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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

§ 3. Histrionic activity of the Children; Dramatic work of the Masters

The importance of the children of the chapel in dramatic history is due, in part, to their histrionic success and, in part, to the success of some of their masters, and other authors who wrote for them, in dramatic composition. Of the work of the earlier masters, we, of course, know very little. Gilbert Banaster is commonly credited with dramatic composition on the basis of Warton’s remark that he “wrote in English verse the Miracle of saint Thomas, in the year 1467”; but a miracle is not necessarily a miracle-play. William Cornish seems, however, from the entries in the “Household Book of Henry VIII,” to have composed some of the plays produced by the boys under his direction. If the “story of Troylous and Pandor,” performed by him and the children before the king at Eltham, Christmas 1515, was written by him, he may be regarded as the earliest known dramatiser of romantic fiction. Ward suggests that this may have been merely a pageant; but there is no evidence that it was customary to use similar stories as the subjects of pageants, though, undoubtedly, as the list of costumes and the number of actors—fifteen—indicate, this play was highly spectacular. But pageants usually bore such titles as “the Golldyn Arber in the Arche yerd of Plesyer” (13 February, 1511), “Dangerus Fortrees” (9 March, 1511), or “the Pavyllyon un [on] the Plas Parlos” (6 January, 1515), and the “accounts” usually contain elaborate descriptions of the pageant features. Moreover, it should be remembered that, not long after this, plays on similar subjects were not uncommon, though, unfortunately, only one of them has been preserved to us. It seems, therefore, only fair to ascribe more importance to this record than has usually been done, and to regard Cornish as a pioneer in the production, if not in the composition, of romantic drama. The interlude called “the triumpe of Love and Bewte,” “wryten and presentyd by Mayster Cornyshe and oothers of the Chappell… and the chyldern of the sayd Chapell,” Christmas 1514, was of a more conventional character, and can hardly have been more than an allegorical pageant, with words and music. It should, perhaps, be mentioned that Cornish had the devising of the pageants on Sunday night at the Field of the Cloth of Gold.

Whether William Crane was an author is unknown. He was certainly a man of much business; in 1523, letters of protection were granted him as gentleman of the king’s household, alias gentleman of the chapel, alias comptroller of the petty custom of the port of London, alias, of London, draper; and, at various times, he was granted permission to import woad and wine and to export double beer, and he was appointed to furnish five of the king’s ships. He seems to have been a favourite of the king, and received many grants in addition to his salary and allowances.

Richard Bower’s claim to rank as a dramatic author depends, so far as we know, upon his identification with the “R. B.” who wrote Apius and Virginia. This, though by no means certain, seems highly probable. We have no earlier copy of the play than that printed in 1575; but it was entered in the Stationers’ register in 1567/8, and seems, from the allusion to the sweating sickness, to have been written not later than 1551, the last year, according to Creighton, of the occurence of this epidemic in England. Whether written by Bower or not, the play obviously belongs to a group of plays which show certain similarities in motives and technique. The group includes, besides this play, Edwards’s Damon and Pithias (and, probably, also his lost Palamon and Arcyte), Fulwell’s Like wil to like, Pikeryng’s Horestes, Wapull’s The Tyde taryeth no Man, Preston’s Cambises, the anonymous Common Conditions, and Syr Clyomon and Syr Clamydes and, perhaps, some others. One has only to read these plays in succession to be struck with their mutual resemblances. Most notable, perhaps, are the large amount of attention given in them to “stage business” and the provision of action; the use, in several of them, of unrelated comic scenes for the same purpose; the similarity of the rustic characters which appear in most of them; the use, in most of them, of a Vice who “plays with both hands,” inciting to evil or folly and then aiding in its punishment; the curious warnings to the audience to beware of “Cosin Cutpurse”; and the no less curious allusions to the “trump of fame.” These characteristics are less marked in the work of Edwards than in the other plays; but this may be due to his greater independence and originality. The group would seem to have originated with Apius and Virginia. If this be the case, we may attribute the existence of the group to the prestige of the children of the chapel and their masters.

In regard to one of these plays, a word may be permitted, although it does not strictly belong to this chapter. We know from the title-page of Cambises, that it was written by Thomas Preston, and it is universally assumed that this was the Thomas Preston who gained the favour of Elizabeth on her visit to Cambridge in 1564. Commentators on A Midsummer Night’s Dream have not only recognised that Shakespeare ridiculed this play, but have also seen in the lamentations of Flute over Bottom’s loss of sixpence a day for life an allusion to the pension given by the queen to Preston on her memorable visit. The fact need not be insisted upon that sixpence a day is a different thing from the £20 a year granted to Preston, but it seems not amiss to point out that Preston’s two Latin orations were the prime basis of the queen’s pension and choice of him as her scholar. Nor does it seem very probable that the distinguished scholar, who was fellow of King’s college in 1556, B.A. in 1557, M.A. in 1561 (and incorporated M.A. at Oxford in 1566), and proctor of his college in 1565, who was, directed by the authorities in 1572 to study civil law and, four years later, to proceed to the degree of LL.D., and who became master of Trinity hall in 1584, should have published, in 1569 and 1570, Cambises and the two ballads entitled:

  • A geleflower gentle or swete mary golde
  • Where in the frutes of terannye you may beholde
  • and
  • A Lamentation from Rome how the Pope doth bewayle
  • The Rebelles in England cannot prevayle.
  • Surely the Preston of Cambridge would not have published these things; or, if he had, neither he nor his publishers would have failed to print his academic titles.