Who were the Admiral'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 1594 to 1597, those accounts record the performances of a company called the Admiral's Men.

Charles Howard, Lord
High Admiral, from
the 'Procession
Portrait' of Queen
Elizabeth I (1595)
Playing companies always had a powerful aristocrat as their patron and called themselves his/her "Men" (that is, his/her servants). This company's patron was Charles Howard of Effingham, who was Lord High Admiral of England. His patronage of a playing company was only one small part of his life, as he was an important figure in English history: among other things, he commanded the fleet that defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588.

The Admiral's Men had been around since the 1570s, but in mid-1594 they settled at the Rose playhouse, where they would stay for a long time. At that time, the English playing companies were rearranging themselves after a period of struggle during the year of 1593, when the London theatres had been closed due to plague. Henslowe records several puzzling and brief runs of performances by the companies in various combinations, which suggest a period of flux.

In Henslowe's Diary, we first meet the Admiral's Men in May, 1594, when they perform at the Rose for just 3 days. We next see them performing alongside the Chamberlain's Men (the company to which Shakespeare belonged) at a little-known playhouse called Newington Butts on the outskirts of London. Following this, the Admiral's Men return to the Rose by themselves.

At around this point, something important happens: the two powerful patrons of these companies, the Lord Admiral and the Lord Chamberlain, both of whom were members of England's Privy Council, manage to force all other performance venues in London to close, leaving only the Rose and the Theatre open. This effectively meant that for six years, the Chamberlain's and the Admiral's Men were the only two companies allowed to entertain Londoners. They worked at opposite ends of the city, with the Admiral's Men at the Rose on the south bank, far away from the Chamberlains' at a playhouse known simply as the Theatre in Shoreditch, a suburb of north London.

Edward Alleyn (unknown date)
Little is known about the actors of the Admiral's Men at the time when they appear in Henslowe's Diary, except for their biggest star: Edward Alleyn. He was newly returned to the company, having been a member of it until a few years previously, whereupon he had moved to Lord Strange's Men and possibly to other companies; you can therefore read more about Alleyn in my articles on Strange's Men and the Earl of Sussex's Men. Now, the great star was back with the Admiral's Men and performing at the Rose. This was no doubt in part because of his close relationship with the Rose's owner, Philip Henslowe, who was his father-in-law and business partner.

Further reading

  • Andrew Gurr, The Shakespearean Playing Companies (Clarendon Press, 1996)
  • Andrew Gurr, Shakespeare's Opposites: The Admiral's Company, 1594-1625 (Cambridge University Press, 2009)
  • Roslyn L. Knutson, "What was James Burbage Thinking???", in Thunder in a Playhouse: Essaying Shakespeare and the Early Modern Stage, ed. Peter Kanelos and Matt Kozusko (Susquehanna University Press, 2010), 116-30 
  • Holger Schott Syme, 'The Meaning of Success: Stories of 1594 and its Aftermath', Shakespeare Quarterly 61 (2010), 490-525
  • Tom Rutter, Shakespeare and the Admiral's Men: Reading Across Repertories on the London Stage, 1594-1600 (Cambridge University Press, 2017)

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