Who were the Earl of Pembroke'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. But a different company, The Earl of Pembroke's Men, appears briefly toward the end. 

Henry Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke
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 Henry Herbert, the 2nd Earl of Pembroke. He was an old man and showed no obvious interest in theatre, his patronage may have been inspired by his young wife, Mary Sidney, who had literary interests and had already translated a French play about Marc Antony. 

Pembroke's Men were not one of the more prominent companies and their origins are murky. But they make tangential appearances in Henslowe's Diary.

In a letter to Edward Alleyn of 28 September, 1593, written while the actor was touring the country to avoid the plague, Henslowe informs notes that Pembroke's Men have come home to London, apparently having found touring to be financially unsustainable. 

According to one theory (described here and here) Pembroke's Men may have been among those who briefly joined with Henslowe's company in 1594. At this time, the company may have included William Shakespeare, as well as 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). But Shakespeare and Burbage would later leave. 

Later, in 1597, we find Pembroke's Men playing at the Swan, neighbouring the Rose. It may have been their performance of the scandalous Isle of Dogs that caused the closure of the theatres in 1597.  The company seems to have lost the Swan as a result, and some of its players appear to have joined with the Admiral's Men at the Rose.

Following this, a version of Pembroke's Men still seems to have existed, touring the country, but it ended upon the death of its patron in 1601, after a complicated career that we can glimpse only in fragments. 


  • Andrew Gurr, The Shakespearean Playing Companies (Clarendon Press, 1996), 266-

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