Who were the Earl of Sussex's Men?

In this blog, we are journeying through Philip Henslowe's box office accounts, which record the daily performances of the 'playing companies' (that is, companies of actors), who occupied the Rose playhouse on London's south bank. From 1592 to 1593, those accounts record the performances of a company called Lord Strange's Men. But after a long break, during which the theatres were closed due to plague, a new company occupied the Rose for a few months in late 1593 and early 1594. That company was the Earl of Sussex's Men and they brought their own repertory of plays with them. But who were they?

Robert Radcliffe, Earl of of Sussex,
the patron of Sussex's Men during
their time at the Rose 
Playing companies always had a powerful aristocrat as their patron and called themselves his/her "Men" (that is, his/her servants). This company's patrons were the Earls of Sussex, a title possessed by members of the powerful Radcliffe family. The company had existed in various different incarnations since 1569. The version that arrived at the Rose in 1593 had been the troupe of Henry Radcliffe, the 4th Earl, but he had in fact died a fortnight previously, so that his son Robert, the 5th Earl, was now the patron.

The opportunity for a new company to take over the Rose had arisen due to the disastrous effect of the plague of 1593, which had closed London's theatres for nearly a year. During that time, the playing companies struggled; Lord Strange's Men appear to have broken up in December, leaving the Rose without a resident company. But why was it Sussex's company - about which today we know very little today - who ended up at the Rose?

Edward Alleyn (unknown date)
There is no certain answer to this question because the historical documentation is fragmentary. However, the most plausible answer, developed by the theatre historian Scott McMillin, is also the most interesting. McMillin proposes that the charismatic star actor of Lord Strange's Men, Edward Alleyn, joined Sussex's Men after the collapse of Strange's. Philip Henslowe, the Rose's owner, had a very close business and personal relationship with Alleyn, even calling him "my son", because Alleyn was married to his stepdaughter. Alleyn's presence would thus explain how Sussex's Men managed to get their feet in the door of the Rose. It would also explain why The Jew of Malta, one of the most popular plays of Strange's Men at the Rose, surprisingly appears amid the repertory of Sussex's Men; perhaps Alleyn was able to bring it with him and continue his much-loved role. If McMillin's theory is true - and if other popular members of Strange's Men, such as the comedian Will Kemp, accompanied Alleyn - then the arrival of Sussex's Men at the Rose may not have been such a big change for the regular audience after all.

McMillan's interpretation adds an even more fascinating possibility: the company might also have included the young actor-playwright William Shakespeare. One clue is the presence in Sussex's repertory of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus.  McMillin's theory is that along with Alleyn, Sussex's Men were also joined by members of Pembroke's Men, another of the companies that had come undone during the long tour (one of Henslowe's letters to Alleyn mentions that Pembroke's Men had given up touring as unprofitable, and were pawning their costumes). Among the most significant members of Pembroke's Men were Shakespeare and the actor Richard Burbage (who would later go on to create most of Shakespeare's greatest tragic roles, such as Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear). It's therefore possible that Sussex's Men was a bit like an Elizabethan supergroup.

The 'Chandos portrait' of Shakespeare
McMillin thinks the combined group assembled under the name of 'Sussex's Men' may have been an ad hoc arrangement while the various bigshots of the London theatre scene worked out a better solution to the disruption caused by the year of plague. Whatever the truth to all this, Sussex's Men disappeared after April 1594, while Alleyn went on to work at the Rose in a separate company and Shakespeare and Burbage in another.

Further reading

  • Scott McMillin, "Sussex's Men in 1594: The Evidence of Titus Andronicus and The Jew of Malta", in Theatre Survey 32.2 (1991): 214-23
  • Andrew Gurr, The Shakespearian Playing Companies (Oxford University Press, 1996)
  • MacCaffrey, Wallace T, “Radcliffe, Henry, fourth earl of Sussex (1533–1593),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004).
  • Victor Stater, “Radcliffe, Robert, fifth earl of Sussex (1573–1629),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004). 
  • Roslyn L. Knutson. "What's So Special About 1594?" Shakespeare Quarterly 61.4 (2010): 449-67.
  • Lawrence Manley and Sally-Beth MacLean, Lord Strange's Men and their Plays (Yale University Press, 2014), 322-5

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