Arthur Wilson (writer)

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Arthur Wilson
Born Arthur Wilson
bapt. (1595-12-14)14 December 1595
Yarmouth, England
Died October 1652 (aged 57)
Felsted, England
Education Trinity College, Oxford
Occupation Dramatist, historian, gentleman-in-waiting, steward
Employer Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex
Robert Rich, 2nd Earl of Warwick
Notable work The History of Great Britain, being the Life and Reign of King James I
Spouse(s) Susan Spitty

Arthur Wilson (baptised 14 December 1595 – autumn 1652) was a seventeenth-century English playwright, historian, and poet. Though born a commoner, he worked professionally as a gentleman-in-waiting and steward to several of the most powerful Parliamentarians during the era leading up to the English Civil War. He is remembered today as a minor playwright who wrote several successful plays for London's Blackfriars Theatre as well as the author of The History of Great Britain, being the Life and Reign of King James I, a valuable nonfiction work that documents the anti-Stuartism prevalent in the late Caroline era.


Wilson was born in Yarmouth, England, the son of John Wilson and his wife Suzan, according to the baptismal register, but of Richard Wilson, according to a later entry in the matriculation register at Trinity College, Oxford, where he later attended school. In the 1620–25 period he served as secretary to Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex, and accompanied the Earl on his military campaigns on the Continent. Despite getting on well with Essex for fifteen years, though, WIlson was dismissed when the earl's second wife took up against him. Upon his release, Wilson received a monthly pension from Essex and the opportunity for a formal education. At the age of 35, Wilson entered Oxford University (1631–33) where he studied first medicine and then religion for the next two years. Dismayed by the corruption that ran rampant in the clergy, however, he left the school and later entered the service of Essex's cousin, Robert Rich, 2nd Earl of Warwick, as a steward. Wilson returned to Essex's service for the English Civil War. Wilson had a reputation as an adventurer; his autobiography, Observations of God's Providence, in the Tract of my Life,[1] records some of his adventures, like his 1642 rescue of the Countess Rivers from anti-Catholic rioters.[2]



Wilson's autobiography contains many observations on the private theatrical performances conducted in aristocratic households during the seventeenth century, and he himself likely wrote many plays for private entertainments during his tenure with Essex. He recounts several instances of his works being performed at the home of Essex's grandmother, the Countess of Leicester. Only three of these plays have survived, though, including the tragicomedy The Inconstant Lady, which was performed by the King's Men in its premiere at the royal palace at Hampton Court in London on 30 September 1630; The Swisser, which premiered at London's Blackfriars Theatre in 1631; and The Corporal, which was also performed by the King's Men at Blackfriars and is speculatively dated to 1633.

Though it is well-established that Wilson wrote The Inconstant Lady while still in service of Essex, it is unclear whether his latter two plays were completed during this period or during his time at Oxford. Dating is particularly difficult, because none of the plays were published during the seventeenth century, and The Corporal has survived only in a fragmentary manuscript that stops in Act II, scene 1.[3] The other two dramas remained in manuscript until later publication, The Inconstant Lady[4] in 1814 and The Swisser in 1904. The Swisser was performed in 1631 by the King's Men at the Blackfriars Theatre; the manuscript preserves a cast list for that original production – significant, since it is one of only seven cast lists for the company that survive from the era of the later 1620s and early 1630s.


Wilson's notable non-dramatic work is his The History of Great Britain, being the Life and Reign of King James I, which was published in 1653, a year after Wilson's death. (Indeed, none of Wilson's literary efforts was in print in his lifetime.) Wilson was not an admirer of the House of Stuart, as his history reveals; he reflects negatively on various figures of the Stuart era, including Sir Francis Bacon.


Wilson also wrote some verse; his "Upon Mr. J. Donne and his Poems" has been considered one of the better elegies on the poet and was printed in the first collection of John Donne's poems as a tribute.[5]


  1. ^ Paul Delaney, British Autobiography in the Seventeenth Century, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969.
  2. ^ Keith Lindley, The English Civil War and Revolution: A Sourcebook, London, Routledge, 1998; pp. 94–5.
  3. ^ Alfred Harbage, "Elizabethan and Seventeenth-Century Manuscripts," Papers of the Modern Language Association Vol. 50 No. 3 (September 1935), pp. 687–99; see pp. 695–6.
  4. ^ Linda V. Itzoe, Arthur Wilson's The Inconstant Lady: A Critical Edition, New York, Garland, 1980.
  5. ^ Poems by John Donne with elegies of the author’s death, pp.397-9

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