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