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Leicester’s Men are a group of actors who formed what many consider to be the founding company of English Renaissance Theater. Established with the sponsorship of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, the playing company travelled around England and abroad performing plays with the legal protection of being in the Earls’ service. The company was unique for its’ time in that they separated themselves from the traditional income model of playing companies, choosing instead to operate as an independent entity where they could generate their own income instead of getting paid by their sponsor. By 1574, five men including James Burbage, John Perkin, John Laneham, William Johnson, and Robert Wilson would be listed on a royal patent for Leicester’s Men, making their playing company the first to receive an official royal patent and, in so doing, giving these men the freedom to create what we know today as English Renaissance Theater. Playing companies, including Shakespeare’s company the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, would go on to follow the model of Leicester’s Men well into the late 16 and early 17th centuries. 

Here today to tell us the story of Leicester’s Men and the groundwork they built for future playwrights like William Shakepeare is our guest, Laurie Johnson.

Join the conversation below.

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Laurie Johnson is Professor of English and Cultural Studies at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia. He is the current President of the Australian and New Zealand Shakespeare Association (since 2016) and a member of the editorial board of the journal Shakespeare. Laurie’s books include Shakespeare’s Lost Playhouse: Eleven Days at Newington Butts (2018), The Tain of Hamlet (2013), and the Wolf Man’s Burden (2001), and he is co-editor of two essay collections, Embodied Cognition and Shakespeare’s Theatre: The Early Modern Body-Mind (with John Sutton and Evelyn Tribble, 2014) and Rapt in Secret Studies: Emerging Shakespeares (2010). He has also published over 50 articles and book chapters, and is currently working on a book on the Earl of Leicester’s Men, which he hopes to complete later this year, and is developing an international project to examine the impact of climate shift in Sixteenth-Century Britain on the rise of the playhouse industry.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Laurie Johnson about :

  • There is a letter that survives today, dated 1572, and written by James Burbage for Leicester’s Men requesting that they be given the status of “household servants” under the Earl of Leicester. Laurie, why was it important to the playing company to be given the status of household servant?
  • The first playing company to be given a royal warrant, Leicester’s Men was given a royal patent by Queen Elizabeth that allowed them to perform anywhere in England. Laurie, why was this privilege distinct from the other travelling playing companies of this period? What were Leicester’s Men able to do under a royal patent that was previously inaccessible to them? 

  • Prior to 1576, when James Burbage built The Theater in London, Leicester’s Men had been a travelling playing company (due, indeed, to the fact that all playing companies were travelling companies at this time.) After The Theater was built, did Leicester’s Men take up residence at this new playhouse?

… and more!

BREAKING NEWS: New player discovered!

Laurie also has some exciting news to share with us regarding a discovery he has made since the interview was recorded:

‘I’m pleased to share with your listeners that since we spoke, I unearthed a previously unknown player in the parish records of St. Mary, Stratford Bow, Tower Hamlets. On 17 December 1575, there is a baptism recorded for “Esay Bridge sonne of John Bridg Player.” I checked the usual dictionaries and online catalogues of early actors, and do not find this player listed anywhere. John Bridges was the name of the Yeoman of the Revels and Tents in the 1540s, but this would not be the same man listed in parish records as a player. John Bridge or Bridges lived in this parish from around 1571 to 1575, based on the baptismal records for two other sons, Henry (24 September 1572) and William (3 September 1573). The intriguing thing for me about a player being listed in the parish register for St. Mary, Stratford Bow, is that Thomas Clarke lived in the same parish in the late 1560s and also married a woman named “Dorothy Briges” elsewhere in 1561 – could Dorothy have been John’s older sister? Incidentally, living in this parish would place these players less than two miles east of the site of the Red Lion playhouse, on the road that leads to Robert Dudley’s property in Wanstead, so there is a potential Leicester’s Men connection. I’m continuing the search. Listeners might like to learn more about the discovery of the Red Lion from last year in this article from the BBC.

You can explore the discovery of the Red Lion in our interview with the Director of that project, Stephen White at Archaeology South-East (UCL Institute of Archaeology).
Listen to that episode here.

Free Illustrated Maps Showing the Touring Routes of Leicester's Men from 1559, 1565, and 1577

Sign up here to get the latest episodes of That Shakespeare Life sent right to your inbox every Monday. To say thank you for keeping up with us and staying in touch on what's new around here, we would love to send you this 3-pack of illustrated maps that show Leicester's Men's touring routes for 1565, 1577, and 1559.

    He is, my lord, and safe in Leicester town;
    Whither, if it please you, we may now withdraw us.

    Sir William Stanley

    Richard III (V.5)

    The former attribution to Steven van der Meulen is in question since the discovery of van der Muelen’s will (proved 20 January 1564); see Hearn, Karen, ed. Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530-1630. New York: Rizzoli, 1995. ISBN 0-8478-1940-X, p. 94 (van der Meulen), p. 96 (this portrait). Leceister’s Coat of Arms is depicted twice, surrounded by (left) the Collar of the Order of St Michael and (right) the Garter. For commentary (including a note that the arms with the Order of St Michael, which Leicester received in 1566, may have been added after the portrait was completed), see Karen Hearn, Dynasties, p. 96. Public Domain. Source

    Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester

     There is a letter that survives today, dated 1572, and written by James Burbage for Leicester’s Men requesting that they be given the status of “household servants” under the Earl of Leicester. Laurie explains why becoming a household servant to someone like the Earl of Leicester was a desired position:

    Servant was a very specific piece of wording that was contained in a number of items that we call legislation today (royal proclamations and ordinances) related to who was allowed to travel from one town to another. This travel was heavily policed (largely bc towns had limited resources and the population in themplaced strains on these) so the local townships would need very clear guidelines as to who counted as local and who did not. One of the stipulations of who was allowed to travel was servants travelling on behalf of a noble. You had to be in the household of someone in a high status, with either a license to do that, or you would wear the livery of that household as your approval. They would like to travel from one town to another without being ejected without a license, so this status allowed them to travel.

    The first playing company to be given a royal warrant, Leicester’s Men was given a royal patent by Queen Elizabeth that allowed them to perform anywhere in England. Laurie explains why this privilege was distinct from the other travelling playing companies of this period:

    We’ve had this perspective of 1574 royal patent and focused on it perhaps too much in Shakespeare studies. It didn’t actually give them features they didn’t have before, it still only allowed them to travel. The royal patent did do differently was to lock in the other way, a commitment from that company to be serving at court as a regular contributor to court reels for her mahjest and her court. As at the time Leicester’s Men was the most prominent adult company, in term so fbeing asked year in and year out ot perform at court, (we don’t know for certain they were the only one, it’s just the one that survives. Early of Warwick men may have had a patent as well), Not so much that they previously couldn’tybut does lock them in as the queens preferred company, so it becomes more of a badge of right rather than permission.

    Get Laurie Johnson's book on Newington Butts here on Amazon

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    At last, with easy roads, he came to Leicester,
    Lodged in the abbey; where the reverend abbot,
    With all his covent, honourably received him;


    Henry VIII (IV.2)

    Lord Chamberlain, Henry Carey

    Kenilworth Castle gatehouse landscape,United Kingdom By Jdforrester | This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. | Source

    Leicester’s Men Performed at Kenilworth Castle

    The Earl of Leicester who was the sponsor for this playing company is Robert Dudley, most famous today for his romantic interest in Queen Elizabeth and his entertainment for her at Kenilworth Castle. Laurie shares that while we cannot pinpoint the 1575 wooing of the Queen precisely with Leicester’s Men, we can find in their history details about their performances at Kenilworth Castle on other occassions:

    Fairly confident they were there [at Dudley’s wooing of the Queen]. Not sure if they were key players. We don’t have records from Robert Dudley for years in which he put on pevents for the queen. We lack clear eveidence that he paid his payers to perform there, but we do have fairly detailed accounts of those present, or witnesses for what happened at these events. We do know for certain that hte playing company did perform for Elizabeth and we do know they did perform at Kenilworth in other years because we have payments from Coventry for performances at Kenilworth. Strong prospect they would ave performed in 1575 at that particular 9 day pageant. The other pice of evidence that points to their presence there is a description by one of the people present (John Nickle’s progress accounts on Elizabeth) there’s a description of one day’sentertainment, the men of coventry were meant to put on a performance in the afternoon but the queen decided not to watch them adn they were rescheduled the next day. There’s a description of an impromptu performance put on by someplayers, a different group of payers, short notice, for 2 hours after support, suggests a company capable of performing a 2 hour play at short ntice that would ave been there, to me that suggests Leicester’s Men. We would also expect his leading payers to play prominent roles in the other performances he held for the queen.

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    There is the playhouse now, there must you sit.

    Henry V (II.0)

    Southampton portrait wriothesley

    The Theater is shown on this map in the top right.This file was derived from: London theatres C16—C17, after Redwood.svg: Joseph Quincy Adams. Image credit C. W. Redwood, formerly technical artist at Cornell University derivative work: Old Moonraker derivative work: Old Moonraker – This file was derived from: London theatres C16—C17, after Redwood.svg: 1917 map showing theatres of 16th and 17th century London, with one correction to reflect recent archaeology. Public Domain. Source

    The Theater

     Prior to 1576, when James Burbage built The Theater in London, Leicester’s Men had been a travelling playing company (due, indeed, to the fact that all playing companies were travelling companies at this time.) After The Theater was built, Leicester’s Men used The Theater as part of their income strategy.

    References to theaters weren’t generic all the time, sometimes only referring to “this building.” James Burbage, who we know was a leading member of Leicester’s Men, because his name is on all the other documents w2e mentioned. Along with grocer JOhn Brayne. Now Brayne we have no other specific connection to the paying company except through Burbage. The grocer agrees that he will supply the goods (beer and food) for the gathered throngs and the leading payer will look after the entertainment in this dual arrangement, similar arrangement happens at the Rose with Henslowe and 9name0 who was alsoa grocer. There’s a possibility that a grocer was the land owner for the Newington Butts, which suggests there may ave been a similar relationship there as well. 

    There is a gap in the records of the provincial travel habits right on 1576 that I don’t think can be attributed to any other significant event of the time. I am looking at events that could disrupt the abits of a playing company like plague or weather events, but nothing seems to throw up any reason for not touring in 1576 except that their leading member, at least, was certainly involved in the building of The Theater. All of this together suggests that this year Leicester’s Men decided they would stop touring for a while and try this performing in London gig.

    [My] research places most of the early members of the company in the same parish in London and I believe that same parish in London could be seen to be the center of the livery hall companies…prior to 1559…coupled together by Anne Lancastshire “Civi London to 1558) all these records show that while these players do travel in the Elizabethan period, before they decide to invest in a venue of their own, they began in London. They were originally Londonders and the travelling bug becomes apart of their habit for about 20 years before they then decide to settle back into London. As that doesn’t quite go to plan as they constantly run into trouble with the city authorities, they eventually go back into their touring habits and even expand their touring habits.

    I shall stay here the forehorse to a smock,
    Creaking my shoes on the plain masonry,
    Till honour be bought up and no sword worn
    But one to dance with! By heaven, I’ll steal away.


    Alls Well That Ends Well (II.1)

    Newington Butts Present Day Photograph by Laurie Johnson

    When the Queen’s Men playing company was formed, it was put together from the best players of other companies. From Leicester’s Men, the Queen’s playing company took their top performers: Richard Tarlton (shown above), John Laneham, and Robert Wilson. IMAGE: Richard Tarlton with his pipe and tabor. All images of Tarleton derive from this illustration depicting him in manuscript Harley 3885, an Alphabet book, with English or Latin phrases. The original contains the verse: “The picture here set down, / Within this letter T, / Aright doth shew the form and shape / Of Tharlton unto thee” | Harley 3885 f. 19 in the British Museum | Source

    The Queen’s Men

    In 1583, Queen Elizabeth created a new playing company called The Queen’s Men. While Leicester’s Men already had the royal patent, and thus the Queen’s support, Laurie explains there could have been political reasons for Elizabeth to create an entirely new company for herself in addition to Leicester’s Men:

    We have enough documents to know it happened, but we don’t have enough to know why it happened. Secretary of state gives the master of revels an edict (1583) collect from all leading companies the best pliers to assemble the queen’s men. This isn’t the beginning of the queen’s men, as such, she had players operating under her name before (as did Queen Mary), Edward and henry also had significant paying companies. Royal playing companies had been a thing for sometime, but the new thing here is the decision to take advantage of the stock of leading resources that other companies had built up naturally over time. (1960s group similar Eric Clapton, et al). Clearly intended to ensure the quality of…listen back here and type this up. James Burbage seems to have abandoned the company…left with a talent void or at least a leadership void, so the queen or at least the secretary of state says they need to put better quality of performances. They wanted to guarantee the level of performance at court. 1584, they also start to tour again.

    After what was essentially a dissolution and reorganization of the company, Leicester’s Men go back on tour in the mid 1580s, but this time they expand beyond England. Laurie shares that they travelled abroad to perform their plays: 

    Routes didn’t initially expand much further than what they were used to. And pretty much dries up around the same time as the Queen’s Men, strong belief that they dissolved. Evidence of them in the provinces, and in London 83-85, but the real impeduce for their resurrection is the earl of leicester’s desire to redeem himself through anumber of issues, one o fwhich was his demanding that she marry him, adn then marrying Lettice Knowlys without permission, going on diplomatic campaigns without permission, and he blots his copybook in the eyes of the queen. 1585 takes it upon himself to recruit a number of learning entertrainers of the day, records fro 85-86, to go with him over to Europe to intercede the conflicts between the catholics and protestants in denmark, goes through germany, gaining some support, and germany at the time was not a single country. He’s got to  through lots of eares to get support his eventual move into Denmark. Strong evidence of the paying company as such being in Europe and touring there, and severaof them stay on, 5 members of the playing company are sent to Denmark to work with King Frederick of Denmark, he grows tired of them quickly, probably out of a lack of desire to pay them, and decides to regift them to christian the elector of saxony (one of the german provinces) and off they go back into germany and they stay there well into 1587, somewhere around mid 1587 they released from service and go back into England. Members of that group include george bryan, will kempe, and Thomas Pope–who were members of Shakespeare’s Lord Chamberlain’s Men much later. There’s a listing of Leicester’s Men in London at the same time these people are in Denmark, so it suggests Leicester had a main line and reserve line of players.

    Use our collection of activity kits to can cook, play, and create your way through the life of William Shakespeare with recipes, games, and crafts straight from Shakespeare's lifetime (and mentioned in his plays!) It's the most fun way to explore history.

    Books & Resources Laurie Johnson Recommends

    REED Patrons and Performances, of course (here’s the link to Leicester’s page) = 

    Also, given that most of their repertory is pre-Shakespearean and lost, the Lost Plays Database is invaluable = (for their entry on one of the Leicester’s Men plays, see,_A )

    Episode #25: Sally Beth MacLean & 16th Century English Travelling Playing Companies

    The best essay to date on the company is Sally-Beth MacLean’s “Tracking Leicester’s Men” in this book= 

    And the itinerary MacLean produced to accompany the book is available online here = 

    And, believe it or not, = though this is a subscription only service, but does at the right level of membership provide unfettered access to the widest range of digitised parish records, and records of births, marriages and deaths in hundreds of parishes and towns, essential to any researcher of individuals in Tudor and Stuart England. 

    Free Illustrated Maps Showing the Touring Routes of Leicester's Men from 1559, 1565, and 1577

    Sign up here to get the latest episodes of That Shakespeare Life sent right to your inbox every Monday. To say thank you for keeping up with us and staying in touch on what's new around here, we would love to send you this 3-pack of illustrated maps that show Leicester's Men's touring routes for 1565, 1577, and 1559.

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