- The Simpson Players of Jacobean Yorkshire and the Professional Stage
The Simpson players of Jacobean Yorkshire, led by recusant shoemakers Robert and Christopher Simpson, are known to early modern and Shakespearean scholars for two things in particular. Firstly, they are alleged to have staged an anti-Protestant interlude at Gowthwaite Hall, the Yorkshire home of Sir John Yorke, during the Christmas holidays, 1609-10; the interlude was reportedly part of their performance of a saint's play called St. Christopher. Secondly, the company is alleged to have performed "Perocles, prince of Tire, And [ . . . ] King Lere" at the same Hall around Candlemas 1610 (Star Chamber MS 8/19/10 mb. 30). Scholars have usually identified these plays with those of the same name by Shakespeare, printed in 1609 and 1608, respectively (although the 'Lere' could have been the earlier, anonymous King Leir, printed in 1605). One of the players claimed that the troupe also owned a play called The Three Shirleys (Star Chamber MS 8/19/10 mb. 6), which is probably another name for The Travels of the Three English Brothers by John Day, William Rowley and George Wilkins (printed 1607). Evidence of these alleged performances at Gowthwaite Hall - and the allusion to the troupe's ownership of The Three Shirleys - is preserved in the records of a 1611 Star Chamber case against Sir John Yorke, preserved in The National Archives, London: Star Chamber MS (hereafter STAC) 8/19/10.1
On the face of it a group of mainly recusant Catholic shoemakers-turned-players, acting printed plays in one of the "dark corners" (Hill 3) of the land, could be mistaken for Yorkshire versions of Bottom and his fellow [End Page 16] Mechanicals in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Recent studies of the company have challenged perceptions of the troupe as theatrically crude and as socially, spiritually and politically marginal, emphasising instead their possible role, and the role of communal drama more generally, in fostering recusant Catholic culture in the north of England, and the players' connections with powerful figures within that culture, such as Sir Richard Cholmley of Whitby and Sir John Yorke of Nidderdale (see, for example, Jensen, Whitfield White, and Wilson).
Cholmley, who was a suspected closet Catholic with a record of political dissent, having been implicated in the Earl of Essex's rebellion in 1601, was accused in 1609 of patronising and protecting the Simpson players in their performance of "popish" plays (STAC, 8/12/11 mb. 2).2 Although there is no evidence to support this claim and Cholmley himself denied that he was the players' patron (STAC 8/12/11, mb. 1), he did watch them perform and may have protected them from arrest, as did other hosts. The same appears to have been true of Yorke, another probable closet Catholic. In 1611 local puritan justice Sir Stephen Procter brought the Star Chamber case against Yorke which is the source of our information about the Simpsons' performances at Gowthwaite Hall. Procter accused Yorke not only of hosting a performance of the Simpsons' St. Christopher play and its controversial anti-Protestant interlude (in which a priest defeated a minister in a religious debate), but of harbouring priests and involvement in the 1605 Gunpowder plot against King James I. Although the more serious charges were later dropped on the grounds of insufficient evidence, it is clear that Yorke and his family had a vexed relationship with the established church and state and were engaged in some level of resistance to it throughout the Stuart era.3
However indirect their relations with such influential Yorkshire men, in performing in their houses, the Simpsons were clearly moving in circles that were far from marginal either socially or politically, while their performance of at least one "popish" play and their engagement in satire of the established church shows that their role within northern Catholic culture was not a passive one. Phebe Jensen has recently argued that "play-hosting and performing could be a way of creating and sustaining recusant identity" (Religion 46), reading such performances as a kind "replacement for forbidden communal religious rituals", particularly in the case of St. Christopher "where the...