Wednesday, 16 May 2018

16 May, 1594 - Cutlack

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

Henslowe writes: R at Cvtlacke the 16 of maye 1594  ... xxxxijs 

In modern English: Received at Cutlack, 16th May, 1594 ... 42 shillings

Today, the Admiral's Men performed a play that we have not previously seen at the Rose. Unfortunately, Cutlack is now lost, and its subject matter is not certain because there are two legendary figures with similar names: St. Guthlac, a 7th-century hermit who battled demons in the Lincolnshire fens, and Guthlagh, a 4th-century king of Denmark who fought the Britons.
St. Guthlac being harassed by
demons; probably not the
subject of today's play,
but this fabulous image is
worth a click anyway! From the
'Guthlac Roll' at the
British Library.

Although St. Guthlac is a very interesting figure, most scholars lean toward the Danish king as the likelier subject. The main piece of evidence dates from 1598, when a satirical poet, Everard Guilpin, mocked those who imitate "Alleyn's Cutlack's gait".

Guilpin's words tell us that Edward Alleyn, the star actor of the Admiral's Men, played Cutlack, and that he had a particularly memorable walk when doing so. What kind of walk? In context, Guilpin is satirizing men who put on acts of being tough, and at this point he is scoffing at the "braggart" whose "eyes are lightning", whose "words are thunder", and who goes around "stalking and roaring like to Job's great devil". This suggests that Cutlack was a bombastic character akin to Alleyn's most famous role, the all-conquering Tamburlaine. And it does not sound like St. Guthlac, who was, aside from his demon-bashing, noted for peacefulness. I will therefore assume that Cutlack was a play about the Danish king.

The legend of King Guthlagh was fairly well known in Elizabethan England. Unfortunately, there is no 'official' way to spell his name: as Roslyn L. Knutson and Matthew Steggle note in their Lost Plays Database entry, spellings include "Ginchtalacus; Guilthdacus; Gurthlac; Guitlacke; Guthlach; Gutlake; Cuthelake; Cutlake; and Cutlax". I'm going to stick with Henslowe's "Cutlack", which I assume reflects the way it was pronounced by the actors.

The legend of King Cutlack

Illustration of Belinus (or Brennius, it's not clear)
from Holinshed's Chronicles (1577)
The story of King Cutlack originates in the medieval pseudo-historian Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the British Kings (c. 1135). Geoffrey tells of a time long ago, when Brennius, King of Britain, was locked in a civil war with his brother Belinus.

Brennius seeks help in Norway, where he marries a princess and hires warriors. But as they all sail back to Britain, they are attacked by the Danish king Cutlack (or Guichthlac, as Geoffrey spells it). During the ensuing sea battle, Cutlack captures Brennius's new wife. But then a storm scatters the ships and by fluke, Cutlack and Brennius's wife end up on the Northumbrian coast, where the other brother, Belinus, captures them. 

Belinus then defeats Brennius in battle and becomes King of Britain. Cutlack, still his prisoner, makes a deal: if Belinus will release him, and let him keep Brennius's wife for himself, Cutlack will pay tribute to the British every year. Belinus agrees, so Cutlack returns to Denmark and keeps his word.

Illustration of Gurguint, from Holinshed's
Chronicles (1577)
All seems well until Bellinus dies and his son, Gurguint, inherits the British crown, whereupon Cutlack refuses to pay the tribute any more. So Gurguint invades Denmark, kills Cutlack, and forces the Danes to pay up.

Why this story?

The story as told by Geoffrey does not seem very interesting on paper. There are battles and princesses to be sure, but the characters are devoid of personality. Yet Cutlack will become one of the great successes of the Rose stage and we should therefore speculate about why it was so successful.

In his book on lost plays, Matthew Steggle describes various Elizabethan retellings of the Cutlack legend. Of particular interest is the version in William Warner's Albion's England (1586), an epic poem about English history (we've already encountered this text as a possible source for Sir John Mandeville and King Leir), which manages to make Geoffrey's tale more dramatic. For example, Warner invents a scene at the Norwegian court in which Brennius and Cutlack compete for the hand of the Norwegian princess. Cutlack is loud and bombastic, sneering at Britain as a "sorry isle". But when Brennius challenges him to single combat, Cutlack chickens out and Brennius wins the princess. This humiliation is Cutlack's motivation for wanting the princess, and for attacking Brennius by a cowardly sea-ambush later.

As Steggle points out, Warner frames the story as a contest between a brave Briton and an arrogant foreigner, which is exactly the sort of thing that went down well at the Rose. We don't know whether the author of Cutlack really knew this poem, but it hints at the kind of elaborations that a dramatist might have made. If you would like to read Warner's tale of Cutlack from chapter 16 of Albion's England, you may do so via this facsimile of the 1602 edition
A remarkably anachronistic illustration of the battle between Belinus and Brennius; from Holinshed's Chronicles (1577)

What's next?

Despite having re-opened only two days ago, the Rose will close tomorrow for unknown reasons. This blog will thus return on the 5th June - see you then!


Cutlack information

  • Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, Book 3 (c.1136), trans. Aaron Thompson and J.A. Giles (1842)
  • William Warner, Albion's England, ch. 16 (1586)
  • Everard Guilpin, "Epigram 43", in Skialetheia (1598)
  • Andrew Gurr, Shakespeare's Opposites: The Admiral's Company, 1594-1625 (Cambridge University Press, 2009), 203.
  • Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, vol. 3 (Oxford University Press, 2013), entry 858.
  • Matthew Steggle, Digital Humanities and the Lost Drama of Early Modern England (Ashgate, 2015), 61-76
  • Roslyn L. Knutson and Matthew Steggle, "Cutlack", 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!

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