Nathaniel Richards


















Nathaniel Richards


The identity of Nathaniel Richards, author of The Tragedy of Messalina, The Roman Empress, has not been established with any certainty, and has been confused by Thomas Seccombe’s account of his life in Biographia Dramatica[1] (1782). The religious content and didactic tone of The Celestiall Publican (1630) convinced Seccombe that the author was the son of Richard Richards, rector of Kentisbury in Devon, and later became a preaching minister himself. A graduate of Caius College, Cambridge, this Nathaniel Richards also seemed the likely author of the learnedly footnoted Messalina.


Seccombe’s biography was largely accepted until 1909, when Professor G.C. Moore Smith[2] noted that the coat of arms above the engraved portrait of Richards prefixed to Messalina are those of the Richards family of Rowling, Kent, not of Kentisbury, Devon. The Nathaniel Richards of this family was the third son of Captain William Richards. Professor Moore Smith also found a slight family connection between Richards and Mary Hammond, the wife of Sir Thomas Stanly, whom Richards commemorated in two sets of verses.


While little is known about Richards’ education, his knowledge of Roman history is indicated by his use of Suetonius, Tacitus, Pliny and Juvenal in Messalina, for which he also wrote footnotes in Latin. He probably lived in London, as four of the six commendatory verses to his play were written by London playwrights and actors. His poetry is deeply religious and Messalina, his only play, is a direct attack on the Roman Catholic Queen, Henrietta Maria, and indicative of his religious and political persuasions.

He dedicated Messalina to Viscount Rochford, who in 1629 showed sympathies with Charles I’s critic Sir John Eliot by visiting him in the Tower, and Poems Sacred and Satyricall (1641) was addressed to Alderman Thomas Soames, known as a critic of Ship Money, and elected in 1640 with other radicals as MP for the city.


The recurrent theme of Richard’s work is the destructive power of sexual temptation, and the necessity of divine intervention in resisting it. Bradford imagines him as ‘a man who lived remote from the court but who frequented the playhouses; [e]xcluded from the strangely fascinating world of the court, he found in the Jacobean theatre a means of vicariously taking part in its forbidden pleasures and sins.’[3] Certainly Messalina reveals him to be something of a tortured soul: ‘as angst-ridden as Marston, as self-divided as Donne, [f]lesh and spirit war furiously within him.’[4] Nathaniel Richards was a man of his time, embodying the anxieties and conflicts of a society undergoing profound economic, social and religious changes, and on the brink of Civil War.



His Circle


There are interesting links between the six men who wrote commendatory verses for Richards’ Messalina.  Thomas Rawlins was the likely engraver of the portraits in Messalina and Poems Sacred and Satyricall. He was author of The Rebellion, which was almost certainly performed by the same company and in the same playhouse as Richards’ own play, and for which Richards wrote a verse. John Robinson and Thomas Jordan were also associated with the King’s Revels, the former acting the role of Saufellus and the latter playing Lepida in Richard’s play.  


Robert Davenport was a poet and dramatist who published in A Crown for a Conqueror; and Too Late to Call Back Yesterday (1623). Stephen Bradwell was a physician, and friend of the dramatist Thomas Heywood. There are no records relating to Thomas Combes.


In Richards’ verse for Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women (1657) he refers to the author as his ‘Familiar acquaintance’.



His Works


One play:


  • The Tragedy of Messalina, Empress of Rome (1640)


Two collections of poems:


  • The Celestiall Publican (1630)


  • Poems Sacred and Satyricall (1641) (a revision and extension of The Celestiall Publican)


He is also the presumed author of two other poems:


  • Truths Acrostick An Elegie Upon The Most Renowned, True And Unparalleld Worthy Knight, Sir Paul Pindar Deceased (1650) signed ‘N. Richards’


  • Upon the Declaration of His Majesty King Charles of England the Second (1660) signed ‘Nathaniel Richards’


In all, he wrote sixty-four poems, several of which reflect ideas found in Messalina.

The Celestiall Publican and The Spirituall Sea-Fight are deeply moral, while others take a more satirical tone.  A.R. Skemp writes that


[t[he style of the poems is characterised especially by profusion

of similie and metaphor; in which Richards shows ingenuity,

still within the limits of convention. The verse is on the whole

fluent and workmanlike; but in form, as in thought, Richards

fails to show any development. The new verses of the 1641

volume are indistinguishable, in stuff and style, from those

published eleven years earlier.[5]


Two commendatory verses:

            See Appendix B


  • Thomas Rawlins’ The Rebellion (1640)


  • Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women (1657)




[1] Baker, David E. (1782, 1985) Biographia Dramatica London: Reprint Services Corporation

[2] Moore Smith, Prof. G.C. (1909) Notes and Queries for Readers and Writers, Collectors and Librarians 11 Tenth Series London: Notes and Queries

[3] pp. 71 in Bradford, Alan T. (1983) Nathanael Richards, Jacobean Playgoer pp. 63-78 in John Donne Journal: Studies in the Age of John Donne 2/2 Raleigh, NC: John Donne Society

[4] pp. 70 Ibid.

[5] pp. 27 Skemp, A.R. (1910) (ed. and intro) to Richards, Nathaniel (1640) The Tragedy of Messallina, The Roman Emperesse London: David Nutt