Edmund Spenser was born around 1552 in London, England. We know very little about his family, but he received a quality education and graduated with a Masters from Cambridge in 1576. He began writing poetry for publication at this time and was employed as a secretary, first to the Bishop of Kent and then to nobles in Queen Elizabeth's court. His first major work, The Shepheardes Calender, was published in 1579 and met with critical success; within a year he was at work on his greatest and longest work, The Faerie Queene. This poem occupied him for most of his life, though he published other poems in the interim.

The first three books of The Faerie Queen were published in 1590 and then republished with Books IV through VI in 1596. By this time, Spenser was already in his second marriage, which took place in Ireland, where he often traveled. Still at work on his voluminous poem, Spenser died on January 13, 1599, at Westminster.

Spenser only completed half of The Faerie Queene he planned. In a letter to Sir John Walter Raleigh, he explained the purpose and structure of the poem. It is an allegory, a story whose characters and events nearly all have a specific symbolic meaning. The poem's setting is a mythical "Faerie land," ruled by the Faerie Queene. Spenser sets forth in the letter that this "Queene" represents his own monarch, Queen Elizabeth.

Spenser intended to write 12 books of the Faerie Queene, all in the classical epic style; Spenser notes that his structure follows those of Homer and Virgil. Each Book concerns the story of a knight, representing a particular Christian virtue, as he or she would convey at the court of the Faerie Queene. Because only half of the poem was ever finished, the unifying scene at the Queene's court never occurs; instead, we are left with six books telling an incomplete story. Of these, the first and the third books are most often read and critically acclaimed.

Though it takes place in a mythical land, The Faerie Queen was intended to relate to Spenser's England, most importantly in the area of religion. Spenser lived in post-Reformation England, which had recently replaced Roman Catholicism with Protestantism (specifically, Anglicanism) as the national religion. There were still many Catholics living in England, and, thus, religious protest was a part of Spenser's life. A devout Protestant and a devotee of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth, Spenser was particularly offended by the anti-Elizabethan propaganda that some Catholics circulated. Like most Protestants near the time of the Reformation, Spenser saw a Catholic Church full of corruption, and he determined that it was not only the wrong religion but the anti-religion. This sentiment is an important backdrop for the battles of The Faerie Queene, which often represent the "battles" between London and Rome.

Read about a later Christian epic poem inspired by religious and political upheaval in England, John Milton’s Paradise Lost.