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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

XI. The Children of the Chapel Royal and their Masters

§ 1. Early history of the Chapel Children

THE CHAPEL ROYAL and its relations to the history of drama in England form an extremely puzzling and interesting subject of enquiry. The origin of the chapel is lost in unrecorded antiquity, the date of its earliest histrionic efforts is uncertain and the records of its later activity are woefully incomplete. But it entered the histrionic field early; it was, if we may trust the extant records, a pioneer in the production of some important kinds of plays; some of its authors seem to have set fashions in dramatic composition; and Shakespeare himself honoured its rivalry with one of the few clear notices of things contemporary that we have from his pen.

Of the membership and organisation of the chapel in the earliest times, we have not any systematic account; but, under Edward IV, according to Liber Niger Domus Regis, it consisted of a dean, twenty-four chaplains, two yeomen, eight children, a master of song and a master of the grammar school. Later, a sub-dean was added, the number of boys was increased to twelve, and there were various increases in the number of chaplains, or gentlemen of the chapel, to say nothing of the long list of probationers awaiting vacancies among the gentlemen; but these changes affected the size and not the functions of the institution. It has always been an organisation primarily for the celebration of divine service in the royal household, and its functions in its earliest years, as during the last three centuries, were, perhaps, limited strictly to this primary purpose.

But under the Tudor sovereigns, if not earlier, notable unofficial additions were made to its functions. Both the gentlemen and the children took part, frequently if not regularly, in the pageants, masques and plays produced at Christmas and on other festal occasions. During the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII, the gentlemen seem to have figured in pageants and plays nearly as often as the children; but their histrionic career seems to have ceased early, perhaps because even then such frivolous performances seemed inappropriate to gentlemen “endowed,” as Liber Niger specifies, “with virtues morolle and specikative, as of the musicke, shewinge in descante, eloquent in readinge, suffytyente in organes playinge.” It is very probable, indeed, that the histrionic activity of the gentlemen began with morality plays and pageants presenting moral allegories, and ceased soon after the drama and other amusements of the court took a more secular turn. The histrionic career of the children—possibly because they were children—continued longer. In 1569, to be sure, they were attacked in a pamphlet entitled The Children of the Chapel Stript and Whipt:

  • Even in her majesties chappel do these pretty upstart youthes profane the Lordes Day by the lascivious writhing of their tender limbs, and gorgeous decking of their apparell, in feigning bawdie fables gathered from the idolatrous heathen poets;
  • but it was not until the following century that the children ceased to act. It is with the children, therefore, rather than the gentlemen, that we are here concerned.

    The earliest record relating to the children and their master that has been found is the commission (12 July, 1440)

  • to the king’s clerk, Master John Croucher, dean of the Chapel within the king’s household, to take throughout England such and so many boys as he or his deputies shall see to be fit and able to serve God and the King in the said Royal Chapel.
  • We have here no mention of anyone specially delegated for the training and supervision of the boys, and it is possible, though unlikely, that there was no such officer, and that there had been no children in the chapel choir before this time, or, at least, no special official recognition of them. These suppositions, however, may be thought to derive a certain support from the next two entries: 4 November, 1444, a
  • grant to John Plummer, one of the clerks of the King’s Chapel, for the exhibition of eight boys of the Chapel and for his reward, of 40 marks yearly, from Michaelmas last, so long as he have the keeping of the said boys or others in their place, from the ulnage of woollen cloth for sale and from a moiety of the forfeiture thereof in the town and suburbs of Bristol;
  • 24 February, 1445, a
  • grant, during good behaviour, to the king’s serjeant John Plummer, one of the clerks of the Chapel, for his daily labours in the teaching and rule of the king’s boys of the Chapel, of the said teaching, rule and governance.
  • This grant was surrendered 30 May, 1446, for another of the same tenor. In any event, the first master of the children was not, as is commonly supposed, Henry Abyndon, for he was certainly preceded by John Plummer.