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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.

Here’s what’s available for this episode:

  • 16th century Portrait of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, depicting Leicester’s Coat of Arms
  • Image of Kenilworth Castle Gatehouse Landscape, United Kingdom
  • The Theater Shown on 16th and 17th Century London Map
  • Image of Richard Tarlton with his pipe and tabor
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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. 

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