Sunday, 31 December 2017

31 December, 1593 - Richard the Confessor

Here's what the Earl of Sussex's Men performed at the Rose playhouse on this day, 424 years ago...

Henslowe writes: R at Richard the confeser the 31 of desembȝ 1593 ... xxxiijs 

In modern English: Received at Richard the Confessor, 31st December, 1593 ... 33 shillings

Today, Sussex's Men introduced another of their plays to the Rose audience: Richard the Confessor. This play is now lost, but recent scholarship has revealed that it probably retold the legend of Saint Richard of Chichester.

Early scholars of Henslowe's Diary, baffled by today's entry, assumed that it was simply an error for Edward the Confessor. But in 2014, Matthew Steggle investigated further and learned that 'Richard the Confessor' was one of the names given to Saint Richard of Chichester, a thirteenth-century churchman who became a legendary figure after his death. The word 'confessor' refers to a saint who suffered for his faith but wasn't actually martyred for it.

Wall painting of Richard of
Chichester (in St Mary the
Virgin Church, Black
Bourton, Oxfordshire)
Richard of Wyche was a holy man who was elected Bishop of Chichester. But due to a quarrel with the clergy, King Henry III would not accept Richard's election and refused him access to the lands and goods of the bishopric. Richard thus ended up penniless and homeless.

Instead of throwing in the towel, Richard continued to act as if he were the bishop, by travelling around the diocese and doing good works, despite his own poverty. Eventually, his tenacity paid off, and the King allowed him to be bishop. But Richard's experience of hardship meant that for the rest of his life he continued to be exceptionally generous to the poor and needy, and he became a legendary figure in Sussex.

Bell tower of Chichester Cathedral
After Richard's death, miracles and acts of radical piety were attributed to him, some of which might have made for interesting episodes in a play. For example, Richard is said to have helped a pregnant woman escape from prison to avoid a death sentence: when the officials complained that the king would fine them for letting her get away, Richard asked "What is one hundred shillings against the saving of a prisoner's life? Blessed be God, for it was He who freed her!"

Plays about saints were rare in Protestant England, but not unheard of. It's hard to know exactly what the anonymous author did with this material, but Steggle draws connections with a couple of other plays that we've already seen on this blog, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay and George a Greene. He proposes that they belong to a subgenre that he calls the 'regional medieval': plays set in a nostalgic medieval era and rooted in very specific regions (Suffolk in Friar Bacon, Wakefield in George a Greene). If so, Richard the Confessor, set in Chichester, would have been a 'Sussex play', which is interesting given that it was performed by the Earl of Sussex's Men.

Richard the Confessor received only 33 shillings. This is an average amount for the Rose, but nowhere near as high as the very popular performances that we've seen in the last few days. Perhaps the excitement of the theatre's re-opening was beginning to wane.


Richard the Confessor information

  • C. H. Lawrence, "Wyche, Richard of [St Richard of Chichester] (d. 1253)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004) 
  • Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, vol. 3 (Oxford University Press, 2013), entry 917.
  • Matthew Steggle, Digital Humanities and the Lost Drama of Early Modern England (Ashgate, 2015). 43-60.
  • Matthew Steggle, "Richard the Confessor", Lost Plays Database (2016). 

Henslowe links


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

Friday, 29 December 2017

29 December, 1593 - Buckingham

Here's what the Earl of Sussex's Men performed at the Rose playhouse on this day, 424 years ago...

Henslowe writes: R at buckingham the 30 of desembȝ 1593 ... ljs 

In modern English: Received at Buckingham, 29th December, 1593 ... 51 shillings

Today, Sussex's Men performed a play called Buckingham to a large crowd. This play is now lost, but it was presumably about one of the various Dukes of Buckingham who were significant in English history.

But which Duke of Buckingham? It's hard to say, because each of the first three men to carry that title was important enough to appear in a history play by Shakespeare. Let's look at them in turn, and try to imagine whose story would have been the most interesting...

If the play was about the 1st Duke

The 1st Duke of Buckingham was Humphrey Stafford (1402-60), who lived during the reign of King Henry VI. One of the greatest landowners in England, he supported Henry during the Wars of the Roses and died at the battle of Northampton. Despite this, the 1st Duke's life does not suggest any interesting quirks or much dramatic potential: according to the Dictionary of National Biography, he had "a long career of public service, during which real greatness and the mantle of the elder statesman had alike consistently eluded him".

Leon Shepperdson (right) as the 1st Duke of
Buckingham in the 1960 BBC series
An Age of Kingsbased on Shakespeare's
history plays
Nevertheless, the 1st Duke does appear a few times in Shakespeare's Second Part of Henry VI (c.1591), in which he is one of the lords who accuses the Duchess of Gloucester of witchcraft, and later helps with breaking up the peasant revolt led by Jack Cade. It's hard to imagine an entire play about him, though; there's not much of a dramatic arc.

If the play was  about the 2nd Duke

The 2nd Duke of Buckingham was Humphrey's grandson, Henry Stafford (1455-83). One of the wealthiest peers in England, he supported Richard III during his rise to power, and may (or may not) have been responsible for the murder of the Princes in the Tower. For reasons that are unclear, he later defected and allied with Henry Tudor, who was preparing to take the crown. Buckingham travelled the Welsh Marches to raise troops for an anti-Richard rebellion, but he was not an inspiring commander and the mission was a failure. Betrayed by one of his servants, he was captured and brought to Richard's camp, where he was executed without trial. The DNB sums him up as "a headstrong young man with few political gifts".

Ralph Richardson as the 2nd Duke of
Buckingham in Sir Laurence Olivier's
1955 film of Richard III
Shakespeare transformed the 2nd Duke's rather messy life story into a memorable character in Richard III (c.1593), in which Buckingham is Richard's master of propaganda and plays a central role in making him king, but then becomes uneasy when Richard orders the deaths of the Princes in the Tower. Unrewarded by the increasingly paranoid tyrant, Buckingham tries to defect, but he is caught and executed. He dies recognizing his errors: "Wrong hath but wrong, and blame the due of blame". Afterward, his ghost haunts Richard and declares support for Henry Tudor.

Shakespeare clearly recognized that the historical Buckingham's story had the potential for a tragic arc within the larger tragedy of King Richard. Could the anonymous author of Buckingham have expanded this idea into a full-blown tragedy of the fall of the 2nd Duke?

If the play was  about the 3rd Duke

The 3rd Duke of Buckingham was Edward Stafford (1478-1521), son of the 2nd Duke, and a glamorous courtier during the reign of King Henry VIII. He supported the king, but disliked the power held by Cardinal Wolsey. Despite a fairly innocuous life, Buckingham was arrested in 1521 and tried for treason: he was accused of listening to prophecies that claimed he would become king, and of plotting a revolution. The author of the DNB article on Buckingham thinks these accusations were overblown, and that "Buckingham's treason consisted of ill-judged remarks about present politics, speculation about the future, and ... a dramatic bout of the bad temper to which he was prone." Nonetheless, he was found guilty and executed.

Anthony Howell as the 3rd
Duke of Buckingham in the
at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre
The 3rd Duke appears in Shakespeare's Henry VIII (1613), which depicts him being tried for treason as a result of his opposition to the rise of Cardinal Wolsey. Buckingham utters a long and noble speech before being executed at the beginning of Act 2. His death is only a small part of Shakespeare's play, but it is easy to imagine how a playwright could tell the story of Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey via a tragedy of the fall of the Duke of Buckingham. 


We will never know which Duke of Buckingham was the hero of this play, but we can be sure that it was a tragic tale, since each of them died an unfortunate death. And whichever of the Buckinghams appeared on the Rose stage, he drew an impressive crowd: the 51 shillings in box office takings may not be as impressive as the three previous performances, but it was still a very good amount for the Rose. The people of London were still excited about the plays offered by Sussex's Men and were enjoying the Christmas season.

What's next?

There will be no entry tomorrow, because 30 December was a Sunday in 1593 and the players did not perform. Henslowe's Diary ... as a Blog! will thus return on the 31st with several more new plays to learn about.


Buckingham information

  • Carole Rawcliffe, "Stafford, Humphrey, first duke of Buckingham (1402–1460)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004)
  • C. S. L. Davies, "Stafford, Henry, second duke of Buckingham (1455–1483)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004) 
  • C. S. L. Davies, ‘Stafford, Edward, third duke of Buckingham (1478–1521)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004)
  • Roslyn L. Knutson, "Buckingham", Lost Plays Database (2012). 
  • Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, vol. 3 (Oxford University Press, 2013), entry 931.

Henslowe links


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

Thursday, 28 December 2017

28 December, 1593 - George a Greene

Here's what the Earl of Sussex's Men performed at the Rose playhouse on this day, 424 years ago...

Henslowe writes: R at gorge a gren the 29 of desembȝ 1593 ... iijll xs

In modern English: Received at George a Greene, 28th December ... £3 and 10 shillings

Today, Sussex's Men continued their run of success, performing yet another play to a packed theatre! This time it was George a Greene, the Pinner of Wakefield George a Greene was a plebeian Northern hero from popular folklore, famed for his quick wit and his talent for winning fights. The play itself is a silly but entertaining piece of English patriotism, in which George repels a Scottish invasion. A couple of years after these performances, the text of George a Greene was published, making it one of the few plays of Sussex's Men that we can actually read.

Who wrote this play?

The Folger copy of George a Greene,
with Buc's note on its authorship
Before we dig into the plot of George a Greene, it's worth looking at an intriguing puzzle over who wrote it. The play was popular enough for several editions of it to be published during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One copy, now in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, has a note on it in the handwriting of Sir George Buc, Master of the Revels, who was in charge of censoring plays and arranging entertainments for the Queen. The note reads:

Written by .......... a minister, who ac[ted] the pinner's part in it himself. Test[ified by] W. Shakespeare.
Ed. Juby sayeth that this play was made by Ro. Gree[ne]. 

From the note, it seems that Buc asked two people who wrote George a Greene: William Shakespeare and the actor Edward Juby. Shakespeare said it was a churchman who played George a Greene himself, but apparently couldn't remember his name, so Buc left a blank. But then Juby said it was Robert Greene, a well-known playwright whom we've met several times already in the course of this blog, as he wrote some of the plays performed by Lord Strange's Men: Orlando FuriosoA Looking-Glass for London and England and possibly Friar Bacon.

This note is of great interest to scholars of the enigmatic Shakespeare, as it's a rare early reference to a conversation with him. Still, the bard's recollection of a performing cleric-playwright seems rather odd, so George a Greene is more often regarded today as a play by Robert Greene, even though it's not much like his other work. We'll probably never know who really wrote it, but it's an intriguing little mystery.

Of pinners and Wakefield

A medieval pinfold in Capenhurst, Cheshire
So, George a Greene is a pinner, but what does that mean? A pinner (or, sometimes, a pinder) is someone employed to round up stray livestock such as sheep and cows, and pen them in a pound (in northern England, these pounds were often called 'pinfolds', and some of them still stand to this day).  The pinner would then make money by charging the owners for their release or selling unclaimed animals at market. Pinning may not seem like much of a livelihood, but in the town of Wakefield, a centre of the English wool trade, the town pinner was likely kept busy chasing after stray sheep.

However, the work of the pinner is not actually important to the plot of this play. What is important is that George-a-Greene is a pinner of Wakefield because Wakefield is in northern England, and in this play that means it's on the frontline of a Scottish invasion. King James of Scotland is at loggerheads with King Edward of England. Which James and which Edward? Technically, it must be James II and Edward IV but to be quite honest, historical accuracy is the last thing on this author's mind.

The play

Wakefield's medieval bridge and Chantry Chapel
George a Greene begins with the Earl of Kendal joining with King James of Scotland in his planned invasion, and trying to raise an army in northern England. His treasonous plans do not impress the patriotic people of Wakefield. George a Greene, the eponymous pinner, is the leader of the popular resistance, telling his fellows, "We are English born, and therefore [King] Edward's friends, / Vowed unto him even in our mother's wombs". Through trickery, George captures Kendal and hands him over to the authorities. Meanwhile, King James's invasion collapses when a siege is broken by an elderly war veteran and his son, who takes James prisoner and bring him before King Edward.

George's contribution to the defeat of the invasion sums up his essential characteristics: he's smart, he's tough, and although he's a poor man and a commoner, he's a patriot and he loves his king. But being a commoner causes problems for George, because his girlfriend, Bettris, has a domineering father named Grime who wants her to marry someone of higher status than a mere pinner, and locks her up in his house. George, using his brains again, sends his boy, Willy, disguised as a woman, to rescue Bettris from her father's house where she is kept. Bettris escapes by swapping clothes with Willy, but she still won't marry George without her father's permission, and what's worse, Willy is now trapped in the house, in women's clothing, and Grime has fallen in love with him! The life of a pinner is clearly more complicated than you might expect.

Robin Hood, from a 16th century edition of the
ballad A Jest of Robin Hood
Being a folk hero isn't easy either. Down in Sherwood Forest, Maid Marian is jealous of George a Greene, feeling that his reputation now outshines that of her own Robin Hood. She nags Robin into proving his superiority over his northern counterpart, so Robin, Will Scarlett and Much the Miller's Son trek up to Wakefield and fight George with staves. This fight must have been quite spectacular on the stage:

George. Sirrah, darest thou try me?
Will Scarlet. Aye, sirrah, that I dare!
   They fight, and George a Greene beats him.
Much the Miller's Son. How now! What, art thou down? Come sir, I am next!
   They fight, and George a Greene beats him.
Robin Hood. Come sirrah, now to me: spare me not,
For I'll not spare thee.
George. Make no doubt I will be as liberal to thee.
   They fight; Robin Hood stays.
Robin Hood. Stay, George, for here I do protest,
Thou art the stoutest champion that ever I laid hands upon!
George beats Much and Will Scarlett, but his fight with Robin ends in a draw. Having gained respect for one another, the two heroes feast together instead.

Fighting with staves, from a German fighting
manual published by Christian Egenolff
But this isn't the only fight that George gets into. In Bradford, a shoemaker enforces a custom known as "vail staff" (vail is an archaic word meaning the lowering of a weapon), according to which men must not carry their staves on their shoulders but rather trail them on the ground, or else they must fight the shoemakers. The two kings, James and Edward, come through the town, disguised as commoners, and they oblige when a shoemaker warns them to vail their staffs. But George and Robin Hood are passing through at the same time and scoff at Edward and James for being so docile. Seeing this derision, the local shoemakers attack them, but George beats them all up and then demands that they serve drinks to welcome Robin Hood, resulting in the delightful stage direction "They bring out the stands of ale and fall a-drinking". The kings then reveal their identities.

King Edward IV
At the end of the play, all these threads are tidied up. At George's request, King Edward orders Grime to let George marry Bettris; Grime agrees as long as he can marry the "lovely lass" he found in his house. With this agreed, Willy throws off his disguise, to Grime's anger. King Edward then offers George a knighthood, but he refuses it, insisting that a man's deeds are more important than his social status:

Then let me live and die a yeoman still:
So was my father, so must live his son,
For 'tis more credit to men of base degree,
To do great deeds, than men of dignity.
Instead, George requests that King James' release be contingent on him paying reparations to the war's victims. In the play's last lines, King Edward proposes to have supper with George and concludes,
And for the ancient custom of "vail staff", keep it still,
Claim privilege from me;
If any ask a reason why or how,
Say "English Edward vailed his staff to you".
As you can see, this is a silly and episodic play, but it has some amusing moments. Readable texts of it are hard to come by, but see if you can track down a copy of J. Churton Collins' 1910 edition of the plays of Robert Greene.

What we learn from this

George-a-Greene contains many of the qualities that we've come to expect from popular plays at the Rose: violence and patriotism. However, the heroes of the plays we've seen previously tended to be chivalric knights. In contrast, the hero of this play is a working class man of the people. What's more, it's full of imagery associated with the activities of common people during festivals and holidays, including feasting and stave-fighting competitions. Lots of other plays of this period tap into this imagery (Thomas Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday is perhaps the best and most famous), but this is our first encounter with this popular subgenre in our journey through the Rose repertory, and it may suggest that the repertory of Sussex's Men included different kinds of hero than those of Lord Strange's.

Further reading

George-a-Greene information

  • Alan Nelson. "George Buc, William Shakespeare, and the Folger George a Greene", Shakespeare Quarterly 49 (1998): 74-83.
  • Erika Lin, "Popular Festivity and the Early Modern Stage: The Case of George a Greene", Theatre Journal 61 (2009): 271-97
  • Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, vol. 3 (Oxford University Press, 2013), entry 893.

Henslowe links


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

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

27 December, 1593 - Huon of Bordeaux

Here's what the Earl of Sussex's Men performed at the Rose playhouse on this day, 424 years ago...

Henslowe writes: R at hewen of burdoche the 28 of desembȝ 1593 ... iijll xs

In modern English: Received at Huon of Bordeaux, 27th December 1593 ...  £3 and 10 shillings

Today, for their second performance after they were installed at the Rose playhouse, Sussex's Men performed a play called Huon of Bordeaux to a packed theatre. This play, like so much of their repertory, is lost. But we do know that Huon of Bordeaux is a legendary figure from medieval French folklore and was best known to the English via a translation by Sir John Berners of a 13th century French epic.

The legend of Huon

In the old French tales, Huon is a knight who accidentally kills the son of Charlemagne. Charlemagne offers Huon the chance to escape the death penalty if he can complete an impossible task: he must travel to the court of the Admiral of Babylon, kiss his daughter, and bring back some of his hair and teeth. Fortunately, on the way to Babylon, Huon meets Oberon, King of the Fairies, who helps him to achieve his task as long as he promises never to lie. Huon succeeds in his quest, and successfully presents Charlemagne with the beard and teeth of the Admiral. In France, Oberon rescues Huon from other troubles, and eventually names him his successor as King of the Fairies.

Costume design by Inigo Jones
for the character of Oberon
in a 1610 masque
The story of Huon contains all the things that seem to have been popular with the Rose audience: magic, fighting, and adventures in the Middle East. And it may have been this play that inspired William Shakespeare to create his own version of Oberon a few years later, in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

For this reason, it's interesting to see how Lord Berners' translation renders the first encounter between Huon and Oberon. Huon learns that if he takes a shortcut through a wood, he will encounter "a King of the Faerie named Oberon; he is of height but of three foot and crooked-shouldered, but yet he hath an angelic visage" and hates to be ignored. Huon rides into the wood with his men but Oberon "set his horn to his mouth and blew so melodious a blast that the fourteen companions, being under the tree, had so perfect a joy at their hearts that they all rose up and began to sing and dance." When the men try to escape without talking to this demonic creature, Oberon summons a tempest and a vision of a terrifying river. He insists that Huon won't complete his mission without his help: "Speak to me, and I shall do thee that courtesy that I shall cause thee to achieve thine enterprise, the which is impossible without me" (63-71). It's easy to imagine how this sequence could have been adapted into exciting theatre.

18th century French Huon text
Probably something like the scene above appeared in the play, but it's hard to guess what the rest of it was like because Berners' Huon of Bordeaux is an insanely long work, stuffed with incidents about the adventures of Huon, his companions, and even their descendants. To give just a vague sample of them, here are some of the running titles from Sir Sidney Lee's edition of the Berners translation: "How the Pope receives Huon at Rome", "How Huon is besieged in MacAire's castle", "How Huon dons the giant's armour", "Of the capture of Huon by the Paynims", "How the Giant Agrapart comes to Babyon", "How Huon is shipwrecked", "How the Frenchmen take the city of Anfalern",  and "Of the marriage of Huon and Esclaramonde". That's only a small sample from the first part of the book, which is then followed by an even longer "Continuation".  There is material for numerous plays within this behemoth, and it's hard to know how much or how little of it the playwright might have used.

Regardless of whether the play itself was long or short, it brought in an even bigger crowd than yesterday's performance did: the 70 shillings it received is one of the biggest hauls ever recorded at the Rose and suggests that London was still thrilled to have the theatre return to the city.


Huon of Bordeaux information

  • Sir John Bourchier, Lord Berners, The Boke of Duke Huon of Burdeux (1534), ed. S.L. Lee (Early English Text Society, 1882).
  • Harold F. Brooks, ed. A Midsummer Night's Dream (Methuen, 1979), pp. lix, 145-6
  • Roslyn L. Knutson, "Huon of Bordeaux", Lost Plays Database (2012). 
  • Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, vol. 3 (Oxford University Press, 2013), entry 921.

Henslowe links


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

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

26 December, 1593 - God Speed the Plough

Here's what the Earl of Sussex's Men performed at the Rose playhouse on this day, 424 years ago...

Henslowe writes: In the name of god Amen begninge the 27 of Decembȝ 1593 the earle of susex his men 
R at good spede the plowghe ... iijll js

In modern English: In the name of God, Amen, beginning 26th December, 1593, the Earl of Sussex's Men
Received at God Speed the Plough ... £3 and 1 shilling

On this day, 424 years ago, it was an exciting time for the theatregoers of London! Finally, after nearly a year, the playhouses were re-opening. They had been closed to prevent the spread of plague during a terrible outbreak that lasted throughout most of 1593. Now, with the plague apparently overcome, theatre could return to the city again, and so the people of London flocked to the Rose and we can turn back to Henslowe's Diary to learn what they saw. (Incidentally, Henslowe begins this new set of accounts by getting the date wrong, which is one of his habits, but he'll get back on track a few days from now.)

As I explained yesterday, there have been some changes at the Rose, for it is now inhabited by a new company of players, the Earl of Sussex's Men, who will be performing their own distinctive repertory. We can therefore expect to encounter some unfamiliar plays as the Diary proceeds.

Today's play

Sussex's Men chose to begin their new enterprise with a play previously unknown to the Rose: God Speed the Plough. This play is unfortunately lost, so we know nothing about its content or why the company decided to begin their new season with it. The title is a proverbial phrase that essentially means "good luck with what you're doing", and so the play could be about almost anything.

However, if God Speed the Plough was literally about ploughing, it might have been some kind of pastoral comedy. In her entry on the play for the Lost Plays Database, Roslyn L. Knutson points out that there is a contemporary ballad of that title (called in full, "God Speed the Plough, and Bless the Corn-Mow: A Dialogue between the Husbandman and Serving-man"). This song is about a city servant and a husbandman (that is, a farmer) comparing their lifestyles; the husbandman insists that the life of the country is better. For example,

'Tis pleasure you know to see the corn to grow,
      And to grow so well on the land,
The ploughing and the sowing, the reaping and the mowing,
     Yields pleasure to the husbandman.

Perhaps, then, this play was a celebration of rural life. But that's only a guess. What we do know from the box office record is that God Speed the Plough filled the Rose playhouse, which was presumably packed with excited Londoners, grateful to see anything at all after nearly a year without any plays. The fact that the Rose re-opened during the Christmas holidays no doubt added to that effect.

Further reading

God Speed the Plough information

Henslowe links


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

Monday, 25 December 2017

25 December, 1593 - a new era at the Rose playhouse

Welcome back, and a very merry Christmas to all readers!

This blog is reawakening tomorrow, following an intermittent hiatus of nearly a year, in order to bring you a new set of entries from Henslowe's Diary. The plague that decimated London and forced the actors to take their plays on tour around England is now over. Tomorrow, the Rose playhouse will re-open to host plays once again, and Philip Henslowe will record their takings in his diary!

But things will be different. So far, we have been learning about the plays performed by Lord Strange's Men, a company that has occupied the Rose since February 1592. But the plague and the lengthy enforced tour has decimated London's playing companies, and Lord Strange's Men have broken up. Instead, a new company, the Earl of Sussex's Men, will be on the Rose stage performing their own collection of plays. This means that over the next few weeks we'll get to know ten plays that appear to have been Sussex's Men's stock repertory. Later on, a couple of familiar plays will show up - but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Despite the change of faces, there may be some continuity. One theory about the fragmentary historical evidence holds that Edward Alleyn, the popular star of Lord Strange's Men, may have become a member of Sussex's Men, and may thus be appearing on the stage tomorrow (or may join the company a couple of weeks later). The reasons are complicated (and are fully explained here), but if this theory is correct, the personnel at the Rose may not have been quite so different as Henslowe's records suggest.

Anyway, for the next few months, on and off, this blog will describe Henslowe's records of the daily performances by Sussex's Men at the Rose. For the last few days, the actors have no doubt been running their lines and Henslowe's team have been freshening up the Rose after its long closure. But today, I want to believe that everyone took the day off for the traditional Elizabethan Christmas feast.

Tune in tomorrow for the first performance!


Further reading

  • Scott McMillin, "Sussex's Men in 1594: The Evidence of Titus Andronicus and The Jew of Malta", in Theatre Survey 32.2 (1991): 214-23
  • Ronald Hutton, The Rise and Fall of Merry England (Oxford University Press, 1994), 6-7
  • Lawrence Manley and Sally-Beth MacLean, Lord Strange's Men and their Plays (Yale University Press, 2014), 322-5

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

5 December, 1593 - a visit to Caludon Castle

Welcome back! This blog is briefly reawakening before a more extended revival at the end of the month. As I'm sure you remember, our heroes, Lord Strange's Men, are currently enduring a long tour of England while London's theatres are closed. For most of their journey, we have had only a vague understanding of their itinerary, but we have now reached a rare moment at which we know exactly where they were on one specific day.

On this day, 424 years ago, Lord Strange's Men performed a play at Caludon Castle, near the city of Coventry in the Midlands. An item in Caludon's household account books for 5 December, 1593, reads "Item geven in rewarde to the Erle of Derbies players x s", that is, a 10 shilling payment. The company was now calling itself 'the Earl of Derby's Men', because their patron, Lord Strange, had acquired his father's title following the latter's recent death.

Caludon Castle was the home of Henry, Lord Berkeley. Berkeley enjoyed plays, so a visit to Caludon was common among touring companies. The 'castle' was actually more like a manor house; you can see a reconstruction of it here. Today, it survives as one ruined wall in a park in a suburb of Coventry.

What's next?

This is the last we'll see of Lord Strange's Men: at some point around the date of this performance, the company seems to have broken up, its various members dispersing to other companies. When we return on 26 December, we'll be back to Henslowe's Diary and its list of performances, but this time a different company will occupy the Rose playhouse, and will perform plays that we haven't encountered yet. See you then!

Further information

  • Peter H. Greenfield, "Entertainments of Henry, Lord Berkeley, 1593-4 and 1600-5", in REED Newsletter 8.1 (1983), 12-24.
  • Sally-Beth MacLean and Lawrence Manley, Lord Strange's Men and their Plays (Yale University Press, 2014), 278.


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

Thursday, 28 September 2017

28 September, 1593 - a letter from Henslowe to Alleyn

Welcome back! Once again this blog is briefly returning to life. That's because on this day, 424 years ago, Philip Henslowe wrote another letter to his son-in-law, the actor Edward Alleyn, who was still touring England with his company while London was gripped by plague.

London hit by plague, from John Taylor's The
Fearful Summer (1636)
In this letter, Henslowe passes on commendations from Alleyn's wife, mother and sister. But he chastises Alleyn for not writing enough. He also tells him that things are very bad in London: "all my neighbors dead of the plague, and not my house free, for my two wenches have had the plague, and yet thanks be to God liveth and are well".

Turning from mass death to the mundane, Henslowe now follows up on matters discussed in recent letters, He recounts that "we have had a very bad market at Smithfield"; he has still been unable to sell Alleyn's horse but he has managed to sell "all your cloak-cloth". Furthermore - just in case any regular readers have been worrying about it - you'll be glad to learn that Alleyn's stockings are dyed and his spinach-bed sown.

As for Alleyn himself, it is hard to know how well things are going on the tour. Alleyn has apparently been enquiring about one of his fellow playing companies, Lord Pembroke's Men, because Henslowe informs him that they have come home to London, apparently having found touring to be financially unsustainable. Perhaps Alleyn and Lord Strange's Men were struggling too after months on the road?

At the end of the letter, Henslowe turns optimistic, saying the plague is beginning to ease, although it still sounds terrifying: "this last two weeks of the sickness, 435 hath died; in all, betwixt eleven and twelve-hundred this last week, which I hope in the lord it will continue in ceasing every week, that we may rejoice again at our meeting." He closes with a P.S. from Joan, inquiring about rent prices as she can still "get no rent" from their tenants.

What's next?

This is the last of the series of letters between Henslowe and Alleyn that are preserved in the papers at Dulwich College.  We'll next hear from Alleyn on December 5, when he and his company will perform at a stately home near Coventry. See you then!

Further reading


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

Monday, 14 August 2017

14 August, 1593 - a letter from Henslowe to Alleyn

Welcome back once again! For the last two weeks, we have been looking at a series of letters exchanged between Edward Alleyn and Philip Henslowe. Today, we are looking at a third letter, written on this day 424 years ago. As you no doubt remember, Henslowe is writing from plague-ridden London to Alleyn, who is touring plays in southwestern England with Lord Strange's Men.

The city of Bath, from a 1610 map by John Speed
Henslowe begins by informing Alleyn that "we heard you were very sick at Bath, and that one of your fellows were fain to play your part for you". You might think this news would have worried Alleyn's wife, Joan, but in fact she was relieved: Henslowe explains, "we had no letter from you when the other wives had letters", and this had made Joan "not to weep a little but took it very greviously, thinking you had conceived some unkindness of her". Henslowe implores Alleyn to write more often in future.

Joan's anxiety was no doubt the result of living amid a near-apocalyptic plague while her husband was far away. Henslowe relates that Joan "prayeth day and night to the lord to cease his hand from punishing us with his cross" and hopes that her husband will soon be "eased of this heavy labour and toil". He then thanks Alleyn for the advice he gave a while back on keeping the house clean to prevent plague, and adds that "we strew it with hearty prayers unto the Lord".

But Henslowe also records more mundane matters. He refers back to an earlier letter of Alleyn's (now lost) "wherein makes mention of your white waistcoat and your lute-box". He refers to yet another letter, brought by one Peter, who had also brought Alleyn's horse for Henslowe to look after. And he reports that while Alleyn's bean-patch is thriving, his tenants "wax very poor" and cannot pay the rent.

Henslowe also reports on the renovations to Alleyn's home. The joiner insists "he will make you such good stuff and such good penniworths as he hopeth shall well like you and content you", and that he will "prove himself an honest man". These words sound deeply suspicious to me, but perhaps I'm jaded by bad reno experiences...

At the end of the letter, Henslowe gives his regards to the rest of Lord Strange's Men while alluding to his financial worries in these uncertain times: "commend me heartily to all the rest of your fellows in general, for I grow poor for lack of them; therefore have no gifts to send but as good and faithful a heart as they shall desire to have come amongst them".

He concludes with a plague update: 1,700-1,800 people have died this week alone.

What's next?

The next letter in this sequence is dated 28 September, so that's when Henslowe's Diary ... as a Blog! will return. See you then!

Further reading

Monday, 7 August 2017

Early August, 1593 - a letter from Henslowe to Alleyn

Welcome back again! Last week, we looked at a letter from Bristol, written by Edward Alleyn to Philip Henslowe. Today, we are reading Henslowe's reply, which is undated but appears to have been written around this date, 424 years ago. If you recall, Henslowe is writing from plague-stricken London to Alleyn, who is touring plays in southwestern England with Lord Strange's Men. Henslowe's letter is co-signed by Alleyn's wife Joan.

After passing on greetings to Alleyn from his family, Henslowe provides mixed news about the plague: "we are all at this time in good health in our house, but round about it hath been almost in every house about us and whole households died, and yet my friend the bailiff doth 'scape but he smells monstrously for fear and dares stay nowhere, for there hath died of the of the plague 113".

Henslowe adds a detail that Alleyn would have found very disturbing: "Robert Browne's wife in Shoreditch and all her children and household be dead and her doors shut up". Browne was an actor in another playing company and was currently touring in Germany. His fate was no doubt what Alleyn feared the most: that of returning home from his travels to find his entire family dead.

Smithfield Market, from the Agas Map (1561)
After passing on this worrying news, Henslowe moves on to more mundane matters. The renovations to Alleyn's house are proceeding well. Following up on Alleyn's requests in the previous letter, Henslowe assures him that all is under control: "your spinach bed not forgotten, your orange-coloured stockings dyed". He does, however, report that there is "no market at Smithfield neither to buy your cloth nor yet to sell your horse, for no man would offer me above £4 for him, therefore I would not sell him but have sent him into the country till you return back again".

Henslowe signs off "praying to God to send you all good health", and hoping that "we may all merrily meet". Perhaps feeling guilty about the doom and gloom he's been reporting, he ends on a positive note: "your poor mouse", he writes, using Alleyn's pet name for Joan, "hath not been sick since you went".

What's next?

A second letter from Henslowe will be described on August 14.

Further reading


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

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

1 August, 1593 - a letter from Alleyn in Bristol

Welcome back! After yet another lengthy hiatus, this blog is now reawakening a little more enthusiastically for the next couple of weeks. That's because a series of letters survives that were exchanged in the first half of August 1593 between Edward Alleyn, the leading actor of Lord Strange's Men, his wife Joan, and Philip Henslowe, owner of the Rose playhouse. As you may recall, Henslowe and Joan were still living in plague-stricken London, while Lord Strange's Men were engaged in a long enforced tour of England because London's theatres were closed.

So, on this day, 424 years ago, Alleyn wrote to Joan from Bristol, a large port city in southwestern England.The letter was carried to London by a relative of one of the actors in the company, and along with it, Alleyn sent his white waistcoat, explaining, "it is a trouble to me to carry it", and asking Joan to "lay it up for me till I come". As in his previous letter to her, Alleyn calls Joan his "good sweet mouse".


Fears of the plague

When writing to Joan back in May, shortly after the tour had begun, Alleyn had made light of his absence, but this time he expresses directly his fears about the plague that was gripping London. He tells Joan he hopes that although "the sickness be round about you yet by [God's] mercy it may escape your house". He advises her to "keep your house fair and clean, which I know you will and every evening throw water before your door and in your backside [I assume he means back yard...] and have in your windows good store of rue and herb of grace"; he feels that this, along with praying, will protect her. As Carol Chillington Rutter observes, these preventative methods may seem unconvincing today, but Alleyn is at least recommending cleanliness, which was the best solution available in an age when the causes of the plague were unknown.


Alleyn gives us a glimpse of the company's future touring plans when he tells Joan "if you send any more letters, send to me by the carriers of Shrewsbury or to Westchester [an old name for Chester] or to York, to be kept till my Lord Strange's Players come". It looks as though they were planning a great sweep through the North of England, but although there is indeed a record of them reaching Shrewsbury, we do not know if they continued with their plan.

Alleyn signs off by saying that he is in "Bristol, this Wednesday after St James's Day, being ready to begin the play of Harry of Cornwall". In their book on Lord Strange's Men, Lawrence Manley and Sally-Beth Maclean observe that St James's Day was 25 July and that Bristol held an annual 9-day St James's Fair around that date; the company was presumably there in the hopes of large audiences. Since Bristol is in the west country, perhaps Harry of Cornwall was chosen for its local colour?

Homesickness and thoughts of return

Alleyn then adds a rather sad postscript, which suggests intense homesickness (understandable after months of touring): "Mouse, you send me no news of anything. You should send of your domestical matters: such things as happens at home, as how your distilled water proves, or this or that, or anything. What you will."

But Alleyn hasn't finished. Running out of space, he writes in the left-hand margin,
And Jug, I pray you, let my orange-tawny stockings of woolen be dyed a very good black against I come home to wear in the winter. You sent me not word of my garden, but next time you will, but remember this in any case: that all that bed which was parsley in the month of September you sow it with spinach, for then is the time. I would do it myself, but we shall not come home till Allhallowtide. And so, sweet mouse, farewell, and brook our long journey with patience.
Allhallowtide was the 3-day holiday period that began on October 31 (now Hallowe'en). Alleyn was thus expecting to remain on the road at least another two months.

Špenát / spinach

What's next?

A follow-up letter from Henslowe will be described in a post to appear next week.

Further reading

  • Facsimile of the letter, from the Henslowe-Alleyn Digitisation Project. (Unless I'm missing something, they're in error when they date it 24th July).
  • Carol Chillington Rutter, Documents of the Rose Playhouse (Manchester University Press, 1984), 73-5.
  • Lawrence Manley and Sally-Beth MacLean, Lord Strange's Men and their Plays (Yale University Press, 2014)

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

5 July - a letter from Henslowe to Alleyn

Welcome back! After two months of silence, this blog is briefly re-awakening to update you on the progress of Lord Strange's Men. As I'm sure you remember, the company of actors is currently enduring a long tour of England while London's theatres were closed. On this day, 424 years ago, Philip Henslowe, owner of the Rose playhouse, wrote a letter to his son-in-law, Edward Alleyn, the leading actor of Strange's Men. There's some evidence that actors may have been in the vicinity of Southampton at this time.

The letter itself is not very exciting, but it does set up some backstory for the more entertaining letters that we'll encounter next month. Henslowe passes on good wishes from Alleyn's wife Joan (calling her "your mouse"), and tells him she is praying "night and day for your good health and quick return". He has little to report about the plague, merely wishing Alleyn the "good health that we have as yet at London, which I hope in God that will continue".

The main reason for Henslowe's letter is to report than a carpenter, John Grigg, is beginning a renovation project on Alleyn's house. Grigg had previously been involved in building the Rose theatre itself.

The letter is signed, "your poor mouse forever; and your assured friends till death, Philip Henslowe and Ag"; the latter refers to Henslowe's wife Agnes. "Friends till death" was a common enough phrase at the time, but it may have had more emotional weight in a summer when thousands of Londoners would die from the plague.

globe theater

What's next?

The next installment of Henslowe's Diary ... as a Blog! will be a far more interesting letter from Alleyn on August 1. See you then!

Further reading

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

2 May, 1593 - A letter from Alleyn in Chelmsford

Welcome back! After several months of silence, this blog is briefly reawakening to update you on the adventures of Lord Strange's Men. As you may recall, it is 1593 and our team of actors is no longer performing in London, the theatres having been closed due to an outbreak of plague. Instead, after sitting out the winter, the company is now beginning a long tour of the towns and cities of England.

Edward Alleyn (unknown date)
We know very little about what happened during this tour. But one extraordinary source has survived. Among the Henslowe-Alleyn papers preserved at Dulwich College is a small collection of letters that were exchanged during the tour between Edward Alleyn, the leading actor of Strange's Men, and, back in London, his wife Joan, and the Rose theatre's owner, Philip Henslowe. These letters offer fascinating glimpses of what was going through the minds of three people during an anxious and unsettling time.

In a letter written on this day, 424 years ago, Alleyn addresses Joan as his "good sweetheart and loving mouse". The company was probably just a few days into their tour. They were currently in the Essex town of Chelmsford, perhaps to perform at its annual fair, which began on May Day.

Alleyn reports that he and his fellows are all well and that he's glad to have heard from Joan that she is well too. These comments are not mere pleasantries, of course: the plague was still gripping London, so receiving a letter from Joan must have brought Alleyn great relief.

Alleyn then jokes about what is going on at home during his absence. He writes that he is surprised to hear from Joan because "it is well known they say that you were by my Lord Mayor's officers made to ride in a cart, you and all your fellows, which I am sorry to hear". Being ridden in a cart through the streets was a punishment for prostitution, so Alleyn is implying that she and the other actors' wives have been accused of sexual misconduct while their husbands are away. Presumably this is a joke, as he goes on to claim that "you may thank your two supporters - your strong legs I mean - that would not carry you away but let you fall into the hands of such termagents." Alleyn is perhaps venting his own anxieties, since he becomes comically Tamburlaine-like at the end, swearing that "when I come home I'll be revenged on them".

Clearly, Alleyn is already missing his wife and the comfortable lifestyle of performing at a permanent London theatre. But he will not return home for many months yet...

Chelmsford Wanderings

What's next?

The next installment of Henslowe's Diary ... as a Blog! will be a letter from Henslowe on 5 July. See you then!

Further reading

Thursday, 2 February 2017

2 February, 1593 - The closure of the Rose and another tour

On this day in 1593, performances ceased at the Rose playhouse. This was due to the Privy Council, who had ordered London's theatres to be closed in an effort to prevent plague. So, once again, Lord Strange's Men were forced to take their plays on the road and tour the country (you can read more about touring in this post about last year's tour).

This extended absence from London will prove fatal to Lord Strange's Men. The company will spend almost a year touring the towns of England, and during this time it will ultimately break up. By the time the theatres re-open in December, the company's two best-known actors, Edward Alleyn and Will Kemp, will belong to a troupe known as the Earl of Sussex's Men, and it is under this name that they will return to the Rose.

The plague

London hit by plague, from John Taylor's The
Fearful Summer (1636)
According to the Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence (yes, there is such a thing!), the first signs of the plague's return to London had been observed as early as September 1592. Things had calmed down during the winter months (because the fleas that, unbeknownst to people of the time, carried the disease, were in hibernation). But at the end of January, the Privy Council learned that "it appeareath the infection doth increase". It was a mild winter, and the plague began to bite more seriously in April 1593, much earlier than normal. The death rate rose during the summer, peaking in August and September before declining again as the winter set in. In total about 17,000 people died in London and its suburbs.

The tour

Strange's Men appear to have begun their tour in May, and fragments of documentary evidence enable us to glimpse some parts of it. In early May, they were in Chelmsford, Essex. Later in the summer they visited Sudbury and Faversham. In July, they were in Southampton. In July and August, they headed west to Bath and Bristol. They then turned north and visited Shrewsbury, from where they may have gone on to Chester and York. In December, they were in Leicester and Coventry before they returned to London.

What's next?

This blog will be on partial hiatus until 27 December when the theatres re-open. However, it will return intermittently during the summer. That's because the Henslowe-Alleyn papers contain some remarkable letters between Edward Alleyn, his wife, and Philip Henslowe, exchanged during the tour. These letters give wonderfully vivid glimpses of the personalities of the people this blog is studying, and so I'll post excerpts on the relevant days in May, July, August and September.

When we fully return, we will see Sussex's Men installed at the Rose, where they will perform an array of new plays, along with a few of the old favourites from Strange's Men!

Further reading

  • George Childs Kohn, ed. Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence from Ancient Times to the Present, 3rd edtn. (Facts on File, 2008), 230-1.
  • Sally-Beth MacLean and Lawrence Manley, Lord Strange's Men and their Plays (Yale University Press, 2014), 258-71.


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

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

1 February, 1593 - The Jew of Malta

Here's what Lord Strange's Men performed at the Rose playhouse on this day, 424 years ago...
Henslowe writes: R at the Jewe of malta the j of Febreary 1593 ... xxxvs

In modern English: Received at The Jew of Malta, 1st February, 1593 ... 35 shillings

Caravaggio's portrait of the Grand
Master of the Knights of Malta,
Today, Lord Strange's Men revived again their satirical comic tragedy The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe; you can read more about this play in the blog entry for 26th February 1592.

After several days of disappointing box office following the smash premiere of Christopher Marlowe's Massacre at Paris, the company has revived Marlowe's reliable favourite, which they had last performed just over a fortnight ago. Even The Jew of Malta is not pulling in the crowds though, producing only a half-full theatre. 

What's next?

Whether or not they knew it, Lord Strange's Men's time at the Rose was about to come to a sudden end. Tune in tomorrow to find out why!

    Henslowe links


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

    Tuesday, 31 January 2017

    31 January, 1593 - Harry VI

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

    Henslowe writes: R at harey the 6 the 31 of Jenewarye 1593 ... xxxvs

    In modern English: Received at Harry VI, 31st January, 1593 ... 35 shillings

    1540s portrait of King
    Henry VI
    Today, Lord Strange's Men revived their history play Harry VI, which was almost certainly Shakespeare's First Part of Henry VIyou can read more about it in the blog entry for 3rd March 1592.

    Last season, the company had performed Harry VI almost weekly. This season, they have waited two weeks to revive it. The result has been a theatre only half full, but even this must have been something of a relief for the company after two days of atrocious box office.

    Henslowe links


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

    Monday, 30 January 2017

    30 January, 1593 - Friar Bacon

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

    Henslowe writes: R at frier bacon the 30 of July Jenewaye 1593 ... xijs

    In modern English: Received at Friar Bacon, 30th January, 1593 ... 12 shillings

    From the title page of a prose tale of Friar Bacon, 1629,
    which was re-used for the 1630 edition of the play.
    Today, Lord Strange's Men revived their magical fantasy about the wizard Friar Bacon. This play may have been Robert Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, or it may have been the anonymous John of Bordeaux; you can read more about it in the entry for 19th February, 1592.

    As with Sir John Mandeville, which they staged a couple of day ago, the company is continuing to perform old plays like Friar Bacon that result in a largely empty Rose theatre. One theory I've already mentioned is that they're performing the plays that had proved popular on tour, and hadn't had time to prepare alternatives for the more sophisticated (or jaded) London audience. Given that the company may have already known that they would be returning to touring soon, perhaps they had been deliberately keeping these old plays fresh in their minds, preparing for a return to the road,

    Henslowe links


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