DYER, Edward (1543-1607), of Sharpham, Weston, Som., Leicester House, London and Winchester House, Southwark.
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Family and Education
b. Oct. 1543, s. of Sir Thomas Dyer by his 1st w. educ. prob. Broadgates Hall, Oxf. c.1558-c.61; travelled abroad; I. Temple 1560. unm. suc. fa. 1565. Kntd. 1596.
Sec. to Earl of Leicester 1566-at least Aug. 1571; steward of Woodstock 1570-c.1604; chancellor of the order of the Garter 1596.1
Dyer, born at Weston, spent his early life in Somerset, where he inherited twelve manors, sufficient to support a country gentleman but not the courtier’s life to which he aspired. Entering Leicester’s service, he moved in his circle at court and so came to the Queen’s attention. Next, he did something (the nature of which is unknown) that displeased the Queen. He retired to Woodstock, lamenting his misfortune and ill-health, and gave advice on a similar problem to Christopher Hatton, who won his way back into favour through a ruse which Dyer himself resolved to try. Elizabeth, if we are to believe Gilbert Talbot, was led to think that he might pine away, so she sent him a ‘very comfortable message’. Dyer returned to court some time in 1573, but a full renewal of favour was not found until, together with Sir Henry Lee, he arranged a successful entertainment for the Queen’s stay at Woodstock. But he never received enough to make him solvent. In 1576 he acquired a licence to pardon improper tanning of leather, but two years later he was trying to borrow money from the Queen. In 1579 she lent him £3,000 from the Exchequer, which he was never able to repay, and he was to spend the rest of his life petitioning for further time. A grant of concealed lands in 1588 brought opprobrium but little else, and many years later, during the Parliament of 1604, he was to be the subject of violent criticism during a Commons debate on informers. In 1591 Thomas Phelips implied that the Queen would like Dyer to be her secretary, but nothing came of it. The chancellorship of the Garter was an empty honour. Borrowing all the time, often on mortgage, he owed £11,200 by 1606. Yet he can be credited with keeping his debts within the possibility of eventual settlement: at this time his property was valued at £13,000.2
He took his disappointments philosophically. It is said that, on one occasion, in reply to Elizabeth’s question as to what a man ‘thinks when he thinks of nothing’, Dyer replied, ‘a woman’s promise’. More typically, when he advised Hatton in 1572 he pointed out that although ‘she do descend very much in her sex as a woman, yet we may not forget her place, and the nature of it as our sovereign’. It was a lesson which, years later, he evidently failed to transmit to Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex.
Dyer’s poems—including ‘My mind to me a kingdom is’ and a number of pastorals—have some of the quiet detachment found in those of his greatest friend Sir Philip Sidney, and he was described as ‘in a manner our only English poet’. In the following year Sidney’s unfortunate letter to the Queen on the subject of a French marriage, caused the friends to withdraw from the court for a while, but their association, and Dyer’s affection for Sidney’s sister, the Countess of Pembroke, continued unabated. Philip Sidney’s death in 1586 must have been a blow to Dyer, who acted as pall-bearer at the funeral and composed an epitaph in memory of him.3
Meanwhile his public life continued. For many years he had maintained his contacts with Leicester, probably acted as intermediary between the Earl and other courtiers, and stood in for him as godfather at the christening of a daughter of William of Orange in 1578. In 1582 he joined the escort, headed by Leicester, which conducted Anjou to the Low Countries. Two years later he was sent there again as an observer on behalf of the English government, met William of Orange and successfully concluded an alliance. Later, he was to warn Leicester about the magnitude of his task in the Netherlands and to urge him against self-confidence. By this time, however, his allegiance seems to have been transferred from the Earl to Sir Francis Walsingham, and he shortly began to live at Winchester House. This was certainly his principal London residence on the two occasions when he represented his native county of Somerset in Parliament.
Dyer had an active parliamentary career. In 1589 he served on committees concerned with returns (8 Feb.), the subsidy (11 Feb.), the repealing of certain statutes (21 Feb.) and the Queen’s safety (29 Mar.). On 15 Feb. he was named to the committee concerning purveyors. On 27 Feb. he was one of those appointed to attend the Lords to receive the Queen’s message about purveyors, and on the same day he served on the subsequent committee appointed to discuss the Queen’s dislike of the bill. In 1593 he served on committees concerned with the subsidy (26 Feb., 1 Mar.), recusants (28 Feb.) and the punishment of rogues (12 Mar.). As knight for Somerset he may also have attended committees on a legal matter (9 Mar.), cloth (15 Mar.) and kerseys (23 Mar.).4
In 1588 Dyer had again visited the Netherlands on a diplomatic mission. This completed, he set off for Bohemia with high hopes of crowning his life by bringing home a fabulous discovery: the philosopher’s stone. For many years he had been haunted by the twin spectres of discovery and gold. He subscribed to Frobisher’s voyages in search of the north-west passage, putting great faith in that explorer’s tales of unlimited gold ore. ‘Frobisher’s gold is now melted’, he wrote to Walsingham in 1578, and, when the third expedition was being prepared, he declined to subscribe. His interest in naval matters remained, dreams of a north-west passage never faded, and when John Davis undertook his voyage of discovery, Dyer helped to the best of his ability. Naturally, in 1588, he was eager to investigate the claims of Edward Kelley to have discovered how to turn base metal into gold. It was also an opportunity to see Dr. John Dee, Kelley’s former mentor, whom Dyer had known as far back as 1565. These were busy years of travel: a diplomatic mission to Denmark, and three further visits to Prague in search of Kelley’s gold, allowed him but little time in England. One winter he spent five futile months at Prague, working as an alchemist under Kelley, in the hope of discovering the great secret. At one time the Emperor Rudolph ordered Dyer’s arrest. He was released after Elizabeth had sent a stiff note protesting against this treatment of her representative.5
Dyer came home empty-handed. In the closing decade of his life he associated himself with Sir Robert Cecil, at the funeral of whose first wife he acted as pall-bearer. At the time of the Essex rising he rallied to the help of the Earl’s wife, Philip Sidney’s widow, and was able to recover a collection of supposedly incriminating letters written by Essex, which had fallen into the hands of John Daniel. After this, Dyer lived in increasing seclusion, although he probably remained at court until the end of the reign. Little is known of him during these years when John Davies, in the preface to Microcosmos, could address him as
Thou virgin knight, that dost thyself obscure from world’s unequal eyes.
Under James I he lost the stewardship of Woodstock. He died in 1607 and was buried at St. Saviour’s, Southwark, 11 May. Administration of his estate was granted to an unmarried sister, Margaret.6
Ref Volumes: 1558-1603
- 1. Vis. Som. (Harl. Soc. xi), 33; E. Rosenberg, Leicester, Patron of Letters, 149; Lansd. 13, ff. 117-18.
- 2. Rosenberg, 149; E. St. John Brooks, Sir Christopher Hatton, 86-8; Lansd. 20, f. 19; 24, f. 179; 105, f. 139; 165, f. 320; pat. roll 30 Eliz. pt. 7, ex. inf. A. K. B. Evans; J. Hurstfield, Queen’s Wards, 40-1; Diary of Robert Bowyer 1606-7, ed. D. H. Wilson, 132-4.
- 3. Brooks, 93-4.
- 4. Rosenberg, 149 n; D’Ewes, 430, 431, 433, 436, 440, 454, 474, 477, 481, 486, 496, 499, 501, 507, 512.
- 5. Diary of Dr. Dee (Cam. Soc. xix), passim; Lansd. 24, f. 159; Brooks, 130.
- 6. PCC admon. act bk. 1605-10, f. 79v.