Actors and the Court after 1642

John H. Astington
University of Toronto

John H. Astington. "Actors and the Court after 1642". Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 15 (August, 2007) 6.1-23<URL:>.


  1. The last performance of a play at the prewar court, as far as we know, took place on 6 January 1642, before Prince Charles, when the King’s Men acted John Fletcher’s old comedy The Scornful Lady in the Cockpit Theatre at Whitehall, an elegant conversion by Inigo Jones of the original structure erected for King Henry VIII to house the sport of cockfighting (Astington, 1999, 188, 267). In the same place, before the same principal member of the audience, the first court performance of the Restoration took place in November 1660. The play was Jonson’s comedy Epicoene, but the show began with a prologue written by Sir John Denham, and which starts like this:
    Greatest of Monarchs, welcome to this place
    Which Majesty so oft was wont to grace
    Before our Exile, to divert the Court,
    And ballance weighty Cares with harmless sport.
    This truth we can to our advantage say,
    They that would have no KING, would have no Play:
    The Laurel and the Crown together went,
    Had the same Foes, and the same Banishment (Denham, ll. 1-8)   
    A few lines later, still addressing the enemies of the crown and the theatre, there is an apparent allusion to Shakespeare’s Richard II (as well as to Hamlet):
    Affrighted with the shadow of their Rage,
    They broke the Mirror of the times, the Stage (Denham, ll. 17-18)
    The deposition scene of Shakespeare’s play, in which Richard shatters his flattering glass, might well have been among those that the first King Charles had read with some particular attention in the last years of his life. The politics of the laurel and the crown were interwoven in many ways. Although the actors may have been willing to attempt it, had they been given the freedom to do so, in the event there was no theatre of the English republic, and the mirror of the times was rather provided by the flood of popular publishing in the form of pamphlets, newsbooks, caricatures, and satires representing all shades of opinion and outlook, which followed the collapse of the old system of censorship.

  2. In January 1642 the king was away from Whitehall, coping with the growing disaffection of his two kingdoms. When war in England was formally declared, in late August of the same year, the London theatres were still technically open for business: the terminal date for theatre historians, the Closing of the Theatres, with capital letters, came shortly thereafter. Even after that date it was still possible to see plays in the city, as Sir Humphrey Mildmay did in August and November of 1643 (Bentley, 2, 680), the word of the law regulating the entertainment industry having been, as so often it was, ignored. But if players were members of an industry most of them were also royal servants, sworn to uphold the king and his heirs, and minor members, as Grooms of the Chamber in Ordinary and wearers of livery on state occasions, of an extended court beyond the immediate household. The principal London troupe bore the title of the King’s Company, and one can trace a direct line of continuity between the troupe of 1642 and the performers who acted under the same title in 1660 (Gurr).

  3.  Actors, then, were bound by oath to respond to a call to arms; many, though not all, did so. One consideration was age, and fitness for service in the field: what a later memoir, published in 1699, designates as ‘superannuation’ (Bentley, 2, 691-96). Thus the old actor John Lowin, who had known Shakespeare, and was performing the title role of Henry VIII when the Globe burnt down in 1613, was excused military duty in 1642. Lowin was sixty-six at the outbreak of war. Where the boundary of superannuation might fall was no doubt a delicate matter, and I think in one case an exacerbating factor in a later quarrel about individual shares in the then largely professionally useless stock of a theatre company – costumes, properties, scripts, and so forth. How did one evaluate active military service to the king in apportioning the value of shared property? Two actors from the King’s Men who counted themselves as superannuated, Thomas Pollard and Michael Bowyer, were respectively forty-four and forty-two in the summer of 1642 (Astington, 2006, 130-33), no great age in modern terms, and younger than many of the Royalist senior officers, for example. Their colleague Theophilus Bird, aged thirty-three, probably went off to fight. A considerably older leading actor named Andrew Cane from another troupe, Prince Charles’s Company, left London after late 1642, if not to fight, but certainly to work in the war effort at Oxford – he turned fifty-four in March 1643. Apart from his skills as a performer, Cane was a practicing goldsmith to the end of his life, and his political outlook, aside from his sworn allegiance as a royal servant, seems to have been at odds with the London government; in Oxford he worked at the royalist mint, producing the king’s coinage (Astington, 2003).

  4. Actors were among the fighting troops by the later part of 1642. Three, at least, were in Prince Rupert’s Regiment of Horse, one of the outstanding military units of the entire war, and they may have fought at Edgehill, as they almost certainly did at the later major battles of Marston Moor and Naseby. Hardly any of these actor-soldiers subsequently made any recorded remarks about their war service; one who did, in a petition to King Charles II towards the end of his life, was Michael Mohun, a leading performer from 1660 onwards who had been a rising star in the late 1630s – he was probably in his early twenties when the war began. From 1642 until 1659 Mohun was a soldier, in England, Ireland, and Flanders. He was at least twice a prisoner, and gravely wounded at the fall of Dublin. By 1658 he had returned to entertainments at court and in the Hague, but when he resumed his career on the English stage he retained his military title, Major Mohun.

  5.  Perhaps the actors with the troops at Oxford might have exercised their first calling during the Christmas and Shrove holidays, when campaigning was mostly suspended and Christ Church Hall would have taken on its intermittent role as a theatre for royal entertainments. Mohun, as it happens, was conveniently billeted just across the road from Christ Church, in the house of David Woodfield, just off Fish Street (Toynbee and Young, 50-54), although he was not free to appear in the Christmas seasons of 1642 and 1643, at least, having already played a part in the theatre of war. He was among the troops who attempted to secure Chichester for the king in the November of 1642, and had defended the city during a two-week siege by Waller’s army, in December, after which it fell to Parliament, and ‘Captain Mohun’ found himself a prisoner, charged with waging war against the king and parliament, and transported first to London and then to imprisonment at Windsor Castle (Astington, 2006). If one may judge by those in Prince Rupert’s regiment – Charles Hart, Nicholas Burt, and Robert Shatterell – it seems that actors fought together as they had appeared on stage together, either by their own choice or that of their recruiting officers, who may not have been quite sure of the quality of such men, and preferred to keep them together, containing any contamination of general morale. Both Mohun and Hart, in fact, had distinguished wartime careers, and the reputation of their partnership on the Restoration stage may have been supported by their military honour (Astington, 2006).

  6. At any rate, the very constrained activities of the Oxford court in the way of entertainments between 1642 and 1646 are unlikely to have enriched many actors for exercising their quality in the five winter seasons between the declaration of war and the surrender. Actors who were soldiers drew the king’s pay, but they were paid to be soldiers, if their status might be regarded by some as rather ambiguous. Mohun’s wife, living in Oxford during his imprisonment at Windsor, is described in the 1644 survey of temporary residents of the city as ‘Mistress Moone, a player’s wife’ (Toynbee and Young).

  7. The defeat at Naseby in June 1645 and the subsequent Royalist losses and reversals of the same summer constituted a turning point for players also, both those in the army and those out of it. That there may in fact have been some version of the King’s Men’s troupe attending the court at Oxford – perhaps some of the older actors formed the core of it – is attested to by a passage in the Parliamentary pamphlet newsheet Perfect Occurrences for the third week of September 1645: ‘the Kings very players are come in, having left Oxford, and thrown themselves upon the mercy of the Parliament, they offer to take the Covenant, & (if they may be accepted) are willing to put themselves into their service’ (Hotson, 19). If this is not facetious it indicates that actors were attempting to open their London theatre business once again, as they certainly continued to do for the next three years or so. Who these 1645 players may have been is in question, but John Lowin, the surviving senior actor with the King’s Men, continued to be a signatory to company agreements and to act in surreptitious performances until at least 1648. He, perhaps, had led the occasional commissioned performances at Oxford, filling out a full cast as best he could. He had been a lead actor when the King’s Men briefly became a resident company at Hampton Court, from November 1636 until January 1637, during a period of bad plague in London. Perhaps it is no accident that his portrait – one of the very few reliable and well-executed pictures of pre-Restoration players – is to be found today in Oxford (Bentley, 2, 50).

  8. In 1645 enlisted men were not free to move where they wished. The formal surrender of Oxford did not occur until June 1646, and after that date the community of actors in London no doubt increased. Some players, however, saw more likelihood of surviving under the patronage of the exiled courts, rather than becoming Parliament’s Men. A troupe made up of a miscellaneous group of second-rank players had been at the Hague over the Christmas season of 1644-5: one of them had been a member of Prince Charles’s players in London. They seem generally to have been younger men, and why they were not among the troops in England is not clear. One or two of them perhaps remained on the continent, to join a second group of players. Almost immediately Prince Rupert’s regiments were disbanded, in April 1646, a group of freed soldier-actors travelled to Paris with the plan of becoming entertainers to the court of Prince Charles, who was by then sixteen, though he had nominally been the patron of players from the age of eighteen months. Prince Charles’s troupe was a distinct entity in London between 1631 and 1642; thereafter the title appears to have become a flag of convenience for various groupings of English actors in exile, at least until 1649. Several of these individuals had been junior members of the London company bearing the prince’s name, and the most determined of them, George Jolly, who was twenty-nine at the outbreak of war in England, moved on to become one of the most energetic actor-managers working principally in Germany, although evidently retaining some form of English royal patronage; I will return to him.

  9. The 1646 company in Paris was short-lived, despite the literary and possibly financial support of the exiled William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle (Van Benenden and de Poorter, 182). In November Mercurius Candidus reported news from France: ‘The company of English Actors that the Prince of Wales had, are for want of pay dissolved [...] The English audience being there so poor and few that they were not able to maintaine the charges of the Stage’ (Hotson, 21). French audiences, no doubt, remained indifferent. Want of pay was also an issue for the surviving members of the King’s Men who had returned to or resurfaced in London. In March of 1646 they launched a humble petition to parliament for money they were owed from the royal purse--presumably warrants for payments which had never been made. Humility notwithstanding, a reconstituted group of actors set about reviving the King’s Men’s troupe, and planned the re-opening of the Blackfriars playhouse; the Globe, the lease to which had expired during the war, had probably been demolished before theatre business revived, although its old rival the Fortune, and a similar theatre, the Red Bull, survived and were used, the Red Bull through to the Restoration.

  10. The planned renaissance of London playing was predicated on the widespread expectation of a political settlement among parliament, the army, and the king, at least before later 1648, although the players continued to press their agenda virtually to the evening of the execution, and then, more desperately, beyond it. In 1647, at least, the prospects of a resumption of something resembling the prewar social and political organisation seemed still promising. King Charles, nominally a prisoner of the army, held courtly audiences in the rural surroundings of Hampton. Clarendon describes the mood this way: whilst negotiations continued, he writes, ‘the king enjoyed himself at Hampton Court much to his content; the respects of the chief officers of the army seeming much greater than they had been; Cromwell himself came oftener to him; and held longer conferences with him; talked with more openness to Mr. Ashburnham than he had done, and appeared more cheerful. Persons of all conditions repaired to his majesty of those that had served him, lords and ladies, with whom he conferred without reservation; and the citizens flocked thither as they had used to at the end of a progress, when the king had been some months absent from London’ (Clarendon, 4, 273).

  11. The resumption of a royal court would have meant the resumption of players’ business in London on its traditional footing, with its warrants and licences to allow players to operate within a leisure economy, in a fairly free market. It’s of some interest that the Restoration arrangement was far nearer a fixed monopoly, worked out by the courtiers Thomas Killigrew and William Davenant in their own interests, and sustaining a considerably narrower entertainment sector, and a consequently reduced competition. Though the king still nominally patronised the professional theatre, he did so only in a very limited way: the court had become a restrictive syndicate.

  12. 1647 and 1648 saw, simultaneously, an increase in technically illegal public performances by actors at several of the prewar theatres: the Fortune, the Bull, the Cockpit in Drury Lane, and the Salisbury Court playhouse, as well as at – probably – Holland House in Kensington. The group of actors we know most about were in fact a continuation of the King’s Men, and included those who signed the dedication page of the Folio edition of the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher, published in 1647. This book was in itself something of a royalist manifesto, and it was published by the decidedly engagé Humphrey Moseley, who continued to address those nostalgic for the prewar stage in a series of editions of collected plays throughout the 1650s. Following 1649 it was largely through reading that English drama maintained its hold on taste, for at least ten years, and so established the Restoration reverence for the old plays that we see, for example, in Dryden. Jonson’s Epicoene, a comedy written in 1609, reopened the court theatre in 1660.

  13. The actors subscribing to the Beaumont and Fletcher edition were John Lowin, Richard Robinson, Eilert Swanston, Hugh Clark, Stephen Hammerton, Joseph Taylor, Robert Benfield, Thomas Pollard, William Allen, and Theophilus Bird. All but two of these men were active in the theatre the following year, either as performers in the various playhouses mentioned, or as members of what was rather neutrally called ‘a company or society of actors’ (Milhous and Hume, 491-98), perhaps deliberately avoiding the suggestion that they were intending to revive the King’s Men organisation, although that no doubt was a chief item on the initial agenda. But the group also included younger actors from various prewar troupes, among whom were Charles Hart and his military colleagues Burt and Shatterell, as well as William Wintersel and Walter Clun. It is this latter group which chiefly forms the bridge between the prewar King’s Men and the Restoration King’s Company, of which the basic framework of personnel was established twelve years before they began to play freely in London.

  14. As it was, the heightened political tension of late 1648 and the opening months of 1649 led to an intensified crackdown on playing, and the suspension of this particular actors’ enterprise. Though there were sporadic performances in the next decade and intermittent attempts to reopen playhouses none of the leading actors were involved in any of the reported incidents. Charles Hart, for example, appears to have simply given up the theatre for an entire decade. I would like to know how and where he spent those years, but he simply drops from the theatre historian’s view, and has not so far been revealed in any other context; his future partner, Mohun, we know, remained a soldier throughout the period from 1642 to 1660. Hart had found out the hard way that the exiled courts could not sustain a playing troupe, and they got no richer over the course of the 1650s, so that I don’t imagine him rushing off to the Hague in 1649, although he may have spent a certain amount of time in Europe before 1660.

  15. For some actors 1648 clearly was a watershed year in terms of travelling performance. Since they could not travel in their native territories, playing in Europe, a habit of English actors since the Elizabethan years, was an option for some, although, on the evidence, for the few rather than the many. The older network of foreign courts which might sponsor the English players, in Denmark, Sweden, and various German principalities and cities, once more became accessible after the Treaty of Westphalia, precisely when the possibility of playing in England came to an end. There was an English troupe working at Osnabrück, and perhaps also at Münster, during the diplomatic negotiations towards the treaty, in early 1645. The veteran players William Roe, John Wade, John Payne, and a man called John Grimasten were given permission to show comedies, tragedies, and pastorals, with a troupe of fifteen players, a characteristic complement for the older playing companies (Cohn, 99; Niedersächsisches Staatsarchiv). The actors in this company were, I think, permanent exiles, who had committed their careers to working in Europe.
  16. After 1648 they were joined by a remarkable individual whose career at the Red Bull and Fortune playhouses in London, with Prince Charles’s company, had been interrupted by the civil war. George Jolly had crossed the Channel by 1647; he too had perhaps served in the English wars as a soldier, and by the time he appeared as the leader of a troupe performing in Brussels and Bruges he was thirty-four years old (Astington, 2004). One must attempt to assess Jolly’s career retrospectively, since late in 1660, when he returned to London, aged forty-seven, he was granted a remarkable royal licence to form an acting company and to build a theatre, making him the third entrepreneur in the newly restricted theatre business of the capital. The other two, Thomas Killigrew and Sir William Davenant, were prominent courtiers with strong literary credentials, and a record of support for the king’s cause, if, in Davenant’s case, rather compromised by indiscretion, and some trimming, in the 1650s. Jolly, by contrast, was a working actor-manager who can never have been very rich, born of apparently obscure and lowly stock; as an actor he is never mentioned in the ranks of the leading players, and he seems to have been content with staging, or attempting to stage, popular versions of the old plays, including Doctor Faustus. What had he done in the preceding dozen years to have received such royal favour in 1660? His continental career perhaps offers another model of continuing service to the English crown, distinct from Mohun’s eighteen years as a royalist soldier.

  17. Whatever Jolly’s accomplishments as a performer and theatrical leader, ambition and determination show through most of the scattered records of his career: in his account of the actor in 1928 Hotson presented him as a combative and resourceful trouper. Jolly may indeed have wished to connect himself to the English exile court, and may have played there sometimes: Köln and Bruges, for example, were among his known centres of activity, most of which were in the German-speaking lands, on his own account as a leader of a troupe, or jointly with the older players Roe and Wade. He no doubt had heard, or soon discovered for himself the poor prospects of sustained English patronage. An alternative was to seek equivalent prominence in European courts, in which he had some success: one of his first continental appearances was before the Archduke Leopold, the Spanish Hapsburg regent, in Brussels. In joining himself to Roe and Wade he was perhaps seeking further access to elite patronage; their appearance at the major sites of state diplomacy in the 1640s had undoubtedly been productive in establishing prominent contacts with various parts of Europe, and with representatives of both Catholic and Protestant states. On his own or in association with his older colleagues, in the late 1640s and early 1650s Jolly visited both the Protestant north and Catholic south of Europe, from Sweden to Austria. He may have played for the court of Queen Christina in Stockholm, as he certainly did before the Emperor Ferdinand III in Vienna. In 1650 Jolly, Roe, and Wade were granted an imperial patent, authorising them to perform throughout the Holy Roman Empire and its hereditary kingdoms, principalities and lands, a very similar document to the patents held by the troupes in England before 1642, and with the same purpose: an official sanction for commercial activity. Jolly was, on the same analogy, a servant of the Imperial court through much of the 1650s: he is last recorded in Vienna in 1659.

  18. Such imperial sanction was probably of use in aiding Jolly’s theatrical visits to Frankfurt, an imperial free city, and one of his favoured centres of operation. It was there in 1655 that King Charles, visiting the fair with a small party, saw Jolly’s troupe perform, and whether of not it was formally granted royal patronage became part of their advertising. The reporter for Mercurius Politicus noted of the royal party that ‘I find not their conversation here hath made them commendable to any so much as the English Stage-players, who stile themselves to be his’ – the king’s, that is to say (Hotson, 171-72). The nature of any ‘conversation’ directly between the royal party and the exiled actor-manager is perhaps worth more thought than the sardonic tone of the Commonwealth news reporter would suggest, and may have something to do with Jolly’s surprising position in the London theatre world several years later. Yet what use was a largely German troupe of touring players to a king without a kingdom? The ‘English stage-players’ were by 1655 substantially native German, playing in the German language to German-speaking audiences. Their material no doubt included translated and adapted versions of English plays, perhaps including some of Shakespeare’s, and they perhaps maintained an ethos of cultural mission, Anglophile and royalist.  The possible involvement of Jolly in staging the German tragedy by Gryphius, Carolus Stuardus, which dramatises the trial and execution of Charles I, suggests such a policy (Gryphius, cxxxiii).

  19. Jolly’s inclusive attitude to patronage is further indicated by his advertising in 1659, a year in which he also appeared before the Emperor in Vienna, which announces that he is ‘an English and Heidelberg comedian’ (Cohn, 103). Heidelberg was the seat of Karl Ludwig von der Pfalz, restored to his seat in the Palatinate under the terms of the settlement of 1648. He was the son of parents dear to the European Protestant cause (as well as patrons of English actors), brother of Prince Rupert and nephew of the first King Charles, and a figure with whom the exiled English court of the 1650s had a rather nervous relationship. Karl Ludwig certainly knew Jolly, who probably performed at his court; the work of Gryphius was also patronized by the Heidelberg circle (Gryphius, cxxxiii).

  20. Jolly’s career throughout the 1650s combined court appearances and civic playing before bourgeois audiences, following the traditional pattern developed by English professional performers over the course of the preceding hundred years: that of economic initiative protected by elite patronage. He collaborated with some of the older English players who were already working the European circuits at the time of his leaving England, but he alone returned to Restoration London with evidently remarkable political and cultural capital, securing for him the third performing licence from the king, at a time when the royal patents to Davenant and Killigrew were already in force. Jolly could have claimed to have been a servant of the newly installed monarch since at least 1640, although other older actors had similar claims; we might rather ask in what sense he had renewed his allegiance as a ‘king’s player’ in Frankfurt in 1655, or perhaps rather earlier. Performing ‘English’ plays in interregnum Europe, and perhaps also such original German-language pieces as Carolus Stuardus, could be taken as providing a cultural and political mission on behalf of the old order of British society, but was rather more involved in Jolly’s case?

  21. Recent study of Elizabethan theatrical culture of the 1570s and 1580s has made clear the usefulness of officially sponsored actors not only as generally benign and popularly received media of propaganda, sugared pills of the doctrines of power, so to speak, but also as messengers, observers, and intelligence-gatherers as they toured the farther reaches of the kingdom away from the capital (McMillin and MacLean). The Earl of Leicester employed his players to consolidate his affinities and regional alliances, as well as to act as cultural representatives during his political intervention in the Low Countries in 1585-86 (MacLean). The acting troupe of the Queen’s Men, founded in 1583 with the principal involvement of a leading political figure of the court, Sir Francis Walsingham, and with the collaboration of Leicester, fulfilled an even more important role (McMillin and MacLean, 24-32). While not exactly spies, the actors were part of an attempt by the central government to improve communications throughout the kingdom, to gather intelligence, and to overcome residual Catholic resistance to the Protestant settlement. So actors as ‘intelligencers,’ in a general sense, and as cultural representatives in foreign diplomatic missions, had a certain tradition within English culture before the Stuart years, when royal patronage of acting troupes became the rule rather than the exception, and the political advertisement of patronage, in the naming of such troupes as the Palsgrave’s Company or the King and Queen of Bohemia’s Company, could bespeak affinity and alliance, nationally and internationally.

  22. Jolly’s continental European career as a servant of several masters may thus have been in the general interest of his first: that is to say it seems likely he retained or established some kind of connection with the royalist exile community, possibly serving as a diplomatic messenger and observer in the course of his travels around the Low Countries, the Rhine and Main valleys, the Baltic coast, and the regions of the Austrian Hapsburg empire. His own initiatives as a touring player may have come first, but the contacts he had established by the early 1650s would have been considerably attractive to any intelligence network. Political alliances with European powers were a crucial matter for both sides in the continuing struggle in British politics after 1649; if the republicans had won the country the exiled royalists could provide continuing strategic challenges with foreign support. Parliamentary observers followed King Charles II to Frankfurt in 1655; the fun at Jolly’s expense on that occasion, quoted above, was perhaps somewhat misjudged. Although he can never have had much of a role in weighty matters of state Jolly’s service to the king must have been regarded as of some consequence for him to have been rewarded in such a potentially lucrative manner on his return to London. George Jolly’s exile career as an actor, then, probably was concurrent with his service as a royalist agent.

  23. Jolly’s is an isolated and unusual story, the full details of which are irrecoverable. Most actors survived as they could for the dozen years during which there was no prospect of making a living from the theatre in England. Lacking an audience outside the court, English players had learned in 1648, royal patronage in exile could not sustain them in the old style. Given the economic constraints of the exiled court itself, players could be only occasional and temporary visitors there. As sworn servants of the king many actors continued to offer what service they could until the later 1640s, but the options for most theatre people after 1649 was simply to turn to other occupations in their native country, if they could find them, or already had them. So Andrew Cane resumed his business as a goldsmith in London, and John Rhodes, presumably, gave himself principally to his other career as a bookseller. Actors able to live on their accumulated wealth were few: the famous John Lowin died a poor man in 1653 (Bentley, 2, 500-505). Those young, lucky, and patient enough re-entered theatre business a decade later, either directly or as the managers of a new generation, like Rhodes, the master of Edward Kynaston and Thomas Betterton.. Yet actors and the court had been pushed apart in 1642, and despite the standard term ‘Restoration’ used to describe the theatre after 1660 their relationship was considerably changed thereafter.


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