University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Captain Cox, Ballad and Book Collector Extraordinary

Volume XIV · Spring 1959 · Number 3
Captain Cox: Ballad and Book Collector Extraordinary


Despite the fact that Captain Cox has assumed great significance as one of the foremost figures in English storybook and ballad history, very little is known of his life, his associates, or his activities. It is because of his famous and widely admired library that he has gained such a position of prominence in literary history. The chief source of information concerning him is Robert Laneham's Letter of 1575, a work which has been painstakingly edited by F. J. Furnivall and published under the title Captain Cox, his Ballads and Booksl

Robert Laneham was a London mercer, born in Nottingham and educated at St. Paul's and St. Anthony's School. He had, he tells us, completed Aesop, read Terence, and begun Virgil. He had traveled much as a merchant, storing his mind with several languages and acquiring a sophistication and a nicety of speech which were soon to attract attention. In addition, his familiarity with ancient romances, chronicles, and poetry of all descriptions is well evidenced in his detailed listing of books in Captain Cox's library. His great love of bibliography is echoed in his statement, "I haue leizure sumtime, when I tend not vpon the coounsell; whearby, now look I on one booke, noow on an other. Stories I delight in, the more auncient & rare, the more likesum vntoo mee."2 Such qualities as Laneham possessed evidently appealed to the Earl of Leicester, who patronized him and made him clerk of the Council-Chamber door in the court.

Laneham's letter, which has gained a kind of immortality by its presentation of Captain Cox, was written to his friend Humfrey Martin and tells of the visit of Queen Elizabeth to Leicester at Kenilworth Castle from July 9 to July 27, 1575. With genuine gusto Laneham describes the castle, grounds, festivities, pageants, and minstrels. Throughout his letter he reveals himself as a gay, amusing, self-satisfied individual as he tells of his airing of languages before foreigners, his love for the gentlewomen, his dancing, and his singing. Above all, he leaves us vivid pictures of the country life and sports of Elizabeth's time. On July 17, 1575, the second Sunday of the Queen's visit, she was shown some of the characteristic sports of the country, including the old historical Hock-Tuesday play of the men of Coventry, commemorating the massacre of the Danes by King Ethelred on St. Brice's Night, November 13, 1002. In this play Captain Cox makes an appearance as the protagonist on the English side. However, of more importance than his role in the play is the elaborate list of his books which Laneham provides. The Captain is introduced in humorous fashion although, by virtue of his collection of books, he might have been announced with the greatest solemnity:

"But aware, kéep bak, make room noow, heer they cum! And fyrst, captin Cox, an od man I promiz yoo: by profession a Mason, and that right skilfull, very cunning in fens, and hardy az Gawin; for his tonsword hangs at hiz tablz éend: great ouersight hath he in matters of stone: For, az for King Arthurz book, Huon of Burdeaus, The foour suns of Aymon, Beuys of Hampton, The squyre of lo degrée, The knight of courtesy, and the Lady Faguell, Frederik of Gene, Syr Eglamoour, Sir Tryamoour, Sir Lamwell, Syr Isenbras, Syr Gawyn, Olyuer of the Casti, Lucres and Eurialus, Virgil's life, The Castle of Ladiez, The wido Edyth, The King & the Tanner, Frier Rous, Howleglas. . . with many moe than I rehearz héere: I beléeue hee haue them all at hiz fingers endz.

"Then, in Philosphy, both morall & naturall, I think he be az naturally ouerseen: beside poetrie and Astronomie, and oother hid sciencez, as I may gesse by the omberty of hiz books: whearof part az I remember, the Sheperdz kalender, The Ship of Foolz, Danielz dreamz, the books of Fortune,Stans puer ad mensam, the hy wey to the Spitlhouse.. . the prooud wiues Pater Noster, the Chapman of a peniwoorth of Wit: Beside hiz auncient playz, Yooth & charitee, Hikskorner, Nugize, Impacient pouerty; and héerwith, doctor Boord's breuiary of health. What shoold I rehearz heer, what a bunch of ballets & songs, all auncient: Az Broom broom on hil. So wo iz me begon, troly lo. Ouer a whinny Meg. Hey ding a ding. Bony lass vpon a gréen. My bony on gaue me a bek. By a bank az I lay: and a hundred more, he hath, fair wrapt vp in Parchment, and bound with a whipcord.

"And az for Alimanaks of antiquitée. . . I wéene he can sheaw from Jasper Laet of Antwarp vnto Nostradam of Frauns, and thens vnto oour John Securiz of Saisbury. To stay ye no longer héerin, I dare say hee hath az fair a library for théez sciencez & az many goodly monuments both in proze & poetry, & at afternoonz can talk az much without book, az any Inholder betwixt Brainford and Bagshot, what degree soeuer he be." 3

This lengthy list bears witness to the fact that Captain Cox was a most diligent and most successful collector of romances, plays, ballads, songs, and almanacs, or what may be very generally classified as the popular or domestic literature of the century. Those who have had no need of searching for the sources of early English drama may find it difficult to understand the importance attached to this popular literature by scholars and antiquarians. The reason is that the more popular a particular pamphlet may have been, the more likely it was to contain allusions to the manners and samples of the colloquial language of the period. These allusions and samples are, of course, important in many dramatic compositions, and hence may be of untold value in removing the veil which time has placed over so many features of the early drama. Indeed, the Captain's library and old black-letter ballads have so excited the admiration of succeeding antiquaries that, if they were to be offered for sale in bookshops today, they would realize a handsome price.

Furnivall's book is largely concerned with a careful listing and discussion of each of the entries in Cox's library in order to give modern readers a view of the literature which occupied the reading members of the English middle class in Elizabeth's time. He describes each book or ballad in the library and lists all known editions of the work under consideration. Like many other antiquarians, he considers the Captain's existence doubtful and supposes that Robert Laneham portrayed himself under the name of Captain Cox. There are, he argues, many examples of giving catalogues of books known to the writer of a later book. The Cursor mundi, many romances, Chaucer, Lydgate, and others practiced it before Laneham. Citing J. P. Collier's Bibliographical Account as the latest example of this listing, he illustrates how many of the books in Collier's catalogue are also found in Cox's. However, he contends, one striking omission in Cox's library is "Guy of Warwick," an almost unbelievable omission for a Warwickshire collector like the Captain, and this fact "lends colour to the supposition that the list is as much one of Laneham's own books as Capt. Cox's." 4

However, regardless of the identity of Captain Cox, the library will always remain of the utmost interest and value to students of storybook and ballad history. The Captain, apparently an amateur devotee of popular literature who loved everything that came into his hands, also represents the widespread popularity of both traditional and stall ballads in his age. No one, it seems, could have escaped some contact with them in daily life. Even Shakespeare's extraordinary memory appears to have been stored with black-letter ballads and popular songs which he had learned in his youth. Laneham's account is also striking proof that no one made any great distinction between the kinds of ballads, because Captain Cox is said to have oversight of stories like Robin Hood and Adam Bell as well as of "a bunch of ballets & songs, all auncient... fair wrapt vp in Parchment and bound with a whipcord." Ballad scholars like Furnivall and Halliwell-Phillipps delighted in the list for the light it shed on the reading tastes of people in an era when ballads flourished, although they bemoaned Laneham's mention of the names of only seven ballads and songs and his teasing reference to "a hundred more." The loss of the names of these ballads is very serious indeed.

Captain Cox's appearances in later literature are always marked by references to his famous library. In 1626, a year after Charles I ascended the throne, the Kenilworth pageants were revived, and for this occasion Ben Johnson wrote his "Masque of Owls," in which the ghost of Captain Cox appeared on his hobbyhorse and acted as chief presenter of the entertainment.

This Captaine Cox, by St. Mary,
Was at Bullen with King Hary;
And (if some doe not vary)
Had a goodly library,
By which he was discerned
To be one of the learned,
To entertaine the Queene here,
When last she was seene here.5

In 1821 Scott in his Kenilworth described the festivities on the occasion of Elizabeth's visit in 1575, referring to Captain Cox as "that paragon of Black-Letter Antiquaries," "that celebrated humourist of Coventry whose library of ballads, almanacks, and penny histories.. . remains still the envy of antiquaries." The Captain's dramatic ability was outstanding; he performed "like the heroes of chivalry whose exploits he studied in an abridged form." 6

And so Captain Cox, whether he was an actual person or not, must take his place with Selden, Pepys, Bagford, Wood, and others as one of the great antiquaries and collectors of ballads and books. His library has given to scholars and students a more graphic picture of Elizabethan times than a good deal of more formal historical exposition.



  1. Frederick J. Furnivall, Captain Cox, his Ballads and Books; or Robert Laneham's Letter (London, 1871).
  2. Ibid, p. 61.
  3. Ibid, pp. 28-31.
  4. Ibid, p. xiv.
  5. Ben Johnson, "The Masque of Owls," 11. 24-31 in Ben Jonson, cd. C. H. Herford, Percy and Evelyn Simson, VII, p. 782. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1941).
  6. Sir Walter Scott, Kenilworth (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1926), pp. 432-433.

    Dr. John L. Mahoney is Assistant Professor of English at Boston College. His doctoral dissertation, accepted at Harvard University in 1957, was entitled Classical Form in English Oratory of the Golden Age.

The University of Rochester Library has the 1871 and the 1890 editions of Robert Laneham's Letter edited by Furnivall, and the edition published in 1821 immediately after the appearance of Scott's Kenilworth.