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.

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.