The Sources of Thomas Rowley’s Language:
Semi-Fictitious Vocabulary

Boldizsár Fejérvári

Today, Thomas Chatterton (1752–1770) is best known from Henry Wallis’s painting depicting his dead body in an idealized Pre-Raphaelite setting in the very garret he rented in London; his conflict with Horace Walpole over the authenticity of the allegedly Rowleyan texts that Chatterton presented to the famous antiquarian and forger of The Castle of Otranto; and the fact that his pseudo-medieval line “Comme, wythe acorne-coppe and thorne” was a favourite with John Keats. The status of his Rowleyan forgeries was long questioned as English poetry since it was assumed that the medieval language he invented for his fictitious 15th-century monk Thomas Rowley was a make-believe construct largely concocted by Chatterton himself, who in these accounts is presented as a precocious and undereducated lawyer’s apprentice with a tendency to day-dream. 20th-century research has, however, shown that Chatterton knew his sources well, and there is nothing in the Rowleyan vocabulary he used that should solely have been the fruit of his own imagination. This paper will survey the existing literature to demonstrate what layers and sources of the Rowleyan vocabulary can be found in a selection of short lyrics composed by Chatterton during the autumn of 1768.

For this purpose, and to keep a sufficiently narrow focus, I have chosen three poems that were written in one go, demonstrating Chatterton’s effort to embed his alter ego, Thomas Rowley, into the literary context of the mid-15th century. As E. H. W. Meyerstein argues, John Lydgate must have served as Chatterton’s “precedent for a poetical monk of the fifteenth century” (159). There are, indeed, parallels between the career and oeuvre of the London-based Lydgate and the background of Rowley. Both were clerical poets and grew to fame and renown in their respective lives, the only—though not insignificant—difference being that the former had really existed as opposed to the latter, Chatterton’s invention. It has also been argued (Taylor & Hoover 815) that another model may have been Alexander Barclay, whom Elizabeth Cooper described as follows: “He stiles himself Priest, and Chaplain in the College of St. Mary-Otory, in the County of Devon, and afterwards Monk of Ely […] and has […] more Merit than, I think, could be expected from so barren, and unpolite an Age” (33). In fact, that last appellation may well have incited Chatterton’s eagerness to prove, in his inscrutable ways, that the 15th century was nothing like the “barren” period 18th-century antiquarians would have us believe.

In creating Rowley’s background, Chatterton went out of his way to link him to Lydgate, and the most spectacular result of those strivings is an exchange he forged between the two of them; below, I will investigate the linguistic background to that “boutynge matche” in some detail. But there were other, less marked links as well, some of them extremely cunning. In referring to another fictitious work, this time by a real 11th-century abbot, Turgot (see Sprott 326–327 and Camden 933), Chatterton has Rowley translate a “lost” work, “Battle of Hastings by Turgotus,” from his Latin (Meyerstein 161; Taylor & Hoover 68–88); moreover, he hints in a footnote, again in Rowley’s name, that “In Turgott’s tyme Holenwell braste of erthe so fierce that it threw a stone-mell carrying the same awaie. J. Lydgate ne knowynge this lefte out a line” (Taylor & Hoover 70). In effect, Chatterton claims the same Turgot text had already been translated by Lydgate as well, but Rowley, being better informed about the incidents, produced an English version superior to his contemporary’s. We may well agree with Meyerstein, who concludes that “Behind Turgot, mercifully, we cannot go in this labyrinth of make-believe […] we can thus the better understand Chatterton’s lament to William Smith that he knew no Latin, else we might have even had the pseudo-Turgot in that tongue, as well as in what Skeat called Rowleyese” (109).

This amount of preliminary information should be sufficient for us to have a first appreciation of the following works, written by Chatterton on behalf of Rowley and Lydgate, respectively. Let me first reprint these lyrics.

To John Ladgate

Well then Good Johne sythe it must needes be so
And I and thee a boutynge matche must have
Let it ne breakynge of oulde Freendshyppe doe
This is the onlie All-a-boone—I crave
TL.5Remember Stowe a Bristowe Carmelite
Who whan Johne Clarkin one of mickle Lore
Did throw his gauntlette Penne with him to fyghte
He shewd small wit and shewd his Weakness more
This is my formaunce which I now have wrytte
TL.10The best performaunce of my little Wytte

(Taylor & Hoover 60)

Songe toe Ella

O thou or what remaines of thee
Ella the Darlynge of Futuritie
Let this my Songe bolde as thy Courage bee
As everlastinge to Posterytie
SE.5When Dacias Sons whose hayre of bloud redde hue
Like Kynge Cuppes bursteynge with the Mornynge dewe
Arraunged in drear Arraie
Upon the lethalle Daye
Spredde far and wide on Watchetts Shore
SE.10There diddest thou furyous stande
And by thy burled Hande
Besprenged all the Meedes withe Gore
Drawne by thy Anlace felle
Downe to the depths of Helle
SE.15Thousands of Dacyans wente
Brystowyans Men of myghte
Ydar’d the bloudie fyghte
And acted Deedes fulle Quente—
O thou where eer (thy Bones at reste)
SE.20Thy Spryte to haunt delyghteth beste!
Whether upon the bloude embrewed Playne
Or where thou hearste from farre
The Honore Crie of Warre
Or seest some Mountayn made of Corse of slayne
SE.25Or seest the hatched Stede
Ifrayning oer the Mede
And neigh to bee amengd the poynted Speeres
Or ynne Blacke Armoure staulke arounde
Embattled Bristowe once thy Ground
SE.30And glare ardurous on the Castle steres
Or fierie rounde the Minster glare
Let Bristowe still be made thie Care
Garde ytte from Foemen and consuming fire
Like Avons Streme ensirk it rounde
SE.35Ne let a Flame enharme the Grounde
Till in one Flame all the whole Worlde Expire

(Taylor & Hoover 61–62)

John Ladgates Answer

Havynge with much attention Reade
What you dyd to mee sende
Admyre the penne much I dyd
And thus an Answer lende:

JL.5Amongst the Greeces Homer was
A poet muche renown’d,
Amongst the Latyns Vyrgilius
Was beste of poets founde:

The Brytish Merlyn often hanne,
JL.10The Gyfte of Inspyratione
And Affled to the Saxonne Menne,
Dyd synge wythe Elocatyonne.

In Normanne Times Turgottus, ande
Goode Chaucer dyd excell
JL.15Thenne Stowe the Brystowe Carmelite
Dyd beare awaie the Belle.—

Now Rowlie ynne these mokie Daies
Sendes owte hys shynynge Lyghte
And Turgotus and Chaucer live
JL.20Inne evry thynge hee wrytes.

(Taylor & Hoover 62–63)

The selection of the above lyrics can be justified, besides their brevity and compactness, by the fact that they are proven originals, that is, a parchment holograph in Chatterton’s Rowley’s handwriting exists of them (reprinted by Clarke). Moreover, they were written onto the same sheet, confirming both their date (autumn 1768) and order of composition. By reading these texts, we can at least eliminate one constant threat, that is, the investigation of an apocryphal document by Chatterton.

While it is unlikely that Chatterton should have read Lydgate’s poetry extensively, he “dipped into him as he dipped into Chaucer” (Meyerstein 160). Meyerstein illustrates this with a parallel between the second stanza of “John Ladgates Answer” and a passage from Lydgate’s Fall of Princes: “Mong Siciliens first Theodorus, / For pacience hadde in gret reuerence; / Among Grekis, the stori tellith vs, / Anaxerses for his magnificence…” (Bergen 983). Further potential sources for such an inventory of greats are identified in sections from the poetry of Thomas Churchyard (Cooper 138), George Turberville (Cooper 199), and Walter Raleigh (Taylor & Cooper 850); however, only one can “beare awaie the Belle”—and lest there should be any doubt, that most excellent poet is declared by Chatterton’s “Ladgate” to be none other than Thomas Rowley.

How that excellence may be measured, apart from Ladgate’s fictitious declaration, is subject to a range of considerations. In establishing the date and stylistic development of the Rowley poems composed in consecutive periods within Chatterton’s output, Donald S. Taylor uses two major devices. One is the cross-reference and manuscript connection between individual titles; the other what Taylor calls “old-word count,” that is, the number of Rowleyan words per one hundred, based on Taylor’s admittedly subjective consideration (xxxix). It is assumed that the later a Rowleyan poem, the higher its old-word proportion.

According to this simple taxonomy, “To John Ladgate” has an old-word count of 3.7; “Songe toe Ella” 5.5; “John Ladgates Answer” a mere 1.0. Convincingly, Taylor & Hoover’s notes indicate that “The low proportion for ‘Answer’ […] may represent an intentional distinguishing of Ladgate’s style” (848). Needless to say, that distinguishing would favour the notion that Rowley’s style was superior to that of his correspondent. It may, however, yield more interesting results to look at what exactly those “old words” are that appear in the respective texts, and where they come from.

Donald Taylor uses his own rather loose principles in determining what words qualify as ‘old words’: “I do not include words whose antiquity is entirely a matter of spelling, however grotesque, nor do I include archaisms C[hatterton] might have encountered frequently in the various works of the medieval and Elizabethan revivals of his day. I do include all words for which he seems to have gone to dictionaries and glossaries” (xxxviii). But the term itself is not unfamiliar if one knows Nathan Bailey’s Universal Etymological English Dictionary, first published in 1721; in classifying the entries in the volume, that work listed many lexical items simply as “Old Words” referring presumably to archaisms deemed obsolete in the early to mid-18th century (“Abbreviations”).

The “old words” in the three poems are as follows: ‘bout(ynge matche),’ ‘All-a-boone,’ ‘mickle’ (“To John Ladgate”; 3 old words out of 81 equalling a proportion of 3.7); ‘burled,’ ‘besprenged,’ ‘anlace,’ ‘ydar’d,’ ‘quente,’ ‘embrewed,’ ‘(castle) stede,’ ‘hatched,’ ‘ifrayning,’ ‘amengd,’ ‘ne,’ ‘enharme’ (“Songe to Ella”; 12/218 equalling 5.5); ‘mokie’ (“Ladgates Answer”; 1/99 equalling 1.0). When investigating where those items came from, one has to set down the basic fact that by 1871, an end was put “to any possibility of a rational protest that Rowley bore a relationship either to old poetry or to fifteenth-century English” (Taylor 1176), with the proviso that Chatterton, however, did bear such a relationship. Taylor goes as far as to call Chatterton “a historian whose faculty for imaginative reconstruction was stronger than either his store of facts about the past or his commitment to that slender store” (1176). He then continues to reposition Chatterton as an artist rather than a forger, pointing out that Rowley was just another persona for Chatterton the poet, much in the same way as contemporary authors create alter egos for themselves in literary works (1177).

There is another important premise to establish: Chatterton’s Rowley’s “vocabulary, contrary to what has been hitherto assumed, is never free fantasy: it is true to what C[hatterton] knew of pre-eighteenth-century English, being entirely based on what were, to C[hatterton], authentic sources” (Taylor 1177). His main source must have been Nathaniel Bailey’s Universal Etymological English Dictionary, whose 20th edition I will be chiefly referring to in the following inventory of “old words.” Besides using such antiquated vocabulary, Chatterton also obscured Rowley’s language through highly unorthodox spelling. The unwarranted doubling of random consonants, the regular substitution of y for i, and the sprinkling of numerous words with silent e’s can hardly disguise that fact that syntactically, most of the Rowleyan poetry by and large complies with 18th-century grammatical rules. This can be illustrated through the stripping of any of the above stanzas of their unorthodox spelling, which generally leads to a neatly Neo-Classical poetic idiom, such as in “John Ladgates Answer”: “Having with much attention read / What you did to me send, / Admire the pen much I did / And thus an answer lend.” That doubts would still persist as to Chatterton’s authorship must have been due to the fact that even in the mid-19th century, “knowledge of the history of English was not sufficiently dispersed” for serious research “to be generally recognized” (Taylor 1776).

Let me now present an item-by-item source list for the “old words” listed above, with their potential references. For several words, Chatterton himself later added footnotes, posing as an antiquarian who has just found 15th-century manuscripts and sat down immediately to investigate, analyse, and interpret them. Two phenomena strike one immediately when surveying Chatterton’s own definitions, provided in footnotes to what he fashioned as transcripts made from fictitious manuscripts. First, he went out of his way to increase the impression of antiquity through adding definitions or short synonyms even where these were not necessary for an 18th-century reader; and second, he is at times too meticulous with providing the same or similar definition for a repeated word, such as anlace, which is first “an Ancient Sword” (Taylor & Douglas 298) and shortly after just a “Sword” (299) in the notes Chatterton appended to his presumably fair manuscript copy of Goddwyn: A Tragedie, which he then handed over to George Catcott to be prepared for printing (Taylor 973). These and many other Chatterton definitions have been included in the chart below. An arrow (→) marks Taylor’s acceptance of Chatterton’s definitions, a dash the lack of any dictionary entry or definition in the given source, and a tilde (~) a morphological link to a related entry.

comparison of definitions by Taylor, Chatterton, and Bailey

One notes immediately that at least one “old word,” anlace, is not glossed at all by Taylor, although it is defined at least three times by Chatterton himself, in two different Rowleyan works, one composed before, and one after the Lydgate poems. This word must have come from Bailey’s etymological dictionary, as well as burled and All-a-boone. Very importantly, a major part of Chatterton’s archaic lexicon is related to fights, tournaments, and other contests, both physical and mental. How this relates to a male adolescent’s frame of mind and main set of interests is intriguing but unrelated to our present investigation.

One also encounters false etymologies and mistaken analogies in Chatterton’s archaizing certain words. One prominent example is his stere for “stair,” which is an unorthodox spelling in terms of Middle English sources. Chaucer, for instance, uses the word “stere,” but only as the obsolete spelling of steer, meaning “rudder,” and never instead of “stair” (see glossary for Chaucer). Even more substantial and poetically interesting is Chatterton’s use of ifrayning, which Taylor surmises may have been “C[hatterton]’s intentional misreading of yprauncinge” (1206). This reveals an interest in and a creative reinterpretation of the word derived from the Latin frenum for “bridle.” Whether a false analogy or a productive invention, this lexical item shows how Chatterton’s recreation of an assumed 15th-century version of English proceeded parallel with his creation of his own poetic idiom. This is just one more minor but important argument in favour of considering the “preposterous” Chatterton as an “‘allochronic’ poet” (Ruthven 352).

Besides the etymological and other dictionaries Chatterton had access to, Taylor mentions one more source that he may have perused extensively. That work is Thomas Ruddiman’s “General Rules for Understanding the Language of Bishop Dowglas’s Translation of Virgil’s Æneid” appended to the 1710 edition of Gavin Douglas’s 1513 translation of the Roman epic (Taylor 1180). Ruddiman identified 42 such features of Douglas’s Scots idiom, 33 of which were also applied by Chatterton (Taylor 1180). In the selection presented in this paper, the following rules can be traced: (1) variable, inconsistent spelling (Ella here is Ælla in Chatterton’s most famous Rowleyan work; Rowley’s did alternates with Ladgate’s dyd; much/e); (2) superfluous do (TL.7, JL.2); (4) syntactic inversion (TL.2 et passim); (5) freedom with proper names (Affled presumably for Afflem, cf. Taylor 850); (9) interchangeable verb forms (TL.9); (20) added and dropped letters (silent e in “farre,” SE.22 et passim; “ensirk,” SE.34); (22) be- prefix (“besprenged,” SE.12); (23) k for c (“ensirk,” SE.34); (29) i and y interchanged (passim); initial i and y freely added (SE.17 et passim); (31) as a special case of (20), l added or dropped (“ensirk,” SE.34); (41) final y dropped (“drear,” SE.7); (44) syllable count “fairly exact” (Taylor 1180) in the metrical analysis of individual lines (“Arraunged in drear Arraie / Upon the lethalle Daye” reads properly as “Arranged in drear array / Upon the lethal day,” SE.7–8).

Having provided a terse summary of Chatterton’s blueprint for Middle English usage and his presumable working method, it may be concluded that a linguistic recreation was taking place in his Rowleyan texts alongside a literary creation. What links both processes is Chatterton’s predominant medieval chivalric fascination and the Bristolian locale, which is reflected both in Chatterton’s themes and Rowley’s vocabulary. Further investigation may fill gaps in Taylor and Hoover’s glossary (cf. anlace above) and refine certain previous findings in terms of individual lexical items and literary or linguistic references. Ultimately, a complete contrastive etymological analysis of the entire Rowleyan corpus may be attempted, proceeding beyond what past research has achieved. The linguistic close reading of the three poems selected for this paper may provide a methodology for such investigation.


Bailey, Nathan. An Universal Etymological English Dictionary: Being also an Interpreter of Hard Words. Twentieth Edition. London: Osborne et al., 1763. Accessed 20 October 2016 at

Bergen, Henry (Ed.). Lydgate’s Fall of Princes. Part III. Washington: Carnegie Institute, 1923. Accessed 20 October 2016 at

Camden, William. Britannia: Or a Chorographical Description of Great Britain and Ireland, Together with the Adjacent Islands. Ed. Edmund Gibson. 2 vols. London: Matthews & Churchill, 1722. Accessed 20 October 2016 at 02camd.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales: Full Text in Middle English and Modern English. Ed. Kökbugur, Sinan. Librarius. 1997. Accessed 31 October 2016 at

Clarke, Ernest. New Lights on Chatterton: A Paper Read before the Bibliographical Society. London: Blades, East & Blades, 1916. Accessed 20 October 2016 at

Cooper, Elizabeth. The Muses Library; Or, A Series of English Poetry. London: Hodges, 1741. Accessed 20 October 2016 at

Meyerstein, E. H. W. A Life of Thomas Chatterton. New York: Russell & Russell, 1930.

Ruthven, K. K. “Preposterous Chatterton.” ELH 71:2 (Summer 2004): 345–76.

Sprott, George Washington. “Turgot.” Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. Sidney Lee. Volume 57. London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1899. 326–327. Accessed 20 October 2016 at

Taylor, Donald S. & Benjamin B. Hoover (ed.). The Complete Works of Thomas Chatterton: A Bicentenary Edition. 2 vols. (continuous pagination). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.