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


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