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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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).