Marie’s Musings

No. 9: Eating Crow: My Change of Heart on The Phoenix and the Turtle

by Marie Delgado Travis

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

Since I’ve commented on Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Narrative Poems over the past few posts, it seemed natural to look at The Phoenix and the Turtle (as in Turledove), also ascribed to him.

The poem first appeared in Robert Chester’s anthology, Love’s Martyr (1601), with participation by other famous writers of the time, including John Marston, George Chapman and the ubiquitous Ben Jonson.

Richard Field, who “set forth” Shakespeare’s two narrative poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594), discussed in earlier Musings, printed this volume of poetry, as well.

Folger Shakespeare Library.
All Images for Educational Purposes Only.

My immediate reaction— which I posted and later removed— was essentially, “This couldn’t possibly be by the same author. Or perhaps it’s his juvenilia.” I recall that the exact words I used were “clunky” and “old-fashioned,” along the lines of Spenser’s The Fairie Queene.

But if as my favorite English Professor said, “Nothing is wasted in Shakespeare,” didn’t I owe The Phoenix and the Turtle a chance?

As I  reread the poem, several lines in the poem caught my attention:

Let the Preift [ Priest] in Surples [Surplice] white, / That defunctiue Muficke [funereal Music] can, / Be the death-deuining [divining] Swan / Left [Lest] the Requiem lacke his right.

The Swan, of course, is said to sing most beautifully before dying. So, the poem appears to allude to a call to a sung Requiem Mass for the Phoenix and Turtledove. We know the punchline, of course, though the author stops tantalizingly short of it in the poem. The Phoenix will rise from its ashes. In that regard, the Phoenix could be said to be a Christ figure, who will resurrect in glory.

Aberdeen Bestiary
Phoenix Folio 55v
Source: Aberdeen Univ., U.K.

But what of its faithful and loving partner, the Turtledove? The poet goes a bit off script in terms of the well-known legend of the lone Phoenix, to assure us that the Turtledove and the Phoenix are distinct, but one:

So they loued as loue in twaine, / Had the essence but in one, / Two diftincts, Diuifion none, / Number there in loue was flaine (slain).

The mystery of their oneness can be solved in part through the Sacrament of Marriage, where ”two become one.” But within the Church, there should also be Unity in the Body of Christ, something sorely lacking in Shakespeare’s time. In Ephesians, St. Paul, conflates the “marriages”— the marriage between husband and wife, and the marriage between Christ and his Church:

He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever hated his own flesh, but nourisheth and cherisheth it, as also Christ doth the church: Because we are members of him, body, of his flesh and of his bones. (Ephesians 5: 28 – 30).

Book of Emblems (Frankfurt, 1583)
Text refers to the Phoenix as
a Christ figure, saying in part:
”Ever-Singular Bird, Father and Son to Itself.”

Keep in mind that priest chanting a Latin Mass in Elizabethan and Jacobean times did so with the full understanding that he faced imminent arrest, inhuman torture and death, under a number of statutes, e.g.,

  • the 1558 (1559) Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity (1 Eliz. 1, c. 1-2), and
  • the 1584 (1585) Act against “Jesuits, seminary priests, and such other like disobedient persons” (27 Eliz. 1, c. 2).

The latter made it an act of treason punishable by death for a Catholic priest to so much as step on English soil. If he were “fortunate” enough to obtain mercy, he would be banished permanently, with its attendant loss of family, friends, property, and even language (as Mowbray points out so eloquently in Richard II).

Under the same statute, anyone offering shelter or assistance to priests faced heavy fines, imprisonment, torture, and even death.

There was another tip of the hat to Catholicism at the vere end of the poem: 

For thefe [these] dead Birds, figh [sigh] a prayer.

I am not suggesting that the man who wrote Shakespeare was necessarily a convert. I believe his message is that Christians shouldn’t prey on one another. Nor am I a theologian by any means. But I do generally recall that to Elizabethan and Jacobean Protestants, Baptism and Communion were considered the only “Scriptural” Sacraments— in contrast to the Catholic belief in seven Sacraments:

  • Baptism
  • Reconciliation (Confession)
  • the Eucharist
  • Confirmation,
  • Matrimony
  • Anointing of the Sick (Extreme Unction)
  • Holy Orders.

In short, if the poem weren’t for the birds (and I’m being facetious), hardline Protestants might have considered some of the acts described in it “heretical”— i.e., Masses and Prayers for the Dead— in part because they didn’t believe in “The Other Place,” as Hamlet speaks of Purgatory, but more fundamentally (excuse the pun) because of their core belief that intermediaries aren’t necessary—that we are saved through faith and God’s grace alone.

Through allegory, the author touches upon deeply held, emotional religious issues— issues that people of good faith throughout time and in his time , felt were worth dying for.

While other candidates have been proposed (Queen Elizabeth and Essex, Philip Sidney, Saints Henry Walpole and Robert Southwell, platonic love, etc.), the poem, the more I thought about it, seemed be honoring a Catholic couple that like Christ, suffered martyrdom.

Was the author acting as an “abstract and brief chronicle of the time” (circa the publication date of 1601), I wondered, and could there indeed be such a couple?

My first thought was to search Philip Howard, the 13th (or 20th, by some accounts) Earl of Arundel, who converted to Catholicism after witnessing the Jesuit Edmund Campion’s debate against Protestants scholars in 1581, without the benefit of books, or even pen and paper.

— Not that the latter would have helped. He had been racked repeatedly and so severely that his right arm was “wrenched” to the point that in order to “… [plead] not guilty [during his trial], … a fellow prisoner, first kissing it, had to [raise Campion’s arm] for him.”

All to no avail, as the outcome had long been decided. Campion was among the priests hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on December 1, 1581. He was 41. (Catholic Encyclopedia).

For his part, Philip Howard would be arrested four years later, as he tried to flee England. Charged with High Treason, he was sentenced to be beheaded, but after ten years of confinement, he died in the Tower, his final wish to see his wife and son denied. (Catholic Encyclopedia).

Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel, in the Tower of London,
by Barraud. On the wall of his cell, Philip is said to have written in Latin: “The more affliction we endure for Christ in this world
the more glory we shall obtain with Christ in the next.”

Howard’s is a compelling story, and like Campion, he was canonized— one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales (1970). But as loyal as he and his wife, Anne (née Dacre), were in witnessing their faith, they did not quite fit The Phoenix and the Turtle storyline, in my opinion, because the couple had a son, and neither the husband nor the wife were physically executed.

So I changed the search terms slightly to include “childless,” another clue within the poem:

Leauing no pofteritie [posterity] / ‘Twas not their infirmitie, / It was married Chaftitie [Chastity].

The results to this query led to another married couple that not only fit— they exceeded the criteria I had set. I had never heard of Roger and Anne Line (sometimes spelled Lyne). Yet what “cinched” it for me was learning that, among others, Anne is the patron Saint of widows and the childless.

It impressed me to learn how many others had made the same connection between the Lines and The Phoenix and the Turtle, most notably John Finnis and Patrick Martin, The Times Literary Supplement (April 18, 2003). 

As further “proof,” in Personal Identity Vol. 22, Pt. 2 (at 268, fn 50), Finnis mentions how his readers had cleverly interpreted two of the lines in the poem:

Distance, and no space was seen,‘Twixt this Turtle and his Queen.

According to Finnis, “… the Euclidean definition of a line— length and no breadth— points … to Roger and Anne Line, whose name is then echoed in the next stanza’s “shine” and “mine.”

Roger and Anne were, in effect, a real life Romeo and Juliet. Disinherited by their well-to-do parents because they had converted to the Catholic faith, they refused to renounce their beliefs or their love for each other. 

In “Revisiting Anne Line: Who Was She and Where Did She Come From?” (at 395), Martin Dodwell suggests that they may actually have had a son [Recusant History,  31(3) (2013)]. Dodwell refers to a letter from Henry Garnet to Claudio Aquaviva dated 11 March 1601, in Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu (ARSI), Anglia 31 II, fol. 180, which indicates that:

Anne Line suffered chronic illness for more than fourteen years before her death….By the end of April 1586 both her husband and her brother were in prison …and her own family had cut her off. These vicissitudes go some way to explain how her son John, if he was indeed her son, came to be brought up by her husband’s estranged family. 

Dodwell refers to the “will of John Lyne dated 18 May 1609, which refers to ‘Johanem Lyne filium natem et legitima Roger Lyne.’” [PCC PRoB 11/114].

If such a child existed and was taken from the young couple by Roger’s parents, they were relatively (excuse the pun) fortunate. In the Preface to his Memoirs of Missionary Priests and other Catholics of Both Sexes That Have Suffered Death in England on Religious Accounts from the Year of Our Lord, 1577 to 1684, Vol. I (1803), Bishop Richard Challoner cites the testimony of the Jesuit priest, Thomas Cottam, at his arraignment. Cottam was sentenced to death with Edmund Campion, among others, but was executed six months later. 

St. Thomas Cottam

Among the many atrocities Catholics endured for their religion, Cottam cited

… the taking of [Catholics’] dear children from them by force, and placing them, for their seduction, with heretics (which violence cannot be done, by the law of God, even to infidels), the burning of priests in the ears, the whipping and cutting off the ears of others, carrying some in their sacred vestments through the streets

These are all apropos of the poem, which states that the invitation to the Requiem is limited to those birds ”of chafte [chaste] wings,” as opposed to the “friking [shreiking] harbinger,” or “foule of tyrant wing”—with the exception of the eagle. 

Why the eagle, we might ask. Well, the Bible has two views on the eagle. Leviticus 11: 13 calls them ”an abomination.” But Exodus 19: 4 is more on point, if one considers the theme of religious persecution:

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you
eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.

And an an eagle preying on or praying over a child (depending on your point of view) is a traditional Stanley motif, sometimes featured as a crest above the Stanley coat of arms, in lieu of the coronet.

The “exception” given to the eagle in the poem was an apparent nod to William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby, who married Elizabeth, eldest daughter of the man whom many believe wrote the Shakespeare canon, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1595).

Charge of James Stanley, 7th Earl of Derby, Elizabeth and William’s son. Source:

The birds of prey (vs. pray) in Shakespeare’s poem again highlights the tension and grave danger Catholics faced in exercising their faith. Indeed, Roger Line and Anne’s brother, William Heigham (sometimes spelled Higham)— later a lay brother of the Society of Jesus  (Life of Father John Gerard at lxxiii)— were arrested by Elizabethan authorities for “illegally” attending a Catholic Mass.

Upon their release, Roger fled or was exiled. In Belgium, he obtained a pension from the King of Spain, part of which he sent to his wife. (Gerard at lxxiv). He may have intended to pursue religious studies, but died a short time later.  

Sensing Mistress Line’s (as he called her) piety, discretion and economic need, Father Gerard recruited her to manage houses in and near London, where priests could be sheltered, and Masses and other Sacraments secretly celebrated. 

From descriptions by both Gerard and Challoner, we know that on Candlemas Day 1601, a Mass that attracted more participants than usual was reported to the authorities.

 The Feast Day marked Mary’s Purification, a Jewish custom after giving birth. The tradition included bringing to the Temple an offering of two turtledoves or two pigeons. Mary and Joseph presented the child Jesus to the Temple at this time, whereupon Simeon uttered his famous Canticle, which among other prophesied, declared that Jesus would be “light for the revelation of the Gentiles and the glory of Israel” (Luke 2: 22-40).


In the ensuing raid, the celebrant, Father Page, was able to remove his surplice and try to escape by mingling with the crowd. He was briefly apprehended, but released for lack of proof. However, “papist” items (including presumably his “surplice”) were used to condemn Anne Line. At age 38-39, she is described by Challoner as being so weak that she had to be carried to her trial on a chair. She was hanged publicly on the 27th of February 1601. Challoner (at 259) reports Anne’s final words at Tyburn:

I am sentenced to die for harbouring a Catholic priest, and so far am I from repenting for having done so, that I wish, with all my soul that where I had entertained one, I could have entertained a thousand.

One can appreciate why Anne Line was included among the Martyrs of England and Wales canonized in 1970, and why the man who wrote Shakespeare might well depict a woman who   embodied the qualities of an Isabel, Imogen, Portia or any of his true and valiant heroines, as a Phoenix. 

More on Mistress Line, the priests who were executed with her and other Byrd seeds in my next post.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on
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