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date: 26 October 2020

Major English Acting Troupes to 1583

Abstract and Keywords

This study argues that English acting troupes enjoyed liveried status in royal or noble households from about the mid-fifteenth century, their early development inhibited by the continuing power of court minstrels. Challenging the persisting view that patronized troupes evolved from minstrelsy or absorbed much of its fare, the study concludes that players rivaled minstrels in popularity as touring entertainers until the 1530s, when acting companies became dominant. On the one hand, early Tudor players remained dependent on patrons for protection, prestige, and career opportunities; they were intermittently censored and served as propagandists. On the other hand, the high level of professionalization that Queen Elizabeth’s Men and similar troupes would later enjoy already existed in that many made a living from full-time acting, owned their playscripts, and determined their own touring itineraries.

Keywords: acting troupes, minstrels, Tudor, royal, noble, touring, patrons, Queen’s Men, professionalization, propaganda

In 1615 Edmond Howes summed up the history of Tudor playing troupes through 1583 in one sentence:

Comedians and stage-players, of former time were very poore and ignorant, in respect of these of this time, but being nowe growne very skilfull and exquisite Actors for all matters, they were entertained into the seruice of diuers great Lords, out of which companies, there were xii. of the best chosen, and at the request of Sir Francis Walsingham, they were sworne the Queenes seruants, & were allowed wages, and liueries, as groomes of the chamber: and vntill this yeere 1583, the Queene hadde no players.

(Quoted in Stow 1615, 697)

Relating significant events of the year 1583, Howes’s main focus is the formation of the Queen’s Men, drawing its players from the very best actors currently employed in the troupes of “great lords,” or governing-class patrons. But he also tells a compelling, if highly compressed, story about the development of the acting troupes. In “former times” they were “very poor and ignorant,” but having “grown very skillful and exquisite” in the craft of acting, great lords took them into their service, which in turn led to patronage by the queen herself, who recruited the very best of them for her own players and elevated them to grooms of the royal chamber, with the position’s attendant privileges.

This rags to riches tale is plausible but misleading. Howe’s reliability is called into question with the factual error in the final clause above. Queen Elizabeth did have players prior to 1583; the first Queen’s Men troupe, inherited from her royal sister in 1558, was the most widely traveled acting troupe in England through 1573. The other part of the story—that players were very poor and ignorant—has been more generally accepted in the historiography of the early English stage, mainly because it fits in with another critical piece of evidence concerning the history of Elizabethan actors: the 1572 Act against Vagabonds, which, even if only indirectly, gave instant legitimate status to players “in the service of diverse great lords” and associated “common players” with rogues and vagabonds. Indeed, the standard critical view, at least through Victorian times, is that up to 1572, and certainly by the opening of the first permanent playhouse, the Theatre, in 1576, most English actors were among the itinerant poor.

Today theater historians offer more nuanced accounts of the pre-playhouse, pre-“1572” acting troupes, but there remains considerable disagreement over key aspects of their history. Did the companies date back to the late medieval period, or were they an early modern phenomenon, not emerging until the sixteenth century, as recently argued? To what extent, if at all, were they professional before the Act against Vagabonds officially recognized acting as an occupation in 1572? Is the term “strolling” accurate in describing troupes on tour, or were they tethered in a significant way to their patrons’ demands, and what else can we conclude about patron-player relationships? Can we assume that scripted plays always made up their repertories, or did they offer a variety of activities—perhaps tumbling, juggling, or storytelling to instrumental music, as some critics have conjectured? In other words, can we be sure that players were always actors rather than, say, minstrels or acrobats? In the following discussion I answer these and other critical questions, as part of a critical overview of governing-class-sponsored acting troupes from 1485 to the formation of the Queen’s Men in 1583.

Long History versus Short History of the Major Playing Troupes

Extensive study of the early English playing companies and their patronage began with the Victorians’ quest to contextualize Shakespeare, leading to the important and influential scholarship of E. K. Chambers and J. T. Murray, among others in the early twentieth century (Chambers 1903; Murray 1910). From their work through that of Glynne Wickham and Ian Lancashire in the later 1900s, theater history developed what we might call a long history of the court and noble-sponsored companies, from the late Middle Ages—the early fifteenth century at the latest—through the early Stuarts (Wickham 1959–1978; Lancashire 1984). Chambers’s version is that acting troupes gradually evolved out of the minstrel tradition in the 1400s, while others assume that professional troupes are observable as far back as the twelfth century (Chambers 1903, II:186; Wasson 1984).1 Chambers cites the fragmentary Interludium de Clerico et Puella (Latin title; English script) as representative of a lost repertory of minstrel drama in the fourteenth century and sees a direct line of continuity with the similarly farcical interludes of John Heywood, “of the minstrel class,” a century and a half later (Chambers 1903, 202–203). Further evidence cited by Chambers is the significant number of references to “interludes” performed, from rural abbeys to the royal court, including Henry VI’s hosting of interludes at court in 1427, so that by 1464 “players in their interludes” (direct quote from the legislation) were exempt from the Act of Apparel (Chambers 1903, 186). When the demand for oral storytelling declined with the increase in literacy and the advent of printing in the late fifteenth century, he asserts, the popularity of the minstrel poet declined; consequently, minstrels who included juggling, tumbling, and acts of conjuring in their repertoire needed to adjust to the changing circumstances. Wickham extends this argument by proposing that troupes turned to “ensemble playing,” citing the mid-fifteenth-century Selby Abbey accounts, in which elite-sponsored troupes are recorded as histriones, a term often used to designate minstrels or merely “entertainers” (1959–1978, 268). The Chambers/Wickham thesis—that governing-class acting troupes morphed out of the minstrelsy tradition—held sway for much of the last century. Moreover, the notion of a “hybrid” troupe, offering a mixture of acrobatic, musical, and mimetic entertainment and documented as “players” in the records right into Elizabeth’s reign, has been conjectured recently by William Ingram and Andrew Gurr (for Ingram, see Wickham, Berry, and Ingram 2000, 153; Gurr 1996, 196).

The unease of some researchers with the liberties long history proponents have taken with evidence—notably the use of the Latin term histrio for “player” when it typically denotes “entertainer”—developed into open revolt in 1998 when Peter Meredith discredited claims about governing-class acting troupes traveling professionally prior to 1500.2 That essentially wiped out a century or more in the playing troupes’ history, if we include the supposed hybrid minstrel/player troupes of the fifteenth century. Meredith’s position is worth examining, given that it has been cited a number of times, notably in Lawrence Clopper’s influential Drama, Play and Game (Clopper 2001), which similarly distrusts any use of “player” as actor or “interlude” as “play” (the terms refer also to musicians and musical performance, respectively) (see also Tydeman 2008, 274). Meredith, following Gordon Kipling, asserts that Chambers and Wickham “seriously misrepresent the evidence” in normally translating “histriones” as “players,” and he also questions Alexandra Johnston’s claim that traveling players were popular at York in the mid-1400s, when documentation over a four-year period indicates that most of the cited records are for minstrels (Johnston, 2004).

The charge against Chambers is unfounded, since Chambers, evolutionary theory notwithstanding, explicitly states, “mimi and histriones I have uniformly treated as merely minstrels” (1903, 186), and does so in the fifteenth-century Shrewsbury accounts (Appendix E, IV) earmarked by Kipling (1982, 150; Chambers 1903, 250–251). The concern—one might say handwringing—over the ambiguity of such terms as “play,” “player,” and “interlude” seems to me unjustified in light of more recent records research and publication. In his Records of Early English Drama (REED) collection of Kent, for example, James Gibson (2002b) admits that there may have been some ambiguity in the use of the Latin and English terms for actors/acting, but insists that they stabilized by the Tudor period and that minstrel troupes and playing troupes can be clearly distinguished by that time, and this essentially supports the conclusions of REED’s Latin specialist Abigail Young (1984, 1985).

The strongest plank in Meredith’s argument is that in the extant descriptions of liveried minstrels, particularly those recorded in Liber Niger Domus Regis Angliae (aka The Black Book) of Edward IV, there is absolutely no reference to dramatic performance among their activities. He adds that the guild founded at Edward IV’s court for minstrels nationwide in the mid-fifteenth century (there were also minstrel commissions established by Henry VI in 1449 and 1455, for similar reasons) indicate that the minstrels “were clearly feeling the competition from various ‘rude countrymen and mechanicals of various crafts’ (in their terms) who were stealing their business” (1998, 31). As he concludes, professional minstrels may not have reacted to this competition from local thespians and musicians by retraining as “ensemble players,” but may “have entrenched themselves even more firmly in their traditional roles” (31). I add that it may have been due to the strict protections the powerful, court-controlled minstrel guild enforced in the mid-fifteenth century that acting troupes ceased to attain royal patronage for much of the fifteenth century, perhaps not until Henry VII’s reign.3 Moreover, Meredith is surely right in saying that when royal and noble acting companies of professional status emerged, they drew their talent not from established minstrel troupes, but rather from players who flourished at the town and parish levels, staging such interludes as Mankind and The Play of the Sacrament. Interestingly, the elite minstrel troupes may have recruited from the local talent pool as well. The script in Mankind (ca. 1470) indicates that the East Anglian playing troupe performing the interlude either hired minstrels or included them among its members. Early on, New Gyse cues them when he exclaims, “Ande how, mystrellys, pley [th]e comyn trace” (line 72).

The question, of course, is when those elite acting troupes emerged. Parliament, in which the gentry and nobility were well represented, was clearly protecting actors of some sort when it exempted “players of interludes” from the sumptuary laws in the Act of Apparel in 1464. Who were those actors? Anne Lancashire finds an abundance of them entertaining the London trade guilds from the 1420s, when actors, she reports, are in most cases clearly differentiated from minstrels (2002, 69–117). She speculates that the acting troupe of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, who had aspirations as a great patron of learning along Italian humanist lines, may have staged feast-time plays in the 1440s for the livery company of which he was an honorary member, the Merchant Taylors.4 David Bevington, followed by Ian Lancashire, maintains that the beginning of professional playing in England is signaled by the appearance of “interluders” such as “Jakke Travaill” before the royal court at Eltham in 1426 and 1427 (Bevington 1962, 11; Lancashire 1984, xx and 406), although for Bevington aristocratic patronage comes much later in the century (1962, 10–12). To be sure, it is not until the 1470s that royal and noble troupes specifically identified as players begin to appear in provincial records. The first troupe with significant numbers of entries during this period is that sponsored by the Earl of Arundel, which is recorded eight times between 1478 and 1486 in what would become a familiar touring circuit in Kent and Sussex for the various troupes of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. Might this have been an early “professional troupe?” William Fitz Alan, 16th Earl of Arundel (1417–1487), generously sponsored touring minstrels, bearwards, and dancers, as well as players, during his long and distinguished career. As hereditary royal butler to Richard III and Henry VII, an office centrally involved in organizing the coronation ceremonies, his actors toured Kent in the early 1480s, on one occasion at Dover, teaming up with his troupe of minstrels.5

Other evidence from around this time is found in the household accounts of John, Lord Howard of Stoke-by-Nayland, Suffolk, where the players of the Duke of Gloucester (the future Richard III) and Henry Bouchier, Earl of Essex, are recorded for 1482–1483 (Chambers 1903, x; Lancashire 1984, 269, 376, 402). The REED (n.d.) Players and Performance web page records nine playing troupes sponsored by the gentry or the nobility between 1475 and 1500, and three royal companies (patronized by Henry VII, Prince Arthur, and Prince Henry) are recorded for eleven events, Oxford’s for four, and Prince Arthur’s for three, whereas they are recorded for other troupes only once. We need to be cautious in assessing companies with only one recorded event; it could mean they were short-lived, but there are also significant instances of important troupes who have left little or no trace in civic financial accounts, as is seen from the Duke of Northumberland’s players and Sir Richard Chomeley’s troupe, about which more is said below (see also Somerset 2007, 77–80). Another indication that actors were gaining a reputation on a par with minstrels at this early stage is found in Fulgens and Lucrece, dated about 1496. The joke at the interlude’s outset about common players dressing so extravagantly that they are frequently mistaken for gallants does not make any sense if acting was not recognized as an occupation by the play’s audience in the mid-1490s (Medwall 1980, 33 [ll. 44–56]). This would support other evidence that governing-class acting troupes were around in the latter years of the fifteenth century, perhaps as far back as the 1460s, if we give weight to the 1464 Act of Apparel cited earlier, with professional troupes based at the parish and town level touring from the early fifteenth century.

However, what about the earlier minstrels’ troupes that “long history” proponents include as professional players? Recently Stephanie Thompson Lundeen has identified four “interludes” predating the fifteenth century, all short and farcical, which support Chambers’s theory that minstrels may have performed brief, dramatic pieces during that time (Lundeen 2009). I am highly doubtful that by the early fifteenth-century liveried minstrels were performing dramatic fare, although we should not be too categorical here. Players throughout this period were associated with music sung and performed on instruments; at the same time, jesting and storytelling associated with the minstrels called for some mimetic display, and even town waits (the term for town-sponsored minstrels) were known to perform drama from time to time (Gibson 2002a, li; Westfall 1990, 100). It would not be out of place, moreover, for a performer in a minstrel troupe to transfer on occasion to troupes of players, and vice versa, although the two types of itinerants maintained separate identities throughout much of the period covered in this discussion. This might have changed under Elizabeth I.

The relationship between minstrel troupes and acting troupes sponsored by the ruling elite during the early Tudor period is an important and underappreciated one, especially given the fact that traveling minstrels still outnumbered acting troupes nationwide well into the sixteenth century.6 The model of patronage for actors followed that of the minstrels, who for centuries entertained the royal court and major households during the Christmas season and wore their livery while representing them on tour (Chambers 1903, I:42–88; Southworth 1989). Especially while on tour, these companies functioned to enhance their patrons’ image of power, wealth, and prestige. Arriving in the livery of a great patron struck a lasting impression with audiences, as the Elizabethan William Harrison relates (Harrison 231, cited in MacLean 2002, 251). They also served as couriers and engaged in information gathering, including espionage at times (Arthurson 1991, 31–54; Southworth 1989; McMillin and MacLean 1998, 23). They were integral to the feudal practice of gift giving and hospitality, in which they served as an extension of their patron’s hospitality to his peers, retainers, and supporters in reward for allegiance, while on the road. Hospitality was extended to the local community at home on the occasion of performances in the patron’s own household, where all classes were invited for feasting at Christmas and on other holidays (Greenfield 1997, 256–261). Minstrels’ traveling practices provided the infrastructure for the Tudor acting troupes. Three or four musicians appear to have been the norm in those troupes in the fifteenth century, although there is evidence that storytellers—reciting poetry to instrumental music—along with artists specializing in tumbling, swordplay, juggling, and conjuring, were among the personnel.7 With their gradual decline in the sixteenth century we find them reduced to solo performances, such as the Earl of Derby’s minstrel Richard Sheale (1560s) and “the Minstrel of Islington” at Kennilworth (1570s), who performed the legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood and other popular medieval tales.8 I discuss below minstrels performing in the early Elizabethan acting troupes.

Tudor Playing Troupes in Pre-Reformation England: 1485–1530

Although some scholars believe Richard III had players (at least when he was Duke of Gloucester; Wickham 1959–1978, I:267; Bevington 1962, 11), the earliest, specific, and indisputable evidence of royal sponsorship of acting troupes does not appear until 1494, when we learn that the Royal Interluders of Henry VII, a troupe of four actors, received an annual wage of “five marks per annum” per player, in addition to livery and rewards for individual productions.9 This troupe’s personnel divided their occupation as actors with other responsibilities at court. The leader early on was John English (a joiner, possibly also a tailor, by trade an artisan of the Great Wardrobe); the other three original actors were Richard Gibson (Yeoman of the Royal Wardrobe), John Hammond, and Edward Maye (Kipling 1981, 152; Streitberger 1994, 424; Westfall 1990, 127). By 1504 Maye had dropped out and was replaced with two actors, John Scott and William Rutter, increasing the troupe from four to five members. Their performances were closely integrated with the complex, multimedia entertainments staged before the king, as in the St. George disguising, which began with an interlude interrupted by William Cornish, of the chapel royal, who rode into Westminster Hall on horseback to save the lady and slay the dragon. From that event on, the King’s Men entertained regularly at the royal court during the Christmas season, notably on Twelfth Night and other important festive occasions, for the rest of Henry VII’s reign. In celebration of the marriage of Princess Margaret to James IV in 1503, they traveled to the Scottish court, where, on August 11, “after supper, the King and Queen being together in their Great Chamber John English and his companions played, and then each one went his way.” On August 13, “after dinner, a Morality was played by the said Master English and his companions, in the presence of the King and Queen, and then dances were danced.”10 Streitberger suggests that English composed plays for the King’s Interluders. He was succeeded as troupe leader by Richard Gibson, who began receiving company payments from the court under his name in 1505 and extending into 1509 (Streitberger 1994, 38–39, 49–50).

Henry VII learned from the Burgundian court and other continental centers of culture the value of recruiting artists, musicians, and writers to enhance a monarch’s claims to political legitimacy and authority, and Henry Tudor was especially in need of this in the wake of the Wars of the Roses (Kipling 1981, 118–164). By the turn of the century there were three court-sponsored playing troupes: the aforementioned Royal Interluders; Prince Arthur’s Men; and the Lord Warden’s Players, a troupe sponsored by young Prince Henry, who was made Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports in 1496. Since Henry was a mere infant when this troupe was formed, the Lord Warden’s players were clearly designed to enhance the prince’s reputation. With court performances at Christmas through Shrovetide in 1498–1499, this was also clearly the case with the players of Prince Arthur, who “was being publicly ‘brought out’ in preparation for his wedding” to the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon (Streitberger 1994, 32). The latter two troupes traveled in the provinces. During the next forty years, through Henry VIII’s pre-Reformation phase, one finds a gradual increase in the number of royal companies. About 1515 Henry VIII added a second troupe of Royal Interluders; unlike the one led by English and Gibson, these players traveled extensively. The royal family sponsored as many as five troupes in the 1520s–early 1530s: two King’s Men companies and troupes patronized by Queen Catherine, Princess Mary, and the “bastard” son Henry Fitzroy (Streitberger 1994, 422–427; Forse 2013).

If not exactly setting a precedent, the royal court enthusiastically supported acting troupes among the aristocracy, so that more noble families began patronizing players, with several of the great lords of the realm continuing to sponsor traveling minstrels along with their players. They included the earls of Arundel, Essex, and Oxford and the Duke of Buckingham; the first two of these lords were also active in organizing festivities and entertainments at the royal court and therefore had a personal and political investment in sponsoring players. Henry VII was especially active in inviting the troupes of his nobles, along with local players, to perform at court; this, however, was not true of Henry VIII, who favored his own interluders and the players of his chapel (Streitberger 1994, 48–50). By the time the elite-affiliated players began to outnumber minstrels on the road in the late 1520s, there were at least twenty elite companies on record, and probably more, since (as suggested earlier) the one aristocratic household that provides us with important information, the earl of Northumberland’s, left little trace in provincial civic accounts.11 The fifth earl’s household book shows that his troupe had four actors, who received annual wages and were expected to perform yearly during the Christmas season: “My Lorde usith and accustometh to gif yerely to every of the iiij Parsons that his Lordschip admyted as his Players to com to his Lorschip yerly at Cristynmas Ande at all other such tymes as his Lordschip shall comande them for Playing of Playe[s] and Interludes affor his Lordship” (quoted in Westfall 1990, 124). How much each player received in annual wages is not specified. The Royal Interluders, we may recall, were rewarded with five marks (£3.6s 8d) each. The only other instance for which we know the annual wage of an acting troupe is the Duchess of Suffolk’s players in the early Elizabethan period. The duchess’s household accounts tell us that each of her five players received fifteen shillings: “To Robart Phillips, Thomas Bambrick Iohn Sargent, Thomas Border, and Iohn Kyrry, the players in reward after xv s. the man … iij li. Xv s (Stokes 2009, 356).

Players had varied responsibilities within a typical troupe. Some, such as John English, John Bale, George Mayler, John Roo and John Young, were company leaders. Of these three, Bale (active in the 1530s) certainly, and English probably, wrote plays for their troupe and were perhaps capable of scripting parts for individual actors. Most players were expected to sing, as in the mid-Tudor Life and Repentaunce of Mary Magdalene, in which four of the five actors sang four-part harmony. Some no doubt were instrumentalists. A portative organ player was evidently with Bale and his fellows when they performed on tour in the 1530s. Toward the end of our period, professional actors Will Kempe and Richard Tarleton were known to be accomplished musicians.12

What was in the repertory of the early Tudor playing troupes? “My Lord Cardinal’s Players,” a fictional and to some extent anachronistic troupe in the Elizabethan play Sir Thomas More, offers seven interludes to the household of its host, the great Catholic statesman and author: The Cradle of Security, Hit Nayle o’th Head, Impatient Poverty, The Play of Four Ps, Dives and Lazarus, Lusty Juventus, and The Marriage of Wit and Science (Sir Thomas 1911, lines 918–922). Several of these plays postdate the Henrician era, but together they offer a cross-section of the secular and religious, popular as well as courtly, interludes representative of troupe drama of the early Tudor period. Only a handful of pre-Reformation Tudor interludes survive: Henry Medwell’s Fulgens and Lucrece and Nature; John Skelton’s Magnificence; and John Rastell’s Play of the Four Elements, The World and the Child, The Interlude of Youth, and Hick Scorner. We might also include John Heywood’s early interludes (The Four Ps, after all, is in the Cardinal’s Players repertory), although they are usually assigned to troupes of children and choristers.13 All of these plays appeal to courtly audiences, featuring elite characters, circumstances, and topical references, but they would not have been out of place in a popular venue. Medwell’s plays deal with politics, courtship, and public morality; The World teaches godly behavior; and Youth and Hick Scorner satirize the nation’s youth and clergy. Magnificence offers political advice on court patronage and exposes the vices of royal counselors. These plays take advantage of the license given to court-sanctioned entertainers to criticize as well as praise the personal habits and political conduct of their ruling-class superiors. Of the known playwrights here—Medwell, Skelton, Rastell, and Heywood—only Medwell can be directly linked to professional troupes. He was embroiled in a lawsuit in the late 1520s over the hiring of his large wardrobe of costumes, presumably stocked for the apparently short-lived playhouse he opened in London during that decade (Wickham, Berry, and Ingram 2000, 229–234; Dillon 1996).

However, scholars have had to speculate about the auspices and companies associated with these plays. For example, Youth has been assigned to the Earl of Northumberland’s players, Hickscorner to the Earl of Suffolk’s, and while Magnificence has been connected to one of the London trade guilds, this has recently been questioned; it strikes me as a play perfectly suitable for a nobleman’s troupe (Westfall 1990, 152–199; Walker 1991; Lancashire 1984, 112). In the period from Henry VII’s accession through 1530, we cannot discern any gradual development toward secularization. As Alan Nelson asserts, if we accept Fulgens and Lucrece (ca. 1496), not as “far ahead of its time” but as “thoroughly conventional,” “then Medwall’s plays take on an even greater significance, for they must represent not the idiosyncracies of a lone genius, but a substantial body of late fifteenth century dramatic texts, now mostly lost, originally commissioned for household entertainment by royalty, bishops and archbishops, noblemen, and academic foundations, including the colleges of Cambridge and Oxford” (Medwall 1980, 2). Troupes, I argue, were needed to perform many of those plays; they did not suddenly appear at the turn of the sixteenth century. This scenario of advanced humanist drama in 1500 challenges Clopper’s view that Lydgate-style pageants or “musical performance in conjunction with a pageant” were still being staged by the King’s Men when they were led by John English and John Slye in performances at the Draper’s Hall between 1515 and 1530 (Clopper 2001, 14; see also Lancashire 2002, 78).

We have observed that between 1485 and 1530 at least twenty companies of governing-class patronage—and probably many more—were operating across England. We should see these numbers in relation to other liveried itinerants, among them minstrels, jugglers, and bearwards. Gibson observes that in the county of Kent, it was not until about 1530 that playing troupes outnumbered minstrel companies in the county’s records (2002a, lii). Not to be overlooked are individual liveried performers such as “our welbiloued seruant Thomas Brandon our player” (Henry VII’s words), who was in fact not a Royal Interluder but the king’s joculator, a multitalented, semi-independent entertainer who specialized in verbal, physical, and conjuring skills, showcasing his talent and representing the king on tour throughout England between 1515 and 1542 (Palmer 2007; Southworth 1998). Barbara Palmer proposes that Brandon’s touring reveals effective networking rather than the traditional image of “strolling” from venue to venue (2007, 15).

The Question of Professionalization

Playing troupes are not documented as resident servants in noble household records, in contrast with musicians, who were expected to participate regularly in religious services (e.g., the choristers) or to teach the family children music and to repair musical instruments (Westfall 1990, 84). It’s generally assumed, however, that when they were not on tour, they resided with their patrons, moving from estate to estate, as was often the case, or remaining at the principle residence, where they took up other employment. And there is evidence of this. Westfall, for example, cites the example of Anthony Hall, the Earl of Rutland’s retainer in 1542, who was provided lodging for four weeks while he was “lernyng a play to pley in Christemes” and then subsequently that year was paid for “scowrying away the yerthe and stones in the tennys playe” (Westfall 1990, 127). One also assumes that Royal Interluders who were busy organizing revels at court most of the year—for example, Richard Gibson, who was Yeoman of the Great Wardrobe, and John English, who designed pageants for Henry VII and VIII—enjoyed residence in the royal household, as did Robert Wilson in the mid-1580s.

What is insufficiently recognized, however, is that most Royal Interluders on record lived in London. They include George Mayler and Thomas Arthur, who filed lawsuits against one another in 1529; both are recorded as London residents, as were two others at midcentury, George Birch and John Birch. James Burbage of Leicester’s Men is an Elizabethan example. All of these actors, moreover, belonged to trades: English was a joiner, Young a mercer, George Birch a currier, his presumed brother John a joiner, Mayler a glazier, and Arthur a tailor (Streitberger 1997, 339). David Kathman has recently shown that George Birch, in addition to being a salaried player on the royal payroll, was, on recommendation by letter from Princess Mary about 1546, appointed to an office in the newly formed King’s Mint in Southwark. Whether this was something akin to clerical pluralism, in which Birch toiled as a player but enjoyed the benefits of the mint as an absentee appointee, is unknown but entirely plausible (Kathman 2010).

Given this evidence, should we not recognize that at least some liveried patronized playing troupes in pre-Elizabethan England were “professional,” in the sense of making a living from acting and not relying on “day jobs” back at their patrons’ estates or in trades in the larger towns and cities? My own reading of the evidence is that many of the elite liveried players were professional and had been so from the days they emerged to rival the minstrels, who of course are widely recognized today as professional traveling entertainers (see, e.g., Southworth 1989). I believe this to be true for two reasons, acknowledging at the same time that players might supplement their earnings with other work. First, until 1572 (and with accusations well beyond that time), players were stigmatized as vagabonds and unemployed under the law; even a Royal Interluder such as George Mayler was maligned as a “common player in the country and on stages” by an adversary in a lawsuit around 1547. We should keep in mind that parliamentary statutes equating itinerants with vagabonds and idlers without fixed vocation dated back to medieval times and had most recently been renewed in 1531 (Wickham, Berry, and Ingram 2000, 62). Thus affiliation with a trade, as is almost always the case when players show up in lawsuits, was a means of legal protection. Second, as Anne Lancashire has shown, players, who could gain membership to livery companies and trades by simply paying a fee (rather than via apprenticeship) entered into a mutually beneficial arrangement wherein they served these civic institutions not by practicing their trade, but by performing feast-time entertainments and “arranging the street pageantry that increasingly became a major form of company display from the late fifteenth century onwards.” In addition to citing instances of this, she reminds us that professional actors and playwrights in the late Elizabethan commercial theater, such as Robert Armin and John Lowen (both Goldsmiths), Anthony Munday (Drapers), and John Webster (Merchant Taylors), apparently followed this time-honored custom (Lancashire 2002, 117, 272).

Lawsuits, furthermore, provide compelling evidence that players affiliated with the nobility and royal family were largely independent of court patronage in terms of making a living. In 1529 the aforementioned Mayler filed suit against Arthur for breaking a contract in which Arthur had committed to spending a year and £20 under Mayler’s tutelage and in residence at his London home to learn the “science” of playing, in preparation for a career with the King’s Men. Arthur instead made off with three of Mayler’s other actors/servants and several of his play scripts, touring the countryside performing plays at an alleged profit of £30 (Overend 1877). What the suit reveals is that Mayler himself owned the scripts, not his patrons, and that he, not the court, profited from use of the playbooks, or alternatively, suffered loss if the scripts were stolen or staged in communities where he himself planned to tour in the future. Mayler, moreover, made personnel arrangements for the King’s Men in the late 1520s, operating a tidy business on the side training aspiring Royal Interluders. Assuming for the moment that Mayler was pocketing £20 for a year of coaching from each of his other servants/actors, that would have been a lucrative enterprise, even if he had to feed and lodge his pupils. Moreover, £30 may be an inflated number for profits made by four actors in three months of touring, since half that amount far exceeds the wages those four young actors would have made as London apprentices or tradesmen. Those earnings are another indication of the relative economic independence of court-sponsored actors during the 1520s. A suit brought in Chancery by John Young, lead actor of Queen Jane Seymour’s company in 1536, also indicates the relative autonomy of these patronized troupes. Young sued a horse dealer for leasing his troupe a “defectyve” packhorse for a tour in the North. That horse does not appear to have been provided or funded by the court, and consequently when the horse proved inadequate, it was Young who lost financially, not his royal patron (Stopes 1918). Young was not only out of pocket ten shillings for the lease, but he and his companions “susteyned great damage” because the horse, hired to transport costumes, “skarsly served them in there said journey.”14

There has been some critical ambivalence about using the term “professional” in reference to early modern players, primarily because its opposite term in modern culture—“amateur”—did not exist in premodern society (see Bouhaik-Giones 2011; Stern 2009). Since players in the Corpus Christi cycle at York and elsewhere were paid for their pageant acting, “amateur” may not even be appropriate for them, especially given that some may have been “property players” (Coldewey 1977). However, if we follow Glynne Wickham’s definition of “professional” as meaning “actors who reckoned to earn a living from presenting plays regularly to a public that paid cash to gain admission to see them,” then I do believe that “professional” applies to more players than current scholarship assumes for earlier Tudor troupes.15 This incorporates the fact that some performances were deemed “gifts” from patrons to their friends and the public alike.16 The economic evidence suggests that troupes almost always received a cash reward for their services, including services in other noble households. When the fictional Thomas More pays cash to Wolsey’s players after their performance, he is unhappy that one of his own servants attempts to pocket some of the money for himself.17 As I suggested previously, scholars of medieval minstrelsy take for granted that the various guilds and commissions set up to protect the rights and welfare of minstrels viewed them as “professionals.” Why not players, then?

Troupes, Propaganda, and Prohibition: 1530–1558

A significant period of growth for the acting companies was the decade of the 1530s, when we observe at least a 30 percent increase in the number of documented troupes (REED n.d.). This development coincides with the emergence of Thomas Cromwell as Henry VIII’s chief minister and the mastermind behind a multifaceted propaganda campaign to win popular acceptance for the political and religious policies of the Reformation. Henry VIII had defied the Vatican in opening divorce proceedings against Catholic Catherine of Aragon in 1529; married the Protestant commoner Anne Boleyn in 1533; installed himself as head of the national church (in place of the pope) with the Act of Royal Supremacy in 1536; and from that year through the end of the decade dissolved the monasteries and confiscated all papal lands and assets, many of which the king turned over to his loyal nobles. The king also left at Cromwell’s disposal and discretion enormous sums of money, some of which the nation’s most powerful politician used to support acting troupes (Streitberger 1994, 144–155). Between February 1537 and his death in 1540, Cromwell is recorded as hosting or rewarding at least eight different governing-class troupes, more than any other noble during the entire Tudor era for a comparable period of time. These troupes were the King’s Men and Queen Jane’s Players (February 1537), Lord Chancellor Audley’s Players, the Marquis the Exeter’s Players (December 1537), the Lord Warden’s Players, the Duke of Suffolk’s Players, Lord Cobham’s Players, and Audley’s Players again (in January and February 1538), as well as “Bale and his Fellowes” (September 1538 and January 1539), led by preacher/playwright/player John Bale and quite plausibly otherwise known in the provinces as the Lord Privy Seal’s Players.

What were these companies performing? In most cases, we don’t know for certain, but if liveried troupes had advanced the political interests of their patrons in previous decades, there is little doubt that those interests were front and center now. That Cromwell went systematically about using the stage as a polemical weapon is indicated around 1536 in a kind of manifesto by courtier Richard Morison, who proposed that in addition to an annual holiday celebrating England’s delivery from the pope, Robin Hood revels and similar drama should be suppressed in favor of plays on the abomination of Roman Catholicism and all its monks, friars, and so forth (text in Wickham, Berry, and Ingram 2000, 20–21). In fact, from the early 1530s noble patrons of drama affiliated with Cromwell and Queen Anne Boleyn, herself a well-documented champion of religious reform, were actively engaged in the campaign, with the queen’s father, Thomas Boleyn, hosting a play in 1531 featuring deceased Cardinal Wolsey descending to hell, and her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, recommending its publication (Lancashire 1984, 198). It is plausible, though not certain, that a liveried playing troupe staged this interlude, as well as several virulently anti-Catholic and pro-Protestant plays that the aforementioned John Bale penned for the 7th Earl of Oxford, a close ally of the Queen and Cromwell, by 1534.18

It was in this year that Cromwell recruited Bale as a full-time propagandist. Cromwell’s playwriting pool was highly diverse and gifted—featuring Suffolk cleric Thomas Wylley, schoolmasters Robert Radcliffe and Nicholas Udall, court musician Thomas Heywood, and publicist John Rastell—but none proved as potent or as prolific in staged polemics as Bale over a roughly six-year period. Bale’s extant interludes designed for troupe performance—the political history play King Johan and the satirical, antipapist morality play Three Lawes—drew on the popular dramatic tradition he knew and contributed to as a former Carmelite friar based in East Anglia and Yorkshire.19 Bale himself, who stood over six feet tall, was the leader and chief actor of his own playing troupe, impersonating the demanding role of the vice “Infidelity” in Three Laws. If we accept Bale’s troupe as Lord Cromwell’s players, it is the only playing company prior to the second version of Queen Elizabeth’s Men, formed in 1583, for which we have a known playwright and lead player, a repertory of extant plays (at least two), and a traveling itinerary (White 1993, 12–41). How religiously conservative audiences responded to Bale’s savage attacks on the pope in the decade after Henry VIII defended him against Martin Luther is indicated in an outburst of opposition from a spectator attending King Johan at a performance before Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (White 1993, 29).

When Cromwell was beheaded for treason in July 1540, the official program of propaganda came to a halt, but acting companies were now well established as voices of political and religious opinion, and consequently government officials spent the next several decades trying to bring them under control. The final years of Henry VIII’s reign were a period of “off-again/on-again” patronage of the companies, and indeed this is a fair description of the next two decades, when Tudor England under Edward VI and Mary I, through the accession of Elizabeth I, changed its official religion three times.

During the 1530s intervention by the central government to suppress religious and political dissent in the drama was sporadic and unsystematic, and as long as Cromwell was in charge, militant Protestantism was protected. However, even before Cromwell’s fall the Six Articles Act of 1539 represented Henry’s own reassertion of traditional theology and worship (minus papal ecclesiology) and his alignment with Bishop Stephen Gardiner, the Duke of Norfolk, and other religious conservatives who gained ascendancy at court the following year. To give some teeth to its enforcement, the 1543 Act for the Advauncement of True Religion prohibited all plays that meddled with scriptural interpretation contrary to religious orthodoxy; the latter stipulation clarified reformist plays as the statute’s chief target (relevant excerpts in Wickham, Berry, and Ingram 2000, 23–25). In exile following Cromwell’s death, Bale voiced outrage at the prohibitions against Protestant interluders, who persuaded “the people to worship theyr Lorde God aright, according to hys holie laws and not your own, and to ackoledge Jesus Chryst for their onley redeemer and savior, without yor lowsie legerdemains” (1544, fol. 18a). Within a few months of the 1543 statute, four players of the Lord Warden’s troupe were jailed in London, and in 1546 five of the Earl of Bath’s players were incarcerated for performing “lewde playes” in the city’s suburbs; these were among many instances of crown and city intervention during the 1540s (Ingram 1992, 87; Lancashire 1984, 202–206; relevant texts in Wickham, Berry, and Ingram 2000, 22–32). If Edward VI’s accession resulted in the repealing of the 1543 prohibitions along with the restoration of Protestant reform, the trend toward regulating players as well as controversial texts continued in 1550, when eighteen common players of interludes were ordered to cease performing until they acquired a license from the king or his council (Lancashire 1984, 209). William Cecil, a court official under Edward VI before his long career as Elizabeth I’s chief administrator, was overseeing print and play regulation when he received a report of a “feyned lycence” two years later, indicating a demand for them and government concern. Ingram points to these licensing regulations, imposed on London-area players who were unaffiliated with sponsored troupes, as instrumental in forcing urban players, as their rural household brethren had done earlier, to seek aristocratic patronage, with its attendant licenses and privileges. However, the records evidence does not indicate such an increase in patronized companies. Certainly, however, the imposition of player licensing, which now became essential for the major troupes, started at midcentury and not with the 1572 Act against Vagabonds, as is commonly assumed (see Ingram 1992, 80–91). More restrictions and regulations, recalling the antireformist legislation of 1543, were introduced during Queen Mary’s reign to quell Protestant “heresy” (see Wickham, Berry, and Ingram 2000, 39–47). Not surprisingly, troupes disseminating these ideas were a problem, as proven by a Privy Council letter of 1556 instructing the Earl of Shrewsbury to suppress “the servaunts unto Frauncis Leek,” who “wandered abowt the North parts, and represented certaine playes and enterludes, conteyning very naughty and seditious matter touching the King and Quene’s Ma[jesty] and the state of the realme, and to the sla[n]der of Christe’s true and Catholik religion, contrary to all good ordre, and to the manifest contempt of Allmighty God, and daungerous example to others” (Strype 1721, III:2, 185). As Mary Blackstone suggests, the absence of Leek’s troupe in provincial civic accounts, despite its widespread wandering, may have less to do with the loss of such records than with town officials’ reluctance to document their hospitality to the troupe (2002, 196).

There is a direct link between midcentury Protestant companies like Leek’s and those receiving favor under Henry VIII during the Cromwellian years. That link is Thomas Cawarden, who was preferred to Henry’s Privy Chamber by Cromwell and who rose through the ranks of the Revels Office to become its first patented Master in 1545. Carwarden undoubtedly worked under the highly capable John Farlyon, who was Yeoman of the Revels during Cromwell’s oversight of revels at court during the mid- to late 1530s. As Streitberger’s meticulous documentation of Carwarden’s career shows, the Revels Master under Henry, Edward, and Mary was an ardent Protestant who was arrested and suspected of treason under the latter Catholic regime, even as he dutifully carried out his responsibilities. That ardent Protestantism was no doubt highly supportive of the militant reformist and anti-Catholic interludes staged by the King’s Men in Edwardian England (Streitberger 1994, 161–177).

We have no indication of what reorganization, if any, took place when two of the three royal troupes of the Henrician 1540s—the King’s Men, the Queen’s Players, and Prince Edward’s Players—found themselves without a royal patron at Edward’s succession. Queen Katherine Parr’s troupe continued to perform a year after Henry’s death as “the latte quyne katerynges players” (James 2002b, 447; cited in Ingram 1992, 82). Edward’s troupe, which traveled extensively during his youth, may have contributed some members to the operation of a single royal troupe by 1550, but the King’s Men continued to employ Robert Hinstock and George Birch, who led Henry VIII’s players in the 1540s, and John Young, traceable to Queen Jane Seymour’s troupe, may have joined them by way of Catherine’s players. There is little doubt that this troupe championed the militant Protestantism espoused by the youthful king himself. Under Carwarden’s directions at court, the king’s players staged an interlude requiring a seven-headed dragon (Revelation’s “whore of Babylon,” associated with the pope) in 1548; they were rehearsing The Play of Aesop’s Crow, an anti-Mass interlude in 1552–1553; and around the same time they performed The Tower of Babylon, almost certainly another antipapal interlude, possibly the same as or related to the king’s own contribution to Protestant polemics, De meretrice Babylonica (The Whore of Babylon). Two other play fragments have survived among the Revels papers, one evidently a Calvinist work on the subject of grace and the other what scholars believe to be Old Custome, a copy of which is listed in an inventory of effects for 1545–1550 belonging to the future Duke of Northumberland, who succeeded Protector Somerset as de facto ruler. Northumberland’s own players are recorded for several performances in the provinces around this time, and of course he is the father of the Dudley brothers, Robert and Ambrose, who were leading stage patrons under Queen Elizabeth. Remarkably, six other privy councilors under Edward VI patronized acting troupes recorded in the provinces, most of them—a possible exception was Thomas Cheyney, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports—committed Protestants. One of them, William Parr, may have taken over Queen Katherine’s players, since they followed the same basic itinerary as the Henrician troupe (Blackstone 2002, 196). The most notable troupe interludes of this period, the prodigal son morality Lusty Juventus and the biblical hybrid The Life and Repentaunce of Mary Magdalene, by Lewis Wager, espouse the same advanced Protestant teaching familiar to scholars of religious history in Edwardian England (see White 1993, 46–56).

Following the death of Edward VI, the King’s Interluders became the Queen’s Men, and after Mary married King Philip of Spain, “the kynge & quenes maiestes players,” as the chamberlain at Dover recorded the troupe’s modest payment of 10 shillings in 1557–1558 (Gibson 2002b, 164). Mary, as princess, had been a patron of an acting troupe recorded for performances between 1525 and 1533, as noted previously. Interestingly, when she fell into disgrace with the divorce of her Catholic mother, at least one member of her four-man troupe, William Slye, went from this staunchly Catholic patron to lead the troupe of her most feared enemy at court, Anne Boleyn (Lancashire 1984: 373 and 397). Few entertainers of this period, however, appear to have been hard-nosed ideologues like John Bale. For example, reformers such as Carwarden eschewed exile to serve under Queen Mary, as did the playwright and revels organizer Nicholas Udall, and the Catholic John Heywood could pen a masque and a morality for Cromwell and Archbishop Cranmer, respectively. Significantly, even though Princess Mary made peace with her unbending father in 1536, she did not—was likely forbidden to—patronize a playing troupe again until she became queen in 1553. (Princess Elizabeth also did not sponsor a troupe until she ascended the throne five years later.)

Despite Mary’s having inherited her acting troupe virtually intact from her brother, the Royal Interluders under her did not begin touring until more than two years into her reign, first appearing in September 1555, after which they toured all regions of the nation until her death in late 1558. Perhaps anxiety over seditious drama or distrust of the players themselves accounts for the slow start, but the senior player in the troupe, George Birch, had served in Princess Mary’s company a quarter of a century earlier (she had written a letter that secured him the Royal Mint appointment and probably was instrumental in his promotion to Henry VIII’s company in the late 1520s). Both plays associated with their repertory, Respublica and Health and Wealth (Lancashire 1984 suggests Udall’s Ralph Roister Doister as well), were religiously moderate plays and address key issues relating to Cardinal Reginald Pole’s rule, the question of the return of church property, and “the renewed role of the Catholic church in ministering to the needs of the country” (Blackstone 2002, 211). Mary Blackstone asserts that the company began touring at the height of the Catholic Crown’s propaganda war, waged in print and from the pulpit, dealing with the queen’s unpopular marriage to Philip, Pole’s return, and the reunion of the English and Roman Catholic churches, among other events, and that it visited Oxford, Leicester, Exeter, Bristol, Norwich, and other towns in the year in which they hosted the controversial burnings (Blackstone 2002, 208, 204–218).

None of Mary’s conservative Catholic privy councilors patronized a traveling troupe during her reign, unless we include Thomas Cheney, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. Cheney’s own son accused him of treason in 1540, charging before the Privy Council that he maintained an image in his chapel, while Cranmer condemned him for persecuting the godly in Kent a few years earlier. He was a loyal servant of the Crown to Henry VIII and Edward VI and was suspected of sympathizing with the Wyatt rebels in 1554, apparently without foundation. Yet otherwise Mary and Philip approved of his service in the Cinque Ports, which, as Blackstone observes, was the “cultural neighborhood” within which his various troupes of players, minstrels, and other entertainers performed frequently (2002, 197–198; Lehmberg 2004).

The Early Elizabethan Troupes

When Queen Mary died in November 1558 and her younger half-sister came to the throne, Protestantism was instantly restored as the national religion. To ensure that no popular revels or performed entertainment challenged the newly instituted Book of Common Prayer in April 1559, the Act of Uniformity prohibited “any Enterludes, Plays, Songs Rhymes, or by other open words, declare or speak anything in derogation, depraving or despising of the same Book [of Common Prayer]” (Wickham, Berry, and Ingram 2000, 50). About a month later, in May, the Queen’s Proclamation against plays required all players to be licensed by a town mayor or two justices of the peace and forbade “either matters of religion or of the governance of the estate of the Commonwealth” (51). Patronized companies were singled out when the proclamation stipulated that the nation’s nobility and gentlemen were given a special charge to ensure that their players showed obedience to the new laws.

What we now know, however, is that these laws were not enforced with any consistency. Various commentators, Protestant and Catholic, observed that common players, along with minstrels, were disseminating reformed teaching and, according to the Duke of Feria, Queen Elizabeth’s main secretary, William Cecil, was personally authorizing instructions for these propagandist plays. Cecil, who, as observed previously, oversaw the licensing of play books at the court of Edward VI, may well have arranged for the performance of an antipapal beast fable at the royal court’s Christmas revels in 1559, quite possibly the Aesop’s Crow in the Royal Interluders repertory a decade earlier (Chambers 1923, IV: 77). Despite speculating in his “Calendar of Court Records” that the queen’s royal troupe staged this piece, Chambers and scholars since have tended to dismiss the first Queen’s Men company of Elizabeth’s reign as a second-rate troupe, largely because it is not explicitly recorded in court performance accounts during its history, which extended into the 1570s. So insignificant is the troupe’s reputation that Andrew Gurr even suggests that it may have been a team of tumblers or a traveling variety show (1996, 196). This speculation is unwarranted. The Chamber Accounts declare in 1558–1560: “Quenes … enterlude players for her hyghnes accustomed rewarded ewe vnto them at Newe yeres tyde … £6 13s 4d.,” and “to players of enterludes … £13 6s. 8d.” in 1560–1561 (Chambers 1923, 142; emphasis added). By Elizabeth’s reign “enterlude,” with very few exceptions, meant “play.” Moreover, Royal Interluder George Birch extended his tenure to the new queen’s reign when by warrant of January 7, 1560, he was awarded an annuity, and fellow player John Browne is shown in the records as receiving a salary of £3 6s. 8d. and livery allowance of £1 3s. 4d. a year. He died in 1563 (Nungezer 1929, 45–46, 60). That they were actors rather than something else is also indicated by an ordinance issued by the Gloucester Common Council no later than 1580 (i.e., before the second Queen’s Men formed in 1583) ordering that the queen’s players be permitted to stage three plays within three days, whereas barons’ troupes would be allowed only two in the same time frame (Douglas and Greenfield 1986, 306–307). Contrary to the view that Leicester’s Men were the most traveled troupe in early Elizabethan England, the Queen’s Men outnumber their recorded performances through 1573 by two to one (about 300 payments to 150 for Dudley’s troupe). As for their not playing at court, neither did Leicester’s troupe for a whole decade after two visits at Christmas, in 1560 and 1561.

My own theory (admittedly difficult to prove) is that the repertory of these troupes advanced the same Calvinist rhetoric featured in the “unattached” extant troupe plays of the 1560s and early 1570s, most of which are “offered for acting” on their published title pages: New Custom, The Tide Tarrieth No Man, Enough Is as Good as a Feast, The Trial of Treasure, The Life and Repentaunce of Mary Magdalene, All for Money, and Like Will to Like. Indeed, these plays, in their religious and political biases, precisely anticipate The Cobbler’s Prophecy and the companionate The Three Ladies plays scripted by Robert Wilson, a lead player in Leicester’s Men and perhaps the troupe’s chief deviser of interludes in the 1570s. Robert Dudley and his brother Ambrose (future earls of Leicester and Warwick), along with the Duchess of Suffolk, among others, were at the forefront of the campaign to disseminate this more advanced brand of Protestantism in print and by patronizing those clergy who shared their religious and political views. It is now well known that the queen, a religious conservative in matters of worship and ecclesiology, found this polemic from either stage or pulpit exceedingly distasteful, and consequently, I suggest, she heavily favored the children’s companies for court revels at Christmas over these adult companies.

I find it striking that the first documented act of patronage by the preeminent patron of Elizabethan England, the Earl of Leicester, was to form his own acting company. In April 1559—that is, within months of Elizabeth’s January coronation—Dudley’s company was performing plays. We should not view this as prescient on Dudley’s part. Since the fifteenth century, having a troupe of entertainers in his retinue and having them tour under his name and in his livery was both a highly effective means of public relations for an ambitious nobleman and an effective vehicle of disseminating his ideas to a popular audience. The troupe of Dudley’s brother, Ambrose, the future earl of Warwick, Chief Butler of England and privy councilor, was touring the west country as early as September 1559. Both were following in the footsteps of their father, the Duke of Northumberland, who retained a traveling troupe of actors until his death in 1553 (Ingram 1992, 87–89).

Robert Dudley’s frequently cited letter of December 1559 to the Earl of Shrewbury requesting license for his troupe to travel to Yorkshire is a highly illuminating document. First, as the earliest (and rare) letter of a patron intervening on behalf of his company, it shows how important it was for his liveried servants to tour and represent him in the farthest corners of the realm. Writing shortly after the Proclamation of May 1559, the letter indicates that he took the laws applying to traveling entertainers seriously and that his troupe needed protection from local provincial officials (not to mention political magnates), some of whom may have been his detractors. We may recall that the addressee in the letter, the Earl of Shrewsbury, Lord President of the North and a Catholic in religion, was called on by the Privy Council to discipline the troupe of Sir Francis Leek in the North in 1556. What the letter also reveals is the already sophisticated licensing practices in place. Dudley informs Shrewsbury that his written license for his players had been marked with the signatures and seals of his fellow peers in London, who had hosted his troupe in their households. That document apparently was now couriered by his servants to Shrewsbury in Sheffield, with the request that he offer his written approval of their touring in Yorkshire. Sally-Beth Maclean has shown that Dudley had land holdings and political and family connections in the East Riding of Yorkshire and that, like similar troupes, his often performed in communities and regions of the realm over which its patron exercised influence (2002, 252–257). Yet the traveling itinerary of the future Earl of Leicester’s Players, the longest-lasting troupe of Elizabeth’s reign, was in the most populated and lucrative regions of England, notably the troupe’s favorite, East Anglia.

The license the troupe’s patron provided in 1559 evidently protected the company through early 1572, when new legislation potentially threatened its livelihood. Scholars tend to focus on the Act against Vagabonds, passed in June of that year, but as Peter Roberts observes, the proclamation that was issued on January 3 against unlawful retainers is surely what prompted the letter from James Burbage and his fellow actors to the Earl of Leicester requesting confirmation of their status as his household retainers (Roberts 1994, 31). The literal status of the troupe as the earl’s household servants was a fiction, as the letter implies. Like most patronized actors based in London, they probably resided independently in the city, representing their lord by bearing his name and wearing his livery, performing before him on occasions, entertaining his friends, and probably advancing his interests in their plays as they toured the provinces. However, the proclamation prompted a legitimate concern about losing his sponsorship. Leicester had been previously pardoned for violating the retainer laws, even though by 1565 he was “licensed for life to retain 100 persons who were not in the queen’s service, besides his household servants and officers serving under him” (quoted in MacLean 2002, 258). More troubling, however, were recent uprisings in the North, which prompted a clampdown on the nation’s Catholic and suspected Catholic elite, some of whom, with large bands of retainers, were perceived as a national threat. The proclamation announced nationwide penalties against the nobility whose retainers were not recognized as their household servants. They had until February 20 to get their households in order. James Burbage and his fellows must have written their letter between January 3 and this date.

Of course the Act against Vagabonds, passed in June later that year, provided Leicester’s Men with added assurance, since it exempted all troupes of aristocratic patronage from the charge of vagrancy. It is worth examining this act in further detail, since the House of Commons vigorously debated the language relating to players and whether minstrels should even be subject to the penalties of vagrancy at all. In the original draft of the bill, sent from the Upper House, “players of interludes belonging to gentlemen” (emphasis added) are singled out among a wide range of itinerants (such as tinkers, pedlars, bearwards, and jugglers) who would be charged with vagrancy should they not obtain a license from local justices of the peace. The Commons, dominated by the gentry, not surprisingly removed this stigmatizing phrase, which explicitly conveyed that even gentlemen’s players were prohibited from traveling without license (Roberts 1994, 41). The revision of the bill that eventually passed was silent on the question of gentlemen’s troupes, only making clear that the nobility were exempt from requiring a license from local authorities. The bigger point here, usually lost amid all the attention theater historians give to noblemen’s troupes, is that the gentry figured significantly in the patronage of traveling actors and that they, like the nobility, acted to protect their livelihood. And indeed, a perusal of the records shows that at least 20 percent of documented troupes are named after known members of the landed gentry or knights during the Tudor era up to 1580. Alan Somerset’s (2007) research shows that the gentry continued to patronize and host companies well into the seventeenth century.

What is no less interesting is that the Commons vigorously debated whether minstrels at all should be among the itinerants prosecuted for vagrancy without a license in the 1572 Act. Roberts argues that for the Commons, “minstrels” was a broad term that may have encompassed actors as well, since interluders and instrumentalists were often cited together by this point in the history of traveling entertainers (Roberts 1994, 40–41). It is not implausible that many Parliamentarians either confused minstrels with actors or saw no need to make a clear-cut distinction. “Players and minstrels” was as common a conjunctive of the period as “plays and interludes,” and we should add that by the 1570s minstrel troupes were virtually nonexistent on the national traveling circuit, with the likely consequence that quality musicians interested in touring in an ensemble were absorbed into the acting profession or teamed up with actors. One of them appears to have been Alexander Pearson, a musician who, with “two boy minstrels,” joined the players of Sir Walter Waller, a gentleman. The troupe was charged with vagrancy in 1583 in Brasted, Kent (for this troupe, see Roberts 1994, 49–53). Moreover, star players such as Will Kemp and Richard Tarleton were accomplished musicians as well as actors. The Earl of Leicester’s troupe’s letter patent of 1574 went to the trouble of authorizing their playing instruments as well as performing drama (text in Wickham, Berry, and Ingram 2000, 206). Not surprisingly then, when Leicester’s troupe performed in Denmark in the 1580s, with Will Kemp among the company, they were described as musicians rather than players. The frequency with which musicians appeared with players may explain why antitheatricalist Stephen Gosson charged that the professional players of the London stage in the early 1580s originated as “common minstrels” (Plays Confuted in Five Actions; cited in Milling 2004, 148).

As William Ingram reminds us, theater historians consciously or unconsciously assume that major proclamations, acts, and other legislation of the Elizabethan era were centrally concerned with the theater community when in fact these concerns were merely a small part of a much larger economic and political context. Consequently, the Act of 1572, the letters patent licensing Leicester’s Men in 1574 to perform throughout the realm, and the civic ordinance of December 1574 to ban all play performances within the jurisdiction of the city of London constitute a series of related stepping stones perceived to pave the way for the opening of the Theatre and the Curtain in 1576. Only the last of these legislative acts, the London prohibitions of 1574, has any causal relationship to the building of the Theatre under the leadership of James Burbage. And yet this series of events, including the playhouse openings of 1576, remains central to scholarship on the professionalization of acting. To be sure, the new, self-standing playhouses in Shoreditch appear to have launched a new phase in the acting profession, even if the failed experiment at the Red Lion at Mile End in1567 by Burbage’s brother-in-law John Brayne served as a mere precursor. With regular, weekday performances in a permanent playing place accommodating as many as three thousand spectators, playing troupes could now afford to increase their numbers from four or five, probably the norm at the outset of Elizabeth’s reign, to as many as twelve, with a majority of shareholders investing in their companies and enjoying their profits.

The impression one receives from reading much theater history about the 1570s and after is that London was the hub for the major companies. However, most troupes discussed in this article were not based in London, and many, if not most, never toured there. In this concluding section I provide some sense of what a touring circuit would have involved for a provincial company, by reference to a group of players who operated during a period not covered within the chronological limits of this study; this is necessary simply because the evidence is nonexistent prior to 1580. The troupe is Lord Chomeley’s Players, more often identified in scholarship as “The Simpsons.”20 Originating from the poor recusant village of Egton near the eastern shoreline of North Yorkshire, these players show up first in the records as a nonpatronized troupe in 1595, when Robert Simpson, cordwainer, and Christopher Cordiner (almost certainly Christopher Simpson) are identified by the York Court of High Commission as common players of interludes performing up and down the countryside. By 1606, however, this seven-actor troupe was a reputable North Riding company with an established travel itinerary, for when one of the boy actors, fifteen-year-old Thomas Pant, was interrogated by authorities in 1609, he reported that he was apprenticed at the age of twelve to the shoemaker Christopher Simpson, adding, “Simpson with others did vse to playe playes in the winter tyme in townes and gentlemens houses & did trayne me vpp there” (Atkinson, 1884). In other words, if Simpsons’ shoemaking might have served as a backup profession, it functioned as a cover to protect him, his associates, and “apprentices” from prosecution under the vagrancy laws. In 1610 they were reportedly traveling under the hand and seal of Sir Richard Chomeley of Whitby and Roxby, a Cambridge-educated and drama-loving knight, as well as the area’s most dedicated Catholic recusant; Chomeley’s close neighbor and Protestant archenemy Sir Thomas Posthumous Hoby filed a bill of complaint charging Sir Richard with patronizing the Simpsons, hosting them at his residence of Sneaton, and attending their performances at his father’s home in Roxby, near Pickering. Describing them as “a sort of obstinate popish recusants dwelling at Egton who had taken upon themselves to become common stage players,” Hoby issued numerous warrants for their arrest to North Riding constables, but he complained that the protection of the gentry and even fellow justices enabled them to wander the countryside at will. The quest for governing-class patronage may have been prompted by the troupe’s performance of a Catholic—indeed, anti-Protestant—saint’s play called St. Christopher, which led to a lawsuit being filed against Sir John Yorke, the lord hosting the performance in his household at Gowthwaithe Hall. The lawsuit, which supplies much of what we know about them, reveals that the players had got their hands on copies, presumably printed, of Shakespeare’s King Lear and Pericles, which were also staged before Sir John and his guests. From other legal documentation we learn that while the company visited towns, its principal source of income appears to have been performances at a mixture of Catholic and Protestant elite households in a fifty-square-mile area of North Yorkshire.

I have dwelled on this provincial troupe because even though it postdates our period of coverage, it may fill in some critical details about many regional, patronized acting troupes dating back a century or more, as well as illustrate some of the typical features of those troupes. The Simpsons began as parish players, sufficiently educated that they could read play scripts, some of which (like the earlier Tudor interludes “offered for acting”) were accessible to them in print. They remained unsponsored for many years, but eventually sought patronage from a local magnate as protection under the law. The actors, all of whom when interrogated by authorities identified themselves with a trade, were professional, earning a living for some twenty years of touring a regional circuit. The company included boy actors, a practice that evidently developed late in Tudor troupe history, perhaps not until the 1560s. We do not know if personnel were trained musicians, but it is worth noting that Christopher Simpson’s son, Christopher Jr., rose to become a celebrated composer in the Caroline court. Simpson and his fellows go unrecorded in any financial accounts of the numerous venues where they performed, indicating that many provincial troupes, even those only surfacing for one performance in civic chamberlain and household recorded payments, enjoyed long careers under the radar. The only reason we know about the Simpsons is that they, and one of their host patrons, were prosecuted under the law. We also learn from them that “Catholic” troupes in staunchly Reformation England might thrive, and that despite staging a seditious interlude, they were invited to perform in households and small communities where the audience conformed to the national church and religion. No such troupe is known prior to 1580, but no doubt many must have practiced playing beyond the watchful eye of Protestant authorities. Yes, the players got caught, but we should keep in mind that prior to William Cecil’s implementing draconian measures to hunt down recusants in the wake of the 1569 Northern Rebellion, whole regions of England were without regulation, especially in the North. However, even if they were under surveillance, a well-placed patron who loved drama and was willing to watch out for them could protect his players from hostile authorities and extend his influence and offer hospitality to his friends, family, retainers, and the community over which he exercised authority.

This brings us back to the Queen’s Men in 1583. By this time, many of the most prestigious and talented acting troupes had begun to gravitate from provincial touring circuits to find fame and success in the newly built playhouses of London. If we reconsider our opening quotation from the 1615 edition of Stow’s Annals, we can conclude that Edmund Howe was not too far from the truth when he commented on the origins of the acting troupes. Many actors might not have been raised in poverty and ignorance, but the evidence does suggest that “of former time” the luckiest of them did rise to prominence and success from modest means. The Queen’s Men themselves looked both ahead and backward in time. On the one hand, they were part of the new capitalist culture of the post-1576 theater, in which acting troupes owned their own costumes, purchased play scripts, invested in company stock, and perhaps even owned a share in a playhouse. At the same time, the queen’s players, like earlier troupes of the Tudor era, spent most of their career on the road as the liveried servants of their patron, advancing her interests while earning a living from performances before provincial audiences.


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(1) Chambers: “What could they [i.e., minstrels] do better than develop a neglected side of their own art and become players themselves.”

(2) Meredith (1998, 31): “As to professional players (if by that we mean people making their living from acting plays) there seems to me to be no evidence that they existed in the fifteenth century.” G. Dawson, in Malone Society Kent raised the concern with terminology in 1966, followed by Kipling (1982, 150–151); A. Young (1984, 1985) discussed meanings of the drama-related terms in two REED Newsletter articles.

(3) For minstrel courts, see Rastall (1982).

(4) See Lancashire (2002, 82 and 254). On Humphrey’s humanism and patronage, Lancashire cites Derek Pearsal, John Lydgate (1371–1449): A Bio-bibliography (Victoria, BC: University of Victoria Press, 1997), 33. Two Latin comedies were written in Gloucester’s household.

(5) See entry for Fitz Alan in the Dictionary of National Biography; see also Gibson (2002a, lv); REED (n.d.).

(6) In Kent, ministrel troupes outnumbered playing troupes through 1525; see Gibson (2002a, l–lvi).

(7) Alexander Mason, a gestour (teller of jests as opposed to a “jester”) was a Still Minstrell at the royal court from at latest 1477 to as late as 1495; he was Marshall of the Still Minstrels under Edward IV (33), and “Saunter Minstrell” at the coronation of Richard III. See Rastall (1964, 5, 33–34, 37). For more on personnel, patronage, and touring of the minstrels, see Westfall (1990, 63–107).

(8) For Sheale, see Taylor (2012). The best account of the Minstrel of Islington is Bradbrooke (1962), although Bradbrooke mistakenly confuses the Laneham who penned the commentary on the entertainments at Kennilworth with the player of that name in Leicester’s Men. The musician Thomas Whythorne discusses the low state to which ministry has come (1962, 191–192); see also Roberts (1994, 44–45).

(9) PRO E 36/131, p. 73; Streitberger (1994, 320).

(10) Leland (1774, 299–300); see Tydeman (2008, 274).

(11) See REED (n.d.); Westfall (1990, 122–151).

(12) On English see Streitberger (1994, 38–39); for Royal Interluder Roo, who penned an anti-Wolsey play in 1526, see Lancashire (1984, 196, 201); for Bale and his troupe, see White (1993, 12–41, 151); on Mary Magdalene, see Wager (1992, xxiv, 27, ll. 861–864); for Kempe and Tarleton, see Nungenzer (1929, 216–222, 347–365).

(13) For the most recent analyses of several of these interludes, see chapters by Wright (Fulgens), Happé (Magnificence), and Rycroft (Interlude of Youth and Hick Scorner) in Walker and Betteridge (2012).

(14) Young was quite enterprising. He was a member of two Queen’s Men and two King’s Men companies between 1530 and 1553. He “took over grants to John Roo at his death in 1539, and then to Thomas Sudborough (Sudbury) at his death in 1546.” Roo and Subborough were both actors. See Lancashire (1984, 389, 196, 201).

(15) Wickham (1958–1980, II, tt 1: 158); embraced by Ingram. Ingram (1992, 13) sees provincial players, who had no alternative livelihood, progressing more quickly to professionalism than London players, who prior to 1550 could fall back on their trades, until they were forced to seek patrons’ protection from the increase in licensing and restrictions of the 1540s and 1550s (89–91). Janette Dillon (2006), on the other hand, talks of a “process of professionalisation ongoing through the second half of the sixteenth century” (, 71; emphasis added). Clearly what constitutes “professional” varies somewhat.

(16) The “gifts” came in the form of cash. Admittedly in a later period, between 1597 and 1605, Lord Henry Berkeley spent £14 15s on his players, and for a slightly longer period, £29 on his musicians. See Somerset (2007, 87–88).

(17) Noted by Dillon (2006, 67). Dillon talks about a “process of professionalization” through the second half of the sixteenth century; clearly there is some variance in what constitutes “professional.”

(18) On Oxford’s alliance with Cromwell and Queen Anne, see Ives (2004, 179, 208–209). See also White (1993, 15–18). No record survives of interluders sponsored by Oxford.

(19) See chapters by Schwyzer and Simpson in Walker and Betteridge (2012).

(20) For a more detailed account of this troupe, see White (2008, 146–167).