Thursday, 29 August 2019

29 August, 1595 - Longshanks

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

Henslowe writes: ye 29 of aguste 1595 ... ne ... R at longe shanke ... xxxxs 

In modern English: 29th August, 1595 ... New ... Received at Longshank ... 40 shillings.

Portrait of Edward I in
Westminster Abbey
Today, the Admiral's Men premiered a new play: Longshanks! The title tells us that it was about King Edward I of England, who carried the nickname 'Edward Longshanks' owing to his long legs. This was a perfect role for Edward Alleyn, the strikingly tall leading man of the Admiral's Men. We know that he even wore a special costume for it, for "Longshanks' suit" appears in Henslowe's 1598 inventory of costumes.

 Edward I was famed for fighting in the Crusades and for his wars with the Welsh and the Scots. His reputation today is often a negative one, due to the iron first with which he subjugated England's neighbours, earning him the nickname "The Hammer of the Scots". But Elizabethan Londoners would have seen him as a hero, and the play of Longshanks was most likely a work of jingoistic English patriotism. Alleyn, famed for his role as the conqueror Tamburlaine, would have enjoyed the chance to play another such character.

It is possible that the text of the play survives. In 1593 there appeared in bookshops a play by George Peele entitled The Famous Chronicle of King Edward the First, Surnamed Edward Longshanks, and some scholars propose that this is the same Longshanks play that appeared at the Rose today. The obvious argument against this is that Henslowe's diary entry, two years later, describes Longshanks as a new play, and there was certainly nothing unusual about a company creating a play on the same topic as one of their rivals. Furthermore, Martin Wiggins, in his catalogue of British drama, points out that in a future diary entry, Henslowe will call the play Prince Longshanks, which might suggest that it was a prequel about Edward's adventures during the Crusades, before he became king. Still, the Rose's play could have been a heavily revised version of Peele's play that Henslowe thus regarded as new.

We cannot know which of these theories is correct, but let's try to imagine what the play of Longshanks might have been like.

Edward Longshanks in history and legend

King Edward I reigned from 1272-1307. As his nickname indicates, he was tall; Andy King quotes the medieval scholar Nicholas Trevet's description of him as

long of arm in proportion to a supple body; no-one was more apt to the use of the sword, which he wielded with a wiry vigour. His belly protruded and the length of his legs kept him from being unseated by the jumping and galloping of the most spirited horses.

Edward's reign was full of potential stories for dramatists. His exploits in the Ninth Crusade accomplished little but could have been made to sound impressive, and he notably killed an assassin who had been sent to murder him with a poisoned dagger.

The Stone of Destiny under 'King
Edward's Chair' in Westminster, before it
was returned to Scotland in 2002.
But his most infamous achievements were the imposing of England's will upon its neighbours. In Wales, Edward sent conquering armies, built castles, and encouraged English settlement to maintain his power. And in Scotland, he attempted to enforce English political control, resulting in a war that persisted after his death. It was Edward who took the Stone of Destiny, the coronation stone of the Scottish kings, and placed it in Westminster Abbey. It was also Edward who ordered the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290.

Understandably, Edward tends to be portrayed in a negative light in modern representations of his reign; typical examples can be seen in the William Wallace movie Braveheart (1995) or the Robert the Bruce movie Outlaw King (2019), in which Patrick McGoohan and Stephen Dillane respectively portray Longshanks as a terrifyingly stern and cruel tyrant. 

But Elizabethan Englishmen had a more positive view of King Edward; his expansion of English strength was seen as a positive thing. We can see this in George Peele's Edward I, which may not be same play as Longshanks, but it does shows how one dramatist staged his story.

If the play was Peele's Edward I

The 1593 title page of Peele's play sums up its contents: The famous chronicle of King Edward the First, surnamed Edward Longshanks, with his return from the Holy Land; also, the life of Llewellyn, rebel in Wales; lastly, the sinking of Queen Eleanor, who sunk at Charing Cross and rose again at Pottershithe, now named Queenhithe.  As you can tell, this play has some rather weird moments.

Edward I begins with Longshanks returning from the Crusades to discover that he is now king, his father having died. Edward is portrayed as an heroic conquering monarch: as his ship arrives at Dover, Eleanor, the Queen Mother, admires him in language reminiscent of the grandiloquent rhetoric in Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine:

Veering before the wind, ploughing the sea,
His stretched sails filled with the breath of men
That through the world admires his manliness.
And lo, at last, arrived in Dover Road,
Longshanks your king, your glory and our son,
With troops of conquering lords and warlike knights,
Like bloody crested Mars o'erlooks his host,
Higher than all his army by the head,
Marching along as bright as Phoebus' eyes. (Scene 1)

Despite his military prowess, Edward is no tyrant, like Tamburlaine, but a virtuous monarch. And all seems congenial for him at the beginning of the play: he is a hero; he has a queen, Eleanor of Castile; and he has a daughter, Joan of Acre. However, Edward has three problems to deal with.

Satirical 1562 portrait of John Balliol
as an illegitimate king.
Problem number 1 is the Scots. During the Great Cause - a succession crisis in Scotland - Edward is asked to adjudicate and he elects John Balliol to be king. Balliol swears fealty to England, but later decides to rebel, "To shake off England's tyranny betimes, / To rescue Scotland's honour with his sword" (scene 10). Edward quashes his rebellion, and Balliol swears fealty again. And then rebels again. I have to say: this plotline is rather perfunctory.

Problem number 2 is more interesting: the rebellion of the Welsh prince Llywelyn (based on Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, the last of the sovereign Welsh princes). Llywelyn's fiancée, Eleanor de Montford (yes, there are three characters called Eleanor in this play - it's quite confusing), is being held captive by King Edward. Llywelyn hears a prophecy from a harp player that "a Welshman shall be king / And govern merry England" (Scene 3), and is inspired to lead a rebellion.

Heroic sculpture of Llywelyn ap
Gruffudd in Cardiff
Llywelyn tricks King Edward into returning Eleanor de Montford to him, but he is disappointed when the Welsh soldiers offer fealty to England so long as the Prince of Wales will always be a Welshman; Edward achieves this aim by summoning his pregnant Queen Eleanor to Wales, where she gives birth to Prince Edward, whom the King makes Prince of Wales.

Peace notwithstanding, Llywelyn still dreams of being King. Things get rather weird at this point. As Llywelyn and his men await reinforcements up in the mountains, they pass the time by pretending to be Robin Hood and his Merry Men, with Eleanor as Maid Marian. As far as I can tell, this is primarily because Elizabethan audiences loved Robin Hood plays, which would have been familiar from their May Day festivities - such much so that the stage direction assumes the actors will know what to do:  "they are all clad in green, etc., and sing, etc." (scene 8).  In this guise, Llywelyn and company rob travellers and are joined by a comedy friar named David who becomes their Friar Tuck figure and carries with him a trusty staff named Richard. I told you it was weird. But also accompanying them incognito is Llewellyn's nemesis, Mortimer, the Earl of March, an English lord in love with Eleanor.

All of this feels like the setup for some exciting drama, but to be honest, it fizzles out. When King Edward is travelling through the area, he and Llewellyn fight a single combat, and Edward wins but lets his rival go free. Edward then discovers Mortimer, and puts him in charge of routing the rebels while he deals with the Scots. In the ensuing battle, "Llewellyn is slain with a pikestaff", Mortimer wins Eleanor, who is not especially pleased about the whole thing, and Friar David sadly retires 'Richard' by hanging him up on on a tree.

Edward and Eleanor in a 14th-
century manuscript
Problem number 3 is Edward's Queen, Eleanor of Castile, and this is where the play gets even weirder. Eleanor is normally portrayed in legend as a paragon of virtue, but Peele instead follows a couple of popular ballads that present her as an evil, power-hungry adulteress who wants to hold the English "in a Spanish yoke" (Scene 1).

Things start off badly in Wales when Eleanor is unimpressed by the simple presents given her by the Welsh barons, and when Edward offers to satisfy her any request in order to make it up to her, she demands that all Englishmen shave their beards and all Englishwomen cut off their breasts. King Edward persuades her to withdraw this demand when he announces that she and he will be the first to adhere to the new rule.

Later, Eleanor becomes jealous of the Lady Mayoress of London and kills her with a poisonous snake. God is not impressed by this and there is "thunder and lightning when the Queen comes in", insisting to her daughter Joan that she is innocent of the crime (scene 18). Eleanor cries "gape, earth, and swallow me, and let my soul / Sink down to Hell if I were author of / That woman's tragedy". And to her surprise, the earth does exactly that, and Eleanor falls down a kind of wormhole that spits her out in Pottershithe (now Queenshithe, an ancient Saxon landing place by the Thames).

Charing Cross, Edward's memorial to Eleanor,
in John Norden's 1593 map of London
Eleanor returns to the palace, repentant and dying. Uncertain what to make of these events, King Edward and his brother Edmund disguise as friars to hear her confession. Things get awkward when Eleanor confesses to adultery with Edmund, and admits that Joan is in fact the daughter of a friar, not Edward. A devastated Edward sentences Edmund to death and when Joan hears the news of her parentage, she dies from grief. But despite his disappointment, Edward erects in Eleanor's honour "a rich and stately carved cross" at Charing Green (scene 23); this is of course Charing Cross, which was still standing in 1593; it is now gone, but its name lives on in a railway station.

At the end of the play, everything gets tied together, after a fashion: Edward prepares to ride off to quash yet another rebellion by Balliol, Mortimer enters with Llewellyn's head and the play ends on a mournful note as Joan's widower, Gloucester, contemplates these deaths:
All pomp in time must fade and grow to nothing;
Wept I like Niobe, yet it profits nothing.
Then cease my sighs, since I may not regain her,
And woe to wretched Death that thus hath slain her. (Scene 23)

Haigiographical accounts of English supremacists are not really what the United Kingdom needs right now, but if you do feel the urge to read Edward I, you can find a fully annotated edition by Frank S. Hook in The Dramatic Works of George Peele (Yale University Press, 1961).

What we learn from this

Edward I and his son,
the future Edward II
Longshanks (at least in the rendition by Peele) feels like a mixing together of many different genres that we have seen at the Rose so far. The similarity of its poetic style with Tamburlaine has already been noted, but we've also seen Robin Hood appearing in George-a-Greene, the Pinner of Wakefield, and English military heroes such as Talbot in Henry VI. If the theory is correct that Longshanks was about Edward's earlier adventures during the Crusades, this would echo a lot of the other plays in the repertory, such as Godfrey of Bouillon and Mahamet.

But for audiences at the time, the biggest connection with other plays would have been with Christopher Marlowe's Edward II, which had been staged by the Earl of Pembroke's Men around 1592. It tells the story of the son of Longshanks and his catastrophic rule, so that Longshanks might have been seen as a prequel to that play - and a model of a better king.

The premiere of Longshanks was disappointing, though; despite all these promising signs, it attracted a relatively small audience.


Longshanks information

  • Frank S. Hooks, ed. "Edward I", in The Dramatic Works of George Peele (Yale University Press, 1961), vol. 2.
  • Martin Wiggins, British Drama, 1533-1642: A Catalogue, vol. 3 (Oxford University Press, 2013), entry 1007.
  • Andrew Gurr, Shakespeare's Opposites: The Admiral's Company, 1594-1625 (Cambridge University Press, 2009), 216.
  • Andy King, Edward I (Penguin, 2016).
  • Roslyn L. Knutson, "Longshanks", Lost Plays Database (2018).

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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