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  • Trade, taverns, and touring players in seventeenth-century bristol
  • John H. Astington (bio)

The playbill: The accompanying photograph shows a playbill dating from the early 1630s preserved at the British Library (C.18.e.2[74]), in a large folio volume of miscellaneous items.1

The bill, some five and three-quarters by seven and a half inches in size (146 mm x 190 mm), shows the characteristics of a once common form of cheap print, composed in the black-letter type which marked public proclamations, catching the eye with its ornamental border and decorated initial capital, and detailing the attractions of the announced show, featuring rope walking and dancing by infant phenomena, and various kinds of juggling and legerdemain. The nature of the acts allows us to identify to identify the troupe, I believe, a matter to which I turn shortly. This particular playbill, one remaining exemplar of multiple copies, was specifically printed, in London, to serve the troupe of performers on tour: the carefully described show remained the same throughout the touring season, but the venue, left blank in the printed copy, was filled in by hand to suit the local arrangements from town to town. For plays in London, we can take it, the name of a particular playhouse would have appeared in large type at the top, with the title of the day's play, and perhaps a line or two of blurb, as on a printed title page. The conventions of these now rare documents have been given thorough attention by Tiffany Stern, who transcribed the playbill I reproduce here and in a footnote correctly connected it with Bristol (Stern 43-44, 267). Wine Street, nominated in the manuscript addition at the top of the bill, was at the centre of medieval and early modern Bristol, a busy hub of [End Page 161]

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Playbill from the early 1630s.

By permission of the British library.

[End Page 162] trade, commerce, and civic life; somewhere along its length was the Rose, the designated venue for the show. This was pretty certainly not a playhouse, and need not have been an inn or a tavern: seventeenth-century urban houses were identified by their signs, whether or not they were business premises. Once again I shall return to this matter in more detail.

The players

The suggestions of the bill are that Bristol was being visited by the troupe led by William Vincent (alias Hocus Pocus), who since 1619 had held a royal patent, renewed in 1627, allowing him and his company "to exercise and practize the Arte of Legerdemain wth all other feates of activitie, as Vaulting, danceing on the ropes" (Bawcutt 131). The patent also allowed Vincent to describe his troupe, as in the playbill, as "his Majesty's servants". The troupe on tour in the early 1630s featured youthful skill and charm, and the "Irish boy of eight years old" is a particularly significant member of it. Vincent's first Jacobean licence had granted him freedom to show his skills--he himself specialised in juggling and magic--"in any Townes wthin the Relme of England and Ireland" (Bawcutt 131), and it seems that he took advantage of his travels to enlist local talent as he went. He may himself have had irish family connections: we know very little about his origins and early life; by 1630 he kept a household in London, in the parish of St Giles Cripplegate (Bentley 2: 613). The entertainers may indeed have been in Bristol as part of a planned itinerary to or from Ireland. There was frequent sea traffic between Bristol and the southern irish ports: Kinsale, Cork, Youghal, Dungarvan, Waterford, and Wexford; ships also travelled as far north as Dublin and Londonderry (Mcgrath 231-33, 279-80). Rope dancing appears to have been as popular there as it was in England, before both elite and popular audiences, from at least the 1630s until the 1650s (Fletcher 416, 485).

A further strong indication that the playbill belongs to Vincent's troupe is found in the promised attraction of "Egges dancing upon a Staffe" (lines 15-16), a trick that is explained in detail...


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