Beggars Bush: A Perambulation through the Disciplines of History, Geography, Archaeology, Literature, Philology, Natural History, Botany, Biography & Beggary

Robert Greene A Quip for an Upstart Courtier 1592

“These with Syrenlike allurement so entised these quaint squires, that they bestowed al their flowers vpon them for fauours, they themselues walking home by Beggar’s Bush for a penance.”


This is earliest mention of Beggar’s Bush recorded in the OED. It is characteristic of the literary usages. The phrase is clearly a literary one, involving the fall of the favoured through their own foolishness. Elsewhere in the same work Greene uses the term Weeping Cross in the same context, which was earlier used by William Bullein.


“A Quip for an Upstart Courtier” was published in July 1592, and even by Greene’s standards was very popular, going through six editions in that year. It contains a debate between “Cloth Breeches” and “Velvet Breeches” about the value of simple or sophisticated fashion. The phrase is used on the context of an allegorical dream, in which the author observes groups collecting herbs. Greene says the lawyers who thrust back the poor poets. He then describes part of the group:-

“ . . . that seemed homini di grand istima by their looks and their walks, gathered earnestly and did pocket it up as if they meant to keep it carefully, but as they were carrying it away there met them a troop of nice wantons, fair women that like to lamiae had faces like angels, eyes like stars, breasts like the golden front in Hesperides, but from their middle downwards their shapes like serpents. These with Syrenlike allurement so entised these quaint squires, that they bestowed al their flowers vpon them for fauours, they themselues walking home by Beggar’s Bush for a penance”.

Robert Greene

Robert Greene was a playwright & pamphleteer, (1558-1592). He was born in Norwich, the son of a cordwainer or innkeeper, but graduated from both Oxford and Cambridge, where, he wrote in his Repentence, “I lighted amongst wags as lewd as my selfe, with whom I consumed the flower of my youth”. After moving to London to write he joined the loose group of “University Wits”, with Christopher Marlow and Thomas Nashe, whose writing combined classical forms with popular theatre. He began as cultured writer, but seems to have become dissolute. He had a massive output of prose romances, plays, and pamphlets, including briefly for the government in the  Martin Marprelate controversy. He also appears as a footnote in literary history as the supposed author of “Greene’s Groates-Worth of Wit”, published posthumously, and probably written, byHenry Chettle. This contained passages which offended both Marlowe and Nashe and, depending on your view, an early reference to Shakespeare or proof that his plays were written by the Earl of Oxford.

He became a literary celebrity, using his own name in the titles of his works, and later described his publishing as “lacivious”. He became notorious and himself claimed to have sent his pregnant wife back to Lincolnshire to live alone. Even for an Elizabethan writer he was unusually well acquainted with the seamier side of life. In response to an attack on him by Greene, Gabriel Harvey wrote in 1592 wrote:

“Who in London hath not heard of his dissolute, and licentious living; his fonde disguising of a Master of Arte with ruffianly haire, unseemely apparrell, and more unseemelye Company … his fine coosening of Juglers, and finer juggling with cooseners, … [his] impudent pamphletting, phantasticall interluding, and desperate libelling.”

He died in September 1592, in debt and allegedly after another night of excess. In his last two years wrote a series of five pamphlets exposing rogues and “canting”. “A Notable Discovery of Cosenage” and the three parts of “Coney Catching” included descriptions of the principal methods of cheating. Greene purports to be motivated by repentance, though money must also have played a part. These were more hack-work than reportage; substantial parts were copied from other authors and even repeated within the series. They show every sign of being hastily produced – supposedly consecutive parts were issued by different publishers on the same day.

In one of these pamphlets The Blacke Bookes Messenger (1592) Greene gives a list of cant terms used by card sharps & coney-catchers, not beggars. He names “The Taverne where they goe; the Bush“.


(a convenient website for texts, not just for those who believe that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, wrote Nashe, Shakespeare, Greene and the Marprelate Tracts)

Further Reading

Old DNB & DNB Robert Greene

Posted: March 12th, 2011 | Filed under: Writers | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »

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