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


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