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.

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.


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.