Oxford’s and Worcester’s Men And the “Boar’s Head”
Copyright 1973 by Gwynneth Bowen
First published in Shakespearean Authorship Review (English), Summer 1973.
IN our last issue (No. 27, Winter 1972) I reviewed the late Professor C. J. Sisson’s book on the Boar’s Head Theatre. The present article, however, is not a continuation of that review, but is based on some research of my own, begun many years ago and abandoned for the time being because I needed Sisson’s unpublished evidence before going any further.
My own approach was through the Blue Boar Inn, which Sir Edmund Chambers believed to be identical with “the Bores Head Without Aldgate”, where a “lewd play” called A Sackful of News was produced in 1557. It stood on the north, side of Aldgate High Street, between the Gate and the Bars on Hog Lane (Petticoat Lane); in the parish of St. Bartolph without Aldgaite—which was practically co-terminal with Portsoken Ward. As Chambers pointed out, it is marked on Ogilby’s map of 1677, [Elizabethan Stage, Vol. 2, p. 444, Note.] but Chambers evidently did not know that, next-door to the ‘Blue Boar’ Inn, on the Hog Lane side, there was once a Boar’s Head Tavern. It is named on the map of Portsoken Ward in Stripe’s revised and enlarged edition of Stow’s Survey (1720), and was described by Robert Seymour in 1734 as “a house of pretty good trade”. [Seymour, Survey of London and Westminster, Vol. 1, p. 279.] It is possible, of course, that this tavern took its name from the Boar’s Head Theatre just across Hog Lane in the parish of Whitechapel, Middlesex; but it is also possible, even probable, that it had survived from 1557 as an adjunct of the Blue Boar Inn which, itself, survived till the coming of the underground. In any case, the same building, is shown, though unnamed, on Ogilby’s map, and it has the advantage of being “without Aldgate” in the strict sense of the term. Sisson endeavoured to prove that “the Bores Head without Aldgate” really meant the Boar’s head Inn at Whitechapel, which was later converted into the Boar’s Head Theatre but to do so he was obliged to stretch the meaning of the words, insisting that they were used very loosely.
Both Sisson and Chambers stress the point that no play could have been performed in Portsoken Ward after 1506, when the licensing of playhouses within the jurisdiction of the city came to an end, but from 1557 to 1596 is a period of nearly forty years, during which plays might just as well have been performed in Portsoken Ward as in Whitechapel; and if by the end of that period the Boar’s Head Tavern, or the adjacent Blue Boar Inn, had become a regular playhouse, the simplest and most effective course for the players would be to seek new quarters on the other side of Hog Lane, and take their audience with them.
Now the Blue Boar was, of course, the cognizance of the Earls of Oxford, who had a house in Aldgate and had kept players since 1492. The performance of A Sackful of News—the only known performance of a play at the “Bores Head without Aldgate” occurred in the time of John de Vere 16th Earl of Oxford, and it was his son, Edward 17th Earl, whose servants together with those of the Earl of Worcester were licensed to play at the Boar’s Head (Whitechapel) in 1602.
We do not know whether the 17th Earl owned either the Blue Boar Inn or the Boar’s Head Tavern, but we do know that among his few possessions at the time of his death in 1604 was a plot of land in the parish of St. Bartolph without Aldgate. [B. R. Ward, The Mystery of “Mr. W. H.”, p. 29.] He did not inherit this land, but bought it at an unknown date from the Italian merchant-banker, Benedict Spinola, to whom it was granted by Queen Elizabeth in 1575, and it can be traced back to the time of Henry VIII, before which it was a garden belonging to the Priory of Holy Trinity, also known as Christ’s Church. Henry VIII granted it to Sir Thomas Audley, who gave it to Magdalen College, Cambridge, but subject to certain conditions which the college did not fulfil, and so it reverted to the Crown in the reign of Elizabeth. This garden is referred to by Stow in a famous passage beginning: “From Aldgate north-west to Bishopsgate lieth the ditch of the city called Houndsditch”, and from his description, with the amplifications of other topographers, the site can be almost precisely identified. I quote from Robert Seymour who, after a brief summary, cites the Letters Patents of Henry VIII:
“For all this, Sir Thomas Audley obtained of King Henry, special Letters Patents, dated March 23, in the 25th year of his reign, as belonging to the Priory, to this tenor:
Henricus Octavus Dei Gratia etc. Omnibus ad Quos etc. Sciatis quod Nos cic. dedamus & concessimus etc. i.e.
Know ye that we have given and granted to Sir Thomas Audley one Messuage, one Dovecoat, and one garden, or Parcel of Land, with the Appurtenances, containing by Estimation, seven acres of Land, whether more or less, as they lay and are in the Parish of St. Bartolph without Aldgate, London, viz. between a certain Street or Lane called Hog-Lane on one Part, and divers Messuages by the King’s Highway called Houndsditch, adjoining and built on the other Part. He gave also and granted to the said Sir Thomas a certain great Gate with an Ediface built upon it, and adjacent, and a certain Street or Lane extending from the aforesaid King’s Highway called Houndsditch, to, in and as far as the said Garden or Parcel of Land, containing seven acres with all Edifaces, Walls, Ditches and Closes in and about the said Garden or Parcel of Lands there being . . .” [Seymour, Survey of London and Westminster, Vol. 1, p. 276.]
At the Inquisition on the Earl of Oxford’s London property, taken at the Guildhall on 13th August in the 6th year of James I, it was testified that “on the day of his death he was seized of, in his own and feudal right, a messuage or tenement called the Gate House, with its appurtenances and a garden commonly known as the Great Garden alias the Covent Garden of Christchurch, and in addition newly constructed buildings in the aforesaid Great Garden situated in the parish of St. Bartolph without Aldgate, London.” (1)
Oxford had in fact sold the property in 1591, but to his future brother-in-law. The evidence for this is to be found in a note on a case brought after his death, by Magdalen College, Cambridge, with reference to a tenement and 10 acres of land in the city of London belonging to the said university:
“Queen Elizabeth by patent 29 January 1575 granted the said messuage and garden to Benedict Spinola and his heirs for ever . . . The premises by bargain and sale came from Spinola to Edward Earl of Oxford father of his Majesty’s Ward [Henry 18th Earl]; and Earl Edward, 4 July 1591, sold the same to John Wolly and Francis Trentham, to have the same assured to Trentham for life, and in default of such assurance to receive the rents for life, the remainder and the entire fee simple to be disposed of for the advantage of Elizabeth, sister of the said Francis Trentham.” [Calendar of State Papers Domestic. Addenda, 1580-1625, p. 520, No. 105, Nov. 26, 1609.]
Within a few months—the exact date is unknown—Oxford, a widower since 1588, married Elizabeth Trentham. Their son, Henry, was born on 24th February 1593. [B. M. Ward, The Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, p. 307 and p. 313.]
In 1588, after the death of his first wife, Oxford had sold his two known London houses: Oxford House, near London Stone, which he inherited; and Fisher’s Folly on the site of Devonshire Square, Bishopsgate Street, which he acquired soon after the death in 1579 of the builder and first owner, Jasper Fisher. It stood between the first public theatres in Shoreditch and the Bull Inn on Bishopsgate Street, where plays were regularly performed, and its backgarden was on the border of Portsoken Ward, which comprised about 45 acres. It seems that his ten acres here, on the Hog Lane side of this northern half of Portsoken Ward would have reached, more or less, from the back of his property in Bishopsgate (without) to the backs of the Blue Boar Inn and Boar’s Head Tavern on Aldgate High Street or Whitechapel [It is so named on the early maps.] as it was then called; and indeed, Seymour, in his section on Portsoken Ward, writes: “In this Hog Lane . . . lying on the Back-side of Whitechapel (italics mine), were eight acres of Land, which about the year 1574 were in the possession of one Benedict Spinola” [Seymour, Survey of London and Westminster, Vol. 1, p. 269.]—who seems to have remained in possession at least till 1584. Seymour does not specifically identify this land of Spinola’s with the covent garden of Holy Trinity, or Christchurch, but there was no room here for another eight acres. Oxford, then, bought his property in Portsoken Ward from Spinola sometime between 1584 and 1591: that is to say, shortly before or shortly after the sale of Fisher’s Folly. Either way, he must have had a special interest in this north-east fringe of the city. Between the death of his first wife, Anne Cecil, in 1588, and his marriage to an heiress, Elizabeth Trentham, in 1591 he was faced with the greatest financial crisis of his life, in the form of a bill from the Court of Wards. [Joel Hurstfield, The Queen’s Wards, p. 253.] All these facts must be taken into account in assessing the part he played as a joint patron of Oxford’s and Worcester’s Men. Hitherto, his existence in this connection has been almost entirely ignored.
According to Chambers, Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford “had theatrical servants at intervals from 1580 to 1602,” [Elizabethan Stage, Vol. 3, p.503.] but there was one very long interval. Oxford’s men are last heard of in London in 1587, and Chambers traces their movements in the provinces up to 1590 and no further. [Elizabethan Stage, Vol. 2, pp.100-102.] After that they disappear from the records for twelve years, to reappear only in the letter from the Privy Council to the Lord Mayor, of 31st March, 1602, from which we learn that they are now amalgamated with Worcester’s. From then on, till the company became Queen Anne’s men late in 1603, or early 1604, Worcester’s name alone appears as patron, but it is generally taken for granted that this was in fact the amalgamated company. It is also taken for granted that the amalgamation dates from 1602 and no earlier. Yet this is not necessarily implied by the wording of the Privy Council letter which is our only source of information. Indeed quite the reverse.
Some years before this the London companies had been officially limited to two, the Chamberlain’s and the Admiral’s; but by February, 1598, there was also “a third company who of late . . . have by waie of intrusion used likewise to play,” [Elizabethan Stage, Vol. 4, p. 325, No. cxiv.] and the Privy Council gave orders for this third company to be suppressed. In their letter of March 1602, the Council complains that the servants of the Earl of Oxford and the Earl of Worcester,
beinge joyned by agrement togeather in on Companie (to whom, upon noteice of her Maiesties pleasure at the suit of the Earl of Oxford, tolleracion hath ben thought meete to be graunted, notwithstandinge the restraint of our said former Orders), doe no tye them selfs to one certaine place and howse, but do chainge their place at there owne disposition, which is as disorderly and offensive as the former offence of many howses, and as the other Companies that are allowed . . . be appointed there certine howses and one and no more to each Company. Soe we do straighly require that this third Companie be likewise to one place and because we are informed the house called the Bores head is the place they have especially used and doe best like of, we doe pray and require yow that the said howse . . . may be assigned to them, and that they be very straightlie Charged to use and exercise there plays in no other but that howse, as they looke to have that tolleracion continued and avoid farther displeasure. [Elizabethan Stage, Vol. 4, p. 334, cxxx.]
Clearly, at the time of writing, Oxford’s and Worcester’s servants constituted one company and not two, which was the relevant point. But when did they play as one company at the Boar’s Head, and how long had they been changing their place at their own disposition? Worcester’s, as we now know, began their first season at the newly re-constructed Boar’s Head Theatre at Michaelmas, 1599, and left in 1600, probably about Shrovetide. Since then, they bad been sued for breach of contract by their own leader, Robert Browne, lessee of the Boar’s Head, and had retaliated with a suit against him. Sisson informs us that the court dealt with the matter in decrees of May and June 1601. Meanwhile, the breakaway company still called itself Worcester’s, and Browne became temporarily a servant of the Earl of Derby, who was Oxford’s son-in-law. In February 1600, and again in January 1601, Browne took a company to Court which may have included some of Oxford’s men as well as Derby’s, but when Worcester’s played at Court in the following January, 1602, their payees were William Kempe and Thomas Heywood. [Elizabethan Stage, Vol. 4, pp.166-167.] All things considered it is most unlikely that they returned to the Boar’s Head at all before the letter was written, on the last day of March 1602. In that case, if the amalgamated company had played at the Boar’s Head, it must have been in 1599-1600 (or earlier still) and ever since 1600 Worcester’s had, in fact, been behaving just as the amalgamated company was said to have behaved. It is, therefore, simplest to suppose that it was the amalgamated company. Toleration then, must have been granted to this third company sometime before Michaelmas, 1599, and of course, after February 1598, when that unnamed, intrusive “third company” was suppressed; for though there might well have been more than one offending company, there could hardly have been two third companies at the same time, whether officially recognized or not. Or was it the same third company, that was first suppressed and later allowed, “at the suit of the Earl of Oxford”? We cannot tell for certain, but if the answer is Yes, we have succeeded in tracing the company back almost to the year 1596, when playing was banned within the jurisdiction of the city. Whether the amalgamated company (or Oxford’s alone) had played before that at the Boar’s Head without Aldgate must remain for the present a highly speculative question but speculation has sometimes led to proof, and not always by the original speculator. It should be used with caution, not eschewed altogether for fear of being wrong—but never repeated as fact without confirmation. Therein lies its danger and abuse.
1. Margaret Sefton Jones, Old Devonshire House by Bishopsgate, p. 67, note 1. The author acknowledges her debt to Colonel Ward for information respecting the de Vere property at Aldgate, but Ward, in his own book, seems to have confused the Covent (convent) Garden of Christchurch (Holy Trinity, Aldgate) with the famous Covent Garden of Westminster. He states that Oxford was “owner of the Oate House and of land at Covent Garden and St. Bartolph’s outside Aldgate” (Mystery of “Mr. W. H.”, p. 29). Both writers refer to the same source, the Inquisitio post mortem at the Public Record Office—Chancery Series 2, Vol. 305, No. 103.