Oxford and the Blackfriars Theater

The only hard evidence we have of Oxford’s involvement with Blackfriars comes from More’s deposition  (Losely MSS Bundle 425) in which he states

[Farrant’s widow] let the house to one Hunnis, and after to one Newman or Sutten . . . and then to [Henry] Evans, who sold his interest to the Earl of Oxford, who gave his interest to Lyly, and the title thus was posted over from one to another from me, contrary to the said condition” [the original lease forbad subleasing without More’s permission] (Irwin Smith 467).

When it comes to evidence, there are, necessarily, levels of importance, and no evidence of Oxford’s involvement in the formation of the early London stage could be more telling than the mention by Sir William More of the fact that Oxford held the lease to the Blackfriars theater/school at that particular moment in time.  That in 1583, when Sir William first began his legal attack (155), the lease passed rapidly, like the proverbial hot potato, from the lowly Hunnis to the lowly Evans (former assistant to Sebastian Westcott, Master of Paul’s Boys), to Oxford, the Queen’s Lord Great Chamberlain, to his lowly secretary, John Lyly, to end up with the great Lord Hunsdon, Queen’s Lord Chamberlain and later patron of Shakespeare’s acting company .

We should be grateful to the More-Molyneux family of Loseley Manor in whose keeping the records of their family’s involvement in Blackfriars has kept secure this valuable bit of evidence long enough to prevent its being sucked into the void into which so many important records have disappeared.  Since their papers have recently been made available online, the possibility exists that other bits of important information have yet to be discovered.  (Some of the Losely collection was sold to the Folger in the 1950s. )

That Oxford paid Evans for for the theater/school lease, then quickly handed it off to his own secretary, suggests a concern with keeping his name out of the record books.  (By using his secretary’s name––the record says he “gave” the lease to Lyly––he was doing the same thing that we believe he did when he put Lyly’s name on the Euphues novels that so obviously reflect his recent adventures in Italy.)  That Lyly then sold it to Hunsdon (155-6), also tells us volumes about the roles these men played in the creation and maintenance of both the first and second Blackfriars theaters, from 1576 when the school was first created, to 1600, when the same Henry Evans who had briefly held the lease to the first theater was allowed to create a second children’s company there, until 1608 when control of the second theater finally passed into the hands of its owners, Richard and Cuthbert Burbage.

We don’t have the lease itself, we only know about it from More’s 1584 deposition (which Irwin Smith reprints in full in an appendix to his invaluable book), but the large amounts that Hunsdon was paying Sir William from 1584 on (156) plus the fact that, despite his legal victory, More held off on selling the lease for another six years, prompts the question, what was the school/theater apartment being used for from April 1584 to 1590/91 when de Laune obtained the lease?  Just because More won the right to evict the children’s school in 1584 does not mean that he acted on it or that he didn’t allow for some other use that kept the peace in Blackfriars, something that never reached the records (or was later expunged).

In 1584, Sir William More was still a minor figure at the Court where Lord Henry Hunsdon held an office of great power and influence.  The Queen’s own cousin, probably her half-brother, a member of the Privy Council since 1577, in July of the following year Hunsdon would be appointed Lord Chamberlain of the Household (taking the place of Sussex whose Vice-Chamberlain he had been, and who had died in 1583).  Thus Hunsdon’s long interest in Court entertainment led to his attaining control, not only of the Court stage, but, as would be clear a decade later, the London Stage as well.  And although he was superior to the Earl of Oxford in age, official importance, and, by then, credit, Oxford was, and would always be, his superior in rank, a matter of utmost significance in Court circles in the 16th century (Oxford was an Earl, Hunsdon only a Baron).

Did More have the power or the chutzpah to deny persons as powerful as Lord Hunsdon and the Earl of Oxford what uses they desired for the property to which they still held leases?  And even if he had the power, would he have used it?  And why does this matter?

It matters a great deal if, as I believe, the Blackfriars theater was essential to Oxford and Hunsdon because it gave them access to the politically important West End audience with its periodic influx of members of Parliament.  To lose Blackfriars would mean they had to find another location for such a theater.  It’s clear from the record that establishing something so disreputable as a public theater in posh Westminster was next to impossible.  There was a small theater at Paul’s Cathedral, just over the city wall, but there they would have have been under constraints involving the City and the clergy.  However down-at-heel by then, Paul’s was still a cathedral with services and a choir, and under the authority of the Bishop of London, in the mid-1580s the rigid John Aylmer, satirized (by Bacon) in 1580 in Spenser’s Calender as the “bad shepherd” Morrell (an anagram of Ell-mor, as it was sometimes spelled).

Hunsdon’s considerable investment in Blackfriars, the fact that he owned a mansion nearby and held leases on rooms and buildings at both ends of the monastery’s western range, and that, most important, he continued to pay rent for the school apartment until 1590 or ’91 (156), suggests that he was still controlling its use.  Since there’s no evidence how it was being used, what’s to prevent us from assuming that it continued to be used as a theater, if not for the Children of the Queen’s Chapel, then for Burbage’s adult company, so that Oxford, Hunsdon and Burbage were able to keep entertaining the gentlemen of the Inns of Court from 1584 until Hunsdon’s leases ran out in 1590?

What sort of evidence is lack of evidence?  

The only evidence we have that the first Blackfriars theater ended in 1584 is what what stemmed from the court case brought by Sir William.  Had there been no lawsuit, we would have no evidence of that either.  Although Evans and Lyly appear to have transferred to Paul’s Boys, that suggests nothing about what Burbage’s adult company might have been doing.  Known officially then as Hunsdon’s Men (formerly Leicester’s Men), these were the same actors that would become Shakespeare’s company a few years down the road, that in 1596 would be working to get the use of the Parliament Chamber.  How much easier and neater it is to see the effort to use Blackfriars, the ancient location of the Revels since Henry VIII, as a long ongoing operation, not something that just popped up in the mid-’90s as a notion of Burbage’s, which is how the historians prefer to tell it.

The very fact that there is no evidence of any theater for a company of adults close enough to the West End to entertain its influential audience from 1584 to 1596, when Burbage and Hunsdon began renovating the Blackfriars Parliament Chamber into the fabulous theater that it eventually became, suggests that the little stage at the school continued to be used for the purpose for which it was originally created, to entertain the West End audience with plays by the Earl of Oxford, some of them original versions of what would someday be known as Shakespeare’s masterpieces.

Where exactly was the first theater located?

Irwin Smith has done his best with what information he had, but as he admits on a number of points there’s still a great deal of uncertainty.  For instance, to establish when the school theater at Blackfriars actually stopped functioning, it’s important to pinpoint where it was located.  Smith assumes––based on considerations involving the location of the stage trap door that required space beneath it in a room on the ground floor––that it was located at the southernmost end of the Old Buttery, where the friars property ended (136).  His reasons are confusing.  Far more likely is it that while the school may have occupied the southern end of the Old Buttery, the theater space was located at the northern end of the eastern side of the Parliament Chamber, both of these being part of the apartment originally leased by Sir Henry Neville.

In 1560, Sir Henry (father of the Henry Neville who, following the Essex rebellion, shared rooms in the Tower with the third Earl of Southampton ) had rented a series of rooms that included the southern half of the Old Buttery plus the eastern half of the Parliament Chamber.  This took place six months after Richard Frith, the Court’s dancemaster, renewed his lease to the western half (102).  Frith paid more for less space, which Smith explains by assigning to him the great winding stair that led originally to the great Parliament Chamber, giving access to the river back when members gathered for Parliament or noble foreign visitors came to the friary by way of the Thames.  Both eastern and western sections had been compartmentalized by More into several smaller rooms.  In 1571, Neville’s apartment had been leased by William Brooke Ld Cobham (who already owned the northern half of the Old Buttery).  In 1576, Brooke was persuaded (by Leicester) to let Farrant have the rooms formerly leased by Neville.  Though the lease was signed in December, it was effective since late September, negotiations having begun in late August (135-6), which gave plenty of time for the students to learn their parts in time for the winter holidays at Court.

Since the apartment rented by Farrant in 1576 included the entire length of the eastern side of the Parliament Chamber plus the southern half of the Old Buttery, the most likely arrangement, one that would have taken advantage of the great stairs rising from the kitchen courtyard (today’s Playhouse Yard)––which provided space for horses and carts to unload––was that the theater was located at the northern end of Neville’s eastern half of the Parliament Chamber, and that Farrant et al had broken through the retaining wall between that half and the northern end of Frith’s apartment, thus giving a fairly good sized space with a ceiling high enough to erect galleries, and with access to the rooms below that, as Smith explains, were necessary for the trap door in the stage.  That these found level rooms were essential to the functioning of the theater above is shown by the fact that they figure in the leases exchanged between Evans, Oxford, Lyly and Hunsdon during the efforts in the early ’80s to hang onto the theater.  For many years these lower rooms had been rented to the fencing master, William Joyner, who passed on his leases to John Lyly (126) during the period in question.

The theater as Smith sees it was very small, only 26’ wide by 46’ long (144).  If the theater was installed at the northern end of the eastern half of the Parliament Chamber, it would have been no bigger (23’ x 50” or less), but had Farrant broken through the wall erected by Cawarden, that cut the great Chamber in half down the middle, so that the northern half of Frith’s apartment was joined with it, the theater would have been considerably larger, possibly close to 46’ x 50’ (though still only half the size of what it would be later when joined with the full length of the Parliament Chamber), and would have had the advantage of the elegant entry and great stairway built centuries earlier to welcome the members of Parliament.

In fact, in his deposition in which he accuses Farrant of taking unfair advantage, More makes a point of the fact that Farrant took down a wall (467).  He says that this was a wall that Neville had created (not one that had divided the apartments) but this is not a crucial point.  That the aging dancing master would have been all for contributing space for a theater that brought in funds seems reasonable.  Someone made money off the theater, though not, it seems, poor Richard Farrant or his wife, who both went broke.

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