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  • Henry Carey’s Peculiar Letter
  • Andrew Gurr (bio)

In November 1596 Residents of the Liberty of the Blackfriars asked the Privy Council to stop James Burbage and his company at the Theatre from using his new playhouse in their precinct. This well-known petition contains some puzzling statements. The petitioners complained, for instance, that

. . . all players being banished by the Lord Mayor from playing within the Cittie by reason of the great inconveniences and ill rule that followeth them, they now thincke to plant them selves in liberties.1

What seems strange here is not the company's plan to start growing in the liberty of Blackfriars, but the claim that the Lord Mayor had recently banned playing inside the city. No papers survive to say when or even that such a ban was issued. The authority that normally sent out such orders was not London's mayor but the Privy Council, acting for the monarch. Yet the thirty-four petitioners—residents of the afflicted liberty—should have known what they were saying. They were led by Lady Elizabeth Russell, sister-in-law to William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who chaired the Privy Council. The others included Richard Field, the printer from Stratford who had issued Shakespeare's narrative poems in 1593 and 1594. Though the claim that the Lord Mayor had banned playing in the city does echo twenty years of mayoral complaints to the Privy Council, it is distinctly mysterious. Just which Lord Mayor was it who took authority to initiate this unique ban on playing inside the city? Had the Privy Council, which had resisted Guildhall's pleas before, nothing to say about it and no say in it?

Henry Carey, the first Lord Hunsdon, Lord Chamberlain, and the Privy Council member who might have been most concerned, had died in July, some months before the petitioners set down their complaint. Burbage's new indoor playhouse was built for use by the company that Carey himself had set up in May 1594 as the Lord Chamberlain's Men. At the time of the petition, William Brooke, Lord Cobham, Carey's successor as Lord Chamberlain, was less interested in helping Carey's company, now the second Lord Hunsdon's; it may even have been Brooke's objection that, in the same year as the petition, made them change the [End Page 51] name of their most celebrated new creation, Sir John Oldcastle, to Sir John Falstaff.2 Brooke, himself a resident of the Blackfriars precinct, was unsympathetic to the company's scheme, as was the younger Carey, since his signature appears on the petition immediately below Lady Russell's. Both Brooke and George Carey would surely have known whether or not the Lord Mayor had recently managed to impose a ban on playing inside the city.

Asking why the petitioners should have attributed such a ban to the Lord Mayor rather than to the Privy Council takes us back deep into the story of a power struggle that entangled Shakespeare's company through its first years. I believe the ban may have been laid down in May 1594, when Henry Carey as Lord Chamberlain and Charles Howard, the Lord Admiral, first set up their two new companies. In effect, I think, the Lord Chamberlain's and the Lord Admiral's Men were created by their patrons as a duopoly to replace the monopoly of the former Queen's Men. I have written elsewhere about their scheme to create a pair of new companies and give them fixed playing places in the suburbs.3 It was then, I believe, that they agreed to accept a ban on playing inside the city and to send their two companies off to play only in the suburbs. There the Lord Admiral was in authority, and two playhouses, the Rose (in Surrey) and the Theatre (in Middlesex), were already in regular use. Confining playing to the suburbs of Middlesex and Surrey would keep it out of the Lord Mayor's jurisdiction, and as a result, they no doubt hoped, might halt the stream of mayoral pleas to ban all playing everywhere.

The idea that Carey and Howard, in concert with the Lord Mayor, set...


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