The Dutch Church: the dissolution and its tragic aftermath

It is convenient for historians to conceive of history in neat discrete categories, but all too often that approach both obscures continuities and suggests that events are less brutally random than they are. There are, for instance, many ways of writing about the influence of the English Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries on Elizabethan drama, from the survival of catholic ritual culture to the routes and routines of the traveling players. Indeed, two of the principal London playhouses – the Theatre in Shoreditch and the Blackfriars – were built in the former precincts of religious houses.

But some connections are more direct yet.

For all that Tudor London was dominated by the solidity, tradition and history that churches represented, it was also a city in transition. Henry VIII’s Reformation had ruined the great religious houses of England, and London suffered no less than the rest of the country. In 1536, there had been 12 monasteries in and around London, including the Benedictine order at St Helens in Bishopsgate and the Augustinians outside the walls to the north, at Holywell Priory in Shoreditch. There were twelve principal houses of friars in London, too, among them the Carmelites at Whitefriars and Dominicans at Blackfriars – and many smaller houses, together with 25 major hospitals under the auspices of the old religious orders and again innumerable minor ones.

That was, of course, not in Shakespeare’s lifetime and barely in that of his father, John, who was probably born in 1530. Fifty-odd years on from the dissolution, the institutions and social structures that they supported – including care for the poor and the sick – were indeed long gone: they had disappeared with such speed that the Lord Mayor in 1537-8, Sir Richard Gresham, who lived in Milk Street, had pleaded for some hospital buildings and churches to be spared, because without them Londoners simply didn’t have enough of either.

The shock waves through the social order that the dissolution unleashed were certainly still being felt at the end of the century: more explicit social controls, such as the 1572 Act for the Punishment of Vagabonds, were required to deal with the fallout, using the judicial system to deal with problems such as poverty, incapacity and mental illness that had hitherto been accommodated, if not necessarily addressed, by the old religious orders.

The buildings themselves proved less tractable. Certainly some were destroyed; but it is far from clear how clean or complete the destruction was. The reality was most likely somewhat messier, with the impact of the Reformation painfully and plentifully visible across the city in broken walls and ruined cloisters, newly open spaces, building sites and smart new houses abutting the boundaries of the old and unhoused orders.
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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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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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Thomas Kyd: fragments of a life

A scene from The Spanish Tragedy

The life and work of Thomas Kyd offer a perfect example of the problems posed by the erosion of evidence over time – see my post here – since what little we do know seems wholly arbitrary in its survival, yet also hints at the enormity of what we have lost.

Kyd, a prosperous scrivener’s son whose family hailed from the area around Lombard Street, was born in 1558 – he was baptised on 6 November – six years before Shakespeare and Marlowe and fourteen before Jonson. By virtue of his age, therefore, Kyd belongs more than any of them to the hinterland of Elizabethan drama, before works began to appear in print.
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The Mayor of London and Lord Strange’s Men

Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange

Hobbinol’s excellent post on the Elizabethan theatre and the plague has reminded me – somewhat tangentially, I accept – of one of my favourite anecdotes from the Tudor theatre. Perhaps anecdote is the wrong word. In some respects it is a pretty insignificant event, but I think it reveals a great deal about the tensions between the performers and the censorship they worked under, about the players’ attitude to risk, and about the complex politics of patronage and power.

In brief, the Lord Mayor of London had received orders from William Cecil, Lord Burghley, early in November 1589 to stop all plays within the city. He attempted to effect this by summoning the two troupes he knew to be active in London at the time, the Lord Admiral’s Men and Lord Strange’s Men, on the morning of November 5, and commanding them in the Queen’s name to desist from performing until they were told they free again to do so. Both were significant companies of actors, and it is likely that Lord Strange’s Men employed both Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe as writers around this time.
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