I mentioned before that poetry seems to arise in situations of extremes. And that the quantity of poetry that a person pours out need not necessarily determine the size or longevity of the poet’s reputation. If anyone vindicates both these judgments, it is Chidiock Tichborne.
Had he not written one extraordinary poem on the eve of his execution, his name would have been lost. He wrote perhaps two other poems, but only this one keeps him anthologized and sticking around in certain heads.
His inspiration was terrible—quite literally, the worst. In 1586, at the age of 22 or 23, Tichborne was accused of being a conspirator in the so-called Babington plot. This was a conspiracy uncovered by Queen Elizabeth I’s infamous spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham. The intent of the plotters was to kill the Protestant Queen Elizabeth and replace her on the throne of England with the Catholic Queen Mary. Elizabethan England was replete with such plots, just part of Europe’s centuries-long wars of nation-states and religion.
At the time, Catholicism was banned in England, and Tichborne came from a Catholic family, so his motive for involvement in the plot should not come as a surprise, though the fact that he got caught almost certainly was. The conspirators had been infiltrated by Walsingham’s agents, and when they were rounded up, it is alleged, Tichborne had an injured leg and could not flee London as some of the other plotters did.
Alongside the ringleader, Anthony Babington, and others, Tichborne was tried, found guilty, and sent to the Tower of London to await execution. The punishment for the crime of high treason was to be hanged, drawn, eviscerated, and quartered.