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.


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).