Sunday, 10 June 2018

10 June, 1594 - Belin Dun

Here's what the Admiral's Men and/or the Chamberlain's Men performed at the Newington Butts playhouse on this day, 424 years ago...

Henslowe writes: ye 8 of June, 1594 ... ne ... R at bellendon ... xvijs

In modern English: 10th June, 1594 ... New .... Received at Belin Dun ... 12 shillings

Today, the players at Newington Butts premiered a new play! Belin Dun is unfortunately lost, but its title tells us that it was about a legendary highwayman of medieval England, the robber Dun (or Dunne), who is most often referred to as Thomas Dun, but is called Belin Dun in some versions of his story. Dun supposedly gave his name to the town of Dunstable where he made his base.

A highwayman portrayed in Richard
Head's The English Rogue (1666)
In most of the legends about him, Dun lurks near the intersection of two ancient English roads, Watling Street and the Icknield Way, to rob travellers. He seems unstoppable, but his reign of terror is ended by King Henry I during a crackdown on banditry. Dun is captured and executed (in some versions of the story by having all his limbs cut off).

The legend of Dun is about lawlessness defeated by royal power. It thus makes for an interesting contrast with plays about heroic, charitable outlaws: in his study of Belin Dun, Matthew Steggle suggests that Dun is an evil counterpoint to Robin Hood.

Aside from its appearances in the box office records, we can glimpse Belin Dun in another of Henslowe's documents: a list of props owned by the players at the Rose. This is a fun read, containing such enigmatic items as "one black dog", "Tantalus's tree", a "set of steps for Phaeton", and "Kent's wooden leg" (if you'd like to read the whole thing, here's a transcription from Richard Dutton's Shakespeare: A Literary Life). One of the props is "Belendon stable". This puzzling entry is explained by Steggle's researches into the legend of Dun, which reveal that the robber supposedly hid his horses in a giant underground cave; here's a description in the 1717 poem "Dunstable Down":
There dwelt (to make the story brief)
Old Dun, that memorable thief:
Within a hollow underground,
Apartments yet are to be found
Where both himself and horse retreated,
And still the hues and cries defeated.
We can therefore speculate that in today's performance, the stage contained a representation of Dun's subterranean hideout.

Henslowe typically records very high box office for premieres, but the takings for Belin Dun are not remarkably different to others at Newington Butts this week. It is hard to judge the popularity of plays at this theatre, but on the face of it, Belin Dun does not seem to have aroused exceptional excitement.



Belin Dun information

  • Roslyn L. Knutson and Matthew Steggle, "Bellendon", Lost Plays Database (2012). 
  • Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, vol. 3 (Oxford University Press, 2013), entry 956.
  • Matthew Steggle, Digital Humanities and the Lost Plays of Shakespeare's England (Ashgate, 2015), 77-88.

Henslowe links


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