Shakespeare came to Hull

When Shakespeare was thrown out of Hull:
The Theatre and the Church in Elizabethan Hull.
a local history talk given by Helen Good
Holy Trinity, Hull, 16 August 2016

In late September 1599 a travelling company of players arrived in Hull, set up in an Inn, and put on at least one performance. Hull Corporation went ape-shit.

By 1599 the Hull was ruled by 13 Aldermen including the Mayor of the year, and they were all of the Godly faction. They could be described as Puritans or Precisians or even as Saints, we would call them Calvinists, but they thought of themselves as the Godly or as God’s Elect. The reason these Aldermen were all of the Godly faction, was because although they were elected as Aldermen by the Free Burgesses of the town, the Free Burgesses only got to vote for one of two candidates for each vacant post, and the candidates were both chosen by the existing Aldermen. By this method, between the death of Queen Mary Tudor in 1558 and the 1590s control of the Corporation of Hull had been entirely taken over by the Puritan tendency. Unlike most towns there was no larger common council, the thirteen Aldermen, who took office for life, ruled everything. They were all merchants, most were shipowners.

Here is the official record from the town’s bench book. When I found it, it was called KHRO Bench Book 4 f.325v. It started to change shortly afterwards, and this week they are calling it HHC C BRB/2 f.325v., but the older reference has a better pedigree and probably more long-term stability.

The 27th of September 1599.
“Whereas heretofore and yet there are resorte to the town of Kingston upon Hull divers idle & lewde persons, players or setters oute of plays or enterludes within this towne, to which plays many of the inhabitantes here have gone and been present at, and spent their times and also their money in hearing such frivolous and vain exercises to the evil example of many. For reformacion whereof, And because the players are for the most part straingers and therefore not so conveniently restrained frome playing, as inhabitants of this town from hearing, and for that the use thereof is thought to be very ungodly and wicked. It is therefore ordered and agreed by the Maior & Aldermen of Kingston upon Hull in the presence of Master John Graves Mayor and Master Thurscros, Master Richardson, Master Lyster, Master Chapman, Master Cooke, Master Burnsell & Master Armin, Aldermen That no Burgesse or Inhabitant within the towne of Kingston upon Hull neither man nor woman shall at any time hereafter resort, be, or be present when any playe or enterlude is playing or showed in any place within Kingston upon Hull, upon payne that every such person offending therein to forfeit for every time & offence the sum of 2s and 6d to the Maior & Burgesses of Kingston upon Hull. And also that the owner of every house or place where such playes or enterludes are played or heard shall for every offence or time forfeit 20s to the use aforesaide.”

It is important to understand what this Bench Book record is and what it is not. It isn’t a chronicle history of the town, although sometimes people think that it should be, and treat it as if it was. Its sole purpose was to make a record of decisions for future reference. They might be an obligation or a debt or, as here, they made a new bye-law. Sometimes there are reasons given for the decisions, frequently there are none. In the 1580s new fire regulations were promulgated to be obeyed by all ships coming into the haven. One can take a guess at the reason behind them from the rules that were made: for secure gunpowder storage, against allowing lighted candles on board ships and especially against small boys being left in charge after dark, but it is only from a London source that we learn that a ship called the Dragon had exploded in Hull haven. Here, in September 1599, because, apparently, no action could be taken against the players, no record of them needed to be made. The identity of the company was utterly irrelevant to the new bye-law. The nature of the Bench Book does result in some very strange omissions. In 1588 there is no mention at all of the Spanish Armada, but some very fierce rules are made against the parents and masters of school boys and apprentices, whose latest game was throwing stones with slings.

We also have the problem that the Bench Book was not written as a journal. It was written up from the town clerk’s notes in bulk. Sometimes this was done at the end of the mayoral year, and sometimes a few years were written up together. A lot depended on the quality of the notes and the clerk’s memory for detail. The town clerk was a regular traveller on the town’s affairs, to York or to London. In his absence someone else had to take notes, or alternately fail to do so. Here, all that the clerk needed to record was the solution that the Aldermen had found for the problem: they could not control the actors, so they would control the audience, They imposed a fine for hearing a play, and a fine for allowing a play to be performed on one’s premises.

Let us look at what new bye-law meant financially. The play will have been put on in an inn yard and there really was only one suitable inn yard, the King’s Head on High Street. In 16th Century Hull every other house in the town seems to have been at one time or another a tippling house, sometimes licenced, sometimes not, but an Elizabethan national survey of licenced premises (to see if licensing could be farmed) found that Hull had only one substantial inn. The usual deal was for the landlord to gather what he could from the audience using the galleries surrounding the yard, whilst the company gathered from those who stood in the yard itself.

If, for the sake of convenience, we assume an audience of 240 for a show, then the total take would be 240 pence, that is one pound and whatever premium the innkeeper was charging in the galleries, to be shared between the company and the innkeeper. The innkeeper was going to make a loss if he had to pay a fine of twenty shilling for every performance. Twenty shillings being also one pound. Then, turning to the fines on the audience, entry to the yard would be a penny, and the fine for hearing a play was set at half a crown, that is 30 pence. You will get a feel for this if you think of paying £10 for a cinema ticket and then paying a £300 fine for watching a film.

So how far is this typical for travelling companies in towns? The answer is that it isn’t typical at all. As far as I can tell it is unique. It is certainly not the way the regular touring companies behaved. They would arrive in a town and apply to the mayor or bailiff for permission to play. They might offer a performance for the Councillors and then be allowed to set up in an inn or even in some places in the Guild Hall. Some towns did not allow them to play, but this was not always bad for the company. Cambridge for example sometimes paid touring companies to go away without playing. This made good sense for the players. If they took 240 pennies or one pound for every performance that they gave, to be paid £5 by Cambridge Corporation to go away, was the equivalent of receiving the takings for 5 performances without the necessity of unpacking the carts and performing.

But travelling theatre companies did not come to Hull. They did not apply for permission, they did not play, they were not paid not to play. The records are not complete, and of course absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but the reaction of the Corporation to this particular event is a good indication that the record is true, and Hull did not expect to be visited by companies of players.

Hull did pay people to go away. An example: The central government was desperately short of Gunpowder and issued commissions to dig for Saltpetre. (KHRO Bench Book 4 f.286) The Saltpetremen turned up with their carts and spades and leeching tubs and a commission to dig up every stable in Hull. The villainous saltpetre had been made by the Chinese from bat guano on cave floors, but the Elizabethan English dug for it, especially where they knew there were years of good horse piss. Hull gave the Saltpetremen twenty nobles to go away and stay away. Twenty nobles is £6 13s 4d. The Saltpetremen were happy, they had their profit quickly and without exertion, and the town was happy, because business was not interrupted by a mass of holes in the ground. Of course the government didn’t get its gunpowder, but the government was in London, and it was in no-one’s interest to tell them. It certainly didn’t stop the Hull protesting at the shortage of gunpowder.

Now I first came upon this visit of a company of players to Hull nearly twenty years ago, and I have used it a lot since then, both in teaching a module on the Early Modern Town and in conference papers to illustrate Godly Governance. I was putting together a package of such material and, because I had decided to order it chronologically, I re-checked the dates and suddenly received a most tremendous shock. In the years since I had found the entry, the date, September 1599, had taken on a quite different significance. We now know that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s Company were (most unusually) on tour at that exact time. We don’t yet know where they went. This raised the possibility that Shakespeare, the single greatest cultural figure that this country, or possibly any country, has ever produced, came to Hull, next year’s UK City of Culture, and was thrown out of town by the corporation as an undesireable. We should not perhaps be too hard on the corporation. Theatre was not then in any way respectable, and culture was not a recognised concept. It is easy to be wise after the event. When Hull Corporation banned Monty Python’s Life of Brian from Hull cinemas, it was not known that it would regularly be voted the best comedy film ever made. I find it less understandable that the Corporation should spend their Culture 2017 money, not on something of lasting cultural worth, like giving a good education to the children of Hull, but on creating a year of chaos to improve the pavements; which is neither cultural nor likely to look good for long. I live in the old town and when I meet baffled visitors to Hull, wondering out loud how to cross the road, I say “they are digging for culture, but so far they in’t found owt.”

So somebody came to Hull, in September 1599, but was it the Lord Chamberlain’s men, Shakespeare’s company, and was Shakespeare with them? From the complaints of the touring actors in Hamlet, first performed in the next year, I would say without hesitation that wherever the Lord Chamberlain’s men did go, Shakespeare went with them. And the experience was not a happy one. As to whether the company came to Hull, that is an open question.

It was certainly someone important and unusual. These “idle and lewd persons” had serious protection. They were attached either to the Queen or to one of the Privy Councillors. The Aldermen of Hull would not have hesitated to expel anyone else. Hull’s Aldermen were the law in the town. They were Justices of Peace with all the powers that that implies. This was because the town of Hull was among the few towns in England that were also counties. As Justices the Aldermen had the right and the duty to have strolling players, strangers or locals, whipped until their backs were bloody, and they could certainly have run them out of town. The Council was never slow in exercising arbitrary power. As an example, there was a husband and wife who were tried in the town for pretending to work magic, which was a crime. They were found not guilty, (there was not enough evidence) but the aldermen ordered them to be ejected from the town anyway as undesirables. These actors, whatever their deserts not only ’scaped whipping, but could not apparently conveniently be ejected.

These aldermen were not provincial hicks. Just a few months before this incident, a Hull alderman rode up to London to defend Hull’s Charter right not to muster as part of Yorkshire. He appeared before the the Privy Council, with success. The letter that he brought back from the Privy Council says effectively “All right, do it your way.” All the Aldermen were substantial merchants with connections in London and abroad. Most were shipowners. They were the rulers of Hull, but they understood where central power lay and how it was exercised. Although they disapproved, they would have understood how the London theatres were protected from the Godly London Aldermen; protected both by law and by the Queen’s will. All in all, it seems reasonable to me to say that this particular company of players had powerful protection. Otherwise the entry makes no sense. Any company that did not carry accreditation from the Queen or a Peer or Privy Councillor would have been easy to discipline, either under statute law or under the, to modern eyes, despotic powers that the Aldermen customarily exercised. Appeals against them were few, and those that there were, were defended with a vigour that dismayed the appellants.

I do not believe that they were the company called the Queen’s men, although the Queen’s men did come to Yorkshire, and were still active. We know a lot about the Queen’s men and there is no indication that they ever came nearer to Hull than York. You might say that that is not so very far away, but for an early modern cart on early modern roads, it is a very long way away. I also do not believe it was the Queen’s men because this was not the way the Queen’s men ever behaved; setting up and playing without permission. Of the other important companies that it might have been, the only one that I can find was was travelling in this month was the Lord Chamberlain’s men, Shakespeare’s company.

Obviously the next step was to look in the records of other places on the route to Hull from London and in other places nearby, and there is no trace of this or any other company. However in 1768 William Guthrie claimed in his history of Scotland that in this very month and year the Lord Chamberlain’s men played in Edinburgh for King James VI, “to prove how thoroughly he was emancipated from the tutelage of his clergy” but that there was no record as to whether Shakespeare was with them or not. Guthrie gives no source for  his claim and consequently has not previously been taken seriously. If the company was on its way from London to Edinburgh by sea, it would be very likely to call at Hull, for shelter, repairs, supplies, or to load and discharge cargo. If the company found itself in an inn in Hull waiting to sail on to Edinburgh, what is more likely than that they would put on a play. (William Guthrie, A general history of Scotland from the earliest accounts to the present time, London 1768, Vol 8, Page 358)

There was at this time only one suitable inn yard, the King’s Head on High Street. In 16th Century Hull every other house in the town seems to have been at one time or another a tippling house, sometimes licensed, sometimes not, but an Elizabethan national survey of licensed premises (to see if licensing could be farmed) found that Hull had only one substantial inn. (The National Archives SP 12/117, 37)

So if Shakespeare came to Hull, what did he find, and is any of it in the plays that he wrote immediately afterwards; Twelfth Night and Hamlet. There is an old-fashioned view of Shakespeare, the great poet, in an attic, dreamily composing his deathless verse. Due to the weird way in which the Oxford English Dictionary was made, people believe that he single-handedly created a whole vocabulary of new words and he is credited with being more or less responsible for the subsequent flourishing of English literature. He had a feel for the language around him, perhaps finer than any individual, before or since, and an ability to find words for emotions and situations, that have become part of our language. The only book that is better at this is the King James Bible, famously the only work of art created by a committee, and the King James Bible came from the same source, the flowering of Early Modern English.

So, if Shakespeare was in Hull in September 1599, what would he have found there, still bearing in mind that he was about to write Hamlet and Twelfth Night?

Well obviously he found the Godly Aldermen, who had said that because they were virtuous, there should be no more Cakes and Ale. In Twelfth Night Sir Toby Belch, reproved for his drunken singing in the night, says to his Puritan enemy Malvolio “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” This is not a figure of speech. Cakes and Ale has become for us shorthand for a certain sort of party spirit, but this was real cakes and real ale. The cakes were not what we would call cakes, more like a round shortbread biscuit, and they were full of sugar and spice and all things nice, and they must have therefore been expensive, a treat. Traditionally in Hull, the Mayor, in his year, provided Cakes and Ale for all comers at his house on Midsummer eve. It was custom promoting, it was claimed, goodfellowship and neighbourliness. I imagine it also promoted lewdness, public drunkenness and singing. This custom was abolished by our Godly Hull Aldermen. There were protests, furious protests from the Free Burgesses, so much so that the custom was reinstated for a year, but then Alderman John Smith became mayor and it was abolished again, this time for ever. In Hull there were to be no more Cakes and Ale. You can see a portrait of the virtuous Alderman John Smith in the Hull Grammar School museum (if you can find it open). There was a doctrinal aspect which is not included in the official account. This custom had a religious origin. The cakes, usually marked in the dough with a cross, were originally called soul cakes and they were part of a contract. The donor gave out the cakes and the recipients said a prayer for the donor’s soul. In Puritan Hull this would have been called Popish superstition.

This seems like a good moment to reveal something else that I have found about Twelfth Night. I have recently made a new name index of the parties in Elizabethan Star Chamber cases, and I am indecently proud of it. They are the class called STAC 5 and consist of 100,000 documents and no map; at least none before my index. I discovered, very much to to my surprise, that whilst Englishmen were called Lancelot, or Melchior, they were not called Andrew. There are a tiny number of English Andrews. It was not until after indexing thousands of names, that I finally hit an Andrew and I realized that the Andrews were missing. The first Andrew that I found was called Andrew Bonnet, I don’t know who he was but I would guess at a Scottish heritage. If Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night is a Scot, and I believe that if he was called Andrew he must have been intended to be a Scot, then that has implications. A Scottish knight as a foolish and unsuccessful wooer of a noble lady was politically charged in 1600. James VI of Scotland was sitting north of the border worrying, and the longer Elizabeth lived, the more worried he became. She was living far longer than seemed possible.

A lot of speculation has been published about Shakespeare’s religion. He can be shown to have conformed publicly all his life to the Church of England, unlike so many of his contemporaries, he never put a foot wrong. But in his writing, in his imagery, all the subtle choices that he made in the plays we can see that his instincts were completely Catholic. This is most obvious in a play like Hamlet with its great Catholic versus Protestant debate over the “honesty” of the ghost in which the Catholic theology wins, but it also appears, more subtly, in most of the other plays.

Hamlet and his friend Horatio are students at the University of Wittenberg, Luther’s University. This is like hanging a label on them saying “protestants”. Protestants did not believe that ghosts were the spirits of the dead, but that they were devils sent to mislead the living and bring them to hell. I recently saw a woodcut of the devil making crop circles. In mediaeval times it was the fairies, after the reformation it was the Devil, in the twentieth century it was extra-terrestrials, the only thing that doesn’t change is the crop circle. So when the ghost appears Horatio, he greets it as a Protestant should: “What art thou that that usurps this time of night, / together with that fair and warlike form / in which the majesty of buried Denmark / did sometimes march.” The ghost, a good Catholic ghost, is offended, it stalks away. I haven’t the time here to take you through all the passages. If you want to follow it up it is all in a book called “What Happens in Hamlet” by John Dover Wilson, an old book but a good one.

Back to Hull. When we come to Hamlet and Hull, we need only ask what was current in Hull in September 1599, what were the Aldermen and the inhabitants all talking about? The men at work and in the tippling houses. The answer is that in Hull in September 1599 they were all talking about how much they hated the King of Denmark. Christian IV was then only 22 years old and and already, like most of his his countrymen, a spectacular drinker. He was, if you remember, the Danish King during whose state visit to James I, no one drew a sober breath. There was vomit on the steps of the throne. I have never seen anything to suggest that the Danish King was ashamed of this, but it could be said that it soiled his addition.

In July 1599 five Hull ships were pirated by this King of Denmark and his brother. This is not one of the king’s later anonymous pirate voyages, he was on an official visit to a part of Lapland whose ownership was disputed with Sweden. He was showing the flag. Norway at this time was owned by the Danish crown, but Sweden was a separate kingdom. Christian IV did not yet have much of a navy, but he was eager to increase it, and he made a start at the expense of Hull. We do not know the tonnages of the ships that he took, but based on other records I would guess that there was an aggregate crew in the five ships of between 150 and 200 men. This is from a male population of Hull of a little over 2000. He kept four ships, pressed some of the Hull men into the Danish navy, and sent the rest of the men on one ship (the least valuable of the Hull ships) back to Hull. They had been sailing to Vardo (Wardhouse as it is called in Hull), and were therefore the largest and the best of the Hull ships. Hull claimed that the total losses came to £7,000. This wasn’t settled quickly. There is considerable diplomatic and other correspondence about this outrage, well into the next reign.

This was not the only complaint that Hull had against Denmark. Control at the sound of Elsinor gave Denmark the power to charge as much as the market would bear for passage into and out of the Baltic. The Danish crown prospered as a parasite on the trade of other nations and this was deeply resented. The tolls were extortionate but the guns on the platform of the castle at Elsinor enforced them.

So in Hull people were talking about the king of Denmark, and not in a good way. They didn’t need to talk about Denmark to talk about pirates. I remember at school reading a Hamlet commentary, I forget by whom, but he was eminent. He said that of course the pirates who rescued Hamlet on his voyage to England did not exist, Hamlet had invented the story. One of the problems with Shakespeare commentators is that they are not historians. On the North Sea a pirate of very warlike appointment could be expected to give any ship chase. All ships entering or leaving the Humber mouth had to be armed against them, some pirates were from Dunkirk, most were from Lincolnshire, Clee, now known as Cleethorpes, was a terrible place for pirates. Hull of course had a castle of its own with guns at the South Blockhouse on the platform where the watch watched, to control entry into the haven. I have no evidence of ghostly apparitions on the gun platform of Hull castle. The South Blockhouse of Hull Castle was the Guantanamo Bay of its time, known throughout Europe for the barbaric conditions in which its Catholic prisoners were held.

There is one other thing that connects the touring players to Hamlet, and that is of course that they were touring players. Someone in Hull will have reported to the Aldermen “the actors are come hither” and at some point someone will have asked “How chances it they travel?” For a company with a theatre in London, it is a question that had to be asked. Shakespeare goes to some trouble in Hamlet (in a very long exchange nowadays omitted) to let the audience know that his was a superior company, the tragedians of the City, that their tour was forced and unusual, and that they would much rather have stayed in the City.

What we need to ask is what is this Hull Bench Book entry all about. One thing is for certain, it is not about culture, because it is entirely about religion.

By 1599 the usual target of the Godly Preachers and Aldermen in Hull was the blasphemings of the most holy name of god, drunkenness, whoredom and infinity other abominable and detestable sins, enormities and offences which do abound in the town by reason of the great number of ale houses, the unreasonable and excessive strong ale by ale brewers there brewed, and the continual and disordinate repair of the people to those lewd houses. Well Hull Corporation is still working on that. Beer is made with hops which are a preservative, and the stronger the beer the longer it lasts. This means that in ports where beer was needed for long voyages, it was brewed extra strong, and this unfortunately also got sold locally, alongside regular ale and the barely alcoholic small beer.

Have a look at the memorial to Thomas Wincopp who was the Godly preacher, here in 1599. It is in the South Choir Isle of Trinity Church. The Hull preacher did not have a ten minute slot, he typically preached for two hours, the same length as the two hour traffic of their stage. Then go to Stratford Church (or go on-line) and look at the bust of Shakespeare on the wall there. The counterfeit presentment of two men and very similar in size and treatment, but one was the vastly respected Godly preacher of an important seaport and the other a relatively rich man in a small market town, with a lot of ungodliness in his London past to live down. But Stratford was not a Godly Commonwealth, as Hull was. Warwickshire had a long Catholics tradition.

When I was sixteen and a complete Shakespeare groupie, the height of my ambition would have been to find something, anything, to add to the Shakespeare biography. To find something that connected him with the place where I was born, would have been the greatest achievement of my life. But maybe at my age the heyday in the blood is tame. He either came to Hull, or he didn’t come to Hull. I don’t know, I wasn’t there. On balance I think he probably did, except that that would really be too good to be true. But it is not that important. The history of the town, the history of the reformation does not depend of whether a man who later became famous was briefly made unwelcome here.

What is important is the religious picture. The division, the polarisation, of all England into those who were building a Godly Commonwealth and those who were struggling against that particular tide of history, to cling onto their version of religion and their version of England. There is a theory at present that there were moderates, that there was at this time a strand of moderate episcopalian protestantism (if such a thing can exist), to which much if not most of population happily adhered; the famous ‘via media’ of the Church of England. It may be so, but I have seen no evidence of it in this town in this reign. The battle lines of the Civil War were already being drawn, Hamlet’s father’s ghost was either an honest ghost or a goblin damned. The elect of God chose virtue and the rest preferred cakes and ale.


3 thoughts on “Shakespeare came to Hull

  1. I am not sure that the work on Hull’s pavements and central areas was funded by City of Culture money. I understood that it was a separate grant, and had been awarded before Hull got its C of C status. Moreover, there were some good cultural events and exhibitions during the year; to provide all of Hull’s children with a good education would cost more than the award money and also your remark is rather derogatory in respect of the work teachers do in the city. I speak as an ex-classroom teacher. It is not an easy city to work in, for many reasons, not least the denouement of the fishing industry and consequent collapse of other firms and businesses, the geographical isolation (as distinct from Leeds/Manchester etc. which are huge urban hubs) and the results of isolation in terms of its indigenous population. I would have thought, as a historian, you would have been aware of these factors.


    1. Parts of this blog have not aged well, but they reflect my thoughts at the time. It was posted when the year of culture did not look at all likely to be a success. The year turned out better than expected, although it will be at least a decade before we can make an assessment of its value for money.
      As to any perceived slight on local teachers, none was intended. I have nothing but respect for teachers. The problem of the education system in Hull is, as you say, a result of history and geography and I would add the political failures of local and central government. It can therefore be understood, but it should be addressed rather than excused.


  2. Thank you for your response. I agree absolutely with lack of government interest in Hull, despite our then Deputy PM being in power for many years under Blair. Frankly, he did little for the city, perhaps unable to, if one wishes to give him the benefit of the doubt. Hull has been one of the most forgotten cities in the UK and the butt of ignorant, puerile jokes. The kids in Hull’s schools know this and how hopeless the future is for many of them. They’re not daft. This is why we welcomed C of C award so fervently and the earlier cynics and naysayers were shown so wrong.


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