Thursday, 25 February 2016

25 February, 1592 - Harry of Cornwall

Here's what Lord Strange's Men performed at the Rose playhouse on this day, 424 years ago...

Henslowe writes: R at harey of cornwell the 25 of febreary 1591 ... xxxijs

In modern English: Received at Harry of Cornwall, 25th February 1592 ... 32 shillings.
(You may be wondering why Henslowe records the year as 1591, not 1592. It's because he's using the old style of dating in which the year begins on 25th March.)

The Assassination of Henry of Germany,
by Gustav Doré (1875)
Today's play, Harry of Cornwall, provided Henslowe with his most impressive box office so far: it made more than twice as much as Sir John Mandeville did yesterday. Unfortunately, it is another lost play that we can only reconstruct via guesswork.

The titular character was presumably Henry of Cornwall, better known as Henry of Almain or Henry of Germany (1235-1271). If so, this play would have been a tale of betrayal and revenge. Henry dithered over whether or not to support Simon de Montfort in his rebellion against King Henry III, and eventually abandoned him. De Montfort was subsequently defeated at the Battle of Evesham. Henry joined the Crusades. Later, he ended up in Italy, where he encountered de Montfort's sons, Guy and Simon, in the church of San Silvestro at Viterbo; there, they stabbed him, dragged him from the church and murdered him, while a bystander shouted "Remember Evesham!"  For this shocking crime in a holy place, Guy was excommunicated. After various escapades, he died in a Sicilian prison.

Sinners submerged
in boiling blood; detail
from an illustration
of Inferno XII
by Gustav Doré (1861)
Henry's murder may seem a footnote in history, but his death in a church was enough of a scandal for Dante to place Guy de Montfort in the seventh circle of the Inferno, where we find him sunk up to his throat in boiling blood. The Italians apparently believed that Henry's heart had been placed in a golden cup on London Bridge, where it still dripped blood into the Thames because Henry had not been avenged. So Virgil tells Dante,
There stands the one who, in God's keep, murdered
The heart still dripping blood above the Thames. (XII.119-20).

I wonder what the author of Harry of Cornwall did with this material. Was the tragic hero Henry, the indecisive murder victim? Or Guy, the hot-headed revenger? The latter does sound more like an Edward Alleyn role, so perhaps the play's protagonist was Guy, despite the title?


Harry of Cornwall information

  • Dante's Inferno: The Indiana Critical Edition, trans. Mark Musa (Indiana University Press, 1995)
  • Nicholas Vincent, ‘Henry of Almain (1235–1271)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2009) 
  • J.R. Maddicott, ‘Montfort, Guy de (1244-1291/2)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2009) 
  • Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, vol. 3 (Oxford University Press, 2013), entry 905.
  • Sally-Beth MacLean and Lawrence Manley, Lord Strange's Men and their Plays (Yale University Press, 2014), 135-8.

Henslowe links


Did I make a mistake? Do you have a question? Have you anything to add? Please post a comment below!

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