One of the great problems about Shakespeare, and building up a realistic and factually correct picture of Southwark too, where his brother Edmund died, is working with such little evidence. That highly eccentric American couple, the Wallaces, came up with another piece in the jigsaw when, after reading through 5 million documents, they unearthed a court case involving Mary Mounjoy and Stephen Bellot, relating to Shakespeare lodging with the tirer, the theatrical wigmaker, Christopher Mountjoy on Silver Street, near the Criplegate. It saw Shakespeare giving evidence in court over the question of a promised and unpaid dowry to Bellot, where Shakespeare seems to have helped the couple plight their troth but to have withdrawn his testimony, saying he coud not remember the sum, probably proving an ultimate loyalty to Christopher Mountjoy. There were also all kinds of sexual shenanigans in the Mountjoy household, and Mountjoy was marked down by the judge as a rather disreputable character, adding the prick of scandal to the Shakespeare story. That tale also narrows the circle of Shakespeare’s intimates and ties him to the co-author of Pericles, the very unpleasant George Wilkins. Wilkins owned a tavern brothel on the corner of Turnmill and Cowcross ‘streets’, then outside London Wall and in a semi rural area in developing London. He was had up in court repeatedly for violence against women, including kicking a pregnant woman in the stomach and stamping on another, perhaps two of his working girls. When Stephen Bellot and Mary Mountjoy, whose mother was also called Mary, were pursuing their own love affair they had gone to stay in Wilkins’ tavern. It adds great interest to the brothel element so deep in Pericles, based on John Gower’s Confessio Amantis.
I think a much neglected story though is the other time Shakespeare had a run in with the law, in November 1596, when he was accused, with two mysterious women, Dorothy Soeur and Anne Lee, along with Sir Francis Langley, of ‘Murder and Affray’ by the local Surrey Sherrif Sir William Gardiner. It was standard legal language and had come out of a long standing tussle between Langley and Gardiner, who Langley had called ‘a perjured knave’ in a tavern up in Croyden. At the time Edmund was sixteen, whether he was in Stratford or London, quite the age to pursue a player’s career. To add to the Shakespeare presence in London rather than Stratford their brother Gilbert was a haberdasher for a time in St Bride’s, off Fleet Street. Langley of course was a highly succesful and rather disreputable Algener, who put official stamps on cloth bails to establish their quality and clearly benefited from seizing goods and the potential for bribery too. Who also got his title by buying the manor of Paris Gardens, that third little Liberty along the river Thames in Southwark, walking away from big St Saviour’s church, through The Clink and Bankside. He was fined by the city authorities for not keeping up the Manor properly, probably sitting in the Compter court in old St Margaret’s Church, that had been dissolved sixty years before, and whose Brotherhood of Our Lady of Assumption had once owned The Vine tavern where Edmund died. Langley took the commissioners out to lunch, but at least they kept their integrity by fining him again the following year.
Langely of course also built the Swan theatre in Paris Gardens in 1595 to cash in on the growing theatre trade that Henslowe’s Rose had well established on nearby Maid Lane, which was much more splendid and silvered on the outside. Both young Ben Jonson and Shakespeare were involved with Langely and the Swan then, two years before Shakespeare and the Burbage brothers decided or were forced to take down the oldest permanent London theatre, ‘The Theatre’, up in the Shoreditch. When the lease on Giles’s Alan’s land ran out and he tried to put up the price, so the players transported the valuable wood and their ‘house’ across the water. The newly named Lord Chamberlains Men used it to build the immortal Globe Theatre on Maid Lane, in the Liberty of Bankside, where The Vine tavern also stood. Just up the way from the Rose and ‘forced out of a Marish’, as Ben Jonson wrote in The Execration Against Vulcan. He also described the Globe as ‘The Fort to the whole Parish”. It is the Swan though that had the most interesting and unhappy fate of all the London theatres, because it never really succeeded, certainly after 1597, was sold on by Langley, who died in 1601, and would later be described as being very decayed and ‘hanging down its head, like a dying Swan’. Both the Rose, closed by 1605, and the Swan suffered from the success of The Globe.
But what happened that day when Langley and Shakespeare were caught up in an incident with Dorothy Seour and Anne Lee in November 1596 and who were they? As Horton wrote in his fascinating book on the case, alongside his idea about Justice Shallow in The Merry Wives of Windsor of 1597 being a satire of the deeply unpleasant Sir William Gardiner, who specialised in extortion, it is lovely to see Shakespeare giving him a piece of his mind, or perhaps even the glint of his sword. But why are those two women named and were they having some kind of merry party in a more colourful establishment in Paris Gardens, when an argument broke out? Of course the stewes ran along the river front in neighbouring Bankside, but Paris Gardens was certainly a brothel district too, that housed the famous Cardinal’s Hat, right next door to where the modern Globe reconstruction stands – not on its original site in Bankside, though two minutes walk away. It is very probable that the infamous Holland’s Leaguer, and there is still a Holland Street there, to testify to the influx of Dutch immigrants into the district, came to be in the moated manor house of Paris Gardens. In the reformation period especially remember that Sir names too, so often emerging from trades like Baker, Fletcher, Smith, Thatcher and so on, were really beginning to be defined, partly in the institutionalisation of records and us all. Take for instance the name of one of the carpenters working at St Margaret’s Church 100 years before, under the reign of Henry VI, who is simply called ‘Peter of the Bridge’. The bridge being great London Bridge, the only crossing point over the river into the City then. The Holland clan though, originally a Dutch family, certainly turn up elsewhere as being a kind of London crime family, much involved in prostitution but then business seemed to have involved a lot of people in crime. It is interesting Shakespeare puts a John Holland in Henry VI, as one of the less appealing rebels engaged in Cade’s Revolt. As for Dorothy Soeur and Anne Lee though, I found several Soeur’s in the Token Books from St Saviour’s relating to Paris Gardens. The name is obviously from the French for Sister, but whether that has a religious echo too, or was just a common emergence of a Sirname, I don’t know. Meanwhile of course one of the strongest comments on Paris Gardens, where the Royal Barge house also stood, that came to be owned by Philip Henslowe, in a city where literally everything was franchised, also comes from Ben Jonson, who described Paris Garden’s as ‘that accursed ground.’ There will be another blog on the intriguing figure of Kate Arden, Jonson specifically mentions, and also on who those ‘Sister’s’ are Jonson mentions going to investigate the supposed crime when the Globe burnt down in 1614, but was quickly rebuilt.
Don’t tar anyone, and especially not Shakespeare, with that brush of scandal or rumour, that had so tainted his near exact contemporary and great inspiration Christopher Marlowe. Who schoolboys still fancy was a brothel creeping carouser, not to mention a spy, who ‘died in a tavern brawl’. Francis Meres’ book of 1598, which first mentions Shakespeare as the most important writer of his day, and is critical for dating, specifically alludes to Marlowe’s unhappy fate, contemptuously too in the light of Marlowe’s atheism, as Shakespeare alludes to him in As You Like It, though in a very different voice, and speaking of “a great reckoning in a little room’. That little room was most likely neither a tavern nor a brothel though,but a far more respectable place, one of the many houses across London that offered bed, food and drink. It was in Deptford, where the Marine docks were, and belonged to Eleanor Bull. But there Marlowe was killed by three men who were certainly agents of Francis Walsingham: Apparently over the ‘reckoning’, the bill, but most likely in a semi authorised hit, related to the rivalry between Walter Raleigh and The Earl of Essex, the faked Dutch Church Libels that had been pinned up on the Broadgate wall attacking foreigners, in a UKIP style frenzy, and both Marlowe’s muted atheism and his possession of banned books. Marlowe’s spying credentials were pretty obvious when you remember he went to Cambridge (and the Master of his College would end up hanging himself by his britches) and was at one point in Flanders investigating Counterfeit coin. His murder clearly had an enormous effect on Shakespeare, and his wariness ever after of the public eye, or the disgrace of fortune and men’s eyes, that could be so fatal in Tudor England. Another indication that Shakespeare’s involvement with those two woman probably wasn’t lubricious either though is the fact that in his book on the doctor and astrologer Simon Foreman AL Rowse specifically names Anne Lee as the sister of Sir William Motson, who made a name in the navy.
Yet the stamp and thrill of intrigue certainly surrounds that court case too, and most especially the extraordinary events that unfolded in the coming year, 1597. Just follow the threads. Sir William Gardiner was clearly trying to bring disgrace on a local rival, Francis Langley, whose playhouse the next year staged ‘The Isle of Dogges’. That lost play co-authored by Jonson and Thomas Nashe satirised Elizabeth I’s palace on the Isle of Dogs, where Canary Wharf now stands over the water, or rather her blood hound courtiers. It saw the Swan closed, along with all the theatres that summer of 1597, for the writer’s ‘lewd and seditious’ work. Nashe, who later dismissed the play as an ’embryo’, fled London, and ‘our Tom’ is affectionately mentioned in Meres’ book early next year too as soon to be welcomed back ‘to Rome’, namely the favour of the court and London. By then the hoo-ha was blowing over. Jonson, along with two fellow actors at the Swan, were arrested and put in the Marshalsea prison on Long Southwarke for a couple of months. Francis Langely alone was denied a licence for The Swan though, when the theatres reopened, and though it was known for plays, and staged sword fights and bouts of extemporary verse too, it never really took off and within four years Langely was dead.
But the plot thickens when you discover that in the Marshalsea Ben Jonson was interviewed by Robert Poley, who was a notorious agent of Walsingham’s and one of the three men in that room in Deptford with Marlowe. It was a man called Nicholas Skeres who had stabbed Marlowe in the right eye. Then consider the fact that Langley was also caught up in a case involving a fenced diamond, which reached up to and displeased the Privy Council itself. Also that it is very likely that the order to close the theatres, not because of sedition but the general threat of plague, came down before any mention of sedition, or the actors’ arrest in mid summer. Was the Swan’s closure then and the scandal of that year in fact somehow drummed up and related to the conflict between Gardiner and Langely, by extension Shakespeare, jostling for local influence, in a climate where the control of the theatres was becoming more and more political? Driven too by the kind of cloak and dagger double-dealing, extortion and blackmail common to spies that might well involve fenced diamonds too and which Walsingham’s spy network constantly engaged in, especially his hired men in that little room. Was the report to the Privy Council of a seditious play much more about underhand efforts to hobble Langley altogether, by him, or someone else, including the ubiquitous and connected Phillip Henslowe? That year would certainly echo very darkly through Ben Jonson’s life, who in 1598 would kill his fellow player Gabriel Spenser in a duel on the Hogsmeade, on the edge of Hoxton. He pleaded Benefit of Clergy and was only branded on the thumb, although Spenser started it. But Gabriel Spenser had been one of the players performing the Isle of Dogges at the Swan and one of the three actors, including Robert Shaa, imprisoned in the Marshalsea too. It and the fate of the Swan, rather than any high moral concern with the seemier side of the little Liberty uncharacteristic of Jonson, is much more likely to be the reason he would so strongly label Paris Gardens ‘that accursed ground’ in The Execration Against Vulcan.
But now try to fit Shakespeare back into the jigsaw. The years 1596 to 1599 were certainly monumental in his life and career and by extension perhaps Edmund’s too. In 1596, apart from that court case over an incident with Langley, Dorothy Soeur and Anne Lee, his only son Hamnet had died in Stratford at the age of 11. The next year, as well as writing The Merry Wives of Windsor for the inauguration of their new patron George Carey to The Order of The Garter, the obviously by now highly successful and relatively affluent Shakespeare would buy the second biggest house in Stratford, New Place, although for the comparitively modest sum of £60. Meanwhile, though his plays had already played at The Theatre, The Curtain and Henslowe’s Rose on Maid Lane, Shakespeare was clearly involved with the likes of Jonson and Langley at the Swan in Southwark, as the case proves. That they were trying to form an independent company is suggested from the fact that several of the Henslowe’s players were accused of breaking their contracts for him, and later went back to perform for The Admiral’s Men. Meanwhile Shakespeare and the Burbages must have known that the lease on the land on which The Theatre stood north of the river and city would soon run out, rather than quite the sudden drama someone like James Shapiro describes in his excellent though perhaps too literal book ‘1599’. So was Shakespeare already looking for an independent venue in 1597, where he could lead his company to new heights, and also own the plays and take the house receipts, in a way that Henslowe’s writers and actors never did? Shakespeare’s presence in his own house is hugely important to his swelling confidence and authority. The events of summer 1597 clearly blackened the appeal of the Swan and Paris Gardens though, and just over a year later, in the spring of 1599, the new Globe theatre went up in Bankside instead, on the southern edge of marshy Maid Lane. Almost simultaneously Henslowe, whose diary is filled with the rivalry between his Admiral’s Men and The Lord Chamberlain’s later-to-be King’s Men, saw the lie of the land and rather than trying to compete directly in Southwark built the Fortune Theatre, following the Globe’s design, on Golden Lane north of the river. He would not really ‘return’ either, though he always lived in Southwark by the Church at ‘The Bell’ on Clink Street, until Shakespeare had retreated to Stratford after 1612, when Henslowe built The Hope, opposite The Globe on Maid Lane, in 1614.
The whole saga, along with that celebrated falling out with an original Globe sharer, the bawdy clown Will Kempe, who would later call Shakespeare a ‘shakes rags’ in print, highlights the difficulties and rewards of succeeding in the early theatre business, but also to me an underestimated conflict between Shakespeare and that most prominent Southwark man, Phillip Henslowe. Of course Ned Alleyn’s wife’s famous letter about the return of the players company safely to London after another bout of plague testifies to the closeness of those original actors and companies, while both Shakespeare and Henslowe both became Grooms of the Chamber under James I. But a closeness that could also have a very violent side, like Jonson’s duel with Spenser. Shakespeare was anything but the Puritan, divided self or not, inhabiting a world that was generally so lusty and lubricious, and much was about both independence and money. But it is hard to believe the kind of mind that penned Rosalind in As You Like It, or wrestled with the corruption of brothels in Pericles, described by the players as ‘not debauched’, could have much approved of that Warden of St Saviours, Master of The Game, Keeper of The Royal Barge House and major Southwark landlord, Henslowe. But of that more to come too.
David Clement-Davies 10 January 2015
For writers in the Sixteenth Century it was hard to survive, books and plays often supported by private donations. We seem to have returned to that time, in some ways, so please realise that the research on Edmund Shakespeare and Southwark represents two years of unpaid work. If you enjoy these blogs then and can afford to support Phoenix Ark Press, please donate below. Many thanks.
The picture is the 1595 sketch of The Swan Theatre in Paris Gardens, closed in the summer of 1597, around the staging of The Isle of Dogges and denied a licence.