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date: 21 March 2019

Performance in Households and Merchant Halls

Abstract and Keywords

This article discusses the articulation of authority in London merchant hall drama in the early Tudor period. The Drapers’ Company records payments for plays performed, often by professional companies, at their August election feast for over a century, suggesting that their patronage of drama was not only the means to display company wealth and sophistication, but also bound up with the transferal of authority within the guild. Read in relation to London’s, with its increasingly fraught relation to the centralizing policies of the early Tudor monarchs, interludes such as John Skelton’s Magnificence and the John Rastell and John Heywood production, Gentleness and Nobility, emerge as explorations of issues urgent in the civic milieu: the theory and practice of governance and the ethics of oligarchy.

Keywords: Drapers’ Company, London, drama, Tudor, Skelton, Rastell, Heywood, Magnificence, Gentleness and Nobility, Cromwell


In 1543, the London Drapers’ Company purchased the city estate of Thomas Cromwell, including the large mansion that housed his familia when the great man was in London. The main house had been finished in the late 1520s on land purchased from the Augustinian Friars’ London convent on Throgmorton Street and reverted to the Crown, along with Cromwell’s other properties, after his execution in 1540. Although the Drapers Company’s new headquarters was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, the estate’s general layout can be gathered from the company’s surviving records of the purchase, which list nine buildings in total as well as extensive and elaborate gardens.1 These were unusual in the crowded and densely built metropolis, and they had been augmented by Cromwell in 1530 from the lot next door—the property, as it happens, of John Stow’s father—by the expedient of unannounced and unceremonious hiking of the neighbor’s outbuilding onto rollers and pushing it back five feet.2 In making the purchase, the Drapers shifted the political and administrative seat of the guild from their old hall in St. Swithin’s Lane. Although the purchase of the grand estate left the company temporarily in financial straits, having to sell a quantity of the company silver to make the asking price, the move by the Drapers was intended as a public testimony to financial success and political importance in the city, giving the company a residence befitting its position as third in precedence of the so-called Twelve Great Companies of London.3

Although Cromwell had various other properties in the city, the mansion adjacent to the friary churchyard was his main residence, and “on it he lavished considerable time, effort, and money in enlarging and remodeling.”4 The mansion and its extensive walled gardens were a public testimony to Cromwell’s own success as a self-made man, son of a prosperous blacksmith and tradesman from Wimbledon and now counsellor to the king himself. Cromwell’s use of drama as a tool by which to promote his reform agenda in the 1530s, through his patronage of John Bale and “Bale’s men” as a company touring outside of London, is well known.5 But Cromwell’s interest in plays was not confined to supporting touring companies, and the house beside Austin Friars was also a busy place of playing, beautifully equipped for dramatic performances, with its “ffayr hall with ij bay wyndowes & clerestories with a buttrye, a pantrye & a Cellar” as well as a “dark Chamber with lattes wyndowes … to loke down in to the hall.”6 Here, as in the aristocratic household halls of the traditional peerage, “masks were held, and minstrels as well as playing companies made regular appearances,” while “Cromwell’s Christmas schedule of revels was as full as any of the great nobles of the realm.”7

Like Cromwell, the Drapers’ Company was a significant patron of drama and, like Cromwell, they used their hall drama to celebrate and make visible their wealth and power. Most of the London merchant companies’ records note payments for occasional plays and all civic bodies made heavy financial and creative investments in elaborate street theater throughout the late medieval and early modern periods. But the records of the Drapers are unique among the Great Companies in attesting to a more than century-long, almost continuous practice of hiring players to perform at their hall as part of their yearly election celebration. An ordinance from the mid-fifteenth century directs funds to be collected from the brotherhood every year specifically to pay players, as distinct from minstrels and hall decorations, for the election feast revels. In the sixteenth century, more specific descriptions begin, noting almost yearly payments to high-prestige companies with noble or court patronage.8

It would seem that the history of Cromwell’s mansion as a venue for high-prestige playing in its grand and impressive hall would have been part of the estate’s appeal for a company with such a vigorous and long-standing interest in using their corporate hall for dramatic performance. But although the records of election revels continue after 1543, the company appears no longer to have included plays as part of the celebrations. The records of players and their companies end in 1541, the year before the company began negotiations to purchase Cromwell’s house with its illustrious dramatic past. The revised ordinances of 1543, the year they celebrated their first election feast in the new hall, no longer set aside any sum for players. 9 This state of historical affairs suggests that dramatic performance in London merchant halls cannot be understood simply as class striving, an attempt to participate in elite culture or a straightforward aping of noble practice. Indeed, the cessation of the interest of the Drapers in dramatic performance at their election feasts, at just the moment when they attained and began to occupy a formerly noble-owned hall, not only shows that merchant hall drama cannot simply be elided with other forms of aristocratic hall performance. It also suggests more broadly that the history of drama in Tudor civic spaces might follow a different trajectory, one attuned to interests other than the monarchical or courtly.

Greg Walker has emphasized that “it is crucial to recognize just how completely household drama—and especially the Tudor interlude—was a product of the households which produced it, both of the physical space in which it was performed, and of what we might term the moral economy of household life and special relationships between patron, clients, and artists to which that economy gave rise.”10 Recent theater history and work on the Tudor interlude has illuminated such “special relationships,” as it has the intersections of built environment, political and social identities, and dramatic performance in the aristocratic household. The detailed records of the Drapers of hiring players and the company history present a unique opportunity to explore the status of early Tudor drama in another kind of household, that of the sixteenth-century merchant company.

The early Tudor company hall had its own particular “moral economy.” Political and social authority were articulated, regulated, and challenged in this corporate space in ways distinct from the court, the noble household, or the school. As Claire Sponsler’s recent study demonstrates, London merchants had long patronized dramatic performance tailored to their specific preoccupations and concerns. In the early fifteenth century, John Lydgate provided dramatic literature for the Mercers and the Goldsmiths, articulating what Sponsler calls a model of “vernacular cosmopolitanism” that engaged imaginatively with contemporary problems of insular and overseas trade and traced the “complex set of relations between London and the continent.”11 For early Tudor London companies such as the Drapers, relations between city and Crown and intercivic questions regarding corporate governance and its reproduction were of foremost importance. Although the records of the Drapers occasionally note payments to specific actors and playing companies, they do not provide titles or other features through which the plays performed at the election feasts can be securely identified. However, this article suggests that, read through the suggestive lens provided by these records, certain play texts—including those that are usually read as explorations of monarchical power, such as John Skelton’s Magnificence and the play on which I will mainly focus here, Gentleness and Nobility (printed by John Rastell around 1525)—emerge as explorations of issues specifically urgent to an urban civic milieu, namely the theory and practice of governance and the ethics of oligarchy.

Performance Site and the Articulation of Authority

Although not much is known about the specific design or size of the original guildhall of the Drapers’ Company on St. Swithin’s Street, it had to be large enough to accommodate at least one hundred people, judging from the number who attended their election feast in 1515.12 The hall was occupied by 1430 and used by the company for over a century before they made their move to the Cromwell mansion. After moving their operations into the Cromwell estate, the company did not sell their former headquarters; rather, they rented it out. To attract and keep tenants, however, the company had first to update its interior organization; untouched for over a century, the building had to be modernized to conform to current trends of domestic housing, which included creating smaller, purpose-dedicated chambers. From details in the financial records relating to the renovation, it appears the Drapers’ Company’s original fifteenth-century building had a traditional medieval “tall hall,” consisting of one large room with an open ceiling, which now required the installation of a second floor to become au courant.13 Descriptions of feasts and seating arrangements in the old St. Swithin’s headquarters also suggest it had the asymmetrical design characteristic of the medieval hall, with the focus of attention on the end of the great room farthest from the entrance, where the dais and high table sat, perhaps topped with an oriel window to let in light for those privileged to sit there. In a noble or aristocratic household this asymmetry was exploited to denote rank and household hierarchy. The house’s owner and his immediate family would be seated on the dais, with honored guests at the high tables immediately in front, with others and lower members of the household then ranged perpendicularly along benches fixed to the walls, arranged in proximity to the dais, the locus of authority, according to status. Apart from these fixed elements in the hall, other furnishings were easily disassembled, and tables and stools were easily pulled aside to make room for the various revels that accompanied the feast in elite households.

A great deal of stimulating work has been done on the way that the socially articulated hall space in a noble household might produce or influence the meaning of Tudor drama in performance.14 The dais where the lord of the house sat faced the parallel doors in the screen across the whole long expanse of the hall. Seated farthest away from the screen, which blocked somewhat the noise, bustle, heat, and smells of cooking in the buttery and the pantry, the lord of the house was also seated farthest away from the doors that led to the outside world, with the result that any visitor to the hall would have to cross the hall space, in full view, to reach the dais. In this way, the positioning of the dais and hall table underlines social privilege and house ownership. Dais and table also offered a privileged place for spectatorship of the revels, with unobstructed sightlines and comfortable seats for viewers to enjoy the performance unjostled by neighbors. This intersection between the social hierarchy and the practical physicality of play-watching is often alluded to in early Tudor plays, especially in the first lines that characters speak as they enter the playing space from the crowded end of the hall by the screen. Thus in John Heywood’s Play of the Weather, Merry Report requests the close throng of spectators “let [him] go by ye” as he enters the playing space and demands to know whether such an important personage as himself must “stand thrustyng amonge you there?”15

Social and cultural authority is also written into the physical structure of the great halls of schools such as Oxford and Cambridge and London’s Inns of Court, with their explicit pedagogical aims and communal identity, where playing in English or Latin was educational or festive entertainment or both at once. Although their halls share architectural elements with the halls of noble households, the plays performed in schools are shaped by the particular corporate nature of these institutions and use the communal space in specific ways. According to Alan Fletcher’s reconstruction of the performance of Gamma Gurton’s Needle, for example, this play was probably played by the young scholars of Christ’s College, Cambridge, on a temporary stage erected at the screen end of their long and narrow dining hall, built around 1505, rather than on the floor level in the middle or at the dais end of the hall as in a play performed during a noble or courtly feast. The Cambridge college players may have faced spectators, and the stage, as an unusual physical intrusion into the space, would mean that “[t]he status of the hall as epicentre of standard Cambridge rituals helping both to define and enable a community of academics is comically bracketed for a while.” The hall thus becomes an “alternative space” into which the student performers could denaturalize, celebrate or critique the college as a heterogeneous but corporate body.16

George Unwin long ago stated that, in terms of its fabric and spatial organization, the merchant hall was often “almost an exact replica of the house of the great noble” and indeed what scant details are known of the open, tall hall of the Drapers supports this assertion.17 But while medieval halls of the livery companies were physically designed in ways similar to those in the great households, the organization of authority expressed within them differed in significant ways. Late medieval guilds had a tripartite governance structure, which originally had a certain level of mobility written into it. The Drapers’ Company, for example, was governed by a master and four wardens who were elected every year. While the position of master was mostly ceremonial, the wardens were the most powerful members of the company. The wardens controlled the admission of apprentices; admission to the guild proper (which came with “freedom of the city,” which gave permission to trade within city walls); judged and settled conflicts between guild members; and punished those who broke standards of behavior, trade policies, or company ordinances.18 They also organized the elaborate pageants that presented the guild’s public face to the world and by which it claimed and expressed its wealth and power in the city, as well as the various fraternity dinners, including the elaborate election feast. Before 1454–1455, the whole fraternity, including the “Bachelors” (those having passed apprenticeship and free of the city but not in the Livery, that elite portion of the guild who had expanded trading rights), elected the master and wardens. After this time, the new officers were elected by the outgoing master and wardens alone, with the help after 1471 of the Council or Court of Assistants, a self-elected body of five to seven members. The outgoing officers then presented the successors to the whole corporate body for approval. The master and wardens held office only for one year and could only serve every five years.19

As noted in the Drapers’ grant of arms in 1439, the fraternity met once a year on the Monday following the feast of the Assumption of the most blessed Virgin in mid-August “to commemorate their … corporation” and “to review, change, elect, and institute a new Master and New Wardens.”20 This yearly gathering of the corporation and the election of its officers was an elaborate and important event. As in a noble household, the feast was punctuated by revels, including mixed entertainments that could involve music, dancing, and, in the Drapers case, a play. The Drapers’ election feast was also a substantial expense. In 1515, for example, it included thirty swans, dozens of quails, geese, pigeons, capons, conies, and venison, as well as herons and salmon for the high table.21 Records for 1528 and 1529 suggest that, to round out the feast, “Wafers and Ipocras” (light cakes and spiced wine) were distributed to “all the hall,” followed by “A Play.”22 A second play is often recorded as having been performed the following day. The governing body of the fraternity invited many guests to participate in the festivities. The 1515 records show a marked emphasis on London’s civic governors, including both elected governors such as the mayor (who, like the master and warden of the company, served only one year at a time) and the more permanent civic bureaucracy at the guildhall. These figures included all the city officers responsible for legal, economic, and ritual memory of the city—recorder, chamberlain, common sergeant, and common town clerk. Also present this year were various masters of London hospitals and a number of city figures who worked for the king, including the two sheriffs, a baron of the Exchequer, and a handful of knights. (In this year, interestingly, the antiquarian John Leland also attended.23) These city governors were present to witness and celebrate the passage of corporate leadership from old to new officers. After dinner and revels, the master and wardens transferred their offices to their successors by ritually handing over the garlands worn to designate these elite positions.

As Ann Lancashire notes, the records of the election feast drama performances begin in the 1430s, in the very year the company moved into their original corporate headquarters, the newly built Drapers’ Hall on St. Swithin’s Street.24 That the lavish election feasts of the company were a popular event not only among the fraternity, but also among Londoners more generally is suggested by the mid-fifteenth-century ordinance “Made to Exchewe pres off Menis Men In þe Halle þe day off þe ffeste” that limited the privilege of inviting non-Draper members to “Aldermen And they That haue borne states In the Cyttee … [or] They that haue ben Mayster or Wardens to fore.” The “Greet pres And Multitud of Ʒonge Men” crowding into the hall to see the revels of the company had resulted “In Greet Dyshonour of All the Bretheryn And Prynspally to the Mayster And Wardens for the tyme Beynge for They myght have no Rome nor space to serve nor to do her Besynes.” Even more crucially, the young rabble was blocking sightlines so that “þe statys ne Brethryn myght not se ne be holde Pleyes & oþer dyuers sportys.”25 Significantly, this particular complaint suggests that the hierarchy of seating arrangements in the feasts in the fifteenth century was less strictly enforced than later in the Company’s history when no one would ever be allowed close enough to the dais to crowd the master and wardens or block their view of the play.

For much of the fifteenth century, plays were thus a crucial element in the election ceremony and celebrations of the Drapers’ Company. In the early sixteenth century, however, beginning around 1516, the records show a new interest in hiring prestige actors for their yearly feasts, especially playing companies associated with certain patrons or with the court. John Sly, a player of Henry VIII, is named as playing with “his company” or “fellows” in 1516, 1518, 1520, and he also appeared with the leader of the King’s players, John English, in 1521. The King’s Players are named at least seven times, in 1517, 1527, 1528, 1530, 1534, 1535, and 1541. The Duke of Norfolk’s Players appear in 1529, the Duke of Suffolk’s Players in 1531 and 1532, the Prince’s Players in 1529 and 1540, and the Queen’s Players in 1539. The company usually paid the actors 6s.8d. for one play or 13s. 4d. for two plays, one for the Monday of the election, the other for Tuesday. It also provided the actors with a “mess,” that is, a dinner for four people, suggesting this was the usual number of men performing. This was quite a large amount of money to spend on drama in this period. Lesser companies who employed actors for feast-day plays more occasionally, such as the Cutlers and the Blacksmiths, usually paid only 3s. 4d.26

The substantial financial outlay by the Drapers’ Company on players associated explicitly with the court and noble audiences is particularly noteworthy in that livery companies still more powerful than the Drapers, such as the Mercers and the Goldsmiths, both of whom have substantial surviving records, do not seem to have made an investment in this way.27 Although prestige companies may have been employed by the Drapers for feasts before 1516, it is perhaps significant that their explicit appearance in the records coincides with a time of particular financial success for the company. It may be equally so, however, that this success, which was particularly hard won since the second and third decades of the sixteenth century, saw the Drapers struggling to retain their centuries-old economic and political liberties and to fend off aggressive monetary predations by the Crown.

As part of his general and ongoing work to centralize the country’s governance structures and extend royal power, Henry VII had an act passed in 1504 that brought all the London companies under the oversight of the Crown. Any ordinances or bylaws thus became subject to scrutiny and approval by royal officers, the chancellor and the treasurer.28 Henry VIII’s wars in France brought constant demands for loans, rising taxes, and other financial pressures from the Crown. Furthermore, internal strife between London merchant companies threatened the monopoly long held by the Drapers on the finished cloth trade within the city walls. The centuries-old conflict between the Drapers and the Taylors over control of the textile trade had just flared up once again. The Drapers spent the first decade of the century trying, and failing, to block the Crown from issuing the Taylors a new charter. Now under the name of the Merchant Taylors, the company was officially recognized as having the “right of selling, both wholesale and retail, all manner of cloths” and the “privileges of trading as well as making” men’s apparel. By the second decade of the century, this influential and powerful company, which boasted the recently deceased Henry VII as an honorary member, constituted “considerable and dangerous rivals” of the Drapers “in the cloth trade.”29 Yet despite these drains on funds and new threats, the second decade of the sixteenth century also saw the Drapers in a position to consolidate their status in the city hierarchy. In 1516, the year the records of prestigious drama begin, the company was officially named as third in the city’s formal list of livery precedence. Supplying several of the city’s mayors from 1515 into the 1530s, the Company thrived and remained wealthy even under the difficult new circumstances of increased royal oversight and intense internal and international trading competition.30

Most important for consideration of Tudor playing in the merchant hall, however, during the same decades in which they are recorded as hiring prestige players for their annual feasts, the Drapers’ Company was experiencing radical changes internal to the fraternity, especially in the makeup of their membership and structures of authority. The corporation’s membership shrank from a high of 124 liverymen in 1493 to 54 in 1509, a drop of more than fifty percent in only fifteen years. In this same period, increasing numbers of new members began to gain their freedom in the company through patrimony (born in the city to a Draper) or redemption (bought membership), instead of working their way up through the ranks from apprenticeship to bachelor to liveryman, as had been the normal practice earlier. The result of these changes was that, by the early sixteenth century, the corporation was not only far smaller, but also dominated by particular families and wealthy members who bought their membership through fees rather than actually practicing the craft.31 The guild’s connection to the actual cloth trade was further complicated by the fact that members of the Drapers’ Company were also heavily represented in the Merchant Adventurers, an organization of traders of diverse goods and members of various guilds, newly chartered in 1505, that had rights of export and import rivalling the international confederation of the Hanse. In short, the elite group who ran the Drapers had more power and control over company matters than ever before, and consolidated this power through internal policy change. In 1504–1505 the Drapers passed an act that put the election of master and wardens solely into the hands of the outgoing master, wardens, and members of the court, now without requiring formal acceptance of their candidates by the whole fraternity. As Tom Girtin sums up, these changes in aggregate meant that “the Company was … ruled by a virtually self-perpetuating oligarchy,” an oligarchy that “by the end of the reign of Henry VII” had “come to reflect the external authoritarianism of the Crown.”32

Corporate Citizenship and the Drama of Oligarchy: Magnificence and Gentleness and Nobility

If we accept Girtin’s characterization of the guild as mirroring the larger centralizing movements of the early Tudor monarchs in its gathering of power into the hands of fewer and fewer members, it is tempting to read the employment by the Drapers of elite playing companies for their election feasts as aspirational, as an act both of imitation and perhaps of rivalry with the court and gentry households. It is also tempting, and in many ways enlightening, to read one of the few surviving early Tudor plays thought to have been performed for a city guild, John Skelton’s Magnificence, as engaged in this kind of cultural work. Magnificence’s emphasis on Measure, the principal virtue who appears in this personification drama,33 would be sure to please such a crowd. The merchant elite of London always desired to be shown an image of itself as moderate. “Measure is treasure” is a constant theme of London literature, including John Lydgate’s writings for city patrons in the early fifteenth century. Indeed, Magnificence borrows extensively from one of these writings, the Song of Just Measure. It is true that “the importance of moderation was stressed in all advice given to princes.”34 However, one of Magnificence’s main vice characters, Largesse, pays the city fathers a particular compliment. When the as yet uncorrupted Magnificence suggests that “measure is a merry mean,” Largesse counters “Yea, sir, a blanched almond is no bean! Measure is meet for a merchant’s hall, / But largesse becometh a state royal.”35

The play’s most recent editor, Paula Neuss, suggests that the interlude, which dates between 1515 and 1523, was played at the Merchant Taylor’s Hall. At one point, Magnificence impatiently tells the arguing characters Liberty and Felicity that they “wast wind and prate … in vain” because they have “eaten sauce … at the Taylor’s Hall,”36 a pointed joke about the noise and vapid chatter during crowded Merchant Taylor feasts. Neuss’s suggestion has met with the approval of Leah Marcus, among others.37 However, given the newly hot and bothersome rivalry between the Drapers and Merchant Taylors, the joke would have been more richly appreciated by the Drapers at their magnificent annual feast, which consistently included court-connected players across the span of years during which Magnificence was probably written and first performed. Indeed, the play as a whole would have been savored by a Draper audience. The spectacle of royal Magnificence’s self-destruction and abasement as a result of fiscal and political mismanagement would have been particularly satisfying as the members of the company ritually celebrated their independent corporate status and rights of election, as well as their well-earned wealth, all of which had to be constantly protected from the political interference and constantly emptying coffers of the Crown.

Magnificence’s focus on questions of good government is shared by Gentleness and Nobility, a play also dated to the first decades of the sixteenth century. This play is much less interested in demonstrating the personal qualities needed to be a good king or even contemplating the satisfying spectacle of royal ruin. Its concern is rather to explore the foundations of political and social hierarchy and especially the nature and limits of public office. The play, performed by four men, the number routinely hired by the Drapers, is a dialogue between the estates, represented here by a Merchant, Knight, and fractious Plowman, each vying in the beginning for the title of true nobility. It ends with an epilogue in rhyme royal spoken by the character of the Philosopher.

Gentleness was published by John Rastell in about 1525. It is thought that Rastell may also have written the epilogue, while John Heywood has been suggested as the author of the main part of the drama. Heywood is named in records as an entertainer at court from 1519 onward and as having provided plays for the court and possibly also another estate debate, the Play of the Weather.38 No specific records of performance of Gentleness survive. Eighty copies of the text were inventoried at Rastell’s death, a substantial print run that suggests the publisher hoped the text would have an appeal to the larger Tudor book buying public, not only to professional or amateur players as performance scripts (Wakelin 195; Walker).39 But the play does have elements that point to performance, perhaps as well as reading, history. Gentleness is divided neatly into two sections, each the perfect length for performance in parts during a festive celebration or on two separate feast days, much like Henry Medwell’s Fulgens and Lucrece. As in other Tudor plays, Gentleness includes direct speech to the audience, and the Philosopher also ends the drama with an apology for possible mis-playing and audience offense: “my felowes here in this place, / In any poynt here have us abused, / We beseche you to holde us excused.”40

Despite the suggestion of the court entertainer Heywood’s involvement and the play’s ostensible focus on defining noble and gentle status, Gentleness seems particularly unsuited to a court entertainment. Indeed, the play does not display any sustained interest in royal or monarchical power. Instead, the play is, as the printed title page has it, “how men shuld come to auctoryte”—that is, how position of authority should be gained or bestowed and how positions of authority should be occupied and for how long. As Dan Wakelin points out, the play’s opening debate regarding noble status soon “turns into a question not about one aristocrat’s rank but about the whole of society and its political organization,” “political economy and the question who contributes most to the well-being of society.”41 These are topics of special interest to a civic audience, especially a guild audience on the occasion of electing, inducting, and celebrating their new governors.

The merchant opens the play with a description of free and easy economic exchange activity, an ideal certainly not realized in England with its new royal oversight and limitations of mercantile activity:

  • O what a gret welth and prosperyte
  • It is to any reme where marchaunts be,
  • Havying fre lyberte and entercours also
  • All marchaundyse to convey to and fro;
  • Whych thyng I have usyd and the very fet found
  • And therby gotton many a thousand pownd.
  • Wherfore now because of my grete ryches,
  • Thoroughowt this land in every place doutles
  • I am magnyfyd and gretly regarded,
  • And for a wyse and noble man estemyd. (1–10)

The merchant’s claim to noble reputation—brought by new wealth, not birth—is the catalyst for the entire debate, a statement that provokes the Knight into slapping down this parvenu whose “fadyr was but a blake smyth, perde” (16).

But it is precisely the descent from a “blake smyth” that in the merchant’s view supports his claim to nobility. Unlike the other two estates represented, the estate nature of the Merchant is carefully and boldly delineated. While the Knight’s status derives merely from the fact that he is “descendid and commyn lynyally, / Beryng the same name an armys also / That they bare this five hundred yere agoo” (34–36), the Merchant defends his claim to nobility by describing a complex imaginative origin. Instead of stopping at the fact that, having made his great wealth by trade, he can “bye now all the land” the knight has” and pay for it “owt of hand” (22–23), the merchant describes a lengthy genealogy that is entirely artisan. His ancesters “made tolis” to “all maner crafti men belongyng” from whom the Knight’s ancestors got “clothis and every other thyng” (56–57, 57–58). For “how can lordys and estatis have ought in store / Except tharytfycers do get it before?” including metal “dygged by myners / And after wrought by the artyfycers,” (69–71) just as “wool, fell, and every other thyng” (73) are also wrought. The merchant in fact absorbs the work of the artificer and laborer into the objects he trades, a history of commodity the play figures as ancestral lineage, invested thus in the merchant’s flesh. Not only is the merchant’s father a blacksmith, his “grauntfader” was a mason (95), and “grete graundfadyr” a “wever” (101), who created “Lynyn, dyaper, sylk, and cloth of gold” (104), the very commodities at the base of the Drapers’ guild’s wealth.

On the one hand, the merchant’s artisan background is proof of the quick wit and hard work that he understands as his ultimate strength and source of his claim to superiority. But on the other hand, his imagined genealogy traces the history of the objects traded by merchants: the labor that goes into fashioning the commodities in which they trade is emphasized and made visible. The labor of hands thus joins with the mercantile labor of risk incurred through the trading of premade goods, and together these constitute the merchant’s source of superiority. The figure of the hybrid merchant/artisan is particularly resonant in the highly competitive guild environment of sixteenth-century London, when tension between artisan and merchant factions over control of city government was constant.42 Like the city-sponsored Dance of Death wall paintings, still decorating the walls of the cathedral’s Pardon Churchyard, Gentleness offers a vision of the heterogeneity of civic culture.43 But whereas the Danse Macabre presents English society in atomized detail, with artisan and merchant and more than thirty other characters presented as distinct and speaking persons, here these two key elements of the urban social body are collapsed into this one estate figure.

In part, this may reflect the real changes in the makeup of London’s craft guilds. As noted above, the Drapers’ Company membership was increasingly diverse. Those admitted to the livery in the early decades of the sixteenth century also practiced other crafts, including artisanal crafts, or came from other walks of life entirely. Similar changes were taking place in the city’s other guilds. But this gathering up of the artisan estate into that of the merchant—of all those who produce commodities into the figure of those who trade them—also works dramatically to simplify the action of the play to an exchange between three figures. The opening argument regarding who can rightly claim gentle or noble status between the Knight (his superiority based on his ancestral experience of rule and administration of justice) and the Merchant (his superiority based on his claim to serve the larger social good by enabling economic exchange and mobility of goods) is interrupted by the noisy entrance of a Plowman. While both Merchant and Knight claim gentle status through their service to the “common welth,” the Plowman first launches a new claim to superiority through the fact of his own self-sufficiency, but then he moves on to debate the origins of human community and economic exchange as such. For the Knight, social order originates in the creation of positive human law. For the Plowman, human community is founded in tyranny and oppression.

Differing viewpoints on such foundational matters continue from this opening debate onward to energize the play. How an individual comes to wealth and political and social power, for example, is debated, a question that finally narrows to the ethics and practicality of inheritance of wealth, property and position. The Knight, predictably, argues that inheritance ensures care and investment in land and property, while the Plowman forcefully suggests that inheritance encourages laziness and decline in intelligence and ability through the generations. In light of the possible merchant hall performance venue of this play, it is notable that most of the Plowman’s bile and argument is directed “agayns gentylmen” of the noble class (659). When prompted by the Knight to turn his critique against merchants, the Plowman somewhat weakly notes that “some be covetous” and “dysdayn all lernyng law and reason,” when “Promoted to rule or auctoryte” (672–673), emphasizing the need for Merchants to do good deeds of charity by putting their profits back into social circulation—an entirely traditional motif. The restraint shown by the Plowman toward the Merchant and the fact that he does not strike at the very base of mercantile exchange and its proximity to usury is significant.

As Dan Wakelin notes, the debates often devolve into physical violence and, overall, the play seems to display a cynicism or pessimism about the effectiveness of public discourse to establish social agreement or further rational intellectual exchange.44 But it is also notable that the interests of the play, by the end, narrow to a very specific topic close to the hearts of the merchant London elite: the topic of who should have governance over others and how they should come to office. Frustrated with what they see as the Plowman’s stubborn refusal to engage with their arguments regarding inheritance, the Merchant and the Knight withdraw temporarily from the action until the Plowman himself leaves the stage. Returning, the Merchant and Knight finally find themselves in accord, since both support the idea of inherited wealth. For the Merchant, wealth is what makes possible good governance, for “pore wreches that have nothyng / Must be nygardes, churlysh and sparyng” whereas “gentylmen” may be “lyberal … for they have wherewithall (1068–1073). In the final speech of the play proper, the Knight takes the idea of inheritance further, arguing that not only wealth, but also “governance / Shuld come to such rulers by inherytaunce, / Rather than to have them chose by eleccyon,” because self-made men who “hafe grete wyt and lernyng” are “so proud … therof, they fere nothyng, / Nother God nor man, but everymore styll / Without councell or advyse folow theyr own wyll” (1026–1035). Those who come to authority through blood rather than brains are more amenable to advice from counsellors.

While the Knight may be defending noble, aristocratic, or even monarchic “rule by successyon of blode” here, an epilogue spoken by the Philosopher relocates the debate unmistakably in the context of the civic. Beginning with the moderate and age-old conception of gentleness as a combination of “vertew and gentyll condycyon,” seen in “pore men” as well “men of grete byrth or hye degre” (1109–1011), the Philosopher sketches a particular structure that will ensure good governance and is applicable both to those who inherited power and to those who came to it by election. “Because that men of nature evermore” are “frayle and folowyng sensualyte,”

  • Yt is impossyble in a maner therfore
  • For any governours that be in auctoryte
  • At all tymys just and indyfferent to be,
  • Except they be brydelyd and therto compellyd
  • By some strayt laws for them devysyd. (1149–1155)

The governor’s submission to the law is crucial. But temporal limitation of officeholding is also paramount, so that “no man such rome ocupye / But certayn yerys and than to be removyd.” Further, those in office can be removed if he “offend” and “ponysshyd. / For the ponysshment of a juge or offycer/ Doth more good than of thousand other” (1156–1162).

The structures of authority the Philosopher sketches here are not applicable to monarchical or even aristocratic authority and would not be welcomed by a noble audience; rather, they suggest “something a little like parliamentary democracy and active participation in office-holding.”45 More specifically, what the Philosopher describes is London’s civic governing systems down from the mayor, who is elected by the citizens every year, to the master and wardens of the livery companies, whose election also occurs every year—an event that Drapers, for example, mark by the performance of a play. The turnover of officeholders is ideally intended to ensure a measure of democracy and circulation of power. However, in early-sixteenth-century reality, oligarchy—the increased concentration of authority in the hands of the very few and their families—was an ever-present threat.

The place of inheritance in relation to public officeholding appears to have long been a London concern. In the Pardon Churchyard Dance of Death at St. Paul’s, already almost a century old, the “Famulus” figure, apparently a civic “Serjeant or officer,” gives one last “consel” before taking Death’s proffered hand: “In office lat no man doon outrage / For dreede of god & peyne also / Also service is noon heritage.”46 In the first few decades of the sixteenth century, the sharp rise in Drapers inheriting their place in the livery and decline in those attaining it through apprenticeship reflects a larger shift in the governance structure of most of the London guilds.47 What appears to be Gentleness and Nobility’s guarded acceptance of the ethics of inherited political governance, but only with the added proviso that such rule be for limited terms, suggests that this interlude is, above all, a drama of oligarchy, working through the new problems of the urban realpolitik under Henry VIII’s rule.48

Conclusion: In Cromwell’s Parlor

As Lena Orlin notes, once in Cromwell’s mansion, the governors of the Drapers’ Company spent a large amount of money refurbishing the parlor, the smaller room behind the hall, installing precious oak wainscotting and other deluxe elements. Orlin argues that the unmistakably intensified oligarchic complexion of the Drapers in the sixteenth century coincided with and was given material expression by their new use of space when they relocated their corporate headquarters. The “spatial story” in this new abode entailed “the movement of Company decision-making away from the great hall, where ordinances had once required the approval of all the junior members … and into the parlor, where policies and procedures came to be determined by a small group of selected officers behind closed doors.”49 The great medieval merchant hall was, on the one hand, highly codified in the way it gave spatial expression to social and political hierarchy, with the high dais and ranged seating visually marking and separating company elite from those ranking below. On the other hand, the great hall, in their old headquarters, was the site of the celebration of the Drapers as a corporate body, and the seating arrangements and protocols of precedence were, at least in theory, subject to minor or major changes from year to year. In contrast, entrance into and use of the parlor was carefully controlled and limited to the dozen or so self-elected Drapers who now controlled the company’s expenses and decision making. The beautiful and luxurious hall all purchased from the fallen Cromwell was still a site of ceremony and revels involving musical performers, such as the Children of St. Paul’s, for special occasions.50 But “if any plays continued” to be performed at the new hall of the Drapers, “we have no records of them.”51 The difference between symbolic ceremonial events and the performance of a play such as Gentleness and Nobility is, of course, vast. While codified ritual gives material form to a preexisting social, economic, and political arrangement and seeks to reproduce it, drama is by its nature polyvocal with the constant possibility of questioning and subversion of ideas and social forms. The Drapers’ Company’s final collapse into oligarchy meant interlude playing, with its open-ended debates of such weighty matters as “how men shuld come to auctoryte,” was no longer a welcome part of the revels in the company’s new great hall.


Barron, Caroline M. London in the Later Middle Ages: Government and People, 1200–1500. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Girtin, Tom. The Triple Crowns: A Narrative History of the Drapers’ Company, 1364–1964. London: Hutchinson, 1964.Find this resource:

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Johnson, A. H. The History of the Worshipful Company of the Drapers of London. 5 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1914–1922.Find this resource:

Lancashire, Anne. London Civic Theatre: City Drama and Pageantry from Roman Times to 1558. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Lancashire, Ian. Dramatic Texts and Records of Britain: A Chronological Topography to 1558. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984.Find this resource:

Orlin, Lena. Locating Privacy in Tudor London. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Rappaport, Steven. Structures of Life in Sixteenth-Century London. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Robertson, Jean, and D. J. Gordon, eds. Collections III, Calendar of Dramatic Records in the Books of the Livery Companies of London, 1485–1640. Oxford: Oxford University Press for the Malone Society, 1954.Find this resource:

Streitberger, W. R. Court Revels, 1485–1559. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Wakelin, Daniel. “Gentleness and Nobility, John Rastell, c. 1525–27.” In The Oxford Handbook of Tudor Drama, edited by Thomas Bettridge and Greg Walker, pp. 192–206. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Walker, Greg. The Politics of Performance in Early Renaissance Drama. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Walker, Greg. Plays of Persuasion: Drama and Politics at the Court of Henry VIII. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

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Withington, Phil. Citizens and Freemen in Early Modern England. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2005.Find this resource:


(1) For Cromwell’s estate, see William Philips Sawyer, “The Drapers’ Company,” Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society 7, part 1 (1888; printed as an appendix to vol. 6, 1890), 37–64; and Mary L. Robertson, “Profit and Purpose in the Development of Thomas Cromwell’s Landed Estates,” Journal of British Studies 29 (1990), 317–346.

(2) John Stow, Survey of London (London, 1603), 180–181.

(3) On the description of the Drapers’ Company’s purchase of the estate, see A. H. Johnson, The History of the Worshipful Company of the Drapers of London, vol. 2 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1914–1922), 64–65.

(5) For Cromwell’s early life, see Roger Bigelow Merriman, Life and Letters of Thomas Cromwell (Oxford: Clarendon, 1902), and for his patronage of John Bale, see Peter Happé, John Bale (New York: Twayne, 1996), 10, 90–91.

(6) Description of the estate in the court records of the Drapers, printed in Johnson, History of the Worshipful Company, vol. 2, 279.

(7) W. R. Streitberger, Court Revels, 1485–1559 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994), 145.

(8) On London civic theater, see Anne Lancashire, London Civic Theatre: City Drama and Pageantry from Roman Times to 1558 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002); for a discussion of the records of payment to plays and players by the Drapers, see 73–79.

(9) The records relating to drama in the records of the Drapers have been edited for the Malone Society: see Jean Robertson and D. J. Gordon, eds., Collections III, Calendar of Dramatic Records in the Books of the Livery Companies of London, 1485–1640 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954), with the records of the Drapers during the early Tudors at 132–140 and 183–184. For an important discussion of the problems of dating in the Malone publication and more generally of the extant records of the Drapers, see Anne Lancashire, “Medieval to Renaissance: Plays and the London Drapers’ Company to 1558,” Studies in Medieval Culture 33 (1993): 297–313.

(10) Greg Walker, The Politics of Performance in Early Renaissance Drama (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 52–53.

(11) Claire Sponsler, The Queen’s Dumbshows: John Lydgate and the Making of Early Theater (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), 44.

(13) On the medieval hall and changes in styles of domestic architecture in the sixteenth century, see Matthew Johnson, Housing Culture Traditional Architecture in an English Landscape (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993); specifically for London architecture, see John Schofield, Medieval London Houses (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995).

(14) See, for example, the influential work by Suzanne R. Westfall, Patrons and Performance: Early Tudor Household Revels (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990); and Walker, Politics, especially chap. 2.

(15) The Play of the Weather, in The Plays of John Heywood, edited by Richard Axton and Peter Happé, pp. 183–215 (Cambridge, U.K.: D. S. Brewer, 1991), here at lines 178–180.

(16) Alan Fletcher, “Gammer Gurton’s Needle,” in The Oxford Handbook of Tudor Drama, edited by Thomas Betteridge and Greg Walker, pp. 276–292, here at 285 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). See

(17) George Unwin, The Gilds and Companies of London (London: F. Cass, 1963), 176.

(26) On plays and payments at the “lesser” companies’ feasts, see Lancashire, London Civic, 84–94.

(27) On the lack of mention of play and players in the other “great” companies’ extant records, as well as issues of manuscript survival and guild accounting practices, see Lancashire, London Civic, 79–84.

(28) On these developments, see Mark R. Horowitz, “‘Contrary to the liberties of this city’: Henry VII, English Towns and the Economics of Law and Order,” Historical Research 85(227) (2012), 32–56.

(29) Tom Girtin, The Triple Crowns: A Narrative History of the Drapers’ Company, 1364–1964 (London: Hutchinson, 1964), 80; and Johnson, History of the Worshipful Company, vol. 2, 168.

(34) Neuss, “Introduction,” 19–20.

(35) John Skelton, Magnificence, edited by Paula Neuss (Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1980), lines 380–383.

(36) On the suggestion of Merchant Hall performance, see Neuss, “Introduction,” 43, and quotation here at lines 1404–1405. Greg Walker has suggested that Skelton “turned from the primarily courtly and scholarly audience intended for [Speak] Parott … to the merchant elite who ran the livery companies and occupied the major civic offices,” which supports the idea of guild hall performance (John Skelton and the Politics of the 1520s (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 100–118.

(37) See Leah Marcus, “Dramatic Achievements,” in The Cambridge Companion to English Literature, 1500–1600, edited by Arthur F. Kinney, p. 138 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000); see also Greg Walker, Plays of Persuasion: Drama and Politics at the Court of Henry VIII (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 88.

(38) See Daniel Wakelin, “Gentleness and Nobility, John Rastelll, c. 1525–27,” in The Oxford Handbook of Tudor Drama, edited by Thomas Bettridge and Greg Walker, pp. 192–206, at 192–193 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). See See also Richard Axton, “Introduction,” in Three Rastell Plays, edited by Richard Axton, (Cambridge, U.K.: D. S. Brewer, 1979).

(40) Gentleness and Nobility, in Three Rastell Plays, edited by Richard Axton, lines 1172–1174 (Cambridge, U.K.: D. S. Brewer, 1979). All subsequent line references to the play are from this edition.

(42) On merchant and artisan competition for control of the city’s government up to and including these decades, see Caroline M. Barron, London in the Later Middle Ages: Government and People, 1200–1500 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

(43) On the St. Paul’s Dance of Death wall sequence as a figure for London as a heterogeneous but orderly corporate body, see Amy Appleford, Learning to Die in London, 1380–1540 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), chap. 2.

(46) The Dance of Death, edited by Florence Warren, EETS o.s. 181 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1931), B-Version (Lansdowne MS), lines 461–464.

(47) See Steven Rappaport, Structures of Life in Sixteenth-Century London (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002), chap. 2.

(48) The play can be seen as engaging in newly urgent issues of governance and corporate citizenship and the relation of civic bodies to the centralizing policies of the crown. On early modern urban political culture in the history of English state formation, see Phil Withington, Citizens and Freemen in Early Modern England (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

(49) Lena Orlin, Locating Privacy in Tudor London (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 147.