Touching the Affray at the Blackfriars
Copyright 1967 by Gwynneth Bowen
First published in Shakespearean Authorship Review (English), Autumn 1967.
“Comme autrefois à Vrone, les roues de Londres furent emplies par les clameurs querelleuses de ces nouveaux Montagues et Capulets.” Albert Feuillerat:
John Lyly, 1910.
THESE new Montagues and Capulets were Lyly’s “very good Lord and Master,” Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford, and Master Thomas Knyvet, Gentleman of the Privy Chamber, and the first encounter between them took place somewhere “in England” (not necessarily London), at an unknown date, before 3rd March 1582. It has been referred to in modern books as a duel, but there seems to be no evidence of a formal challenge, and though both principals survived, with wounds, one of Oxford’s men was killed. It could have been an accident, but is certainly a fact which must not be ignored in the summing up of the case. The original cause of the quarrel was a private one between Oxford and Knyvet, a matter of family honour; for Knyvet was the uncle of Anne Vavasour, mother of Oxford’s illegitimate son. He was also related to the Howard family, and at this very time, Lord Henry Howard was in custody, having been denounced by Oxford as a traitor. Knyvet, then, was the injured party—and therefore, the more likely to resort to violence; whether or not in the socially accepted, though illegal, form of the duel. A well-regulated duel might have settled the matter once and for all. As it was, Honour was not satisfied, for a new debt had been incurred by the death of a third party; and from then on Oxford’s men were involved, not only in their master’s quarrel but their own. The blood feud had begun, and was to take its toll. The affray at the Blackfriars seems to have been the second incident—there is supposed to have been an earlier one in Lambeth Marsh, but this, as I hope to show, is a myth.
The old monastery of the Black Friars, between St. Paul’s and the Thames, was, of course, no longer a monastery. Since 1576 part of it had been used as a private theatre, for plays performed by “The Children of the Chapel Royal,” who were joined soon afterwards by “Paul’s Boys” and “The Children of the Earl of Oxford”—probably the choir-boys of his private chapel. It is generally conceded that, by 1583 at the latest, the three companies were united under the patronage of the Earl of Oxford and the general management of Oxford’s secretary, John Lyly.
In those days, the River was the chief highway of London, and among the public landing-stages was Blackfriars Stairs, alternatively known as Blackfriars “Bridge”—though the bridge was only a pier. If, on landing at Blackfriars Stairs, you walked straight up Water Lane (now Blackfriars Lane) towards Ludgate Street (now Ludgate Hill), you would pass the theatre on your right, and attached to it (physically, if not as part of the same organization) a fencing school. On your left, more or less parallel to Water Lane, separating Blackfriars from Bridewell, you would see Fleet Dike, or Ditch—the unsavoury remains of a once great tributary of the Thames. Almost opposite the north-west corner of the old monastic buildings (where Apothecaries Hall now stands), Fleet Dike was spanned by Bridewell Bridge. And so, our scene is set. Among the minor actors, in that they have no speaking parts, but of major importance to the plot, are the Thames Watermen who, on 18th June 1582, seem to have been the chief purveyors of a rumour that there would be a fray at the Blackfriars between my Lord of Oxford and Master Knyvet. No doubt it was good for trade.
In the Public Record Office there are two related, but independent documents concerning this affray. One is a long, “tedious,” but quite coherent Declaration, by Roger Townsend, (1) which was published in full by the Catholic Record Society, (2) and has since been cited by B. M. Ward, Percy Allen and others. The other document, though bound almost next to it, has never to my knowledge been printed, but is described in the Calendar of State Papers Domestic as the “Examinations of several persons touching the affray at the Blackfriars between the servants of the Earl of Oxford and Mr. Knevet,” (3) and it is well worth printing, if only as a “slice of life” in Elizabethan London.
The examinations were taken, upon oath, on 24th June 1582, and the several persons had one thing in common: they were all butchers, or apprenticed to butchers, in “St. Nicolas Shambles,” a market-place just north of St. Paul’s, and so, having given their addresses and occupations once, I will dispense with these legal formalities and get on with their stories—in the third person, as recorded. Spelling and punctuation has been modernized:
“Gerard Ashbye, servant to Stodart . . ., went by his master’s commandment to the marshes at Redryffe (in the region of Surrey Docks), having nothing in his hand but a stick, and when he returned he landed at Blackfriars Stairs, and there he heard in amongst the watermen that there should be a fray between my Lord of Oxford and Mr. Knevit and that they should fight on the other side in the marsh; and hearing that he tarried there to see the same. And thereupon he went to Caverley’s school of fence in the Blackfriars and there, finding the school open, he took a staff about 9 or 10 feet long, with a pike on the end, and so he went to the bridge again. And shortly after, Mr. Knevit came and then the fray began. And he seeing that they were but two of my Lord’s men, and many men on the other side, he went in amongst them to keep the peace. He saw besides, 3 with staves, besides watermen with their hooks and staves, which they occupy (use) in their boats.”
It is quite clear, or ought to be, that Ashbye never left the Blackfriars, yet his deposition is the only evidence there is of a fray in Lambeth Marsh. To translate from Feuillerat:
“Gerrard Ashbye . . . learnt from the watermen that a fight between Oxford’s men and Knyvet’s men would take place on the other side of the water, in the marsh … Ashby provided himself with a pike and rejoined the watermen. The adversaries arrived and the fray began.”
In a footnote, he adds: “The document says ‘in the marsh.’ It probably refers to Lambeth Marsh.” But there were many marshes on the banks of the Thames, and it would be surprising if there had not been a marsh in the old river-bed of Fleet Dike. The river had not dried up completely but was choked with an accumulation of silt and refuse, which had reduced it to the size of a brook. “The other side” could mean the other side of the ditch, or Water Lane, or almost anything, and the bridge would be either Blackfriars pier, or Bridewell Bridge, near the playhouse. Feuillerat may have meant to imply no more than that Ashbye was misinformed, and was prevented from crossing to the other side of the Thames by the timely arrival of the adversaries; but it was a short step from here to the mythical fray at Lambeth. Let us return to the Blackfriars:
“Roger Dorobye, servant to one Mr. Brekley, . . . was going to Croydon and went to take a boat at Paul’s Wharf, and there a waterman, whom he knoweth not, told him that there should be a fray at the Blackfriars between my Lord of Oxford and Mr. Knevet, whereupon he went to the Blackfriars by water and tarried there about a quarter of an hour to see the fray; and had in his hand a staff about three yards long, with a pike. Shortly after, he heard two or three watermen say: ‘Yonder cometh Mr. Knevet.’ And then he went to see what should be done, and so he drew near to keep the peace, and denyeth that be had any other intent to take part, or that he was spoken to by any of my Lord’s servants, or any other, to be there; but he saith that he knew Horsleye, the glazier. He saw 3 more with staves and some of the watermen with their hooks that were also there.
“William Brooke, servant to Smyth … saith that on Monday last his master sent him abroad to buy a couple of calves, and minding to go to Battersea, (he) went by Ludgate Street, where he did see some people running into the Blackfriars, whereupon he followed them and went to the waterside, and seeing no business there, took a boat. And then he did see the watermen, that stood at the gate, run upward, whereupon he came out of the boat and took his staff with him, being 3 yards long and more, and came to the affray before it was ended, And seeing divers men assaulting two (which after they said was my Lord of Oxford’s men), he did help to rescue them, being then in some danger as he thought—and denyeth that he was prayed or spoken unto by any to come thither, or that he knew the names of either of my Lord of Oxford’s men.”
“The usher (junior master) of Caverley’s fencing school, whose name defeats me, “was in the house of one Andrew Berrye, not knowing nor hearing of any intent of a fray but coming there by chance. And seeing swords drawn, and having only about him a single sword, he went in amongst them—only to keep the peace, and did nothing else, and none otherwise did meddle in the matter. He thinketh there were five or six men with staves and divers of the watermen with their hooks. He knew Gastrill and Horsleye, but neither they nor any other made him acquainted with any such thing, nor desired him to take part therein.
(Signed:) Tho. Wilcocks (?) a Butcher but no man’s servant.”
Here, then, we have four men, one armed with a sword and the other three with staves (apprentices were not allowed to wear swords), and their separate depositions agree remarkably well—there should be a fourth man with a staff, but perhaps he got away in time, as the watermen evidently did. None of the deponents ventures to say who began it, but it is clear that Oxford’s side, consisting of two men only, were badly outnumbered. Meanwhile, where was my Lord of Oxford himself? He and apparently the rest of his men were at the house of his brother-in-law, Lord Willoughby, in the Barbican, Cripplegate—north of the city wall. We know this from the other document in the case, the Declaration of Roger Townsend “touching the bruit given out that the Earl of Oxford should have attempted somewhat against Mr. Thomas Knyvet.”
Townsend was secretary to Philip Howard Earl of Arundel (nephew of Lord Henry Howard), and he was also a kinsmen of Lord Willoughby and a friend of the Earl of Oxford. He was thus in the difficult position of wanting to remain on good terms with both parties in the quarrel and he seems to have acted as a go-between. On 18th June he was invited by a certain Mr. Jones to dine at his house, “there to accompany sundry noblemen and gentlemen that meant to further and give credit and countenance unto his newly-erected table.” If Townsend’s Declaration is tedious, that is because he evidently felt obliged to give a detailed account of his words and actions almost throughout the day; but this, with a little cutting and patching, is quite clear and very dramatic.
In the morning he went to Arundel House (on the river, between Somerset House and the Temple), and it turned out that Arundel had also received an invitation to Mr. Jones’s party; so they decided to go together. First of all Townsend had to go to Westminster Hall and back on some unspecified errand, and on returning he found his Lordship alone, except for his own servants. Then, just as they were on the point of departure, “my Lord Thomas Howard (Arundel’s brother) and Mr. Knyvet carne in, and understood whither my Lord went, and did accompany him to the place where we dined.
“Presently after dinner, one of my men came to me, and told me that he had heard some speech that my Lord of Oxford’s company meant to set upon Mr. Knyvet in the company of whomsoever they found him.” Townsend asked his man where he had heard this and what proof he had. He answered that he had heard it at Lord Willoughby’s house, where Lord Oxford and Lord Willoughby were, and that some of the company had borrowed a sword, or swords, and a buckler from Townsend’s men. Townsend, “thinking it wits but some rash suspicion or speech of some ill disposed person,” sent him back for further information, telling him not to speak of it to anybody. Meanwhile, Townsend, himself, selected one confidant (Lord Ormonde), but otherwise said nothing, even to Lord Arundel. As a result of this self-imposed silence, he had considerable difficulty in preventing Arundel from going to Howard House (the Charterhouse), where he had some business to attend to, but which was dangerously close to Willoughby House. In the end, however, he managed to persuade him to go straight home:
“And thereupon we went presently down the stairs to go to the Blackfriars (presumably by the main entrance, just south of Ludgate Street). And even at the door, my man came to me and told me that he had been at my Lord Willoughby’s … and he did perceive that there was no such intent as was before spoken of. And so we went to the Blackfriars; where Mr. Knyvet, going before us, was set upon. But who they were that did it I know not, for I was so far behind as I could not discern what they were. And so I took boat with my Lord of Arundel and went to Arundel House.”
Shorn of some of the excessive detail, nothing could be simpler, yet Townsend’s story, as reflected in modern books, is distorted past all recognition, or at least, past recognition as evidence for the same fray as the one in which the butchers played their part. In some versions the date—clearly written by Townsend as xviij June—has become the 28th (after the Examinations of the butchers); the time, instead of after the midday meal, is after dinner in the evening; the dinner-party takes place at Arundel House, and on their way home, the guests are made to land at Blackfriars Stairs. These variants may not all occur in the same book, but they all occur somewhere; and in the latest version Professor Lawrence Stone gives us a highly coloured picture of “an unsuccessful attempt to murder Knyvet one evening as he was disembarking at Blackfriars Stairs—a favourite place for attack as the victim struggled helplessly up the slimy steps.” (4)
Apart from this unfair strategic advantage, for which there is not an atom of evidence, the details of time and place make no difference to the moral, or legal, issue with regard to a particular occasion, but they do make all the difference to the question of whether there was one fray at the Blackfriars, or two. According to the butchers, the fray began as Knyvet approached the top of the stairs, by land. The time is not given in the Examinations, but it was obviously during the normal working day. The date is not actually given either, but the Examinations were taken on the 24th June, and William Brooke recalls that it was “on Monday last.” Now, in 1582, 24th June fell on a Sunday, and it follows that Monday last was, in fact, the 18th; so there can be no doubt that it was the same fray, and the evidence of Townsend and the butchers is complementary. We are not told what happened to Knyvet, or even where he was when Townsend and Arundel arrived on the scene, but he does not seem to have been victimized—unless, perhaps, he was beaten up by the butchers and watermen in the cause of rough justice, or “keeping the peace.” In any case, he was not seriously hurt. There were more frays to come, with fatal casualties on both sides, but the affray at the Blackfriars seems to have been almost a farce, staged by the watermen and other rumour-mongers. Townsend concludes:
“In the evening, finding my Lord of Willoughby walking in his garden, I desired to speak with him. So going, talking to him, I told him that I thought my Lord of Oxford and he would not think me so idly occupied as that I would join any quarrel against them. Then he said to me that he did perceive there had flying tales comen to us as well as to them, for saith he, it was told my Lord of Oxford that Mr. Knyvet with others came braying hard by the door here. Thereupon my Lord of Oxford himself, and also his men, was somewhat grieved at it. I answered my Lord, I thought that was very untrue, for Mr. Knyvet was not out of my company all the afternoon, and before dinner we came altogether and went no further than Aldersgate; and that truly I did think in my conscience there was no such intent, there was none in the company prepared to any such purpose. ‘Truly cousin Townsend,’ said my Lord Willoughby, ‘if the matter had grown to any further extremity, I would have sent both to the Mayor and the Recorder.’ But whether he said he did send or no, I do not well remember.The reference to Aldersgate provides a clue to the site of Mr. Jones’s house. Presumably Townsend meant the actual gate in the wall, for if the party had gone through Alders’ Gate, up Aldersgate Street, and turned right (opposite Aldersgate Station), they would have come to Willoughby House. We do not know how long Oxford and his men had been there, but if they were the first to arrive at their destination, the near approach of the enemy, in full force, might well have given cause for alarm, and hasty preparations for action.
Meanwhile, it seems, Gastrill and Horsleye were going about their business alone, at the Blackfriars. What were they doing there? Well, Horsleye is described as a glazier, an unusual occupation for a nobleman’s servant; but, by 1597 anyway and possibly much earlier, there was a glass factory within the precincts of the Blackfriars. Perhaps Horsleye was stage-struck and either gave up making glasses altogether or took a part-time job at the nearby playhouse. As for Gastrill, who was named in connection with three successive frays—Lord Burghley denied, in a letter of 12th March 1583, that Gastrill was Oxford’s man, “nor yet is, though Mr. Knyvet report him so to be.”
1. State Papers Domestic, Elizabeth, 154, 13.
2. Publications of the Catholic Record Society, Vol. XXI, p. 34.
3. S.P.D. Eliz., 154, 11. Numbers 11 and 12 are described jointly in one paragraph, which continues: “Gastrill, the Earl’s man hurt. Two papers.” This is rather misleading, for there is no reference to Gastrill being hurt in the first and no reference to the Blackfriars in the second. It is generally assumed that Gastrill was wounded in the affray at Lambeth, but the place is not specified, and the witnesses were domiciled in, or near, Fleet Street …
4. Lawrence Stone: The Crisis of the Aristocracy (1965), p. 233. Earlier versions of the story are found in:
B. M. Ward: The Seventeenth Earl of Oxford (1928), p. 229.
Percy Allen: The Life Story of Edward de Vere as “William Shake-speare” (1932), p. 187.
Sir Edmund Chambers: Sir Henry Lee (1936), p. 157.
Eric St. John Brooks: Sir Christopher Hatton (1946), p. 90.
Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn: This Star of England (1952), p. 372.
The list may not be exhaustive. Unfortunately, at the outset, Ward referred to the Townsend MS., in error, as “Lansdowne” 154, 13, which may have puzzled subsequent investigators. Chambers gives the reference correctly from the Calendar of State Papers, but repeats some of the old errors.