Home  »  Volume VI: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part Two  »  § 4. Plays of the University Wits acted by the Children

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

§ 4. Plays of the University Wits acted by the Children

So much is known of Richard Edwards and William Hunnis that only the briefest notice of them can be given in the space available here. It may suffice to say that Edwards was a university man (as Richard Bower may also have been) and Hunnis obtained, in some way, the equivalent of a university training. Both were celebrated by contemporary writers as authors of dramatic and of non-dramatic works, the fame of Edwards lasting till 1598, though his death occurred in 1566. Non-dramatic writings from the pens of both have been preserved; of their dramatic compositions, we have only Edwards’s Damon and Pithias, though chance has preserved for us a very detailed account of his other known play, Palamon and Arcyte, produced at Oxford in 1566. Mrs. Stopes has suggested that Hunnis was the author of the Tragedie of the King of Scots, produced by the children in 1567, the first recorded performance after his succession to the mastership, and of several others of the plays produced under his supervision. Among these were Narcissus, 1571, the History of Loyaltie and Bewtie, 1579, the History of Alucius, 1579, and a satirical Comedie or Morrall devised on A game of the Cardes, 1582. Probable as the suggestion is, we have no means of verifying it. But the accounts of Edwards’s Palamon and Hunnis’s Narcissus indicate that, as stage managers, they carried on the traditions of the group of plays discussed above. The two passages are so interesting in themselves and so important in their bearing upon the history of the stage that they may be quoted briefly:

  • In the said play [Palamon and Arcyte] was acted a cry of hounds in the Quadrant, upon the train of a fox in the hunting of Theseus, with which the young scholars, who stood in the windows, were so much taken (supposing it was real), that they cried out, “Now, now!—there, there!—he’s caught, he’s caught!” All which the Queen merrily beholding, said, “O, excellent! these boys, in very troth, are ready to leap out of the windows, to follow the hounds.” This part, it seems, being repeated before certain courtiers, in the lodgings of Mr. Robert Marbeck, one of the Canons of Christ Church, by the players in their gowns (for they were all Scholars that acted) before the Queen came to Oxford, was by them so well liked, that they said it far surpassed Damon and Pithias, than which they thought nothing could be better. Likewise some said, that if the author did any more before his death, he would run mad: but this comedy was the last he made; for he died a few months after. In the acting of the said play, there was a good part performed by the lady Amelia, who, for gathering her flowers prettily in a garden then represented, and singing sweetly in the time of March, received eight angels for a gracious reward by her Majesty’s command. By whom that part was acted I know not, unless by Peter Carew, the pretty boy before mentioned.
  • A scene in Narcissus may have been suggested by this play, as the History of Loyaltie and Bewtie may, possibly, have been suggested by Cornish’s Triumpe of Love and Bewte, of 1515. The revels accounts for 1571–2 contain the following:

  • John Tryce for mony to him due for Leashes, & Doghookes, with staves, & other necessaries: by him provyded for the hunters that made the crye after the fox (let loose in the Coorte) with theier howndes, hornes, and hallowing, in the playe of narcisses. which crye was made, of purpose even as the woordes then in utteraunce, & the parte then played, did Requier … John Izarde for mony to him due for his device in counterfeting Thunder & Lightning in the playe of Narcisses.
  • For reasons which will soon appear, it seems improbable that Nathaniel Giles, the last of the masters with whom we are concerned, composed any plays for production by the children. But the rèpertoire of the boys was probably not confined, even in the early years of their histrionic career, to the plays written by their masters. Unfortunately, the early records are too scanty and too indefinite to permit of very positive statements on this point. As early, however, as 1584, two of the most distinguished authors of the time had written for them. John Lyly’s Campaspe and Sapho and Phao were played before the queen by the children of the chapel in conjunction with the children of Paul’s before this date, and another play by the same author, Love’s Metamorphosis, originally written for the children of Paul’s was transferred to the chapel boys at some date before its publication in 1601. One of the most interesting of the plays of George Peele, and, in the opinion of some critics, his best play, The Araygnement of Paris, also bears upon the title-page of the first edition (1584) the statement that it had been “presented before the Queenes Majestie by the Children of her Chappell.” Fleay, indeed, assigns the presentation of it to 5 February, 1581, and the same writer gives 1581 as the date for Campaspe and 1582 as the date for Sapho and Phao. These dates seem probable; but we are not here concerned with their accuracy, as the essential fact is that both Lyly and Peele wrote for the children of the chapel. That Greene wrote anything for them is unlikely, but the Tragedie of Dido Queene of Carthage, by Marlowe and Nashe, is stated on the title-page to have been played by them, and it is highly probable that it was they who played Nashe’s Pleasant Comedia, called Summers last will and Testament at Croydon in September, 1592. The play alluded to here as having been presented by the same company in the preceding summer was, according to one of Fleay’s conjectures, Marlowe and Nashe’s Dido; according to another, the anonymous Warres of Cyrus, published in 1600; we have no means of knowing whether it was either.

    To one unfamiliar with the stage history of the time these records might seem inadequate evidence for the brilliant and influential histrionic career ascribed to the children of the chapel. But those who know how scanty the records are will recognise that no other company in these early years presents greater claims to having exercised a real leadership in the drama. The children of Paul’s were, indeed, at one time served by Lyly as dramatist; but he began with the children of the chapel, who seem, in fact, to have been pioneers in many important features of both dramatic and histrionic development. That there were other companies of boys—notably those of Paul’s and those of Windsor, those of Westminster school and those of Merchant Taylors’—and that many companies of men players performed at court and in public, does not detract from their primacy in these early years.

    The opinion expressed above that Nathaniel Giles, who, as will be seen, became master in 1597, wrote nothing for the chapel boys is a mere conjecture, but is supported by two facts: first, that not long after he became master he seems to have allowed other men to use his commission to procure boys for the chapel to provide a company of professional child actors; and that, from this time onward, the actual choir boys of the chapel do not seem to have taken any part in the presentation of plays at court or in public. Since the professional company was supplied with plays by professional dramatists, and the boys under the immediate personal care of Giles did not produce plays, it is very improbable that he wrote any.

    On 9 June, 1597, Nathaniel Giles, bachelor of music and master of the children of St. George’s chapel, Windsor, became master of the children of the Chapel Royal, in succession to William Hunnis. By a privy seal of 3 July, he was authorised to take up boys for the service of the chapel. No essentially new provision appears in this commission. Giles is authorised to take up “suche and so many children as he or his sufficient Deputie shall thinke meete,” and to provide “sufficient lodging for him and the sayd Children, when they for our service shall remove to any place or places”; but the former clause is repeated from earlier commissions, and the latter would never have seemed anything more than a more explicit expression of a similar clause in previous commissions but for the events which ensued. At some unknown date after the issue of this commission, James Robinson and Henry Evans joined with Giles in exploiting the commission. They took up more boys than were needed for the chapel choir, lodged them in Blackfriars and established a regular theatrical company of the children of the chapel.