Sunday, 7 January 2018

7 January, 1594 - Friar Francis

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

Henslowe writes: R at frier frances the 7 of Jenewary 1593 ... iijll jds

In modern English: Received at Friar Francis, 7th January, 1594 ... £3 and 1 shilling

Today, Sussex's Men introduced another of their plays to the Rose audience. Friar Francis received very impressive box office despite the failure of William the Conqueror to do the same thing last week, and despite the Christmas holidays being over.

Friar Francis is a lost play, but we do possess some information about it from an unusual source. It seems that before the play was staged at the Rose, it had already achieved fame due to a curious incident during a performance in the Norfolk town of King's Lynn. Perhaps it was this notoriety that drew large crowds to the Rose today.

The legend of the King's Lynn performance

A legend of the performance of Friar Francis in King's Lynn was recounted many years later by the actor-playwright Thomas Heywood. In his book An Apology for Actors (1612), Heywood defends theatre against those who believed it to be sinful, arguing that plays can be morally improving. He uses as an example an event that "within these few years happened" during a performance of "the old history of Friar Francis" by Sussex's Men in King's Lynn.

A 1608 news pamphlet reporting a
murder; perhaps Friar Francis was
inspired by a true crime narrative
similar to this one.
According to Heywood, the play was about a woman who was haunted by the ghost of the husband she had murdered: "in her most solitary and private contemplations, in most horrid and fearful shapes, [it] appeared and stood before her". During the King's Lynn performance, a widow in the audience suddenly cried out "Oh my husband, my husband! I see the ghost of my husband fiercely threatening and menacing me!" When audience members "enquired the reason of her clamour", the widow confessed that she too had murdered her husband - and now, his "fearful image personated itself in the shape of that ghost" upon the stage! The woman was taken to court where she confessed her crime voluntarily.

Heywood insists that "this is true, as well by the report of the actors as the records of the town" and "there are many eyewitnesses of this accident yet living, vocally to confirm it". Historians have found no trace of any such records. But there is a record of a performance in the town by Sussex's Men in 1592, so at least some of Heywood's tale is based in truth.

Perhaps the story is a myth, or had gotten exaggerated in the retelling. But Heywood certainly didn't make it up, for it also appears in the anonymous play A Warning for Fair Women (printed in 1599), in which a character recounts the same tale:

A woman that had made away her husband,
And sitting to behold a tragedy,
At Lynn, a town in Norfolk,
Acted by players travelling that way,
Wherein a woman that had murdered hers
Was ever haunted with her husband's ghost,
The passion written by a feeling pen
And acted by a good Tragedian,
She was so moved with the sight thereof,
As she cried out the play was made by her,
And openly confessed her husband's murder.

Whether or not it is true, the story expresses the belief that seeing a representation of ones own sins onstage can elicit a guilty urge to confess. You can see the same idea in Hamlet, when the prince stages his father's murder before the eyes of his guilty uncle, and produces a telling response.

But what about Friar Francis?

The story of the guilty murderess is all very interesting, but there is no mention of a friar in it, which is rather disappointing for a play called Friar Francis. Perhaps the friar appeared in a subplot. In their entry on the play for the Lost Plays Database, David McInnis and Matthew Steggle point out a little book from 1590 entitled A Subtle Practice Wrought in Paris by Friar Francis which may perhaps describe that hypothetical subplot.

Image from Hans Holbein's
Dance of Death (1538)
This short text, which purports to be a letter from France, tells a rather silly tale of two French friars quarreling over a pretty nun with whom they are both in love. Friar Francis manages to trick his rival into going to the Pope with a fraudulent message about the king having been captured in battle, thus leaving himself alone with the nun.

Chaos erupts at the Vatican when the fraudulent news is exposed. As punishment, both friars are forced to walk barelegged through Rome while whipping each other with wire. After a surprisingly gruesome description of the resulting injuries, the author then informs us that the the pain and humiliation were so unbearable that both friars died.

What's the moral? The author ends with a shrug: "thus have you heard in as brief sort as I could, the comitragical history of these unfortunate friars, which is so laughed at here, and so much moaned elsewhere". I will leave you to consider your own response.


Friar Francis information

  • David McInnis and Matthew Steggle, "Friar Francis", Lost Plays Database (2011). 
  • Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, vol. 3 (Oxford University Press, 2013), entry 924.

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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