The following article is reprinted from Shakespearean Playhouses: A History of English Theatres from the Beginnings to the Restoration. Joseph Quincy Adams. Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1917.
The choir boys of the Chapel Royal, of Windsor, and of Paul's were all engaged in presenting dramatic entertainments before Queen Elizabeth. Each organization expected to be called upon one or more times a year-at Christmas, New Year's, and other like occasions-to furnish recreation to Her Majesty; and in return for its efforts each received a liberal "reward" in money. Richard Farrant, Master of Windsor Chapel, was especially active in devising plays for the Queen's entertainment. But having a large family, he was poor in spite of his regular salary and the occasional "rewards" he received for the performances of his Boys at Court; and doubtless he often cast about in his mind for some way in which to increase his meager income.
In the spring of 1576 James Burbage, having conceived the idea of a building devoted solely to plays, had leased a plot of ground for the purpose, and had begun the erection of the Theatre. By the autumn, no doubt, the building was nearing completion, if, indeed, it was not actually open to the public; and the experiment, we may suppose, was exciting much interest in the dramatic circles of London. It seems to have set Farrant to thinking. The professional actors, he observed, had one important advantage over the child actors: not only could they present their plays before the Queen and receive the usual court reward, but in addition they could present their plays before the public and thus reap a second and richer harvest. Since the child actors had, as a rule, more excellent plays than the professional troupes, and were better equipped with properties and costumes, and since they expended just as much energy in devising plays and in memorizing and rehearsing their parts, Farrant saw no reason why they, too, should not be allowed to perform before the public. This, he thought, might be done under the guise of rehearsals for the Court. Possibly the Queen might even wink at regular performances before the general public when she understood that this would train the Boys to be more skillful actors, would provide Her Majesty with more numerous and possibly more excellent plays, and would enable the Master and his assistants to live in greater comfort without affecting the royal purse.
For Farrant to build a playhouse specifically for the use of the Children was out of the question. In the first place, it would be too conspicuously a capitalization of the royal choristers for private gain; and in the second place, it would be far too hazardous a business venture for so poor a man to undertake. The more sensible thing for him to do was to rent somewhere a large hall which could at small expense be converted into a place suitable for training the Children in their plays, and for the entertainment of select--possibly at first invited--audiences. The performances, of course, were not to be heralded by a trumpet-and-drum procession through the street, by the flying of a flag, and by such-like vulgar advertising as of a public show; instead, they were to be quiet, presumably "private", and were to attract only noblemen and those citizens of the better class who were interested in the drama.
Such was Farrant's scheme. In searching for a hall suitable for his purpose, his mind at once turned to the precint of Blackfriars, where in former years the Office of the Revels had been kept, and where the Children had often rehearsed their plays. The precinct had once, as the name indicates, been in the possession of the Dominican or "Black" Friars. The Priory buildings had consisted chiefly of a great church two hundred and twenty feet long and sixty-six feet broad, with a cloister on the south side of the church forming a square of one hundred and ten feet, and a smaller cloister to the south of this. At the dissolution of the religious orders, the property had passed into the possession of the Crown...
[In 1550 they were granted to Thomas Cawarden, Master of the Revels, outright.] In 1554 Cawarden sold the northern section of the buttery, fifty-two feet in length, to Lord Cobham, whose mansion it adjoined. The rest of the buttery, forty-six feet in length, and the frater, he converted into lodgings. Since the frater was of exceptional breadth-fifty-two feet on the outside, forty-six feet on the inside-he ran a partition through its length, dividing it into two parts. The section of the frater on the west of this partition he let to Sir Richard Frith; the section on the east, with the remainder of the buttery not sold to Lord Cobham, he let to Sir John Cheeke. It is with the Cheeke Lodgings that we are especially concerned.
About September, 1554, Cheeke went to travel abroad, and surrendered his rooms in the Blackfriars. Sir Thomas Cawarden thereupon made use of them "for the Office of the Queen's Majesty's Revels"; thus for a time the Cheeke Lodgings were intimately connected with dramatic activities. But at the death of Cawarden, in 1559, the Queen transferred the Office of the Revels to St. John's, and the Blackfriars property belonging to Cawarden passed into the possession of Sir William More.
In 1560 the new proprietor let the Cheeke Lodgings to Sir Henry Neville, with the addition of "a void piece of ground" eighteen feet wide extending west to Water Lane. During his tenancy Neville erected certain partitions, built a kitchen in the "void piece of ground", and a large stairway leading to the rooms overhead. In 1568 he surrendered his lease, and More let the rooms first to some "sylk dyers", and then in 1571 to Lord Cobham. In 1576 Cobham gave up the rooms, and More was seeking a tenant. It was at this auspicious moment that Farrant planned a private theatre, and enlisted the aid of Sir Henry Neville.
On August 27 Farrant and Neville separately wrote letters to Sir William More about the matter. Farrant respectfully solicited the lease, and made the significant request that he might "pull down one partition, and so make two rooms-one". Neville, in a friendly letter beginning with "hearty commendations unto you and to Mrs. More", and ending with light gossip, urged Sir William to let the rooms to Farrant, and recommended Farrant as a desirable tenant ("I dare answer for him"). Neither letter mentioned the purpose for which the rooms, especially the large room referred to by Farrant, were to be used; but More doubtless understood that the Windsor Children were to practice their plays there, with occasional private rehearsals. Largely as a result of Neville's recommendation, More decided to let the rooms to Farrant. The progress of the negotiations is marked by a letter from Farrant to More, dated September 17, 1576, requesting that there be granted him also a certain "little dark room", which he found would be useful.
The lease as finally signed describes the property thus:
"Sir William More hath demised, granted, and to ferm letten, and by these presents doth demise, grant, and to ferm let unto the said Richard Farrant all those his six upper chambers, lofts, lodgings, or rooms, lying together within the precinct of the late dissolved house or priory of the Blackfriars, otherwise called the friars preachers, in London; which said six upper chambers, lofts, lodgings, or rooms, were lately, amongst others, in the tenure and occupation of the right honourable Sir William Brooke, Knight, Lord Cobham; and do contain in length from the north end thereof to the south end of the same one hundred fifty and six foot and a half of assize; whereof two of the said six upper chambers, lofts, lodgings, or rooms in the north end of the premises, together with the breadth of the little room under granted, do contain in length forty and six foot and a half, and from the east to the west part thereof in breadth twenty and five foot of assize; and the four other chambers, or rooms, residue of the said six upper chambers, do contain in length one hundred and ten foot, and in breadth from the east to the west part thereof twenty-two foot of assize....And also...the great stairs lately erected and made by the said Sir Henry Neville upon part of the said void ground and way."
It was agreed that the lease should run for twenty-one years, and that the rental should be £14 per annum. But Sir William More, being a most careful and exacting landlord, with the interest of his adjacent lodgings to care for, inserted in the lease the following important proviso, which was destined to make trouble, and ultimately to wreck the theatre.
Provided also that the said Richard Farrant, his executors or assigns, or any of them, shall not in any wise demise, let, grant, assign, set over, or by any ways or means put away his or their interest or term of years, or any part of the same years, of or in the said premises before letten, or any part, parcel, or member thereof to any person, or persons, at any time hereafter during this present lease and term of twenty-one years, without the special license, consent, and agreement of the said Sir William More, his heirs and assigns, first had, and obtained in writing under his and their hands and seals.
The penalty affixed to a violation of this provision was the immediate forfeiture of the lease.
Apparently Farrant entered into possession of the rooms on September 29 (although the formal lease was not signed until December 20), and we may suppose that he at once set about converting the two upper rooms at the north end of the lodgings into a suitable theatre. Naturally he took for his model the halls at Court in which the Children had been accustomed to act. First, we are told, he "pulled down partitions to make that place apt for that purpose"; next, he "spoiled" the windows-by which is meant, no doubt, that he stopped up the windows, for the perfomances were to be by candle-light. At one end of the hall he erected a platform to serve as a stage, and in the auditorium he placed benches or chairs. There was, presumably, no room for a gallery; if such had been erected, the indignant More would certainly have mentioned it in his bill of complaints. Chandeliers over the stage, and, possibly, footlights, completed the necessary arrangements. For these alterations Farrant, we are told, became "greatly indebted", and he died three or four years later with the debt still unpaid. More complained that the alterations had put the rooms into a state of "great ruin", which meant, of course, from the point of view of a landlord desiring to let them again for residential purposes. Just how costly or how extensive the alterations were we cannot now determine; but we may reasonably conclude that Farrant made the hall not only "commodious for his purpose", but also attractive to the aristocratic audiences he intended to gather there to see his plays.
To reach the hall, playgoers had to come first into Water Lane, thence through "a way leading from the said way called Water Lane" to "a certain void ground" before the building. Here "upon part of the said void ground" they found a "great stairs, which said great stairs do serve and lead into" the upper rooms-or, as we may now say, Blackfriars Playhouse.
Having thus provided a playhouse, Farrant next provided an adequate company of boy actors. To do this, he combined the Children of Windsor with the Children of the Chapel Royal, of which William Hunnis was master. What arrangement he made with Hunnis we do not know, but the Court records show that Farrant was regarded as the manager of the new organization; he is actually referred to in the payments as "Master of the Children of Her Majesty's Chapel", and Hunnis's official connection with the Children is ignored.
Farrant may have been able to open his playhouse before the close of the year; or he may have first begun perfomances there in the early months of 1577. He would certainly be anxious to make use of the new play he was preparing for presentation at Court on Twelfth Day, January 6, 1577.
For four years, 1576-1580, the playhouse was operated without trouble. Sir William More, however, was not pleased at the success with which the actors were meeting. He asserted that when he made the lease he was given to understand that the building was to be used "only for the teaching of the Children of the Chapel"--with, no doubt, a few rehearsals to which certain persons would be privately invited. But, now, to his grief, he discovered that Farrant had "made it a continual house for plays". He asserted that the playhouse had become offensive to the precinct; and doubtless some complaints had been made to him, as landlord, by the more aristocratic inhabitants. At any rate, he became anxious to regain possession of the building.
In the autumn of 1580 he saw an opportunity to break the lease and close the playhouse. Farrant made the mistake of letting "two parcels thereof to two several persons" without first gaining the written consent of More, and at once More "charged him with forfeiture of his lease". But before More could "take remedy against him" Farrant died, November 30, 1580. More, however, "entered upon the house, and refused to receive any rent but conditionally".
By his will, proved March 1, 1581, Farrant left the lease of the Blackfriars to his widow, Anne Farrant. But she had no authority over the royal choristers, nor was she qualified to manage a company of actors, even if she had had the time to do so after caring for her "ten little ones". What use if any was made of the playhouse during the succeeding winter we do not know. The widow writes that she, "being a sole woman, unable of herself to use the said rooms to such purpose as her said husband late used them, nor having any need or occasion to occupy them to such commodity as would discharge the rents due for the said rooms in the bill alledged, nor being able to sustain, repair, and amend the said room", etc.; the natural inference from which is that for a time the playhouse stood unused. The widow, of course, was anxious to sublet the building to someone who could make use of it as a playhouse; and on December 25, 1580, she addressed a letter to Sir William More asking his written permission to make such a disposal of the lease. The letter has a pathetic interest that justifies its insertion here:
To the right worshipful Sir William More, Knight, at his house near Guilfor, give these with speed.
Right worshipful Sir:
After my humble commendations, and my duty also remembered-where it hath pleased your worship to grant unto my husband in his life time one lease of your house within the Blackfriars, for the term of twenty-one years, with a proviso in the end thereof that he cannot neither let nor set the same without your worship's consent under your hand in writing. And now for it hath pleased God to call my said husband unto His mercy, having left behind him the charge of ten small children upon my hand, and my husband besides greatly indebted, not having the revenue of one groat any way coming in, but by making the best I may of such things as he hath left behind him, to relieve my little ones. May it therefore please your worship, of your abundant clemency and accustomed goodness, to consider a poor widow's distressed estate, and for God's cause to comfort her with your worship's warrant under your hand to let and set the same to my best commodity during the term of years in the said lease contained, not doing any waste. In all which doing, I shall evermore most abundantly pray unto God for the preservation of your worship's long continuance. From Grenwich, the twenty-fifth of December,
By a poor and sorrowful widow,
Whether she secured in writing the permission she requested we do not know. Four years later More said that she did not. Possibly, however, she was orally given to understand that she might transfer the lease to her husband's former partner in the enterprise, William Hunnis. Hunnis naturally was eager to make use of the building in preperation for the Christmas plays at Court. At some date before September 19, he secured the use of the playhouse on a temporary agreement with the widow; but in order to avoid any difficulty with More, he interviewed the latter, and presented a letter of recommendation from the Earl of Leicester. This letter has been preserved among Sir William's papers:
Sir William More:
Whereas my friend, Mr. Hunnis, this bearer, informeth me that he hath of late bought of Farrant's widow her lease of that house in Blackfriars which you made to her husband, deceased, and means there to practice the Queen's Children of the Chapel, being now in his charge, in like sort as his predecessor did, for the better training them to do Her Majesty's service; he is now a suitor to me to recommend him to your good favour--which I do very heartily, as one that I wish right well unto, and will give you thanks for any continuance or friendship you shall show him for the furtherance of this his honest request. And thus, with my hearty commendations, I wish you right heartily well to fare. From the Court, this nineteenth of September, 1581.
Your very friend,
The result of this interview we do not know. But on December 20 following, the widow made a formal lease of the property to William Hunnis and John Newman at rental of £20 13s. 4d. a year, an increase of £6 13s. 4d. over the rental she had to pay More. She required of them a bond of £100 to guarantee their performance of all the covenants of the lease. Thereupon the theatre under Hunnis and Newman resumed its career--if, indeed, this had ever been seriously interrupted.
In the course of time, More's anxiety to recover possession of the hall seems to have increased. The quarterly payments were not promptly met by the widow, and the repairs on the building were not made to his satisfaction. Probably through fear of the increasing dissatisfaction on the part of More, Hunnis and Newman transferred their lease, in 1583, to a young Welsh scrivener, Henry Evans, who had become interested in dramatic affairs. This transfer of the lease without More's written consent was a second clear breach of the original contract, and it gave More exactly the opportunity he sought. Accordingly, he declared the original lease to Farrant void, and made a new lease of the house "unto his own man, Thomas Smallpiece, to try the said Evans his right". But Evans, being a lawyer, knew how to take care of himself. He "demurred in law", and "kept the same in his hands with long delays".
The widow, alarmed at the prospect of losing her lease, brought suit, in December, 1583, against Hunnis and Newman separately for the forfeiture of their several bonds of £100, contending that they had not kept the building in proper repair. Hunnis and Newman separately brought suit in the Court of Requests for relief against the widow's suits. Meanwhile More was demanding judgment against Evans. Hunnis, it seems, carried his troubles to the Court and there sought help. Queen Elizabeth could take no direct action, because Sir William More was a good friend of hers, who had entertained her in his home. But she might enlist the aid of one of her noblemen who were interested in the drama. However this was, the young Earl of Oxford, himself a playwright and the patron of a troupe of boy-actors, came to the rescue of the theatre. He bought the lease of the building from Evans, and undertook to reorganize its affairs. To Hunnis's twelve Children of the Chapel he added the Children of St. Paul's Cathedral, making thus a company of adequate size. He retained Hunnis, no doubt, as one of the trainers of the Boys, and he kept Evans as manager of the troupe. Moreover, shortly after the purchase, probably in June, 1583, he made a free gift of the lease to his private secretary, John Lyly, a young man who had recently won fame with the first English novel, Euphues. The object of this, like the preceding transfers of title, it seems, was to put as many legal blocks in the path of Sir William More as possible. More realized this, and complained specifically that "the title was posted from one to another"; yet he had firmly made up his mind to recover the property, and in spite of Oxford's interference, he instructed his "learned council" to "demand judgment".
Meanwhile the dramatic organization at Blackfriars continued under the direction of Hunnis, Evans, and Lyly, with the Earl of Oxford as patron. Not only was Lyly the proprietor of the theatre, but he attempted to supply it with the necessary plays. He had already shown his power to tell in effective prose a pleasing love romance. That power he now turned to the production of his first play, written in haste for the Christmas festivities. The play, Alexander and Campaspe, was presented before Her Majesty on January 1, 1584, at the Blackfriars, with great applause. Lyly's second play, Sapho and Phao, was produced at Court on March 3, following, and also at Blackfriars before the general public.
But at the Easter term, 1584, Sir William More got judgment in his favor. The widow begged Sir Francis Walsingham to intercede in her behalf, declaring that the loss of the lease "might be her utter undoing". Walsingham sent the letter to More, and apparently urged a consideration of her case. More, however, refused to yield. He banished Lyly, Hunnis, Evans, and the Children from the "great upper hall", and reconverted the building into tenements.
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