Nicholas Breton was an Elizabethan poet. His name was variously spelt “Breton”, “Britton” and “Brittaine”, but was pronounced “Britton”. His father, William Breton, was a rich merchant who lived in Red Cross Street, and it is assumed that his son Nicholas was born there. Red Cross Street was bombed flat in the war and is now buried along with its name under the Barbican estate. Nicholas was born around 1545, so he was still a minor when his father died in 1559. Elizabeth, his mother, then married the poet George Gascoigne. Gascoigne probably married her for her money. He was permanently in debt and had been disinherited by his father. When he stood for election as a member of Parliament at Midhurst in 1572, he was turned down on the grounds that he was “a defamed person and noted for manslaughter”. Marrying the wealthy widow of William Breton got him out of financial difficulties. He became stepfather of Nicholas and the other children. (Nicholas had a brother and two sisters.) Somebody must have been concerned at the prospect of Gascoigne dissipating the fortune, because a court action was begun before the Lord Mayor to protect the children’s rights in their father’s estate. It is not known how this turned out and whether there was any animosity between Gascoigne and his young stepson. But since Nicholas then turned his hand to poetry, it seems likely that he was inspired or at least helped by Gascoigne.
Nicholas Breton went to Oriel College Oxford, and he was living in Holborn at the time of his stepfather’s death in 1577. In 1583 he was known to be in Antwerp. That probably means that he was fighting in the wars against the Spanish. Spain under King Philip, a staunch Roman Catholic, fought interminable wars against the peoples of the Low Countries, who as Protestants were supported by Queen Elizabeth I. In 1592 Nicholas married Ann Sutton at the church of St Giles’ Without Cripplegate (the Barbican church). His birth and marriage are the extent of his known connection to the Barbican. The church registers record the births of several children: Nicholas in 1603, Edward in 1605, and Matilda in 1607. St Giles’ parish register also records the burials of two daughters, Mary in 1603 and Matilda in 1625. There is no contemporary record of Nicholas Breton’s death, but it is assumed to have occurred in 1626, because his last published work appeared in 1625.
We know nothing much about his life apart from these bare details. But he wrote some letters published as “A Poste with a Packet of Mad Letters” and one of the letters contains the following complaint, which is apparently regarded as autobiographical:
“Hath another been wounded in the warres, fared hard, lain in a cold bed many a bitter storme, and beene at many a hard banquet? all these have I; another imprisoned? so have I; another long been sicke? so have I; another plagued with an unquiet life? so have I; another indebted to his hearts griefe, and fame would pay and cannot? so am I.”
According to the City Corporation, Breton’s connection to the Barbican is that he was one of the “Grub Street hacks”. Grub Street was another local street which ran from Fore Street to Chiswell Street. The name came from grubbe, the Old English word for a refuse ditch, which ran alongside it. In 1830 it was renamed Milton Street (probably after a builder who owned the lease, rather than the poet). Most of it is now under the Barbican estate. Grub Street became a byword for bad writers. Dr Johnson explains why in his Dictionary. He says Grub Street was “originally the name of a street in Moorfields in London, much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems; whence any mean production is called grubstreet.” It seems that from the time of Nicholas Breton onwards a particularly despised breed of writer was drawn to its environs and “Grub Street” became synonymous with the work of the literary “hack” – someone who wrote for hire.
The growth of the middle classes in the 17th century produced a huge appetite for written material. There was soon a whole industry churning out books, newspapers, and pamphlets on everything under the sun. Particularly popular were criminals’ (supposed) dying speeches on the scaffold, and the fictionalized life stories of pirates and famous highwaymen. This was all anathema to serious writers. Pope wrote “the Dunciad” as an attack on Grub Street or what he called “the Dome of Dullness”. Swift penned attacks on “The Quartier Scriblerian”.
Nicholas Breton seems to fit into this description in the sense that he turned out a huge quantity of material on a wide variety of topics, although to be fair to him he probably came to be lumped into the Grub Street category in later memory because of the unfortunate accident of being born nearby. Breton wrote some prose, such as the letters just mentioned, but mainly wrote religious and pastoral poems. He produced a huge number of verse and prose works which were issued in rapid succession from 1577 to 1626. One of his early patrons was Mary, Countess of Pembroke. He dedicated several works to her. But whatever the nature of their relationship, the dedications stopped abruptly in 1601. His most popular verse works were “England’s Helicon” and “The Passionate Shepherd”. He also had an interest in writing satire, which he published under the pseudonym of Pasquil. He was popular with his contemporaries – Ben Jonson wrote a sonnet in his honour. But his reputation died in the next generation. With titles like “An Excellent Poeme, upon the Longing of a Blessed Heart which, loathing the world, doth long to be with Christ” you can perhaps understand why.