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Welcome to Episode 202 of That Shakespeare Life

Lady Elizabeth Russell challenged one of the greatest theaters in history. Of course, challenges are just one of the byproducts of introducing disruptive innovation.

When Shakespeare and Burbage and their shareholders masterminded theaters like the Globe and the Blackfriars, there was a considerable faction of Puritans, including Lady Elizabeth Russell, in London who felt their work was corrupting the city.

Through petitions and political alliances, Lady Elizabeth Russell sought fervently to stop the theater from being established. Our guest this week, Chris Laoutaris, is the author of Shakespeare and the Countess, the book that tells the remarkable story of how this one woman put up a memorable fight to try and stop one of the greatest theaters in history. 

Dr Chris Laoutaris is a biographer, historian, Shakespeare scholar and Associate Professor at The Shakespeare Institute in Shakespeare’s birthplace of Stratford-upon-Avon. His research interests include Shakespeare’s theatres, women’s history (particularly female political and religious activists), the development of the early sciences, and Renaissance politics and espionage. His most recent book, Shakespeare and the Countess: The Battle that Gave Birth to the Globe (Penguin UK, Pegasus USA), was shortlisted for the Tony Lothian Prize for Biography, was Observer Book of the Year, Telegraph Book of the Year, one of the New York Post’s ‘Must-Read Books’, one of the Daily Telegraph’s top ten history holiday reads, and made the Bookseller’s top ten most reviewed books for the season of its release. Laoutaris subsequently signed a two-book deal with HarperCollins, whose William Collins imprint secured the rights in competition with several other major commercial publishers. Pegasus Books (New York) will be releasing Laoutaris’ next two books in North America.

Dr Laoutaris has held prestigious fellowships with the British Academy (Post-Doctoral Fellowship) and University of Birmingham (Birmingham fellowship). In addition to his numerous other academic publications, he has written for the Financial Times, Sunday Express, Times Higher Education Supplement, BBC History Magazine, BBC Shakespeare Lives, and reviewed for various academic publishers and journals. His media work includes BBC1’s flagship magazine show The One Show, BBC Midlands, BBC Radio London, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Newstalk Radio Dublin, RIK Television Cyprus, Notimex (Mexico’s largest media agency), a British Council documentary with Evans Wolfe Media, and the BBC Shakespeare Festival. He has provided historical, Shakespearean and literary consultancy to the Royal Shakespeare Company and numerous film and documentary production companies.

Photo of a potrait of Lady Elizabeth Russell. (C) Girts Galens, Used by Permission.

In this episode, I will be asking Chris Laoutaris about:

  • Lady Elizabeth Russell was an ambitious woman, certainly for the Elizabethan era when we think of women as demure and subservient. Was it true that she was the first female owner of her own castle?
  • I know that the Blackfriars was delayed in starting as a theater over opposition to it being located in the Blackfriars district. Is the petition Lady Russell had signed the reason the delay was successful causing Shakespeare and Burbage to have to wait years to setup shop in the Blackfriars theater?
  • How was a petition able to have this much impact, particularly from a woman in the first place, but a woman whose name we barely know today? Was she someone whose opinion carried great weight in the 16th century?

Shakespeare and the Countess is the first full biography of the extraordinary Elizabeth Russell, but if you want an edition of all her writings, then you might check out:

Patricia Phillippy, The Writings of an English Sappho: Elizabeth Cooke Hoby Russell, ed. Patricia Phillippy, with translations by Jaime Goodrich (The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe: The Toronto Series, Toronto: Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 2011)

If you are interested in learning more about Elizabeth Russell in relation to her sisters, then you might be interested in:

Gemma Allen, The Cooke Sisters: Education, Piety and Politics in Early Modern England (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2013)

For material on Lady Russell as a playwright in her own right, or rather a writer of entertainments for the queen:

Elizabeth Zeman Kolkovich, ‘Lady Russell, Elizabeth I and Female Political Alliances through Performance’, English Literary Renaissance 39 (2009), pp. 290-314. Note from Cassidy: I was unable to find this online but you can request a copy from your local library.

If you want a new book about Shakespeare I have a recommendation, though this doesn’t cover any of the aspects of the Blackfriars Theatre in my book, but I recommend it as a new and exciting book for Shakespeare lovers:

Lena Cowen Orlin, The Private Life of William Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021)

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Though honesty be no puritan, yet it will do no hurt…

Alls Well That Ends Well, I.3
Donnington Castle, near Newbury, Berkshire, England.| Photo by Simon Burchell | Source | CC-BY-ASA4.0

Donnington Manor

Lady Elizabeth Russell was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth. Chris explains, 

The right to have a keepership of her own castle was only granted by the Queen, and the keepership had military connotations which could only be given to men. It came under an old feudal law known as shield service. Russell knew men could only be granted this, so she petitioned the Queen relentlessly, gave her bribes, purses of cash, elaborate hats, etc, to convince the Queen to allow her to have her own castle. 

Elizabeth I was known as a stubborn women, but even she gave in eventually gave in and gave her a keepership and also have her the title of bailiff the manor of Donnington Manor.

Her own prison

Lady Elizabeth Russell was a formidable woman not only managing to secure a keepership and bailiff position but she also was quite strict when it came to inflicting punishments on those in her jurisdiction. Chris explains that Lady Russell say herself something as a town sheriff:

She referred to her weapons as “mine own weapons” and she claimed to have the powers of a sheriff in her own dominion. She contributed a prison in her… estate, with at least two pairs of stocks and she regularly incarcerated her enemies. 

She incarcerated the servant of one of her enemies and demanded a huge ransom for his release. That poor individual was languishing in her prison and the queen had to intervene to et him released from Russell’s clutches

Marry, sir, sometimes he is a kind of puritan.

Twelfth Night (II.3)
Bisham Abbey, Lady Russell’s country estate in Berkshire, “on the grounds of which she had converted a gatehouse into her own personal prison, in which she would regularly incarcerate her enemies. She had two pairs of stocks in there.” | Image provided by Chris Laoutaris. Used by permission.

Richard Fields

This section of the manuscript shows evidence of Richard Field as Assistant Church Warden or ‘sideman’ in St Anne’s Church (the church in which Russell worshipped). Chris Laoutaris provides information from his book about this manuscript:

“Church visitation records of 1592-3 revealing that Richard Field was an ‘oeconomus’ or ‘sideman’ (Assistant Church Warden) in the Church of St Anne’s in Blackfriars; the church in which Lady Elizabeth Russell worshipped. He is listed alongside fellow sideman Robert Baheire and the preacher Stephen Egerton, both of whom signed Elizabeth Russell’s petition in 1596. MS 9537, vol. 8, f. 77r. London Metropolitan Archives. Photo: Dr Chris Laoutaris”

-Chris Laoutaris
This second image is evidence of Richard Fields’ promotion to Church Warden.

“Church visitation records of 1598 revealing that Richard Field was a ‘gardianus’, Church Warden, in the Church of St Anne’s in Blackfriars. He is listed alongside fellow church warden Edward Lea (also known as Ley), who signed Elizabeth Russell’s petition in 1596. MS 9537, vol. 9, f. 158r. London Metropolitan Archives. Photo: Dr Chris Laoutaris”

-Dr. Chris Laoutaris
Long View of London by Wencellas Hollar, 1647
Close up of Lady Elizabeth Russell’s funerary monument. (c) Chris Laoutaris. Used by permission
Lady Elizabeth Russell’s funerary monument. (c) Chris Laoutaris. Used by permission
Playhouse Yard, Blackfriars, London, the site on which the original Blackfriars Theatre once stood. (c) Chris Laoutaris