Shakespeare, Catholicism and pre-Reformation festive culture

It is hard to overstate the volume and variety of entertainers whom one might have encountered on England’s roads in the early 1500s. But then, it’s a phenomenon that we’re viewing through the filter of what occurred later, around the turn of the century and after, when theatrical and performance culture was forcibly narrowed, shaped into a metropolitan elite itself but also reordered to cater to a more elite, ‘sophisticated’ audience.

For my part, what surprises me most, perhaps, looking at the data, is the sheer number of patrons. A quick scan through the Records of Early English Drama (REED) index of patrons for Kent, say, reveals some 83 patrons of some sort over the course of the 16th century, of whom 50 supported troupes of players and 54 minstrels or other specifically named musicians, be they drummers, trumpeters, lutenists, pipers, or harpers.

These figures are, of course, no more than illustrative – the survival of any such information is arbitrary and the way in which clerks recorded such visits was prey to whim – but they do, I think, convey something of the rich texture of itinerant entertainment in the period. Kent, in fact, was in a particularly privileged position being so close to London while also benefiting from occasional visits from continental entertainers, among them, for example, the King of Poland’s bearwards, who were in Kent in 1521-2.

Bear-baiting was the other principal entertainment receiving patrons’ support: bearwards belonging to 21 different patrons are noted in the surviving county records . One bearward, John Sackerston, had a career that can be traced through four decades, from Shrewsbury in 1553-4 to Bristol in 1579-80, by which time he was in the service of the Earl of Derby. He was, it would seem, something of a legend; Sackerson, the famous bear at Paris Garden on the Bankside, close by the Globe, was named after him. ‘I have seen/Sackerson loose twenty times, and have taken him/By the chain’, boasts Slender in Merry Wives of Windsor.
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Travelling players, minstrelsy, Shakespeare and spies

Sometime in the early 1600s, the Warwickshire antiquarian Sir Simon Archer transcribed a document dated St Matthew’s Day – 21 September – 1444 and signed by John Talbot, second earl of Shrewsbury (and the hero of 1 Henry VI). In it, Talbot confirmed the rights of all Shropshire minstrels to gather in Shrewsbury each year on the feast of St Peter in Chains, held on 1 August, also known as Lammas Day.

On that day, they were to elect a king to govern them for the year to come and then march through the town beneath torches and banners to mark his inauguration. The right apparently dated back to the reign of William the Conqueror when Roger de Montgomery, then earl of Shrewsbury, was stricken with leprosy. A dream had told Montgomery to make pilgrimage to the chapel of Araske – otherwise unknown – where a drop of wax from an eternal candle, lit by the virgin Mary at the birth of her son, would heal him. Despite days of prayer and devotion, the wax refused to fall. But on the thirteenth day, the earl’s minstrel went to pray, the candle descended for him, and the wax dripped, and Roger was made whole. The minstrels’ right was Roger’s gift of thanks.

I came across the story in one of the Records of Early English Drama (REED) volumes for Shropshire. It seemed to articulate for me something compellingly strange and distant about the pre-Reformation itinerant culture of minstrelsy: its proximity to power; its capacity for solemnity as well as joy; the rituals of torchlight, of candlelight and music, of the procession or pageant, fashioned into statements of group identity; the moral seriousness of the mock court and the way that order and organisation – even of something as inherently chaotic as minstrelsy – was expressed through a pseudo-feudal hierarchy, sublimating, perhaps even resolving, what seemed to me an apparent tension between liveried servitude and the liberty of travel.
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The death of Anne Boleyn: a correspondent writes to Elizabeth I

Anne Boleyn (there are no authenticated contemporary portraits of Anne)

It is impossible to know what Elizabeth I thought or felt about the fact that her father, Henry VIII, had executed her mother, Anne Boleyn, on charges of adultery with, among others, Elizabeth’s uncle and Anne’s brother. It is entirely possible, given that she was not yet three when her mother died, that she had no real memory of Anne at all. But it is hard to conceive that such a family history would not be the cause of at least a little emotional unquiet.

There would of course have been many around Elizabeth who could have attested to her infant relationship with Anne Boleyn and described to her many maternal intimacies and acts of tenderness and care that we might imagine, from our own experiences as parents and children, but which we cannot recreate from the evidence that now survives.

In fact, the only meaningful description of Anne Boleyn together with her daughter that we have comes from a letter written to Elizabeth I after her accession in 1559.

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Sir Thomas Smith and covetousness in history

I blogged a couple of weeks ago about Sir Thomas Smith, late in life and in poor health, complaining about how difficult it was to work for Elizabeth I. (I also quoted his trenchant observation on the implications of the Ridolfi plot here.)

Smith is a fascinating example of those apparently minor figures in Tudor history who often don’t get the attention they deserve. Born on 23 December 1513, he was the son of a far from prosperous Saffron Waldon sheep-farmer. The relative poverty of his upbringing did not hold him back, however: his outstanding intellect took him to Cambridge University, where he was recognised as one of the leading students of his generation, and then to a career as an academic, an administrator, a privy councillor, and diplomat.

He is often said to have had an abrasive personality, but since he served the regimes of Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I, albeit in different capacities and not without periods of disfavour, he cannot have been quite as unyieldingly unpleasant as one might think. He was a moderate Protestant with friends across the religious spectrum, and his academic interests ranged from history and linguistics through political theory to chemistry and maths. In later life he was a noted patron of learning, founding two scholarships at Queen’s College, Cambridge and warmly encouraging the likes of Gabriel Harvey, another prodigiously gifted Saffron Walden man of mean background.

Yesterday, however, I came across a fascinating article about his work as an economic theorist. His principal work in this field was The Discourse of the Commonweal, written in 1549 during a period of exile from the court and not published until 1581. It is only recently that the text has been definitively ascribed to him.
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Richard Tarlton: the greatest star of the Elizabethan theatre

Richard Tarlton, a posthumous imageI have written elsewhere – see for instance my post on the life of Thomas Kyd – on the way in which the more or less arbitrary survival of documentary evidence distorts our ideas about the shape and richness of Elizabethan culture.

And for us, looking back, the theatre of the period looks like a writers’ theatre. Even discounting Shakespeare, a world that gave us Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, Ben Jonson and Thomas Middleton – never mind John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont, John Lyly, Robert Greene, Thomas Dekker, John Webster, et al – was clearly doing something right.

But again the nature of the surviving evidence has helped warp that picture. For contemporaries, in fact, it was very much an actors’ theatre. And while the best known tragedians, Richard Burbage and Edward Alleyn, are still familiar names to us by virtue of their associations with the great roles, the best illustration of that fact is nevertheless the career of the clown Richard Tarlton. All performance is ephemeral; comedy wholly so.

By the time Tarlton died of the plague in September 1588 – at a guess in his late thirties, since the earliest reference to him is in 1570 – he was something of a legend.

According to Thomas Fuller:

When Queen Elizabeth was serious, I dare not say sullen, and out of good humour, he could un-dumpish her at his pleasure. Her highest favourites would, in some cases, go to Tarlton before they would go to the queen, and he was their usher to prepare their advantageous access unto her. In a word, he told the queen more of her faults than most of her chaplains, and cured her melancholy better than all of her physicians.

Another anecdote, which seems to attest to Tarlton’s willingness to be ferociously provocative, has him performing at court in front of Elizabeth and interrupting the play to point at Sir Walter Ralegh and say, “See how the knave commands the queen!”

…for which he was corrected by a frown from the queen; yet he had the confidence  to add that [Ralegh] was of too much and too intolerable a power; and going on with the same liberty, he reflected on the over-great power and riches of the Earl of Leicester, which was… universally applauded by all that were present.

Tarlton was a member of the Queen’s Men – the premier troupe of actors in the 1580s – from its inception in late March 1583 and was almost certainly its principal draw. Sir Philip Sidney – who I have always thought of as a rather humourless man – was godfather to Tarlton’s son, also named Philip.

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