'The Cittie is in an uproare':
Staging London in The Booke of Sir Thomas More
Bath Spa University College
Hill, Tracey. "'The Cittie is in an uproare':
Staging London in the Booke of Sir Thomas More". Early Modern
Literary Studies 11.1 (May, 2005) 2.1-19 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/11-1/more.htm>.
Sixteenth-century London permeates this complicated play-text: its setting is
London, it was originally written for a London playhouse, the Rose on Bankside,
and some of its chief writers (Thomas Dekker, Thomas Heywood and Anthony
Munday) were freemen of the City. The play’s eponymous protagonist was also a
Londoner: More was born on Milk Street in Cripplegate Ward, just west of the
Guildhall, and he too was a citizen, free of the powerful Mercers’ Company.
Such matters are not incidental to The Booke of Sir Thomas More, and I
intend to foreground these and related features of the play in order to
explore more fully its representation of London and its people, a hitherto
neglected aspect of this much-scrutinised text.
a brief reading upon which this essay will expand, Lawrence Manley, one of the
few critics to emphasise the London dimensions of the play, has written that
the play treats More as ‘a legendary citizen’ and ‘an urban luminary’ (Manley
35, 129). In so doing the text foregrounds the various roles More played in
his city. He first appears participating in a civic court at the Guildhall in
his capacity of under-sheriff of London alongside the Lord Mayor, Justices and
the Recorder of London (1). Nicholas Harpsfield’s biography of More, one of the
play’s more controversial Catholic sources, describes its subject as a ‘lover
and ffrende to the Busynesses and causes of this city’ (Hitchcock and Chambers
314)(2). Harold Metz has stated that even once he ceased to act as under-sheriff,
the year after the May Day unrest, ‘More in spirit never left the city’ (“The
play of Sir Thomas More” 43)(3). In the play itself, More is made to
stress that despite his elevation to the Privy Council the Mayor and the
aldermen are still his ‘bretheren’: ‘for once I was your brother,/ and so am
still in hart. It is not state,/ that can our looue from London separate’ (scene
ix, lines 955-7)(4).
Indeed, when More receives his promotion to high office, the Lord Mayor
regards this as much a compliment to the City as to More as an individual,
stating that ‘His maiestie hath honord much the cittie/ in this his princely
choise’ (scene vi, lines 546-7). More then reiterates his constant allegiance
to the City as evidence of his mixed feelings about his promotion: ‘in this
rising of my priuate blood:/ my studious thoughts shall tend the citties good’
(scene vi, lines 12-13).
pragmatic reasons Sir Thomas More’s various writers and revisers
adapted the play’s sources in order to underplay as best they could the fact
that More was a martyr to the Catholic cause for opposing Henry VIII’s break
with Rome. In order to do so, as Londoners themselves for the most part, it
may have seemed natural to focus on the civic dimensions of More’s life.
Consequently, Metz claims, ‘as Londoners, [the writers] favor the City’ (Sources
of Four Plays 181). They chose, then, to emphasise More’s role in the
so-called ‘Evil May Day’ riots of 1517 with which the play begins. By
foregrounding this unrest, the playwrights substantially exaggerated the
impact not only of More’s own role at this particular juncture but also the
impact of Evil May Day itself on More’s subsequent political career (Munday
6)(5). Vittorio Gabrieli and Giorgio Melchiori
also observe that contracting what were in fact separate aspects of More’s
rise to power (from knighthood to Privy Councillor to Lord Chancellor) to this
‘one single event’ solves ‘the problem of the compression of time common to
all history plays’ (ibid. 29; see also 93n).
Indeed, in actuality More’s attempt to pacify the May Day rioters was
unsuccessful and it was
in fact Cardinal
Wolsey, not More, who obtained a pardon for the majority of the rioters
Such an exaggeration was surely intended to trade on the contemporary urgency
of the matter of urban unrest. Topicality has its risks, however, and this
strategy, as it transpired, was hardly less controversial in the early 1590s
than staging a Catholic martyr. Gabrieli and Melchiori argue that even if it
was politically questionable it was timely, as ‘the original author(s) of the
play were stimulated to write it by their having got hold of biographical
material …on Sir Thomas More at a time when his figure was popular in
the City … in spite of the persisting condemnation of his religious position’
(ibid. 10-11). Metz concurs that ‘the idea of a play on the life of More grew
out of his popularity … with the great body of the citizens of London’ (“The
play of Sir Thomas More” 44). More’s esteem in London in his own
lifetime is consequently mentioned in the play, for he is selected by the Earl
of Surrey to appeal to the would-be rioters on the explicit basis that he is
‘in especiall fauour with the people’. Surrey also comments that as a civic
sheriff More is closer to the outraged Londoners and thus more likely to
persuade them to desist than would the overt ‘power’ of distant noblemen such
as himself (scene iii, lines 403-6).
one turns the focus away from the usual areas of critical attention
(censorship and authorship, in the main), the More play can be seen on
a number of levels as part of a trend in the final decade of the sixteenth
century for ‘citizen dramas’: other contemporary examples include Sir John
Oldcastle, Thomas Lord Cromwell and the more plebeian
Shoemaker’s Holiday (7). Furthermore, Sir Thomas More foregrounds the
immediate significance of the events it depicts, offering parallels between
the Evil May Day scenes and the anti-alien sentiment so prevalent in London
while the play was being constructed (8). More is a complex text that
reflects a complex social reality, offering a meticulous representation of
London’s finely graduated social make-up: citizens, civic dignitaries,
prentices, ‘aliens’, ‘foreigners’ and aristocrats are all dramatised. My paper
follows Richard Rowland’s argument that the play ‘demand[s] an unprecedentedly
close attention to the social and political significance of London itself’
(17). The writers of Sir Thomas More take equal care to map out the
city’s topography. As Rowland has asserted, in More ‘precise
topographical references are carefully framed to elicit contemporary resonance
… the entire manuscript is dense with the proper names of London’s streets and
houses’ (ibid.). One especially resonant example is the reference to the
temporary gibbet which was erected ‘hard by’ the Standard on Cheapside, right
in the heart of the City, where John Lincoln, the rioters’ ringleader, was
hanged (9). Gabrieli and Melchiori assert that what they call ‘the extraordinary number of
mentions of City streets and taverns’ in the fragmentary riot scenes reflect
the particular input of Dekker and prefigure his later city comedies (Munday
13; see also 211n).
consequence of this topographic topicality is, in Rowland’s words,
(potential) audience was offered an interpretative possibility: they were
invited to view the theatrical performance of acts of resistance to authority
perpetrated in the past, and to reconstruct them imaginatively in the streets
in which they still lived and worked’ (17).
Thus, through enacting the infamous local events of 1517 the specificity of
the play’s locations cannot help but bring the current moment to mind: the
play thus ‘recreate[s] the Cheapside of the May Day Riots but simultaneously
evoke[s] the Cheapside … of the mid-1590s’ (ibid.).
With its history
of disorder and protest May Day was – and of course still is – an annual
potential flash-point regarded as one of the ‘daies of speciall danger’
(Freedman 33). For instance, in February 1567 a porter was hanged (like
Lincoln) in Cheapside for ‘stirring up apprentices, [reportedly] “telling them
that that night following would be like the stir against strangers as was at
Evil May Day”’ (Rappaport 54).
Sir Thomas More is therefore a notable example of what Janette
Dillon has called ‘the way contemporary London pushes through historicised
fictions’ (151 n.6) and I would argue that slippage can be detected between an
authentic representation of the events of ‘Evil May Day’ (based in a large
part on historical chronicles) and the live issue of immigrants in the 1590s
- Indeed, it is likely that one of the reasons why the play was so thoroughly
censored was for its unprecedentedly precise depiction of real urban figures
and locations in the context of the turmoil London was experiencing at that
time (10). With this view in mind, one should look afresh
at the much discussed evidence of censorship that this manuscript bears. Overall,
the proposed and/or imposed amendments to the play strive to accentuate the
historical differences between 1517 and 1593 and thereby to reduce the contemporary
relevance of the play’s action. The scenes which depict the outbreak of unrest
against aliens received considerable attention from the censor (11).
Edmund Tilney’s note on the first page of the text sets the tone by stipulating
that the play should only present ‘a shortt reportt’ of ‘a mutiny Agaynst
ye Lumbards’ (12). Pains have been taken to replace the
term ‘stranger’, which is reiterated with great emphasis in the riot scenes,
with ‘Lombard’, a term which appears only once in the original manuscript
(in scene i). Indeed, fourteen of the seventeen references to ‘stranger’ in
the play are converted to ‘Lombard’ (although not necessarily all by Tilney)
(13). As the audience of the play – had it been staged
– would have known full well, the ‘strangers’ who bore the brunt of the protests
in the early 1590s were not Lombards at all but rather French Huguenots and
Dutch or ‘Flemings’, Protestant refugees from the Spanish control of the Netherlands
(14). The real Lombards, Italian merchants and bankers,
were far fewer in number in London in the 1590s and were never mentioned in
anti-alien petitions and the like, so changing ‘Fleming’ or ‘Dutch’ to ‘Lombard’
works to displace the reality of London’s demographic tensions. Francis de
Bard, the originator of the citizens’ grievances in the play, had indeed been
a Lombard in Edward Hall’s chronicle but there de Bard is mentioned as an
exception amidst mainly French oppressors of the English. In the play Caveler,
who stole Williamson’s doves in the first scene, is called a ‘ffrencheman’
by the Earl of Shrewsbury in scene iii, a nomination altered by Tilney to
‘Lombard’ for ‘political reasons’ (Munday 81n). As we will see shortly, John
Lincoln also criticises Dutch traders for damaging indigenous commerce
- As I suggested earlier, what Rowland calls the ‘relentlessly familiar’
topographic specificity is another important factor in the play’s
representation of London (18). On the eve of the riot proper, in a scene
marked for omission, Lincoln and his comrades gather at St Martins, an
outlying liberty of the city near Aldersgate which was notorious – both in
1517 and in the 1590s – for its large and disorderly immigrant population
Here Lincoln accurately depicts the Dutch and French inhabitants of this area
by naming as the rioters’ targets the distinctly non-Italian ‘Mewtas a wealthie Piccarde … / De Barde, Peter van Hollock, [and]
Adrian Martine’, along with ‘many more outlandish fugitiues’ (scene iv,
lines 419-21). Probably for reasons of dramatic economy, the action against
the aliens is confined in the play to St Martin’s, where the rioters are
confronted by More, rather than, as actually happened, dispersed around
various locations where the strangers had congregated (such as Cornhill and
Blanche Appleton to the east of the city). Nevertheless, in a strikingly
detailed instance of the persistence of civic memory, Mewtas’s house is
correctly identified by Lincoln as ‘the greene gate’, where, according to
Stow’s Survay of London, the former ‘harbored
… many Frenchmen, that kalendered wolsteds, and did other things contrarie to
the Franchises of the Citizens’ (vol. I 152) (16).
- The first seven scenes of the play present a sustained account of the 1517
unrest and put its protagonists centre-stage. As Gabrieli and Melchiori have
City of London is the protagonist of the whole [first] act’ (30). Apart
from More himself, we find a number of other, more ordinary Londoners, who
those familiar solely with Shakespeare’s representations of non-aristocratic
figures might find surprisingly articulate, literate and sympathetic. It is
made clear a number of times in the text that the rioters are not
impressionable simpletons – at least not in the original scenes, before the
rewriting now known as the ‘Additions’ took place. Tracing the differences
between the two versions of the riots reveals an attempt to make the rioters
less articulate and less sympathetic. John Lincoln, the leader of the
unrest, is a representation of a real person who was in the household of
Edward Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham (17). Lincoln describes himself in the play
as a ‘Broaker by profession’, and Susan Brigden relates that he
was ‘a broker
and surveyor of “goods foreign bought and sold”’ (130) (18). In this profession he
was, ironically, dependent for his living upon those foreign (and mainly
‘alien’) traders against whom he inveighed in his ‘bill of wrongs’,
through which he intended to bring to the civic authorities’ attention the
suffering of the London citizenry caused by the uncontrolled activities of
strangers in the city.
- Along with Lincoln, a number of other characters in the dramatised riot
scenes are also named and their ‘profession’ identified in a series of what
Gabrieli and Melchiori have called ‘cameo pictures of the individual
citizens’: Sherwin the goldsmith, Williamson, a carpenter, his wife, the
feisty Doll, and George Betts (Munday 30) (19). At this stage, the wronged citizens
are presented as a heterogeneous group, not simply a faceless – and voiceless
– mob (20). Furthermore, that More’s fully individualised protestors can
claim the status of tradesmen is crucial, for this entails, as Michael
Hattaway has stressed in the case of 2Henry VI, that they cannot simply
be ignorant clowns: ‘it is certainly not just an occasion for “mechanicals” to
be forced into their customary role of clowns … for, as in so many of the
uprisings of the early modern period, we find no “peasants’ revolt”, but a
group dominated by artisans’ (18). By this token, Stephen Greenblatt’s account
of ‘lower-class revolt’ in 2Henry VI misses the nuances of the play’s
social context. For instance, when he states that Shakespeare ‘calls attention
to the comic humbleness of the rebels’ social origins’, Greenblatt lists the
supposedly humble rebels by trade (he
is careful, however, to delineate the precise status of a property-owning
character in the play). Despite what Greenblatt implies, the rebels are
not mere ‘buffoons’ but rather the kind of artisans staged by Sir Thomas
More (23). That Shakespeare chooses to represent them as inarticulate and
foolish perhaps says more about Shakespeare than it does about English social
- These ‘social origins’ are not insignificant: they would have been highly
meaningful, perhaps even inflammatory, to a London theatre audience fully
aware of the difference between, say, a prentice and an artisan. As Tilney’s
interventions make clear, the danger of More’s riot scenes is precisely
that the audience would have been very likely to have picked up on and perhaps
to have carried over into their own experience the anti-alien sentiments
articulated by Lincoln and his comrades. Furthermore, one of the most
distinctive aspects of Sir Thomas More is that it presents the
grievances of the rioters quite favourably and that in so doing it emphasises
their London-ness. In the first scene alone de Bard is represented as an
arrogant and obnoxious interloper and Doll’s strenuous protests against his
behaviour seem entirely merited. Relatedly, unlike other famous plebeian
leaders such as Jack Cade, Wat Tyler and Jack Straw, who are usually depicted
in drama of this period as ‘violators’ of London’s spaces, Lincoln and his
comrades are Londoners, actively resisting the encroachment of
outsiders (22). Indeed, in More
the violence, or
threatened violence, takes place in named locations in and around the heart of
the City rather than on its margins in Southwark (where there were riots in
1592 and 1595) or in other locations which could more readily be seen as
‘external’ to the City such as Hampstead Heath where the 1381 rebels
congregated. Equally, the offences done to the citizens by the strangers are
regarded as attacks on the City itself. Once again, Hall’s chronicle sets the
tone, for here Lincoln prevails upon Doctor Bele to read his bill of wrongs at
St Mary Spittal (just outside the city walls) on the basis that Bele is a
Londoner and thus should empathise with ‘the great misery of [his] owne natiue
countray’ (fol. lxv). In the play, de Bard defies the citizens’ complaints by
retorting that he would treat even the Lord Mayor’s wife (the consort of
London’s highest official) in the same fashion as he did Sherwin’s wife,
prompting George Betts’s outraged response: ‘The Maior of London’s wife? Oh
God, shall it be thus?’ (scene i, line 41). Sir Thomas Palmer, too, speaks of
the insult to Sherwin as symptomatic of wider – and justified – grievances,
what he calls the ‘wrongs’ and ‘greefe’ of ‘the displeased cittie’, and he
rehearses de Bard’s comment about the Lord Mayor’s wife (scene iii, lines
348-9) (23). Perhaps most significantly, the rioters themselves are concerned that
the City should not be damaged by their protests. When Doll talks of setting
fires at St Martin’s, Sherwin warns ‘Stay, that would much endaunger the whole
Cittie/ whereto I would not the least preiudice’ (scene iv, lines 429-30).
Gabrieli and Melchiori ascribe Sherwin’s especial concern to his profession as
a goldsmith, but it also reflects a more widespread identification of the
citizens with the City’s wellbeing (Munday 87n). It is then agreed that once
apprehended the strangers should be taken out to Moorfields, beyond the city
riot is also a matter for the City. Once the rioters have been pacified by
More, the Lord Mayor thanks More for having ‘preseru’de the Cittie,/ from a
most daungerous fierce comotion’. More himself prioritises the security of the
City by suggesting that he and the other civic officials meet at the Guildhall
to issue orders that ‘thorow euery warde, the watche be clad/ in
Armour, but especially prouide/ that at the Cittie gates …
substantiall Cittizens doo warde to night’ (scene iv, 503-21; my
emphases). Gabrieli and Melchiori point out that in the chronicle accounts of
the unrest it is the number of citizens so required to assemble that is
‘substantiall’: in the play, once more reflecting its concern for the
specificity of social class, the word indicates rather their elevated place in
civic society (Munday 107n). On the eve of the planned executions of Lincoln
and his fellows continued urban unrest is envisaged, and so the Sheriff
announces that ‘proclamation once againe be made,/ that euery householder,
on paine of deathe/ keep in his Prentices’ (scene vi, 588-90; my
emphases). Civic and governmental responsibilities are carefully
differentiated: it is made clear that the order to execute Lincoln and the
other ringleaders has emanated from the Privy Council, not the Guildhall, and
it is emphasised that, as we have just seen, the citizens might react badly to
the executions and that they must therefore be carried out speedily or ‘the
Cittie will be fynde for this neglect’ (scene vi, 596). When on the scaffold,
in his final words Lincoln reiterates the concern for the city which Sherwin
previously expressed by pronouncing that his fate brings to fruition an ‘olde
prouerbe … that Lincolne should be hanged for Londons sake’ (scene vii,
611-12). As he himself implies, Lincoln’s words are an adaptation – more
fitting for the immediate context – of the ‘popular prophecy according to
which the rise of London had caused the fall of Lincoln, the capital in Roman
times’ (Munday 113n).
Perhaps because of the topicality as well as the locality of its subject
matter, the writers of this play follow Hall in exhibiting a considerable
degree of sympathy with the citizens’ cause, to the extent of using a
near-verbatim version of Hall’s transcription of Lincoln’s bill of wrongs.
a London citizen and very much a civic historian; his empathy with the
Londoners may well have been increased by the fact that he had lived through
the May Day riots (25).
Metz states that Hall ‘admire[d] [More’s] steadfast advocacy of London’
(Sources of Four Plays 181).
Some contemporary reader of Hall’s chronicle certainly noted the way in
which the historian justified the citizens’ outrage at their treatment by
writing ‘The originall of ill may daye’ in the margin alongside Hall’s account
of de Bard’s ‘mocke’ of ‘the poore man’ whose wife he had apprehended
When the play’s
controversial scenes were revisited in the Additions, however, the attitude
towards the rioters changed noticeably. Gabrieli and Melchiori’s view is that
‘all the Additions in the parts of the play concerned with the May Day events
tend to discredit the actions of the rebels, in contrast with the attitude
shown in what remains of the original’ (Munday 27) (27). Through the introduction
of a more stock clown figure in Addition II, and different demarcations of
artisan and prentice elsewhere in the play (of which more below) the treatment
of the unrest becomes less radical. For instance, the poignant and eloquent
speeches of Lincoln and Doll on the scaffold are undermined by facetious
interventions from an unnamed ‘Clown’ (28). Generally, the role and status of John
Lincoln diminishes. From being the respected leader of and spokesman for an
organised band of protestors in the original scenes, someone who was capable
of producing a cogent piece of rhetoric like the ‘bill of wrongs’, when the
scene was revisited Lincoln was depicted as being less articulate and no
longer the inspired ‘captain’ of the moderately orderly crew as in scene iv.
In the original riot scenes Lincoln and his friends are clearly literate,
unlike Jack Cade in Shakespeare’s 2Henry VI, who is hostile towards
those, like lawyers, who are able to read and write (29). Lincoln reads out his
bill of wrongs, and Betts states that the protestors will ‘keepe in writing’
the names of those likely to join the insurrection.
- In the
second Addition, however, Lincoln’s reasoned objections about the deleterious
impact of the strangers upon London’s tradesmen have become simple-minded and
xenophobic fears about foreign vegetables, or ‘straing rootes’, causing ‘sore
eyes’ and infecting ‘the Cytty wt the palsey’ (Add. II, 130-4)
This revised scene begins with Lincoln (presumably) shouting ‘Peace heare me’.
Later, with the accompaniment of what would no doubt be in performance a
background din of disorderly mob-like racket, in the face of which he and
Betts have fruitlessly cried ‘Peace peace silens peace’, Lincoln freely admits
to More that he cannot control the crowd. More asks ‘You that have voyce and
Credyt with the number/ Comaund them to a stilnes’, to which Lincoln responds
with a distinct lack of solidarity that differs markedly from the earlier
scenes: ‘a plaigue on them they will not hold their peace the deule/ Cannot
rule them’ (Addition II, 173-7). Even if the primary purpose of such a change
of emphasis is to underline More’s achievement at pacifying and then
controlling the crowd, the whole dynamic of the insurrection is altered,
because Lincoln is the fulcrum for the unrest, and the way in which he is
represented has consequences for all the rioters. His status as the chief
culprit, and the only one to die as a result of the unrest, now looks a little
- W. W. Greg,
in contrast, claimed in his edition of the play that these new lines have
individual qualities which mark them off sharply from the rest of the play.
There is wit in the humours of the crowd, there is something like passion in
More’s oratory. So striking indeed are these qualities that more than one
critic has persuaded himself that the lines in question have come from no pen
but Shakespeare’s (13).
exception of his comment about More, this is, at the very least, wishful
thinking. What ‘wit’ there is in the crowd’s so-called ‘humours’ seem to
me to reside solely in Greg’s preconception of what a ‘proper’ (i.e.
stupid) Elizabethan crowd would be like (32). There is largely general
agreement amongst recent critics that these changes are for the worse and
that the individuality of the protestors is hardly a priority in the
Addition. With a significantly different view of what ‘humour’ entails, Gabrieli and Melchiori take the forthright line that the Hand D additions
‘are the one discordant note in a well-planned play’ (Munday 27)
Cohen argues similarly that Hand D’s ‘revision belittles the protestors,
depriving them of an individuality they possessed earlier in the play and
reducing them to the idiotic fear of disease-causing vegetables’ (2013).
Kathleen McLuskie concurs that ‘the comic tone of the [revised] riot
scenes … trivialise[s] the serious political theme’ (30)
- The revised
version of scene v is in a number of ways far less benevolent to the
rioters than the original scene iii. The Earl of Surrey, for instance,
now speaks in the hostile manner one might expect from a man of his position,
rather than expressing the quasi-seditious sentiments we saw in the earlier
scene, commenting ‘oh power what art thou in a madmans eies/ thou makst the
plodding Iddiott Bloudy wise’. In the original scene iii, in contrast, he says
that from his princely clemencie,
Surrey’s words seem to me to constitute sedition, for as the sixteenth
century progressed, attempting to ‘make a division’ between ruler and ruled
became a prime case of sedition (35). Indeed, according to the laws current in 1517
Surrey’s words are actually treasonable. Surrey’s colleague Sir Roger Chomeley,
in a speech marked for omission by Tilney, also implicitly echoes Surrey’s
‘division between ruler and ruled’ as well as the latter’s empathy with the
‘abuse’ and ‘wrongs’ suffered by the protestors:
so well a tempred mercie and a grace,
to all the Aliens in this fruitfull land,
from them that breathe from his maiestick bountie,
that fatned with the trafficque of our countrey:
already leape into his subiectes face’ (scene iii, lines 324-30).
In the Additions the tone changes markedly. Here, More calls the
rioters ‘sillie men/ [who] plodd on they know not how’ (Addition II, lines
105-6 and 113). From that point on, the words used by those in authority to
describe the rioters such as ‘sillie’, ‘Iddiott’ and ‘symple’ demean the
latter and undermine their ability to engage in intelligent action
expressed attitudes are much less neutral, let alone latently sympathetic with
‘the displeased comons’ expressing part-justified ‘greefe’, as Shrewsbury has
it in the earlier version of scene iii.
is not informed of this base abuse,
and dayly wrongs are offered to his subiects
ffor if he
were, I knowe his gracious wisedome,
would soone redresse it (scene iii, lines
- Furthermore, the second Addition insinuates that Lincoln and his comrades
identify with apprentices rather than citizens and merchants. Lincoln’s
‘bill’ (a near verbatim version of the historical Lincoln’s petition), which
is read out in scene i, makes it clear that he is expressing the wrongs
suffered by the City’s middling sort. He asserts that:
aliens and straungers
eate the bread from the fatherlesse children and take the living from all the
artificers, and the entercourse from all Merchants whereby
povertie is so much encreased, that every man bewayleth the miserie of other,
for crafts men be brought to beggarie, and Merchants to needines
(scene i, lines 83-6; my emphasis).
At no point in his bill, one should note, does Lincoln represent the interests
of apprentices. In the Addition, however, immediately after the servant has
called Lincoln ‘simple’, the latter’s response is an indignant ‘how say you
now … prentisses symple downe with him’, echoed by ‘All’: ‘prentisses symple
prentisses symple’ (Addition II, lines 143-5) (37).
- In the same adapted part of the text it is Sir John Munday, after being
attacked by apprentices, who unilaterally imposes a connection between the
violent prentices and Lincoln and his associates by claiming that the former
‘are gon to Ioine/ wth Lincolne Sherwine and ther dangerous traine’
(Addition II, lines 74-5). Originally, the citizen rioters and the unruly
prentices were kept quite separate.
Gabrieli and Melchiori comment that the Additions in Hand D (that which has
been ascribed to Shakespeare) ‘ignored’ the ‘preoccupation to distinguish
between the prentices and citizens figuring in the previous scenes’ (Munday
213n). They also emphasise that the original version of the text
ascribes ‘the first acts of violence … to raw and mindless “prentices” …
rather than to the citizens’ (ibid. 6). Similarly, in the chronicle histories
it is the incident where Alderman Sir John Munday falls foul of ‘a sort of
prentices playing at Cudgells’, as the play calls them, that constitutes the
first act of violence of Evil May Day (Addition II, line 70)
(38). The prentices in
the original scene v do not have the articulate political agenda of Lincoln
and the others in the preceding scenes: they merely want a scrap, seem to
threaten each other more than anyone else and they certainly do not mention
aliens or strangers. Indeed, in the play’s original form the only connection
with Lincoln’s company of rebels is a passing reference to the prentices going
‘a Mayng’ which parallels a similar phrase expressed in scene i by one of the
rioters, George Betts (scene v, line 455). The prentices no longer have a role
in the revised insurrection scenes, where the writer(s) have followed Tilney’s
instructions to present only a ‘short reportt’ of the violence done to John
Munday rather than stage it directly (39). Thus the Additions conflate this
original and essential difference. Scott McMillin’s view is that the original
insurrection scenes ‘portrayed the English craftsmen in the sympathetic
and even heroic light … but Hand D turned them into a foolish and fickle mob’
– rather more like riotous apprentices than outraged artisans, in fact (140)
The citizens are presented as eloquent and well-organised with a reasoned
political strategy. Crucially, as we have seen, Lincoln’s bill in scene i
makes a case for the grievances of merchants, artisans and craftsmen, not
prentices. The prentices, who by definition had no political voice in the
City, rank lower than the citizens, especially the named ones (Sherwin and
Williamson), who are both tradesmen – goldsmith and carpenter, respectively –
and who, had they reached the status of householder, might well have employed
prentices. Laura Stevenson has written that in London ‘handicraftsmen formed a
middle group between principal citizens (“merchants and chief retailers”) and
labourers … [they] could thus be distinguished from merchants, but they were
better off than labourers … social theory made [craftsmen] members of a
faceless, volatile mass of people’ (164-6). In this play, however, they are
neither faceless nor nameless – hence its power, and hence, perhaps, its
treatment by Tilney.
- Indeed, one can argue that the playwrights’ use of their chronicle sources
underscores the agency of Lincoln and his co-protestors, even if in so doing
the writers, perhaps inevitably, also highlight the latter’s culpability.
When compared to Hall’s account in particular the play simplifies a series
of events and concentrates the action. According to Hall, on the Tuesday in
Easter week 1517 ‘Doctor Bele’, the canon of St Mary Spital, read out Lincoln’s
bill as the text for a sermon on patriotism and the rectitude of protesting
against strangers. This was one of the annual Easter sermons held at an outdoor
pulpit in the churchyard, Spittal Cross, where sermons were preached to the
Lord Mayor, Aldermen and other civic dignitaries (41).
As the Mayor and other city officers were ultimately responsible for civic
order, Beale’s sermon at this particular venue can be construed as highly
provocative. In the play, however, Beale plays no part in the action, being
simply referred to in scene iii; likewise, Doctor Standish, another cleric
who declined the offer to read the bill, is mentioned only once in the play
‘this followes on the doctours publishing/ the bill of wrongs in publique at
the Spittle. The chief responsibility for the unrest, then, for better or
worse, falls to Lincoln, Williamson, Doll, Betts and their comrades.
Shrew[sbury]: that doctor Beale may chaunce beshrewe himselfe/
for reading of the bill’ (394-7).
- It seems to me that restoring agency is the pressing issue here, both
within the play itself and within the criticism it has generated. Amongst
recent critiques of Sir Thomas More Mark Thornton Burnett, who
discusses the play briefly, argues that it does not represent London society
with any ‘particularity’, but rather utilises ‘more general terms, such as
“artisans” and “others” … where the text suggests apprentice involvement’
(25). My view, in contrast, is that there is particularity in the
text’s presentation of London, and that this relates in a large part to the
different social contexts of 1517, the staged riot, and 1593, the moment of
production of the play. Burnett’s reading does not seem to be aware of the
crucial differences between artisans and apprentices in the play, and he
underplays the shifts in terminology which result from the play’s revisers
trying to reshape its problematic ideology. He suggests that Lincoln expresses
empathy with prentices and their ‘fragile economic circumstances’, but does
not explore the relationship between the named citizens and the anonymous
prentices any further, cutting short his account by finally identifying the
interests of apprentices with More, of all people, concluding that ‘apprentice
concerns in the play, therefore, are covertly ventilated … often through the
central character’. The play, as Burnett concedes, indeed ‘resists … too neat
an interpretation’, but I hope to have shown that it does so via a broader
range of its characters and concerns than Sir Thomas More alone (26). It is
important too to uphold the agency of its various ‘authors’: instead of
regarding its complicated chronology and range of ‘hands’ as a set of problems
which must be definitively solved, one can celebrate its indeterminacy as a
reflection of early modern dramatic practice in all its messy reality. This
eminently collaborative play belongs, not, as is increasingly the case, to the
Shakespeare industry – with an Arden edition on the horizon, together with its
inclusion in the new edition of the authoritative Oxford Shakespeare,
and, of course, an on-going RSC production at Stratford – but rather to the
city which it dramatises with such precision and empathy.
I am indebted to Nick
Cox, Paul Edwards, Ian Gadd, Richard Huxtable, Steve Longstaffe, Alan Marshall
and Richard Rowland for their advice and encouragement. This essay has also
benefited from the comments made by the two anonymous readers.
(1) See also Munday 67n. Manley states that ‘only six months before his involvement
in quelling London’s 1517 “Evil May Day Riots” More wrote to Erasmus of his
desire to withdraw from active life and especially from the drudgery of
administering the law’ (36). More was made free of the Mercers in 1509.
(2) In contrast, the Lieutenant of the Tower (a Crown post) was reported by Hall’s
chronicle as being ‘no great frende to the citie’ during Evil May Day (Hall fol.
lxii). For the play’s use of Harpsfield, see Gabrieli and Melchiori 197-201.
More, like Munday, was at least a second-generation Londoner.
All references to the play given in the text are to W. W. Greg’s Malone Society
edition. I have quoted from Greg’s scrupulous early edition rather than Gabrieli
and Melchiori’s excellent modern edition because the former reflects more
thoroughly the play’s status as a material artefact and also retains the
division between the original text and the Additions.
(5) See also Long 51.
See Munday 118n.
The first two of these plays are usually categorised as ‘elect nation plays’,
but I cite them here because, like More, they tend to highlight the civic
significance of their main protagonists. See also my ‘ “Since forged invention
former time defaced”: representing Tudor history in the 1590s’, 205-6.
For more on the genre of Sir Thomas More, see Honigmann 77-8.
Richard Rowland has
similarly discussed the ‘engagement with the internal tensions of the capital in
the 1590s’ in Heywood’s Edward IV (15).
(I am grateful to Richard for letting me see a pre-publication copy of his
edition of the play.) For Steve Rappaport, the May Day 1517 riot ‘demonstrates
without doubt that tensions between freemen and non-freemen were running high in
the early years of the sixteenth century’ (43). Historians agree that times were
very hard indeed in the 1590s: Rappaport writes that this period witnessed
‘frequent disturbances’ because ‘unemployment, plague and severe inflation made
these the worst years of the sixteenth century for London’s people’ (ibid. 13).
See also Archer, The Pursuit of Stability 11, and Sheppard 197. Plague
deaths in 1593 were over 10,000, which, along with the threat of riot, was
another reason for the closure of the London theatres in this period.
(9) See my Anthony Munday 11-15, and McMillin, Manley, Knutson and Bayer 121.
See Rowland 18.
The assumption underlying this essay is that the Additions were written as a
near contemporary response to Tilney’s annotations (see Munday 26-7 for Gabrieli
and Melchiori’s summary of this view). See also Melchiori, ‘The Booke of Sir
Thomas More: a chronology of revision’, passim. Long takes a
heterodox line over the play’s controversial content, arguing that the play was
‘commissioned (or at least suggested or approved) by some government official(s)
as an aid in dealing with the problem of anti-alien sentiment [and] … civil
uproar’ (49). Incidentally, the terms ‘strangers’ or ‘aliens’ denoted those from
overseas, whereas ‘foreigners’ meant those who were not free of the City; the
latter were not permitted to trade within the City boundaries although they did
so extensively in suburbs like Southwark. The 1590s saw the highest numbers of
‘alien’ settlers, almost all of whom, as recorded by the 1593 returns, lived in
the City, Bridge Ward Without (i.e. Southwark, but not its liberties) and
See Hunter 45-6, 248 n.1.
See McMillin138 and 142, and Clare 33.
(14) See also Dutton 83. Deloney’s Jack of Newbury (1597) has a threatening
alien figure who is Italian, which, as Mark Thornton Burnett comments, again
‘plays down the dangers of too close an identification with the London immigrant
population’ (Burnett 61). Dekker, one of More’s authors, was elsewhere
more sympathetic towards the ideal of ‘Protestant internationalism’: witness the
benign Dutch characters in his Shoemaker’s Holiday. He also praised the
pageants sponsored by the Dutch and Italian London communities as part of the
civic celebrations of the accession of James I in 1604 (see McLuskie 75-6).
The favoured trades of the aliens in St Martin’s were shoemaking and the
manufacture of counterfeit goods including plate and jewellery. The sanctuary of
St Martin’s had long been abused and in 1593 complaints were made to Burghley
about disorder there (see Stow II: 343).
See also Hall fol. lxir. Coincidentally, Mewtas’s house (which was
damaged during the unrest) was owned in the 1590s by an alderman called John
More (see Munday 86n).
In an uncanny series of coincidences the Duke of Buckingham was also executed
for treachery (in 1521) and then buried at Austin Friars (see Stow I: 153-4,
179). According to Archer, Buckingham was something of a popular hero with the
London citizenry and ‘his grave at Austin Friars became a site of pilgrimage’
(“Popular politics” 34).
Derek Keene explains that ‘brokers were Londoners licenced by the city
authorities to act between foreign merchants in the city (and perhaps between
foreigners and citizens) … [T]hey [may have] had some official role in assessing
the quality of the goods for which they were brokers’ (private communication
with Ian Gadd). I am grateful to Professor Keene for this clarification.
During the 1517 unrest London women were apparently notorious for their
hostility towards ‘aliens’ (Munday 63n).
(20) Margreta de Grazia and Peter Stallybrass note that some of Shakespeare’s plays
do not exhibit such individualised characters: in Coriolanus, for
instance, the Roman people are called variously ‘ “mutinous citizens,” “the
Plebeians,” “the People,” “the Rabble,” [and] “a Troope of Citizens” ’ (268).
See Sullivan 224 on Shakespeare and Heywood’s differing attitudes towards the
citizenry. Relatedly, Rowland has commented that when compared to contemporaries
such as Heywood and Munday, ‘allusions to particular London sites [in
Shakespeare’s plays] are invariably glancing’ (16). See also Wilson, passim.
See Manley 41, McLuskie 58 and Sullivan 210.
In Hall, de Bard and the others joke, in the presence of Sir Thomas Palmer,
about taking the citizen’s wife and also say that they would take the Mayor’s
wife in a similar fashion if they could. Sir Thomas is then reported to have
told them ‘you haue to [sic] muche fauour in Englande’ (fol. lxr).
(24) See also Rowland 17.
Stow relates that Hall had been ‘a common Sergeant of London, and one of the
Iudges in the shiriffes Court’. A fellow citizen, Stow praises Hall’s ‘famous
and eloquent chronicle’ (Stow I: 113; see also 260-1). Barrett Beer takes a
rather different line, claiming that ‘no Tudor chronicler could write
sympathetically about rebels or popular protest and expect to have his work
published’ (357). For more on the play’s indebtedness to Hall, see Metz,
Sources of Four Plays 180-4.
(26) See the copy held in the Huntingdon Library, fol. lxr.
(27) Laura Stevenson asserts that in contrast to other such texts from the early
1590s ‘the rebels themselves are decent, honourable, outraged people … [and] the
rebellion … is completely understandable’ (174). Unfortunately, however, by
conflating the original and rewritten sections of the text, she carries over
into her interpretation More’s own description of the rioters as ‘simple’.
See also Rasmussen, passim.
See also Wilson 28-9.
This has been read as a topical allusion to the 1592-3 outbreak of plague: see
Munday 26. Archer argues that in this period xenophobia was ‘the most basic
element of the political consciousness of Londoners’ (“Popular politics” 30).
It is unfortunate, to say the least, that this early part of scene vi in its
original form is missing from the manuscript, with the inevitable consequence
that one can comment on the Addition, but not compare it with what preceded it.
For a similar critique to mine, see Wilson 24-5.
They argue further that ‘the citizens, who in the rest of these scenes are shown
as capable of facing death for their rights with dignity and even a touch of
humour, become a clownish mob led by an ignorant demagogue’ (ibid.). Steve
Longstaffe has commented on a similar rewriting in the various early printed
versions of 2Henry VI (30 n.2).
(34) Janet Clare concludes that in the Addition ‘the rebellion has become almost a
travesty of its former self’ (36). For a rather different interpretation, see
(35) Manning 102.
Coincidentally, in September 1517 ‘ “simple persons” were imprisoned for
seditious words about an “insurrection to be made upon the strangers”’ (Brigden
Gabrieli and Melchiori note that ‘Hand D seems to equate the rioters with the
raw prentices … rather than with the tradesmen’ (Munday 96n). See also McMillin
(38) See Dyce xiii. Stow too ascribes the May Day violence to ‘Prentises, and other
young persons’ (Stow I: 143).
(39) Clare has suggested that this is because they are ‘the most topical reference’
there (36). McMillin puts the omission of the three prentices and Sir John
Munday down to the rationalisation of an already overlarge cast (44; see also
McLuskie 32). This Addition, along with most of the others, is dated by McMillin
to some ten years later than the original, although he makes an exception for
the revised insurrection scenes in Hand D: see ibid. 135-59. His dating of the
Additions has been disputed by other scholars such as Clare.
(40) As Ellen Caldwell notes, for 2Henry VI those involved in Cade’s rebellion
were of a similarly artisan status (61-2). See also Harris 48.
(41) In 1517, St Mary’s Hospital was extant, though it was later closed during the
Reformation despite acknowledging the King’s supremacy. The Spittal sermons
continued until the Commonwealth period (Elizabeth I attended one in 1559,
apparently). See Weinreb and Hibbert 765, Archer, “Popular politics” 38, and
Masters 11, 43 and passim. The Hospital was on the east side of
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