnesse and bounty towardes me, by exhibiting unto you this small and simple present . . .”

W.S. Gentleman, 1581. (1)

Thus saieth the prefatory epistle of one of the foremost sources of information on the social conditions of Tudor England, A Compendious or Brief Examination of Certayne Ordinary Complaints, of Divers of our Country Men in these Our Dayes. The Complaint, as it is often referred to, was before its time, about two hundred years. It is the first economic pamphlet written in English espousing the idea that, “economic forces and individual self-interest would, if freed and encouraged, contribute automatically to national prosperity and common well-being.” (2) It recognises the possibilities of free-trade as a viable economic system to distribute wealth and marry unlimited wants with limited resources. It does not go as far as advocating for the total removal of industry protection or government regulation but was making suggestions that could easily offend the Tudor monarchy and its advisers. The idea of free trade driven by self-interest as an economic model, would come into its own in the West in the mid 18th Century when Vincent de Gournay coined the term laissez faire, after reading Francois Quesnay’s writing on long debated Chinese views on government intervention. These views were expanded on by Adam Smith later that century.

The Complaint comprises three consecutive dialogues between a Doctor (representing scholars/clerics), husbandman (farmer), knight (landed class/aristocracy), a capper (artificer/tradesman) and a merchant. They all have grievances about the economy. The central concern is the great dearth (inflation) in spite of a lack of scarcity of crops; also the desolation of counties due to enclosures; urban drift, unemployment and riots; and the division of religion setting people against each other. Their grievances are aired. The reasons for their complaints are examined and solutions are suggested. Enclosures and the chase for greater lucre has led to more fields being used for particular crops rather than a variety of agriculture; the price of food is increased; the Capper can’t afford to pay his apprentices because they want too much; imports have risen and so has their cost; merchants are forced into debt to stay in business; and the knight is struggling under inflation as he is on a fixed income and isn’t able to raise his rents due to laws preventing this.

The Complaint went through many print runs. It is an important piece of writing. In the form in which it was originally printed in 1581, it was reprinted in 1751, 1808, 1813 and 1876. People wanted to know who wrote it. It’s recognized author has gone through many name changes. In 1751 William Shakespeare was said to have written it. In the early 19th Century, this attribution was challenged and a search for the true owner of the initials W.S. was made. William Stafford was found to have been proposed by Anthony a Wood (1632-1695). The attribution was convincing. Stafford was indeed granted clemency by the Queen for his Catholicism. Reprints of The Complaint were then made that included the original title page amended to include William Stafford’s full name. In 1876, The Complaint was reprinted for Furnivall’s, New Shakspere Society. It was shown that W.S. could not have been William Stafford as in 1581, Stafford was still a hidden Catholic. Furnivall searched the Domestic State Papers and found no notice of William Stafford in any plot against the Queen until 1587.

In 1893 it appeared in a longer, slightly different form, The Discourse of the Commonweal of this Realm of England. Essentially these two pamphlets are the same. The Discourse, however, is the proof that the work was composed far earlier than when it was first printed in 1581. It has been determined via textual references that The Discourse was written in August-September, 1549. These references include the mention of the Enclosure Commissions of 1548; the imposition of a tax on cloth that occurred in 1549; the August 6, 1549, ban on ‘stage plays, interludes, May games (and) revels’ ; and comments on the importation of counterfeit coinage, the scandalous carriage of old currency out of the country and the valuation of the angel at 30 groats.(3) The Complaint was found to be an edited version that brings the Discourse up to date with the results of the enactment of at least one of the recommendations of The Discourse i.e., the debasement of the currency had been reversed, yet inflation persisted.(4) It also addresses the Queen, whereas the earlier Discourse addresses the King.

Sir Thomas Smith (1512-1577)

Sir Thomas Smith (1512-1577)

Did the writer sit on the pamphlet for three decades and then decide to edit it for print? Did someone else edit it?. The Complaint attempts to change the relevant currency values that were applicable to English currency from when it was written to when it was printed 32 years later and fails. The Discourse cites the devaluation (debasement) of English currency for being a cause of the current inflation. By 1581, Elizabeth I had revalued her currency so the updated Complaint omits the dialogue regarding this and includes instead current thought based on the 1568/74 french economic work by Jean Bodin, La Reponse de Maistre Jean Bodin, where he blamed the influx of gold from the New World as the reason for inflation. By comparison to the rest of the pamphlet, this explanation is glossed over and not massaged from different angles as other points are.(5) Other variances occur with differences in the turn of phrases. The Compliant differs with curious additions and omissions from the originals, signature, conversational style

An example of an omission from the merchants speech in the first dialogue occurs when the merchant praises his father-in-law’s charitable works, stating, “And the custom of this city, how it was redeemed by my father-in-law of late.” W.S. drops this altogether for no apparent reason in the Complaint. Elsewhere in the first dialogue, W.S. makes a long addition to the Doctor’s speech on learning which appears in the following quote in italics:

“May we not through cosmography see the situation, temperature, and qualities of every country in the world? Yes, better and with less travail than if we might fly over them ourselves. For that that many others have learned through their travails and dangers they have left to us to be learned with ease and pleasure. Can we not also through the science of astronomy know the course of the planets above and their conjunctions and aspects as certainly as we were among them? Yes, surely that wee may: for tell mee, how came all the learned men heare to fore to the exact and perfit knowledge thereof? Came they not to it by conference and making of circumstances?(yes in deede), so that out of their writings we learned it.”

W.S. it seems felt very strongly about learning through the sharing of information, the reading and testing of that knowledge. This addition reads like a concurrence more than an afterthought.

Could W.S. have been the editor of a work by someone else?

If the writer and the editor were two different people, who were they? We know that the Discourse was controversial. Five scribal copies of it have survived.(6) A note on the Albany MS version of the Discourse informs us that it was knocked back from publication. In its original form it was regarded as too controversial for print. Who would write such a thing? The writer of the Discourse (as opposed to the editor of the Complaint) has this to say of himself:

“. . . albeit I am not of the King’s Council to whom the consideration and reformation of the same does chiefly belong, yet knowing myself to be a member of the same Commonweal and called to be one of the Common House where such things ought to be treated of, I cannot reckon myself a mere stranger to this matter; no more than a man that were in a ship which were in danger of a wreck might say that, because he is not percase the master or pilot of the same, the danger thereof did pertain nothing to him.”(7)

On the scribal copy owned by William Lambarde, that bares his name, there is a handwritten note that W.S. was not the author but it was most likely Sir Thomas Smith (1513-1577), Secretary of State during the reign of Edward IV or John Hales (1516?26?-1572), Clerk of the Hanaper. When the full Discourse was printed in 1893, its 19th century editor, E. Lamond, supported John Hales, as the author. Dewar deftly argues against Hales and for Smith.(8) To quote her:

” ‘The Authorship’ where these arguments are developed fully and a contrast is drawn between the Discourse and the known views of John Hales, e.g., his dislike of the civil law, his approval of active lay participation in Church affairs, his discouragement of the manufacture of cloth within the realm, his totally different explanation of the inflationary phenomena of the time, and above all his adherence to the traditional, ‘commonwealth’ view that the troubles of society arose solely from the greed of men for private profit which should be restrained by law.”

(Dewar p. xxiii, footnote 41)

Fundamentally, Hales strongly held belief that the dearth was a product of greed, conflicts with the Discourses progressive view that self-interest coupled with economic forces could help alleviate economic stress. She sees in Lamond’s argument for Hales a lack of understanding of the facts of Smith’s life. She asserts Smith on the ground that the conversational style of the dialogue reflects his other works and the content itself is echoed in his other writings, in particular his dislike of the debasement of the currency. Today, Smith’s authorship is often asserted in library records for this work.

If Sir Thomas Smith was the writer, who then could be the editor?

From the prefatory epistle and its omissions and additions e.g., a religious slagging that was inserted into the Complaint that does not appear in the Discourse we may confer certain attributes to the editor.

  1. W.S. was a Gentleman, i.e., he was upper class
  2. W.S. was given a royal pardon in 1581
  3. W.S. had sway with the Queen and/or her advisors to receive this pardon
  4. W.S. had access to the highly sensitive writings of Sir Thomas Smith, making him either a scribe, a student or a close family member/friend
  5. W.S. wasn’t an economist
  6. W.S. had a high regard for learning and scholarly pastimes
  7. W.S. had a penchant for tweaking phrases
  8. W.S. had a strong need to publically disparage the Pope and by association Catholicism at the time of printing.

Dewar proposed  Sir Thomas Smith’s nephew and future heir, William Smith. William Smith on inheriting his uncle’s properties could be thought of as a gentleman. In 1580 he was summoned back from Ireland where he was trying to restore his Uncle’s properties in Ardes. That this activity would have invited the occasion that he would be in need of the Queen’s clemency is questionable. How much sway he had with the Queen or her advisers would have rested with his uncle if indeed his activities in Ireland required a royal pardon. After his uncle’s death in 1577, he inherited his uncle’s estate. His personal notebooks bare witness to his copying from his uncle’s writings in 1580. After seeing his notebooks, Dewar paints him to be quite dull-witted. She ascribes to him all that she sees that is clumsy in the text – the tweaking of phrases and the bad maths. She can’t imagine that he had the capacity to read the Frenchman, Bodin’s work and then update the Discourse with it. William Smith, did sign his name Wm. Smythe, Wm. Sm., and W.S.. He is not known to have had anything else printed. Nor does she mention him in relation to any Catholic plots that would require vindication and an affirmation of a dislike of the Pope, like in the case of William Stafford. William Smith, is not a perfect fit.

Edward Oxenford, 17th Earl of Oxford aka Edward de Vere (1550-1604)

Edward Oxenford, 17th Earl of Oxford aka Edward de Vere (1550-1604)

W.S. says of himself with phrases amended from Sir Thomas Smith:

” . . . albeit I am not one to whome the consideration and reformation of the same doth especially belong; yet knowing my selfe to bee a Member of the same Common weale, and not to further it by all the ways that possibly I may, I cannot recken and account my selfe a mere straunger to this matter; no more than a man that were in a shippe, which being in daunger of wracke, might say, that because he is not the Maister or Pylate of the same, the daunger thereof doth pertayne nothing at all to him.”(9)

Is there a better candidate?

In consideration of the authorship of the songs by W.S. Veritatis could the Earl of Oxford, Edward Oxenford (aka Edward de Vere) have used the initials W.S. again to edit the Complaint? The Earl was definitely a Gentleman by class. He was given a royal pardon in 1581 after having been thrown into prison. He had committed two misdemeanours: impregnating one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting; and being embroiled in a Catholic scandal. In renouncing Catholicism, the name-calling towards the end of the Complaint, is a public exorcising.(10) He had some sway with the Queen in his lifetime in that he was at one time one of her favourites and that his father-in-law was William Cecil, Elizabeth I’s closest adviser. Did he have access to Sir Thomas Smith writings? Sir Thomas Smith was his tutor. An economist he is not known for being, but he was fluent in French, was a patron of writers and had a variety of scholarly books dedicated to him. As for playing with phrases, he wrote a poem or two.

Mary Dewar believed that Sir Thomas Smith himself did the updating of the pamphlet in 1576, when he was said to have revisited the writings of his younger days. She believed William Smith then prepared it for print. She disliked the frenetic tweaking of phrases. In her opinion it is clumsy and obscures the meaning somewhat. I must disagree, as I found myself turning to the Complaint more often than the Discourse when I needed greater clarity in comparing the two versions.

Was Edward Oxenford, W.S. Gentleman?

Was W.S. Gentleman the editor of this pamphlet, the lyricist W.S. Veritatis, the pamphleteer W.S. of Tom Long’s Journey to London to Buy Wit or Bought Wit is Best, the playwright W.S. responsible for The Puritan Widow or The Widow of Watling St, The History of Thomas Lord Cromwell and the Tragedy of Locrine?


(1) Gentleman, W.S., A Compendious or Brief Examination of Certayne Ordinary Complaints, of divers of our Country Men in these Our Dayes, Thomas Marshe, 1581.

(2) Hughes, E., The Authorship of the Discourse of the Commonweal Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, XXI, 1937, p.168.

(3)Dewar, Mary, A Discourse of the Commonweal of this Realm attributed to Sir Thomas Smith, Folger Shakespeare Library, University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1969, p.XIX.

(4) The Devaluation of the currency, or debasement, occurred when coins were minted with a greater alloy content and were not valued as highly overseas. The value of English currency fell.

(5)The Lambarde MS, held by University College, London ; Yelverton MS (BM Add MS48047 ff174-227); Bodleian MS (Add. C. 273); Hatfield MS; Albany (Phillipps)MS held by State University of NY. (Dewar)

(6) Dewar argues that the writer himself amended this section. I disagree in that it doesn’t display his indepth explanatory style.

(7)Dewar, Mary, A Discourse of the Commonweal of this Realm attributed to Sir Thomas Smith, Folger Shakespeare Library, University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1969, p.11.

(8) Dewar, Mary,The Authorship of the ‘Discourse of the Commonweal’The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 19, No. 2 (1966), pp. 388-400.

(9) Furnivall, F.J. (ed.), William Stafford’s Compendious or Brief Examination of Certayne Ordinary Complaints of Divers of our Countrymen in these Our Dayes, New Shakspere Society, Series VI, No. 3, 1876, p.15.

(10) W.S. refers to the Pope through the Doctor’s speech in the third dialogue as, “that whore of Babylon.” ibid. p. 98.


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