cross bowman

William Alabaster

William Alabaster (also Alablaster, Arblastier) (1567 – 1640) was an English poet, playwright, and religious writer. His surname is one of the many variants of arbalester, a cross-bowman.

He was born at Hadleigh, Suffolk, and educated at Westminster School, and Trinity College, Cambridge from 1583. His Roxana, a Latin tragedy, was performed around 1592, and printed in 1632. Roxana is founded on the La Dalida (Venice, 1567) of Luigi Groto, known as Cieco di Hadria, and Hallam asserts that it is a plagiarism (Literature of Europe, iii.54). A surreptitious edition in 1632 was followed by an authorized version a plagiarii unguibus vindicata, aucta et agnita ab Authore, Gulielmo Alabastro.

He became a Roman Catholic convert in Spain when on a diplomatic mission as chaplain. His religious beliefs led him to be imprisoned several times; eventually he gave up Catholicism, and was favoured by James I. He received a prebend in St Paul's Cathedral, London, and the living of Therfield, Hertfordshire. He died at Little Shelford, Cambridgeshire.


He was, so Fuller states, a nephew by marriage of Dr John Still, bishop of Bath and Wells. This is supported by Charles Camp, who traces the linage of the Winthrop family from 1498 forward 200 years. John Still's sister, Alice, was Adam Winthrop's (1548-1574) first wife. The marriage was short, she died three years later in child birth. William Alabaster's mother, Bridget, was Adam Winthrop's sister (his father was Roger Alabaster of Hadleigh in Suffolk). It might also be of interest that his uncle was John Cotta (John married another of Adam Winthrop's sisters)..

One book of an epic poem in Latin hexameters, in honour of Queen Elizabeth, is preserved in MS. in the library of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. This poem, Elisaeis, Apotheosis poetica, Spenser highly esteemed. "Who lives that can match that heroick song?" he says in Colin Clout's come home againe, and begs "Cynthia" to withdraw the poet from his obscurity.

In June 1596 Alabaster sailed with Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, on the expedition to Cadiz in the capacity of chaplain, and, while he was in Spain, he became a Roman Catholic. An account of his change of faith is given in an obscurely worded sonnet contained in an MS. copy of Divine Meditations, by Mr Alabaster (see J. P. Collier, Hist. of Eng. Dram. Poetry, ii.341). He defended his conversion in a pamphlet, Seven Motives, of which no copy is extant. The proof of its publication only remains in two tracts, A Booke of the Seuen Planets, or Seuen wandring motives of William Alablaster's wit, by John Racster (1598), and An Answer to William Alabaster, his Motives, by Roger Fenton (1599). From these it appears that Alabaster was imprisoned for his change of faith in the Tower of London during 1598 and 1599.

In 1607 he published at Antwerp Apparatus in Revelationem Jesu Christi, in which his study of the Kabbalah gave a mystical interpretation of Scripture. The book was placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum at Rome early in 1610. Alabaster says in the preface to his Ecce sponsus venit (1633), a treatise on the time of the second advent of Christ, that he went to Rome and was there imprisoned by the Inquisition, but succeeded in escaping to England and again embraced the Protestant faith.

Alabaster's other cabalistic writings are Commentarius de Bestia Apocalyptica (1621) and Spiraculum tubarum (1633), a mystical interpretation of the Pentateuch. These theological writings won the praise of Robert Herrick, who calls him "the triumph of the day" and the "one only glory of a million".


  • Roxana - (c. 1595) Latin drama
  • Elisaeis – Latin epic on Elizabeth I
  • Apparatus in Revelationem Jesu Christi (1607)
  • De bestia Apocalypsis (1621)
  • Ecce sponsus venit (1633)
  • Spiraculum Tubarum (1633)
  • Lexicon Pentaglotton, Hebraicum, Chaldaicum, Syriacum, Talmudico-Rabbinicon et Arabicum (1637)


  • The Sonnets of William Alabaster (1959) edited by G. M. Story and Helen Gardner
  • For an analysis of the Roxana see an article on the Latin university plays in the Jahrbuch der Deutschen Shakespeare Gesellschaft (Weimar, 1898).
  • Thomas Fuller, Worthies of England (ii. 343)
  • J. P. Collier, Bibl. and Crit. Account of the Rarest Books in the English Language (vol. i. 1865)
  • Dismembered Rhetoric: English Recusant Writing, 1580-1603 and ‘The physiology of penance in weeping texts of 1590s’, Cahiers Elisabethains 57 (2000), pp. 31 48, both by Ceri Sullivan, examine Alabaster's prose and poetry respectively.
  • Pierre Bayle, Dictionary, Historical and Critical (ed. London, 1734)
  • Also the Athenaeum (December 26, 1903), where Bertram Dobell describes a manuscript in his possession containing forty-three sonnets by Alabaster.

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