The Plague and the Hope

By now we are all familiar with the experience of walking into a crowded place and worrying whether it is safe to be there, whether the number of people breathing in that space correlates to the higher possibility of infection and disease. Finally, we decide that the pleasures of social interaction or entertainment are not worth the risk, and we despondently leave the premises.

How might early modern Londoners have felt when walking into a newly reopened playhouse which had been shut down for months because of the escalating numbers of plague victims? How might the audience of a 1594 performance of Hamlet, for instance, have engaged with it when the pestilence had raged through London for much of 1592–1593, and theatres were repeatedly ordered to close?

This line of speculation might be addressed by considering some of the more physically concrete features of early modern playhouses. These spaces took very different shapes. Some of them were circular, open-air arenas (such as the Globe or the Rose), while others boasted an indoor stage (Blackfriars). Some were converted from inns into stages (Boar’s Head, Red Bull), while others were purpose-built to serves as playhouses (like the Swan).

In 1613 a contract between the co-owners of an animal baiting arena known as the Bear Garden, and a carpenter named Gilbert Katherens, set out the plans for building a new playhouse—later known as the Hope—on the same site. This enterprise was intended to provide a space ‘bothe for players to playe In, And for the game of Beares and Bulls to be bayted in the same.’ According to the Annales of Edmund Howes, this arena was used as a ‘Play House for Stage Playes on Mundayes, Wedensdayes, Fridayes, and Saterdayes, and for the baiting of the Beares on Tuesdayes and Thursdayes, the stage being made to take vp and downe when they please.’ Although this ambitious, dual-function feat of architecture may initially have appeared to be an efficient and profitable use of space, ultimately it proved unsustainable and unpopular. Players and animals co-existed in an uneasy union that caused no small degree of complaint.

Around 1614, for instance, Lady Elizabeth’s Men, contested the amount they should have been paid for the days the Hope was used for bearbaiting instead of plays. A few months later, Prince Charles’ Man abandoned the Hope after they were forced to give up one of the days allocated to playing to bearbaiting.

A more explicit testimony to the unsatisfactory state of the Hope comes from a character in the induction to Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, which premiered at the Hope in 1614, who furtively describes the playhouse as ‘as durty as Smithfield, and as stinking every whit.’

The stench of the Hope clearly affected the experience of the audience as well as the players. This odour, however, may not have been a deterrent for performers and playgoers merely because of its olfactory offence. It could also have been the bearer of more sinister things, such as the pestilence.

As early as the first appearance of the plague in Europe in 1348, one of the major medical explanations for the pestilence was founded on Hippocrates’ theory of miasma, which saw noxious and polluted air as the cause of disease. A parallel—and often indistinguishable—understanding of the pestilence involved its observed transmission from one person to the next, ie contagion. This latter theory was the basis for the Elizabethan quarantining orders of 1578.[1]

By the late sixteenth century, these two theories had morphed into one overarching view that connected the spread of disease to large gatherings of people as the breeding ground for foul, infectious air. Playhouses clearly fell within these parameters. As a 1593 Privy Council order for the suppression of all plays and ‘such like unnecessary assemblies’ attests, the ‘heat’ produced by large gatherings of people in playhouses was considered a major risk factor in infecting ‘sound’ people.

Given these contemporary theories on the pestilence, the Hope playhouse was in an unfavourable position compared to other London theatres. The infamous stench from animal cages and the remains of their baiting games was a perfect example of the putrid and corrupt airs that could ‘infect the blood and the spiritual members of man.’[2] Added to this was the perceived correlation between animal remains and pestilence. As early as the first plague outbreak and much before the establishment of public playhouses, ordinances sought to regulate butchery and prevent offal, blood, and entrails from piling in the streets, as their abominable stench poisoned the air and caused sickness.[3]

We may now be able to understand more clearly why ‘the Hope failed to establish the sort of consolidated tradition that could have challenged the Globe, the Fortune and the Red Bull.’[4] We can now imagine—and perhaps empathize with—an early modern Londoner who, despite having been starved of entertainment for months, might not have been too keen on going to the Hope, not just because it was foul but also because it was plagued.

Sara Ameri is a PhD Candidate at the Department of English, University of Toronto. Her primary research focus is the Black Death and its function in late medieval English devotional writing. More broadly, she is interested in the place of the plague in the Global Middle Ages and the literary culture of the early modern period. Her research has appeared on digital platforms through such pieces as ‘A Plague Saint in Print’ and ‘Intolerable Mystics: The Cases of al-Hallāj and Marguerite Porete.


[1] See Rebecca Totaro, The Plague in Print: Essential Elizabethan Sources, 1558–1603 (University Park, 2010), 179–196.

[2] Totaro, Plague in Print, p 10

[3] Ernest L. Sabine, Butchering in Mediaeval London, Speculum 8.3 (July 1933), 344.

[4] Alexander Legatt, Jacobean Public Theatre (Abingdon, 1992), 23.

The Drama of Recusancy in Yorkshire’s North Riding

Recusancy – the refusal to attend regular services of the newly-founded Church of England (usually in favour of attendance at the celebration of a Catholic mass) – was prohibited by the 1559 Act of Uniformity, with harsh penalties for non-compliance. The fines could be crippling: an initial fine of twelve shillings for non-attendance was soon increased to twenty pounds a month. Queen Elizabeth’s principal secretary, Sir William Cecil, and his son and successor, Sir Robert Cecil, kept extensive lists of recusants, and it is clear from these lists that recusancy was concentrated in the North Riding deaneries of Cleveland and Richmond.

The eastern part of the Cleveland deanery is of particular interest, for it housed the country’s only known company of recusant players. Based in the village of Egton or the nearby vill of Westonby, the company was largely drawn from the Simpson family, who (outside of their performing) were, at least nominally, shoemakers. The Simpsons spent much of their time avoiding the bailiffs, since their performances transgressed two statutes: the recusancy laws and the poor laws, which required performing companies to operate only under gentry patronage. The redoubtable Sir Thomas Posthumous Hoby of Hackness accused his neighbour, Sir Richard Cholmeley, of acting as patron to the Simpson company, but there is no clear evidence that this was the case.

Lying a scant 6 miles inland from the port of Whitby, Egton was also a central stopping point on one of the principal routes for Catholic priests to join the mission for the reconversion of the country.

Photo: Mark Chambers.

Following study at one of the continental seminaries, like Douai in northern France, or Valladolid in northern Spain, newly ordained English priests would sail from France or the Netherlands to Whitby, whose convenience as an English port avoiding large urban areas was later recognized by Bram Stoker, when Dracula used the route for his return to England.

Photo: Mark Chambers

From Whitby, it was walking distance to Egton, where they would be welcomed by an extensive Catholic community.

Photo: Mark Chambers

From Egton they would cross the slow-moving river Esk at the hamlet of Egton Bridge.

Photo: Mark Chambers.

From here they followed the riverside path towards the former Grandmontine priory of Grosmont on the river’s left bank.

Photo: Mark Chambers.

The priory was a Catholic safe house recognized by the Cecils as a centre of recusant activity.

Photo: Mark Chambers.

Grosmont was farmed by John Hodgson and his wife, staunch Catholics both. Nothing of the Priory remains above ground today; the path on the right side of the picture leads to the present town of Grosmont and the Moors railway.

Photo: Mark Chambers

Travel over the short distance from Whitby to Grosmont would have meant crossing the river, likely at a set of stepping stones.

Photo: Mark Chambers.

Aside from government raids on Grosmont, life in Egmont must have been relatively quiet, as it is today.

Photo: Mark Chambers.

From its position high above the Esk valley, the village boasts beautiful views of the surrounding moorlands.

Photo: Mark Chambers

Today, Egton and Egton Bridge are served by two churches, an Anglican church dedicated to St Hilda of Whitby, and a Catholic church dedicated to St Hedda, a Whitby monk of the seventh century, who had been a student of Hilda. The Catholic church would not have existed in the period covered by these records, and only a few stones incorporated into the fabric of the church of St Hilda remain today, including the zig-zag arch over the south doorway.

Photo: Mark Chambers.

The remainder of the church of St. Hilda and the whole of the church of St. Hedda date from the later nineteenth century, though Hadfield, the Victorian architect, incorporated perpendicular features indicating the style of the earlier building.

Photo: Mark Chambers.

Want to know more?

Hugh Aveling. Northern Catholics: The Catholic Recusants of the North Riding of Yorkshire, 1558–1790 (London, 1966).

G.W. Boddy. ‘Catholic Missioners at Grosmont Priory,’ North Yorkshire County Record Office Journal 4 (1976), 65–76.

G.W. Boddy. ‘Players of Interludes in North Yorkshire in the Early Seventeenth Century,’ North Yorkshire County Record Office Review 3 (1976), 95–130.

J.T. Cliffe. ‘Chapter 10: The Cost of Recusancy,’ The Yorkshire Gentry from the Reformation to the Civil War, University of London Historical Studies 25 (London, 1969), 210–230.

Real-life drama in Yorkshire’s North Riding: Sir Thomas Hoby and the Protestant North

It is a commonplace that Tudor and Stuart societies were among the most litigious in history, and that the courts were regularly used to settle scores, advance personal wealth, and control relationships.

Sir Thomas Posthumous Hoby (1566–1640) is a particularly egregious example of this mindset; his name appears frequently in the court records of the North Riding, as well as those of the nation’s highest court, Star Chamber, largely in the context of disputes with his Yorkshire neighbours.

Detail from the Wasse deposition in Sir Thomas Hoby’s Star Chamber case against Sir William Eure (TNA: STAC 5/H50/4). Photo: David Klausner.

I. Sir Thomas Hoby against the Recusants

Hoby was born in October 1566, shortly after the untimely death in July 1566 of his father Thomas, Elizabeth’s ambassador to France. His mother, the formidable Elizabeth Hoby (née Cooke), who became Lady Elizabeth Russell on her second marriage in 1574 to John, Lord Russell, attempted with limited success to control all aspects of her son’s life, sending him off to Oxford at the age of 8. Her intention was that he would attend the Inns of Court at 16, but Thomas refused to go, though in 1586 he was admitted to Gray’s Inn.

Hoby spent much of the late 1580s as a soldier in Ireland, distinguishing himself sufficiently to attract a knighthood in 1594. His marriage to Margaret Dakins in 1595 not only brought him the estate of Hackness, but also a close association with the Cecil family, since his mother was sister-in-law to William Cecil, first Baron Burghley, Elizabeth’s secretary of state, and Hoby himself was first cousin to Burghley’s son, Robert Cecil, first earl of Salisbury. A staunch Protestant, Hoby became a significant participant in Cecil’s plans to eliminate recusancy in the North.

Lady Russell described her son as a diminutive child, and it is clear that Hoby had an advanced case of what has come to be known as ‘short-man syndrome’. He was party to a number of Star Chamber cases brought against his neighbours, one of whom described him as ‘the little knight who useth to draw up his breeches with a shooing-horn,’ and ‘the sauciest little Jack in all the countrie, and wold have an oar in everybody’s boat.’ Hoby did an extraordinarily successful job of making himself disliked by practically all the Yorkshire gentry. Jack Binns describes him as a contemptible foreign southerner and carpetbagger, deliberately and offensively planted in the North to spy on his neighbours.

There is almost certainly a measure of truth in these accusations. Hoby’s career in the North likely owed something to the patronage of the earl of Huntingdon, in whose manor house Hoby’s wife Margaret had been brought up. Huntingdon had been lord president of the Council of the North since 1572; his particular concern was the influence of Catholic families, many of whom, such as the Cholmleys of Whitby and the Eures of Malton, regularly sheltered missionary priests and facilitated their movement from the continental seminaries to the major landing at Whitby and cross-country to the safe house at the former Grandmontine priory of Grosmont. Huntingdon clearly planned for Hoby’s manor at Hackness as a Protestant stronghold in the midst of a large Catholic population. In the same year as his move to Hackness, Hoby was appointed a JP for the East Riding, and for the North in 1601. Scarborough sent him to parliament in 1597. Over the next forty years, Hoby was elected to all but one, sitting regularly for Ripon, Appleby, and Scarborough.

The large surviving archive of quarter sessions records gives extensive evidence of Hoby’s prosecutions of the local recusancy in his position as magistrate. In addition to his ruthless prosecution of recusants, Hoby attempted to use his position as magistrate to bring to court the Catholic playing company led by Christopher Simpson of Egton, near Whitby, claiming that Sir Richard Cholmley was acting as their gentry patron to circumvent the Poor Laws. Although the Simpson company did appear before the magistrates of the quarter sessions on several occasions, Cholmley was never convicted of supporting the recusant players.  

It was inevitable that Hoby would attract enemies, and on 5 September 1600 a cohort of mostly younger gentry undertook what can only be called a home invasion at Hackness. Claiming to be a hunting party, they demanded hospitality from Sir Thomas, disrupting the household’s routine as far as possible, singing ribald songs and a ‘black Sanctus’ when the family attempted to sing psalms and recite prayers. When the invaders left the following morning, windows were broken, and Sir Thomas immediately complained to Cecil and initiated a case before the court of Star Chamber that would carry on for several years, resulting eventually in the leader, Sir William Eure, being fined £100 a year. Public feeling over the so-called ‘Hackness scandal’ may be indicated by the fact that in 1601 Hoby’s election to parliament for Scarborough was unsuccessful, the seat going instead to the leader of the home invasion, the recusant Sir William Eure. He also failed to secure membership on the Council in the North in 1603.

Sir Thomas died on 30 December 1640, and was buried with Margaret in Hackness parish church.

II. Lady Margaret Hoby and the Hackness estate

A Yorkshirewoman by birth, Margaret Dakins (1571–1633) was the daughter of Arthur and Thomasin Dakins of Linton, fourteen miles west of Scarborough, the area in which she spent most of her life. The young Margaret was placed in the household of Henry Hastings, the third (or twentieth) earl of Huntingdon, whose wife undertook the training of a number of young gentry women. The Hastings family’s strong Protestantism provided the foundation for Margaret’s Calvinism, chronicled in detail in her daily journal, kept from 9 August 1599 to 21 July 1605. Training in the Huntingdon’s household included household skills, including music, reading, as well as a daily regimen of church attendance and private prayer.

As heiress to her father’s estate at Linton, Margaret was clearly a highly marriageable young woman, and in 1588 a union was negotiated between her and Walter Devereux, the younger son of the first (or eighteenth) earl of Essex and a ward of the earl of Huntingdon. When the negotiations proved fruitful, a coalition of Arthur Dakins, the earl of Essex, and the earl of Huntingdon arranged to purchase the estate of Hackness for the young couple. A short two years later Walter followed his brother to France to support Henry IV in his campaign against the Catholic Holy League. Shortly after the army’s arrival in France, Walter was killed in the siege of Rouen on 8 September, leaving his wife Margaret a widow with a large estate. In order to protect both Margaret and the estate, her parents and her protectors the Huntingdons agreed to a swift remarriage, selecting again a ward of the earl of Huntingdon. Thomas Sidney, nephew to the Huntingdons, was the younger brother of the courtier and poet Sir Philip Sidney. They were married on 22 December 1591, but on 26 July 1595, Sidney died, leaving Margaret again a widow. 

Sir Thomas Hoby, likely pressed on by his formidable mother, made representations to Margaret, but was turned away until the end of the year, when a death-bed letter from Margaret’s guardian, the earl of Huntingdon, convinced the young widow to accept Hoby’s proposal. They were married on 9 August 1596 at Lady Russell’s Blackfriars house in London, celebrating with a dinner followed by a sermon. They took over the Hackness estate, now very large, and remained there for the rest of their lives.

Margaret’s journal gives a detailed picture of their life at Hackness, with Margaret involved in local philanthropy and good works, while her husband increased his legal and political status as a justice of the peace and magistrate. She remained a staunch Protestant all her life, frequently reflecting on religion in the journal. She died on 6 September 1633 and was buried in the chancel of the parish church. In 1634 her husband fulfilled one of her promises, building a chapel of ease at Harwood Dale on the Hackness estate, but at a considerable remove from the parish church. The chapel is dedicated to St Margaret.

III. The Hackness home invasion

Since taking up residence at Hackness in 1596, Sir Thomas Hoby had done very little to endear himself to his neighbours. His appointment as a JP gave considerable power to a man already of a litigious nature. Hoby’s firm Protestantism and his legal standing made him an ideal candidate to pursue the government’s policy of prosecution and fines for unrepentant Catholics who refused to conform to the requirement of weekly church attendance. The fact that a significant number of the North Riding gentry were Catholic guaranteed that there would be substantial disagreement with the new southern JP.

 It didn’t take long.

On 26 August 1600 a footboy representing a cohort of young men — mostly sons of the gentry — claiming to be a hunting party, arrived at Hackness demanding lodging for the night. Hoby said that his wife was not well and that the house was not well provisioned to receive guests. The reply was that the hunting party was in the woods and the message could not be got to them. The party arrived about two hours later and were admitted by Sir Thomas. Cards were soon produced and supper was found.

Presently after this Sir William Ewres footeboy tooke forth Cardes and layde them vpon the table wherwith some of the gentlemen were excersized vntill supper./

In the beginninge of Supper tyme (Mr. Ewre pretending that he Came to hunte although he had noe howndes or greyhowndes with him) Sir Thomas sente for his servante that had moste Chardge of his deare whoe dwelte three myles from him; to be at Hacknes howse the next morninge to attende Mr Ewre: and soe Contynued at the table with them all the tyme of supper which was spente by the gentleman fyrst named (Mr Dawny excepted) partly in discoorsinge of Horses and dogges sportes whervnto Sir Thomas never applied himselfe; partly with lascivious talke wherin euerye sentence was either begone or ended with a grevous Oath yll beseeminge either the place or persons; And partly in inordynate drinkinge vnto helthes; abuses never practyzed in Sir Thomas his howse but once when Mr Ewre came vnto his howse whch was in ye yeer before./

In supper tyme Came in a foote boy whome the gentlemen had sente for Mr William Dawny and brought worde that he woold Come vnto them in the morninge./

After supper Sir Thomas willed to have their Chamberes made readye: And soe soone as they wer readye, Sir Thomas Came himselfe and offered to bringe them vnto their lodginges; but they beinge at Dyse with the moste parte of their Company abowte them towld Sir Thomas that they woold play a while And soe they refusinge to goe vnto their Chambers; Sir Thomas did leave them for that night; and wente downe and sett his howshoulde to prayers as they were accustomed./

When Sir Thomas his famyly had begone to sing a psalme (as they are accustomed to doe before prayers) The gentlemen and their Company beinge but a little before lefte by Sir Thomas busye at dyse in the dyninge Chamber which ys over the Hall; presently soe soone as the psalme was begone belowe; the Company aboue made an extraordynary noyse with their feete and some songe and some laughed & were much lowder then those that were singinge in the hall and Certeyne of their Company stoode vpon they stayres at a wyndowe that opened into the Hall and laughed all the tyme of prayers./

At least two recusant members of the North Riding gentry, Sir William Eure and his son William, were among the party. William Jordan, a Hackness resident, described the tumult in his deposition to the court:

[They] did stampe & trample with their |ffeete in extraordinarie manner making great noyse ouer the heddes of the said Complainantes servantes And did likewise make very extraordinary outcries with singing in some confused manner thene laughing thother crying with that confusing which is commonlie called the Black sanctus. And he saithe that the famelie of the plaintif wer gretelie disturbed and disquieted in their praiers with the extraordinary cryes and demenors of the defendantes but whether then did singe any prophane songes or no this defendant dothe not knowe.

Eure demanded to see Lady Margaret, who finally consented and requested that he depart peaceably, though on leaving he broke four window panes by throwing stones, and remarked to one of Sir Thomas’ servants:

Tell thy Master he sente me a scurvy messadge and the next tyme I meete him I will tell him soe yf he be vpon the bench (and offeringe to take the man by the bearde sayde) And will pull him by the beard.

Hoby retaliated immediately (5 September) by writing to Cecil with a full narrative of the invasion and lodging a formal complaint to the Council in the North, who heard the complaint on 26 September. By November the complaint had moved on to the court of Star Chamber, where it was finally settled in Hoby’s favour on 17 February 1601/2 with an annual fine levied on the Eure family of £100, which was still being paid in the twentieth century. Margaret noted with delight the outcome of the suit in her Journal entry for 29 May 1602:

This day Came the Lord Ewry his men to Hacknes to pay 100li: wch was appointed them and others to pay, by the Lordes of the priue Counsill in the starr Chamber, for their riott Comitted and vnsiuill behauour at Hackenes: and so it fell out that, as it was done in the sight of our tenantes, so many of the tenants were bye when the mony was brought: wch I note, as seeinge the Iustice and mercie of god to his seruants in manifestinge to  the world, who litle regardes them, that he will bringe downe their enemes vnto them.

Want to know more?

Jack Binns, ‘Sir Thomas Hoby: A Missing Person,’ Transactions of the Scarborough Archaeological and Historical Society 41 (2008), pp 6-15.

Simon Healy, ‘HOBY, Sir Thomas Posthumous (1566-1640), of Hackness, nr. Scarborough, Yorks. and Blackfriars, London; later of Twickenham, Mdx.’ History of Parliament Online, https://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1604-1629/member/hoby-sir-thomas-1566-1640, accessed 17 May 2022.

Hoby, Margaret. Diary of Lady Margaret Hoby, 1599–1605. Dorothy M. Meads (ed)(London, 1930).

The Private Life of an Elizabethan Lady: The Diary of Lady Margaret Hoby 1599–1605. Joanna Moody (ed) (Stroud, 1998).

Playing Companies in Yorkshire’s North Riding

The North Riding collection of documents provides evidence of playing companies on a number of levels, ranging from local companies based in the Riding to touring companies from London.  London companies would have travelled under the patronage of a member of the aristocracy or gentry, avoiding the severe penalties under Elizabeth’s Poor Laws of 1572 which required such patronage for permission to tour.

An acte for the punishment of rogues, vagabonds and sturdie beggars (1598). STC: 8261.7.

Patronized players in the provinces

Touring companies were of course dependant on the hospitality of the North Riding gentry for subsistence as well as for playing space, and household accounts of the gentry often provide information on the touring practices of those who stop to entertain the family and their guests. Sir Thomas Bellasis of Newburgh Priory attended fourteen performances by professional companies during the period from 1610 to 1616. These included performances by Lord Mounteagle’s Men in 1611 and by the Queen’s Men in 1615 and 1616.  The King’s Men appeared at Sir Richard Cholmeley’s manor of Brandsby during the Christmas season of 1622, while Lord Berkeley’s players appeared for the Fairfax family at Gilling Castle in 1581, and the earl of Worcester’s players performed at Gilling in 1571, just as the Fairfaxes were beginning extensive renovation of the Great Hall.

The Great Hall at Gilling Castle. Photo: David Klausner.

Lord Wharton’s Men on tour

Travel from London to Yorkshire was no small matter, and some smaller companies remained based at their patron’s estate within the Riding.  Lord Wharton’s company played primarily at his manor at Healaugh Park Priory (West Riding), but toured locally as well, appearing at Cholmeley’s manor of Brandsby in January of 1615/16 and two years later in 1617/18.  Provincial touring was also a means of avoiding the dangers of plague flare-ups which occurred with some frequency in the larger urban centres and were endemic in London.

Semi-professionals

The North Riding was also the home of two semi-professional companies.  Both of these performed regularly without gentry patronage, although Sir Thomas Posthumous Hoby accused Sir Richard Cholmley (unsuccessfully) of serving as the company’s patron. The documentation of their frequent brushes with the law provide extensive information on the company’s touring practices.  The company of recusant players led by shoemaker Christopher Simpson and his family was based in the village of Egton, just inland from Whitby, while the non-sectarian company was led by Richard Hudson, weaver, of Hutton Buscel.

The Simpson company was based in the North Riding village of Egton. Photo: Mark Chambers.

Recusancy in performance: the Simpsons at Gouthwaite

Information on the Simpson company appears primarily in the documents relating to the Star Chamber prosecution of Sir John Yorke of Nidderdale who hired them during the Christmas to Candlemas season in 1609/10.  Yorke was offered his choice of several plays, including ‘King Lere’, ‘Perocles, Prince of Tire’, and ‘The Travels of the Three English Brothers’ of John Day, William Rowley, and George Wilkins. This list was provided to the court by William Harrison, who played the Fool in ‘King Lere’.  It is likely that both ‘Lere’ and ‘Perocles’ are Shakespeare’s, both published in 1607/8, though the possibility that the reference may be to the anonymous ‘King Leir’ (1605) cannot be entirely discounted.  Harrison’s Star Chamber deposition emphasizes that the company only played from printed texts, implying that this was for all purposes equivalent to the required patronage. 

Yorke, a staunch recusant, turned down these offerings in favour of an anti-protestant St Christopher play in which a clergyman is bested in argument by a Catholic priest (unfortunately, the play has not survived). The documentation of the resulting Star Chamber case as well as their appearances before the magistrates of the local quarter sessions gives extensive information on the touring practices of a small local company. 

Simpson company tour, Christmas to Candlemas 1609–10. Cartography: Byron Moldofsky.

Quarter sessions records also give extensive information on the Hutton Buscel company who, during the winter of 1615/1616 played at thirty-two gentry houses until a prosecution at the sessions led to their withdrawal from performing. The court documents provide a complete list of those who hosted performances by the Hutton Buscel company, since the hosts were also brought before the court and fined.

Hutton Buscel company tour, 29 December 1615–18 February 1615/16. Cartography: Byron Moldofsky.

Both the Simpson company and the Hutton Buscel players included a number of boys in their membership, and the quarter sessions records are careful to indicate that the boys were all over the age of seven, the youngest age to be subject to the Poor Laws.

Want to know more?

Douglas H. Arrell, ‘King Leir at Gowthwaite Hall,’ Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England 25 (2012), pp 83–93.

G.W. Boddy, ‘Players of Interludes in North Yorkshire in the early Seventeenth Century,’ North Riding Yorkshire Record Office Review 4 (1976), pp 95–130.

Phebe Jensen, ‘Recusancy, Festivity, and Community: the Simpsons at Gouthwaite Hall,’ Region, Religion, and Patronage, Richard Dutton et al (eds) (Manchester, 2003), pp 101–20.

Siobhan Keenan, ‘The Simpson Players of Jacobean Yorkshire and the Professional Stage,’ Theatre Notebook 67.1 (2013), pp 16–35.

David Klausner, ‘Travelling Players on the North Yorkshire  Moors,’ Early Performers and Performance in the Northeast of England, Diana Wyatt and John McKinnell (eds) (Amsterdam, 2021), pp 39–50.

Paul Whitfield White, Drama and Religion in English Provincial Society, 1485–1660 (Cambridge, 2008).

Playing Places in Yorkshire’s North Riding

Gouthwaite Hall

Gouthwaite Hall. Anonymous engraving. William Smith, Old Yorkshire, ns (London, 1891), title-page.

Gouthwaite Hall in Nidderdale was likely built by Sir John Yorke in the early seventeenth century, and was the site of the notorious performance at Candlemas in 1609 of an anti-Protestant play performed by the North Riding company of Christopher Simpson of Egton.  

Gouthwaite Hall as it was in the early seventeenth century no longer exists; the valley was flooded in 1893–1901 to make way for the construction of Gouthwaite Reservoir, though a new Gouthwaite Hall was constructed nearby using, largely, building materials from the old hall. It is clear that the new hall was not a replica of the earlier structure, since the replacement was built as two houses, replacing the single dwelling. 

Although it is not possible to reconstruct the floor plan of the original hall, depositions before Star Chamber indicate that the St Christopher play attracted an audience of more than 100, suggesting a performance space of considerable size.

Newburgh Priory

Entry for Newburgh from Thomas Langdale’s A Topographical Dictionary of Yorkshire (Northallerton, 1822).

Newburgh Priory was purchased from the Crown by the Bellasis family following the dissolution of the Augustinian priory in 1539, for the sum of £1062. Anthony Bellasis and his brother Richard had been responsible for the dissolution not only of Newburgh, but of eight other monastic houses. Anthony’s nephew, Sir William Bellasis (1524–1604), converted the monastery’s buildings to a private residence in 1546, but little of the family home survives in the present building of around 1600, though there is evidence of a great hall to the left of the entrance porch.

The Bellasis family attended performances of plays on a regular basis, often in their own hall. These included a visit in 1611 by Lord Mounteagle’s Men, and two visits by the Queen’s Men in August 1615 and July 1616. It is likely that Bellasis saw Queen Anne’s Men on those occasions. Newburgh Priory is in the parish of Coxwold, where Laurence Sterne was vicar from 1760 until his death in 1768.

Gilling Castle

Gilling Castle, Great Hall, high end. Photo: David Klausner.

The original tower block of the late fourteenth century was built for Sir Thomas Etton; the fine Hall was largely rebuilt by Sir William Fairfax, with work begun in 1571. The result is a particularly splendid example of Elizabethan workmanship, with two bays decorated with painted windows featuring the arms of the Yorkshire gentry. The pendant ceiling is a masterpiece of Italian workmanship, and a painted frieze of musicians may represent the family’s resident players. 

Gilling Castle frieze, left panel. Photo: David Klausner

While the reconstruction was in progress in 1571 the Fairfaxes were host to the earl of Worcester’s players; ten years later, in 1581, they welcomed Lord Berkeley’s players.

Healaugh Park

Healaugh Park Priory was established as an Augustinian priory in 1218 and remained a monastic house until its dissolution in 1535.  By the end of the 1540s the former monastery had become the family home of the barons Wharton.  By the end of the century it would have become the home of a company of professional players under the patronage of Philip Wharton (1555–1625), third Baron Wharton. Wharton’s Men visited Sir Richard Cholmeley at Brandsby Hall (see below) twice, in January of 1615/16 and two years later in 1617/18.

Brandsby Hall

Although Sir Richard Cholmeley acted as host to two companies of royal performers at Christmas of 1622, there is little information about his hall at Brandsby, which was demolished and rebuilt in the mid-1740s.

Plays in Yorkshire’s North Riding

Detail from folio 128 of the accounts of Sir Henry and Sir Thomas Bellasis at Newburgh Priory. North Yorkshire Country Record Office ZDV V 10. Image: David Klausner.

Perhaps the most exciting discovery for a REED editor is a document that not only identifies a company of performers, their patron, their fee, and the date of their performance, but also the play they performed.  Most of these records lie in household accounts, which were kept by the steward of the gentry estate that hosted the performance. These were practical documents recording monies spent and, occasionally, distinguished guests, but without much interest in the content of the entertainment.

There are a few exceptions.

Wharton’s Men and The Dumb Knight at Brandsby Hall

On 21 January 1617/8, a local company under the patronage of Philip, Lord Wharton, of Healaugh Park Priory near Richmond, were paid 6s for their performance of Gervase Markham’s play The Dumb Knight (1608) for the entertainment of Richard Cholmeley and his guests at Brandsby Hall.  If the annotation on the title page of the Bodleian Library’s copy is to be believed, The Dumb Knight was a collaborative effort between Markham and Lewis Machin.

The Bodleian’s Library’s annotated copy of The Dumb Knight, attributed to Gervase Markham, implicates Lewis Machin as a co-author. Image: Gervase Markham, The Dumb Knight (London, 1608), sigs A1v-A2. STC: 17398.

Markham (c 1568–1637) is best known as a minor poet, primarily for his English Huswife (published 1615).

Markham’s English Housewife went through several editions from its first publication in 1615 to the end of the seventeenth century. Image: Gervase Markham, Countrey contentments, or The English Huswife (London, 1623), sigs π1v–A1v. STC: 17343.

Less is known about Machin (fl. 1607–9), who may also have been responsible for Every Woman in her Humor (published 1609; see further Joseph Quincy Adams, ‘”Every Woman in Her Humor” and “The Dumb Knight”,’ Modern Philology 10.3 (1913): 413–432).

The Children of the King’s Revels flourished briefly at the Whitefriars between 1607 and 1609. Internal evidence suggests that Every Woman in her Humour – like The Dumb Knight – may have been written for the boy company. Image: Everie Woman in Her Humor (London, 1609), sigs π1v–A1v. STC: 25948.

Quincy argues that the play was written for the Children of the King’s Revels; the title page of The Dumb Knight indicates that it was intended for the same company, although Lord Wharton’s company was not a children’s ensemble.

The Dumb Knight is an odd choice for a (presumably) small provincial playing company. It has twenty-three speaking parts and at least nine non-speaking ones. We do not know how many actors appeared in the January 1617/8 performance, but when the same company played at Londesborough Hall (East Riding) in 1600, the company numbered eight and their fee was 13s 8d. Their reward of 6s for The Dumb Knight, compared with the 13s 8d they received at Londesborough, would suggest a company of no more than four players. How then did they cover the twenty-three speaking parts of the play? Doubling would be the traditional solution but a survey of the text indicates that very little doubling is possible. Wharton’s Men may have co-opted some of Cholmeley’s domestic staff and guests might have participated, but the play presents no obvious solution to its casting problems.

Printed plays and local repertories:

The Simpson company at Gowthwaite Hall

The most interesting information on the repertoire of local companies lies in the answers given in the interrogations of William Harrison, the comedian of the Simpson company of Egton, and Thomas Pant, a member of the company. Pant, fifteen years old at the time of the Star Chamber prosecution, described entering into an apprenticeship agreement in shoemaking with the Simpsons only to discover that he was expected to be a member of the playing company. Harrison, then 35 years old, emphasized in his deposition that the company only played from printed texts, implying that the act of printing provided a sort of license for performance:

One of the plays acted and played… was Perocles, prince of Tire, and the other was Kinge Lere… these plaies which they so plaied were usuall playes And such as were acted in Common and publick places and staiges… and such as were played publiquely… and printed in the bookes. (STAC 8/19/10)

It is usually assumed that both Pericles and Lear refer to Shakespeare’s plays (published respectively in 1609 and 1608), but it is not impossible that the reference is to the anonymous King Leir of 1605 (see further Douglas H. Arrell, ‘”King Leir” at Gowthwaite Hall,’ Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 25 (2012), pp 83–93).

Harrison may have been referring to the anonymous King Leir, first published in 1605. Image: The True Chronicle History of King Leir (London, 1605), sigs π1v–A1v. STC: 15343.

Harrison noted in his deposition that the Simpson’s repertoire also included The Three Shirleys (printed 1607), which had been offered to Sir John on the occasion of their visit to Gowthwaite Hall, Nidderdale.

According to Harrison’s testimony, the recently published Travailes of the Three English Brothers, also known as ‘The Three Shirleys,’ was part of the Simpson company’s repertory. Image: John Day, The Travailes of the Three English Brothers (London, 1607), sigs π1v–A1v. STC: 6417.

His choice, however, was the one play identified that has not survived, a St Christopher play based on the Golden Legend. Yorke’s choice was designed for his recusant audience for – as in Hamlet, the Simpson company could insert a ‘speech of some dozen or sixteen lines’ (act 2, scene 2, ll 517) – in which a Protestant minister is bested in argument by a Catholic priest and is carried off to hell.

Unnamed plays in performance:

The King’s Men at Brandsby Hall and

Lord Mounteagle’s Men at Newburgh Priory

Payments to professional companies under gentry or aristocratic patronage are common, but these only very rarely give information on the content of the entertainment. We can often link such payments to touring patterns: the King’s Men performed three plays at the Cholmeley estate of Brandsby Hall at Christmas of 1622 for a fee of 30s, but the record gives no indication of what plays were in their repertoire. Lord Mounteagle’s Men played at the Bellasis estate of Newburgh Priory in 1611. Documents from Lancashire and Cumberland show that they performed widely in the northwest that year, and it is probably that their appearance in the North Riding was part of the same touring pattern.

Music in Yorkshire’s North Riding

A group of musicians plays instruments that include viole da braccio, lutes, and a cittern on the late sixteenth-century frieze that ornaments the Great Hall at Gilling Castle. Photo: David Klausner. For more background on Gilling Castle, click here.

Viols

By the early sixteenth century, the term ‘viola’ had come to designate a wide variety of bowed string instruments. To distinguish one type from another, the playing position was generally indicated as well. The viola da gamba is held between the legs (gamba). The middle member of the violin family, played with the instrument supported by the upper arm or shoulder was called viola (or ‘lyra’) da braccio.

Just as Italy became through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the principal source of fine violins and members of the violin family, so England became the centre of production of fine violas da gamba in the workshops of such masters as John Rose (d. c 1562) and his son of the same name (d. 1611), Henry Jaye (c 1610–1667) and Barak Norman (1671–1740). For further reading, see Michael Fleming and John Bryan, Early English Viols: Instruments, Makers, and Music (London,  2019). 

There is substantial evidence for the ownership of viols by the wealthier members of the North Riding gentry, as in the Fairfax household inventories at Walton and Gilling Castle. The inventory taken at Walton on 3 April 1624 records ‘in the open presse a base violin & the singing bookes.’ That the bass viol and the ‘singing books’ are housed in the same place suggests strongly that they were used together for family music. A further inventory at Gilling on 22 June 1624 notes ‘In the dyning parler, a violl chest . . . ‘ and ‘[i]n the wardropp two standing bedsteed{es} one presse a violl Chest . . .’ The presence of a chest of viols in the splendid ‘dyning parler,’ where they would be played below the musicians’ frieze, is a strong indication of the central place music held in the Fairfax family’s life.

The most significant evidence of viol-playing in the Riding lies in the career of Christopher Simpson of Egton, son of the Christopher Simpson who led a company of travelling players from their base in Egton across the North Riding as far as Pately Bridge (West Riding), where a Christmas performance of an anti-Protestant play led to a decade-long case in the court of Star Chamber. Christopher the younger was born around 1604–5 in Egton, or possibly in the nearby hamlet of Westonby. Little is known of his early life, but excellent musical training must have been available, perhaps from the local schoolmaster, Edward Nickson, though this cannot be substantiated. A recusant like his parents, Christopher served in the royalist army; after the Civil War he took up residence in the house of Sir Robert Bolles of Scampton, Lincolnshire, who became his patron. Bolles’ son John became Simpson’s pupil and the primary object of his pedagogical works. Simpson’s principal publications, The Division-violist (London, 1659) and The Principals of Practical Music (1665) – both of which went to a second edition – established him as England’s leading viol player.  
Viole da gamba, figs 1–3, and viola da braccio, fig 5. Image: Michael Praetorius, Syntagma Musicum, vol 2, De Organographia, plate 20.

Detail of musician playing a viola da braccio from the Gilling Castle frieze. Photo: David Klausner
Viole da gamba illustrated in Simpson’s The Division Violist. A marginal note calls on viol-makers to take notice of Simpson’s detailed instructions on the size and shape of the instrument and bow. Image: Christopher Simpson, The Division Violist (London, 1659), sig C. Wing: S813.
‘How the Viol is Tuned and Applyed to the Scale of Musick.’ Image: Christopher Simpson, The Division Violist (London, 1659), sig C2. Wing: S813.

Pipes

The word ‘pipe’ is notoriously ambiguous. In the context of REED, it is most likely to refer to one of two instruments: bagpipes or the three-hole tabor pipe.

Most communities in early Britain had a local form of bagpipe, its size and shape usually dependant on the animal (lamb, goat, sheep) whose skin was used for the bag. Some bagpipes had drones, which provided a constant background to the tune played on the chanter; others did not. Because pipers were often itinerant, many of the more successful bagpipe designs did not remain local.

The three-hole tabor pipe is a fipple flute, similar to a recorder, but with only three holes, for the thumb and first and second fingers. It is usually played with the left hand alone, using the pipe’s harmonics to produce a scale. The instrument is known as a tabor pipe because the one-handed playing technique allows a small drum or tabor to be suspended from the left arm or elbow to accompany the pipe. The use of a percussion instrument and melody instrument played by the same person made the tabor pipe an ideal accompaniment for dancing.

The North Riding records offer a few examples of payments to pipers: the Bursar’s Accounts for Whitby Abbey, 1394–5 records of a payment of 13s 4d to ‘harpers and pipers on St Hilda’s day;’ in 1611, the accounts of Sir Henry and Sir Thomas Bellasis at Newburgh Priory include a disbursement of 6d to ‘to a piper at ffreec head.’

More frequently, however, pipers appear as transgressive figures, named in visitation books and at Quarter Session proceedings as the cause or agent of local disobedience.

The churchwardens of the parish of Wensley are taken to task in Bishop William Chaderton’s 1595 visitation for refusing to ‘helpe to reforme the abuse of pypinge and dauncing’ and, more than this, for actively enabling the piper, William Harrison, by bringing a chair into the churchyard for him to sit in. Archbishop Richard Neile’s 1637 visitation of Appleton super Wiske sees the piper William Steward charged for providing the music for a ‘stang,’ a traditional public shaming ritual in which the subject is carried in procession around the village, accompanied by ‘rough music.’

Local authorities lean heavily on innkeepers for harbouring pipers, as in the Quarter Session records at Normanby (1606), Thornton Watlass (1606), Kirby Misperton (1614), and Farlington (1631). Pipers are also charged directly here for corruptive/disruptive influences, as at Hutton Buscel in 1614, where pipers are found playing for local youth at Midsummer, and at Hovingham in 1622, where the unfortunate Raph Theaker, ‘piper,’ is sentenced to the stocks for playing on the Sabbath.
Bagpipes, figs 7–9. The bagpipes featured in Praetorius’ Syntagma Musicum have two drones. Image: Michael Praetorius, Syntagma Musicum, vol 2, De Organographia, plate 11.
The fourteenth-century image of a bagpipe in the Luttrell Psalter has one drone. Image: BL Add. 42130, f 176.
Tabor pipe, fig 5. Image: Michael Praetorius, Syntagma Musicum, vol 2, De Organographia, plate 9.
Tabor pipe. Photo: David Klausner

Cittern

The cittern has a flat back like a guitar, rather than a curved back like a violin. It is strung with wire like a mandoline, rather than with gut or horse-hair, and usually has between four to six double courses, each course consisting of two strings tuned in pairs. Played (unlike the lute) with a plectrum, the cittern could be used as an accompanying instrument, or as a substitute for a melodic instrument like the violin.

The cittern became one of the most popular instruments for non-professional players with the publication in 1597 of Anthony Holborne’s The Cittharn Schoole. A considerable number of citterns survive, along with collections of solo music and accompaniments for voices. Frequent literary references indicate that a cittern was a common accoutrement to a barber shop to invite customers to entertain themselves.

The 1611 inventory of household goods at Brandsby, Richard Cholmeley’s family estate, includes ‘1 cetherran [cittern] with a bourden case,’ and a cittern is one of the instruments featured in the Gilling Castle frieze.

Cittern, fig 2. Image: Michael Praetorius, Syntagma Musicum, vol 2, De Organographia, plate 7.
Sixteenth-century cittern music. Image: Anthony Holborne, The cittharn schoole (London, 1597), sigs D1v–D2. STC: 13562.

Orpharion

The orpharion was a wire-strung plucked instrument tuned like a lute, with a flat back and scalloped body. It became very popular, with frequent references in both musical and literary sources. Two examples survive, a highly decorated instrument by John Rose the younger, dated 1580, and an instrument by Francis Palmer, dated 1617.

The orpharion appears often in household inventories from the period; the North Riding offers an example in Sir Thomas Fairfax’s inventory at Walton, 3 April 1624. The diary of Lady Margaret Hoby of Hackness offers an indication of its use. On 26 January 1599 she records that ‘after diner I dresed vp my Clositte and read and, to refreshe my selfe being dull, I plaied and sunge to the Alpherion.’

Orpharion, fig 2. Image: Michael Praetorius, Syntagma Musicum, vol 2, De Organographia, plate 17.
The orpharion is one of three stringed instruments featured in A new Booke of Tabliture, a collection of musical instruction and notation printed by William Barley, advertised as ‘Collected together out of the best Authors professing the practise of these Instruments.’ Image: William Barley, A new Booke of Tabliture (London, 1596). STC: 1433.

Lute

In contrast to the cittern and orpharion, the lute has a deeply curved back and is strung with gut strings rather than wire. Although early forms of the lute were played with a plectrum ­­– like the Middle Eastern oud from which it was derived – by the sixteenth century the lute was always played with the fingers. Lutes came in a wide range of sizes, but most had six double courses. The accounts of Sir Henry and Sir Thomas Bellasis at Newburgh Priory record payments for lute strings in 1608, 1609, 1611/12, and 1612.

Lute, fig 3. Image: Michael Praetorius, Syntagma Musicum, vol 2, De Organographia, plate 16.
Detail of lute player from Gilling Castle frieze. Photo: David Klausner.

Harp

Harps were for the most part the province of professional harpers. References rarely distinguish between the various shapes for the instrument, predominately that of the Irish harp (or clarsach), and the European harp.

Bede’s account of ‘Caedmon’s Hymn’ in the Historia Ecclesiastica (c 680, Latin and Old English) offers the earliest reference to a harp (and indeed to any instrument) in the North Riding records. Until he was visited by the Lord in a dream, Caedmon, as Bede tells it, ‘had never learnt anything of songs . . . therefore sometimes, at a feast, when it had been decided for the sake of mirth that all in their turn ought to sing, he, when he saw the harp approach him, would rise from the midst of the dinner and, leaving, return to his house.’ Here the harp (or, more likely lyre, with strings of equal length) figures as a shared instrument for performance in a non-professional context.

Paid harpers appear in the records as early as 1394–5; the monastic rolls of Whitby Abbey, which survive in a nineteenth-century antiquarian transcription, record payments of 12d each to the respective harpers of Lord de Ros, Lord Scrope, and Lord Peter of Buchan, as well as to ‘one harper and his fellow,’ and to a harper ‘on the Sunday before the Purification.’ The Richmond Mercers, Grocers, and Haberdashers’ Minute Book shows payments to harpers in 1580/1 and again in 1593/4, and a ‘blinde harper’ figures amongst several entertainers cited in the 1611 accounts of Sir Henry and Thomas Bellasis.
European harp, fig 1; Irish harp, fig 2. Image: Michael Praetorius, Syntagma Musicum, vol 2, De Organographia, plate 18.
European harp, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg. Photo: David Klausner.

Virginals & Regals

Although the term ‘virginals’ tends now to be used for a small harpsichord, either rectangular or polygonal, in the seventeenth century the term could indicate any keyboard instrument sounded by a plucking mechanism.  The virginal’s flexibility as a solo instrument or an accompaniment to vocal music made it very popular, and many inventories indicate the presence of a pair of virginals in gentry households.

The small bellows-blown organ known as ‘regals’ (usually in the plural, like ‘virginals’) appears with some frequency in household inventories, but its purpose in the household is not entirely clear. In Germany, regals were frequently used in churches in place of a full-sized organ, but there is little or no evidence of such use in England, although the possibility remains that regals served the same purpose in the provision of music for private services. If this is so, it would be interesting to map the references to regals in household and probate inventories to see if there is any correlation between sectarian divisions (Catholic/Protestant) and the use of regals.

The probate inventory of George Neville’s goods taken at Wells in 1567 lists ‘one pare of Regalles’ and ‘one pare of virginals,’ valued at 20s and 10s respectively, both located in ‘The Parlour.’ Both instruments also figure in the 1624 inventory of Sir Thomas Fairfax’s household: ‘a paire of virgenalls’ in the ‘great chamber’ at Walton, and ‘a paire of Rigalles’ at Gilling Castle.

Virginals, figs 2 and 3. Image: Michael Praetorius, Syntagma Musicum, vol 2, De Organographia, plate 14.
Regals, fig 2. Image: Michael Praetorius, Syntagma Musicum, vol 2, De Organographia, plate 4.

Want to know more?

Baines, Anthony. Bagpipes. Occasional Papers on Technology 9 (1973).

Fleming, Michael; Bryan, John. Early English Viols: Instruments, Makers and Music (London, 2016).

Galpin, Francis W.; Dart, Thurston (rev). Old English Instruments of Music. 4th ed (London, 1965).

Praetorius, Michael. Syntagma Musicum, vol 2, De Organographia Documenta Musicologica XIV (Wolfenbüttel, 1614; rpt Basel, 1958).

Sadie, Stanley (ed). The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 2nd ed. 29 vols (New York, 2001).