Biography of John Lyly

John Lyly (; c. 1553 or 1554 – November 1606; also spelled Lilly, Lylie, Lylly) was an English writer, dramatist, courtier, and parliamentarian. He was best known during his lifetime for his two books Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578) and its sequel Euphues and His England (1580), but perhaps best remembered now for his plays. Lyly's distinctive and much imitated literary style, named after the title character of his two books, is known as euphuism.


John Lyly was born in Kent, England, in 1553/1554, the eldest son of Peter Lyly and his wife, Jane Burgh (or Brough), of Burgh Hall in the North Riding of Yorkshire. He was probably born either in Rochester, where his father is recorded as a notary public in 1550, or in Canterbury, where his father was the Registrar for the Archbishop Matthew Parker and where the births of his siblings are recorded between 1562 and 1568. His grandfather was William Lily, the grammarian and the first High (or Head) Master of St Paul's School, London. His uncle, George Lily, was a scholar and cartographer, and served as domestic chaplain to Reginald Pole, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Lyly was probably educated at King's School, Canterbury, where his younger brothers are recorded as contemporaries of Christopher Marlowe. He was about 15 years old when, in October 1569, his father died. In his will he made Lyly and Jane his joint executors, and named "my dwelling house... called the Splayed Eagle", close by Canterbury Cathedral on either Sun Street or Palace Street. They sold the house fourteen months later, in Jan 1571.

In 1571, at the age of 16, Lyly became a student at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he is recorded as having received his bachelor's degree on 27 April 1573, and his master's two years later on 19 May 1575. In his address "To my very good friends the gentlemen scholars of Oxford" at the end of the second edition of his Anatomy of Wit, he complains about a sentence of rustication apparently passed on him at some time during his university career, but nothing more is known about either its date or its cause. According to Anthony Wood, while Lyly had the reputation of "a noted wit", he never took kindly to the proper studies of the university: For so it was that his genius being naturally bent to the pleasant paths of poetry (as if Apollo had given to him a wreath of his own bays without snatching or struggling) did in a manner neglect academical studies, yet not so much but that he took the degrees in arts, that of master being compleated 1575.

While at Oxford, Lyly wrote to William Cecil, Lord Burghley, on 16 May 1574, to seek his assistance in applying for the Queen's letters to admit him as fellow at Magdalen College. Although the fellowship was not granted, later letters to Burghley show that their connection continued after he left university. "This noble man", Lyly writes in the Glasse for Europe, in the second part of Euphues (1580), "I found so ready being but a straunger to do me good, that neyther I ought to forget him, neyther cease to pray for him, that as he hath the wisdom of Nestor, so he may have the age, that having the policies of Ulysses he may have his honor, worthy to lyve long, by whom so many lyve in quiet, and not unworthy to be advaunced by whose care so many have been preferred."

At some point after university Lyly moved to London, finding lodgings at the fashionable residence of the Savoy Hospital on the Strand, where Gabriel Harvey described him as "a dapper & a deft companion" and "a pert-conceited youth." Here he began his literary career, writing his first book Euphues, or the Anatomy of Wit. It was licensed to Gabriel Cawood on 2 December 1578 and printed that year with a dedication to William West, 1st Baron De La Warr, and a second expanded edition immediately followed in 1579. In the same year Lyly was incorporated M.A. at the University of Cambridge. The Anatomy of Wit was an instant success, and Lyly quickly followed it with a sequel, Euphues and his England, licensed to Cawood on 24 July, and published in 1580. Like the first, it won immediate popularity. Between them, the two works went through over thirty editions by 1630. As Leah Scragg, their most recent editor, describes them, they would "prove the literary sensation of the age".For a time Lyly was the most successful and fashionable of English writers, hailed as the author of "a new English", as a "raffineur de l'Anglois"; and, as Edward Blount, one of the publishers of his plays, wrote in 1632, "that beautie in court which could not parley Euphuism was as little regarded as she which nowe there speakes not French". Lyly's prose style was much imitated, for example by Barnabe Rich in his Second Tome of the Travels and Adventures of Don Simonides, 1584; by Robert Greene in his Menaphon, Camilla’s Alarum to Slumbering Euphues, 1589; and by Thomas Lodge in his Rosalynde, Euphues Golden Legacie, 1590, the source text for As You Like It.

Lyly dedicated his second Euphues novel to Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, who seems to have acted as patron to most of Lyly's literary associates when they left Oxford for London, and it is about this time that Lyly became his private secretary. De Vere was Burghley's son-in-law, and two years later a letter from Lyly to Burghley, dated July 1582, protests against an accusation of dishonesty which had brought him into trouble with the Earl, and requests a personal interview in order to clear his name. In the same year, he contributed an introductory epistle, John Lyly to the Author his friend, to Thomas Watson's collection of poems Hekatompathia, or passionate Centurie of Love, also published by Cawood, and which Watson also dedicated to de Vere.In 1583, de Vere secured him the lease of the first Blackfriars Playhouse, where Lyly's first two plays, Campaspe and Sapho and Phao were performed by the joint company of the Children of the Chapel and the Children of Paul's known as Oxford's Boys, before their performances at Court in the presence of the Queen at Whitehall Palace. Campaspe was performed there during the Christmas festivities 1583-84, on "New Year's Day at Night", and Sapho during the pre-Lent festivities on the evening of Shrove Tuesday, 3 March 1584. A warrant issued on 12 March ordered that Lyly be paid a total of £20 for the two performances, although it took until 25 November until he finally received the money. In the meantime, Lyly lost control of the theatre around Easter when Sir William More reclaimed the lease, closing it down, and in June, Lyly was briefly jailed in the Fleet Prison for a debt of £9 8s 8d owed to Nicholas Bremers. Patent Rolls show he was quickly released, "for pity's sake", on 10 June, by the intervention the Queen herself.A letter written on 30 Oct 1584 from Oxford to Burghley shows that Lyly was still in de Vere's service, and that Lyly was awkwardly positioned in his loyalty to both men, saying "you sent for Amis my man, and yf he wear absent, that Lylle should come unto yow... I mean not to be yowre ward nor yowre chyld... and scorne to be offered that injurie, to think I am so weak of government as to be ruled by servants". On 24 November Oxford transferred the rental rights of the manor of Bentfield Bury and a nearby wood, both in Stansted Mountfitchet, Essex, to Lyly worth £30 13s 4d a year. Just over a year later, on 3 March 1586, the property's tenants then bought out the rental rights from him for the lump sum of £250. By 1587 his plays were once again being performed, this time by the Children of Paul's at their playhouse by St Paul's Cathedral, up until that theatre's closure around 1590-91. In total, at least six of Lyly's eight known surviving plays were acted before the Queen. Their brisk lively dialogue, classical colour and frequent allusions to persons and events of the day maintained that popularity with the court which Euphues had won.

In 1589 Lyly published a tract in the Martin Marprelate controversy, called Pappe with an hatchet, alias a figge for my Godsonne; Or Crack me this nut; Or a Countrie Cuffe, etc. Though published anonymously, the evidence for his authorship of the tract may be found in Gabriel Harvey's Pierce's Supererogation (written November 1589, published 1593), in Thomas Nashe's Have with You to Saffron-Walden (1596), and in various allusions in Lyly's own plays.Lyly sat as an M.P in Queen Elizabeth's last four Parliaments, for Hindon in Wiltshire in 1589, for Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire twice, in 1593 and 1601, and for Appleby in Westmorland in 1597-8 when he also served on a parliamentary committee about wine casks.In 1594, Lyly was made an honorary member of Gray's Inn in order to attend the lawyers' Christmas Revels, during which, on 28 December, Shakespeare's company famously performed their Comedy of Errors. In 1597, Lyly contributed commendatory verses in Latin to Henry Lok's verse translation of the book of Ecclesiastes, which Lok dedicated to the Queen.In addition to plays, Lyly also composed at least one "entertainment" (a show that combined elements of masque and drama) performed for Queen Elizabeth during her various Progresses through the country; The Entertainment at Chiswick was staged on 28 and 29 July 1602 at the house of Sir William Russell. Lyly has been suggested as the author of several other royal entertainments of the 1590s, most notably The Entertainment at Mitcham performed on 13 September 1598 at the house of Sir Julius Caesar.

Two petitions by Lyly to Queen Elizabeth show that he entered her service at some time in the late 1580s, with hopes of becoming her Master of the Revels, hopes that eventually ended in disappointment. In the first petition he says that: I was entertained your Majestie's servaunt by your own gratious favor... strengthened with condicions that I should ayme all my courses at the Revells (I dare not say with a promise, but with a hopeful Item to the Revercion) for which these ten yeres I have attended with an unwearyed patience In the second petition, dated 1601, Lyly complains: 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 The originals of the two petitions do not survive, but, whatever their success with Elizabeth, after Lyly's death the pair enjoyed the most extensive circulation in manuscript of any Elizabethan-Jacobean dramatist. Forty-six copies of the two letters in post-1620 manuscript miscellanies, anthologies of state correspondence, and letter-manuals, can currently be recorded.

A third, now lost, petition is mentioned in a letter to Sir Robert Cecil, Elizabeth's Principal Secretary, dated 4 Feb 1602, where Lyly tells him that: My wife delivered my petition to the Queen, who accepted it graciously, & as I desired referred it to Mr Grevil... The copy I have sent enclosed, not to trouble your Honour, but only to vouchsafe a view of the particulars, all woven in one, is but to have something What he did in fact receive, if anything, as a result of this third petition is unknown. At Elizabeth's death a year later in March 1603, Lyly was granted seven yards of black cloth for her funeral, and his servants four yards.Lyly died of unknown causes in 1606, in the early part of the reign of James I, and was buried on 30 November in the church of St Bartholomew-the-Less in London. He was married to Beatrice Browne of Yorkshire, and they had at least four sons and five daughters.

The proverb "All is fair in love and war" has been attributed to Lyly's Euphues.


Although Euphues was Lyly's most popular and influential work in the Elizabethan period, it is his plays which are now admired for their flexible use of dramatic prose and the elegant patterning of their construction. When describing the playwrights of his day in his Palladis Tamia, or Wits Treasury, printed in 1598, Francis Meres placed "eloquent and witty John Lyly" in his list of "the best for comedy amongst us" alongside Shakespeare. Ben Jonson, in his poem "To the Memory of My Beloved, the Author, Mr William Shakespeare" printed in the 1623 First Folio, praises him by listing Lyly as one of the best playwrights whom he surpassed: "How far thou didst our Lyly outshine, Or sporting Kyd, or Marlowe's mighty line". Shakespeare’s comedies Love's Labour's Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night are all seen to have drawn influence from Lyly’s work.

In 1632, the same year that he published the Second Folio of Shakespeare's plays, Edward Blount also published Sixe Court Comedies, the first printed collection of Lyly's plays, informing his readers that: I have (for the love I beare to Posteritie) dig'd up the Grave of a Rare and Excellent Poet, whom Queene Elizabeth then heard, Graced, and Rewarded... A sinne it were to suffer these Rare Monuments of wit, to lye covered in Dust, and a shame such conceipted Comedies, should be Acted by none but wormes. Oblivion shall not so trample on a sonne of the Muses; And such a sonne, as they called their Darling.

Blount dedicated the volume to Richard, 1st Viscount Lumley of Waterford, writing: It can be no dishonor, to listen to this Poets Music, whose Tunes alighted in the Ears of a great and ever-famous Queene: his Invention was so curiously strung, that Elizaes Court held his notes in Admiration... For this Poet sat at the Sunnes Table : Apollo gave him a wreath of his own Bayes, without snatching. The Lyre he played on, had no borrowed strings... The greatest treasure our Poet left behind him, are these six ingots of refined invention: richer than Gold. Were they Diamonds they are now yours.

The plays appear in the text in the following order; the parenthetical date indicates the year they appeared separately in quarto form:

Endymion (1591)

Campaspe (1584)

Sapho and Phao (1584)

Gallathea (1592)

Midas (1592)

Mother Bombie (1594)The collection printed the songs in Campaspe and Gallathea for the first time. Lyly's two other known plays are Love's Metamorphosis, printed in 1601, and The Woman in the Moon, printed in 1597. Of these eight plays, all but this last are in prose. A Warning for Faire Women (1599) and The Maid's Metamorphosis (1600) have been attributed to Lyly, but on altogether insufficient grounds.

The first editions of all these plays were issued between 1584 and 1601, and the majority of them between 1584 and 1592, in what were Lyly's most successful and popular years. His importance as a dramatist has been very differently estimated. Lyly's dialogue is still a long way removed from the dialogue of Shakespeare, but at the same time it is a great advance in rapidity and resource upon anything which had gone before it; his nimbleness and wit represents an important step in English dramatic art.

See Lyly's Complete Works, ed. R. Warwick Bond (3 vols., 1902); Euphues, from early editions, by Edward Arber (1868); AW Ward, English Dramatic Literature, i. 151; JP Collier, History of Dramatic Poetry, iii. 172; "John Lilly and Shakespeare", by C. C. Hense in the Jahrbuch der deutschen Shakesp. Gesellschaft, vols. vii and viii (1872, 1873); F. W. Fairholt, Dramatic Works of John Lilly (2 vols.) More recently, all of the comedies have been edited in individual volumes as a part of the Revels Plays series.



Hunter, G. K. (1962). John Lyly: The Humanist as Courtier (376 pp). Harvard University Press.

This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Lyly, John". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 17 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 159–162.

External links

Works by or about John Lyly at Internet Archive

John Lyly at Project Gutenberg (A 1905 study by J. Dover Wilson)

Euphues: the anatomy of wit; Euphues & his England at the Internet Archive

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