Monday, 14 August 2017

14 August, 1593 - a letter from Henslowe to Alleyn

Welcome back once again! For the last two weeks, we have been looking at a series of letters exchanged between Edward Alleyn and Philip Henslowe. Today, we are looking at a third letter, written on this day 424 years ago. As you no doubt remember, Henslowe is writing from plague-ridden London to Alleyn, who is touring plays in southwestern England with Lord Strange's Men.

The city of Bath, from a 1610 map by John Speed
Henslowe begins by informing Alleyn that "we heard you were very sick at Bath, and that one of your fellows were fain to play your part for you". You might think this news would have worried Alleyn's wife, Joan, but in fact she was relieved: Henslowe explains, "we had no letter from you when the other wives had letters", and this had made Joan "not to weep a little but took it very greviously, thinking you had conceived some unkindness of her". Henslowe implores Alleyn to write more often in future.

Joan's anxiety was no doubt the result of living amid a near-apocalyptic plague while her husband was far away. Henslowe relates that Joan "prayeth day and night to the lord to cease his hand from punishing us with his cross" and hopes that her husband will soon be "eased of this heavy labour and toil". He then thanks Alleyn for the advice he gave a while back on keeping the house clean to prevent plague, and adds that "we strew it with hearty prayers unto the Lord".

But Henslowe also records more mundane matters. He refers back to an earlier letter of Alleyn's (now lost) "wherein makes mention of your white waistcoat and your lute-box". He refers to yet another letter, brought by one Peter, who had also brought Alleyn's horse for Henslowe to look after. And he reports that while Alleyn's bean-patch is thriving, his tenants "wax very poor" and cannot pay the rent.

Henslowe also reports on the renovations to Alleyn's home. The joiner insists "he will make you such good stuff and such good penniworths as he hopeth shall well like you and content you", and that he will "prove himself an honest man". These words sound deeply suspicious to me, but perhaps I'm jaded by bad reno experiences...

At the end of the letter, Henslowe gives his regards to the rest of Lord Strange's Men while alluding to his financial worries in these uncertain times: "commend me heartily to all the rest of your fellows in general, for I grow poor for lack of them; therefore have no gifts to send but as good and faithful a heart as they shall desire to have come amongst them".

He concludes with a plague update: 1,700-1,800 people have died this week alone.

What's next?

The next letter in this sequence is dated 28 September, so that's when Henslowe's Diary ... as a Blog! will return. See you then!

Further reading

Monday, 7 August 2017

Early August, 1593 - a letter from Henslowe to Alleyn

Welcome back again! Last week, we looked at a letter from Bristol, written by Edward Alleyn to Philip Henslowe. Today, we are reading Henslowe's reply, which is undated but appears to have been written around this date, 424 years ago. If you recall, Henslowe is writing from plague-stricken London to Alleyn, who is touring plays in southwestern England with Lord Strange's Men. Henslowe's letter is co-signed by Alleyn's wife Joan.

After passing on greetings to Alleyn from his family, Henslowe provides mixed news about the plague: "we are all at this time in good health in our house, but round about it hath been almost in every house about us and whole households died, and yet my friend the bailiff doth 'scape but he smells monstrously for fear and dares stay nowhere, for there hath died of the of the plague 113".

Henslowe adds a detail that Alleyn would have found very disturbing: "Robert Browne's wife in Shoreditch and all her children and household be dead and her doors shut up". Browne was an actor in another playing company and was currently touring in Germany. His fate was no doubt what Alleyn feared the most: that of returning home from his travels to find his entire family dead.

Smithfield Market, from the Agas Map (1561)
After passing on this worrying news, Henslowe moves on to more mundane matters. The renovations to Alleyn's house are proceeding well. Following up on Alleyn's requests in the previous letter, Henslowe assures him that all is under control: "your spinach bed not forgotten, your orange-coloured stockings dyed". He does, however, report that there is "no market at Smithfield neither to buy your cloth nor yet to sell your horse, for no man would offer me above £4 for him, therefore I would not sell him but have sent him into the country till you return back again".

Henslowe signs off "praying to God to send you all good health", and hoping that "we may all merrily meet". Perhaps feeling guilty about the doom and gloom he's been reporting, he ends on a positive note: "your poor mouse", he writes, using Alleyn's pet name for Joan, "hath not been sick since you went".

What's next?

A second letter from Henslowe will be described on August 14.

Further reading


Did I make a mistake? Do you have a question? Have you anything to add? Please post a comment below! 

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

1 August, 1593 - a letter from Alleyn in Bristol

Welcome back! After yet another lengthy hiatus, this blog is now reawakening a little more enthusiastically for the next couple of weeks. That's because a series of letters survives that were exchanged in the first half of August 1593 between Edward Alleyn, the leading actor of Lord Strange's Men, his wife Joan, and Philip Henslowe, owner of the Rose playhouse. As you may recall, Henslowe and Joan were still living in plague-stricken London, while Lord Strange's Men were engaged in a long enforced tour of England because London's theatres were closed.

So, on this day, 424 years ago, Alleyn wrote to Joan from Bristol, a large port city in southwestern England.The letter was carried to London by a relative of one of the actors in the company, and along with it, Alleyn sent his white waistcoat, explaining, "it is a trouble to me to carry it", and asking Joan to "lay it up for me till I come". As in his previous letter to her, Alleyn calls Joan his "good sweet mouse".


Fears of the plague

When writing to Joan back in May, shortly after the tour had begun, Alleyn had made light of his absence, but this time he expresses directly his fears about the plague that was gripping London. He tells Joan he hopes that although "the sickness be round about you yet by [God's] mercy it may escape your house". He advises her to "keep your house fair and clean, which I know you will and every evening throw water before your door and in your backside [I assume he means back yard...] and have in your windows good store of rue and herb of grace"; he feels that this, along with praying, will protect her. As Carol Chillington Rutter observes, these preventative methods may seem unconvincing today, but Alleyn is at least recommending cleanliness, which was the best solution available in an age when the causes of the plague were unknown.


Alleyn gives us a glimpse of the company's future touring plans when he tells Joan "if you send any more letters, send to me by the carriers of Shrewsbury or to Westchester [an old name for Chester] or to York, to be kept till my Lord Strange's Players come". It looks as though they were planning a great sweep through the North of England, but although there is indeed a record of them reaching Shrewsbury, we do not know if they continued with their plan.

Alleyn signs off by saying that he is in "Bristol, this Wednesday after St James's Day, being ready to begin the play of Harry of Cornwall". In their book on Lord Strange's Men, Lawrence Manley and Sally-Beth Maclean observe that St James's Day was 25 July and that Bristol held an annual 9-day St James's Fair around that date; the company was presumably there in the hopes of large audiences. Since Bristol is in the west country, perhaps Harry of Cornwall was chosen for its local colour?

Homesickness and thoughts of return

Alleyn then adds a rather sad postscript, which suggests intense homesickness (understandable after months of touring): "Mouse, you send me no news of anything. You should send of your domestical matters: such things as happens at home, as how your distilled water proves, or this or that, or anything. What you will."

But Alleyn hasn't finished. Running out of space, he writes in the left-hand margin,
And Jug, I pray you, let my orange-tawny stockings of woolen be dyed a very good black against I come home to wear in the winter. You sent me not word of my garden, but next time you will, but remember this in any case: that all that bed which was parsley in the month of September you sow it with spinach, for then is the time. I would do it myself, but we shall not come home till Allhallowtide. And so, sweet mouse, farewell, and brook our long journey with patience.
Allhallowtide was the 3-day holiday period that began on October 31 (now Hallowe'en). Alleyn was thus expecting to remain on the road at least another two months.

Špenát / spinach

What's next?

A follow-up letter from Henslowe will be described in a post to appear next week.

Further reading

  • Facsimile of the letter, from the Henslowe-Alleyn Digitisation Project. (Unless I'm missing something, they're in error when they date it 24th July).
  • Carol Chillington Rutter, Documents of the Rose Playhouse (Manchester University Press, 1984), 73-5.
  • Lawrence Manley and Sally-Beth MacLean, Lord Strange's Men and their Plays (Yale University Press, 2014)