148:  How Players Stole a Boy

I knew not what to think of the Player Cat.

Luvvie, the mistress called him, because she thought he were loving.  Hah.

Luvvie the Player Cat.  Waiting for his cue?

I’d hoped he would help me find that knave Snakes-Purr.

I also guessed he wisht to take my place in our household.

At first that had not troubled me.  A place with Essex or my Earl was more fit for me.

Now both Earls were like to lose their heads and households together.  Linkin told me traitors’ lands and all were forfeit to Queen Puss.

And when I sayt I would find Puss Fur-None [Bess Vernon] and lodge with her, he sayt she would have no house neither.

So I arrkst the Player Cat, “Did you not say you’d heard tell of a playhouse for the better sort in Black-Fryes?  Have you found a place there?”

“I’ve cleansed my paws of wicked players!” cried he.  “That playhouse is nowt but a den of thieves.”

“Did Onix tell you so?” I arrkst.  “His master and mistress are much against a playhouse in our midst.”

“Onix told me that and more,” he sayt. “Those thieves steal boys where’re they find them.  I marvel that our master’s boy dare leave this house.”

I went to find Onix.  He’s truthful, and I guessed the Player Cat was lying.

This is what Onix sayt.

A country gentleman came to the citie with his onlie son, a boy of about 13 years.  This boy was called Tom.  His father brought him hither for his education.

They took lodgings where Great Bart mews.  (Onix was not akwaynted with Great Bart, but thought the house lay in his manor.)

Where Great Bart mews: better known as Great St Bartholomew’s.
Or perhaps Great Bart was the church cat when the Cliftons lived nearby.
Via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0

One day when Tom was walking quiet to school, a villain called Rob-Son [Robinson] waylaid him. Tom was seized and dragged away, to his great terror and hurt.

This Rob-Son told Tom that if he were not obedient he would be handed to the constable! 

Tom was made a prisoner in the playhouse here with other boys stole in like manner. The company of players hoped to profit by making them act parts in plays.

Tom’s father came in haste and demanded his boy, saying it was not fit for a gentleman of his sort to have his son so abused.

Rob-Son and his friends sayt they had the Queen’s warrant to take any man’s son they chose.

And when Tom’s father sayt he would complain to the Privy Council, the villains told him he could complain to whomsoever he chose.  None would heed him.

So poor Tom had to remain with the villains for a day and a night, until a Privy Councillor that was friend to his father ordered his release.

“Tom’s father is not done with they dissolute and mercenary players,” sayt Onix.  “He means to take further actions, and put an end to such wickedness.”

“Where heard you this?” I arrkst.

“In my shop,” sayt Onix.  “This Christmas past.  From two women buying gifts for their friends and a cure for their ale-passions [hangovers].”

“Why did you not tell me of such scandalous doings?” I arrkst.

“You was not here,” sayt Onix.  “You was at Essex House, with the fine folks that are now emprisoned.  And no fathers to save them.”

And I (clean forgetting that my Earl had a mother who was more fightsome than any father) could say nowt to that.

Toutparmoi - Note from the EditorAll I can say is, Good for Tom’s dad. 

He was Henry Clifton, from Toftrees in the county of Norfolk.  According to his furious complaint to the Queen[1], young Thomas was abducted on 13 December 1600.  Why was he taken to the playhouse in posh Blackfriars?

The history of the theatre(s) inside the old Blackfriars monastery buildings is complicated.  In 113: I Propose a Revel Onix explained why local residents opposed the opening of a new playhouse there.  It seems to have remained unused until September 1600, when its owner Richard Burbage leased it to Henry Evans, a former manager of the choirboy actor companies who’d performed in an earlier Blackfriars playhouse.

Evans teamed up with musician Nathaniel Giles, Master of the Children at the Chapel Royal (a collective term for the choristers who sang in all the royal palace chapels).  Giles’  warrant read, in part, as follows:

Elizabeth, by the grace of God, &c., to all mayors, sheriffs, bailiffs, constables, and all other our officers, greeting.  For that it is meet that our Chapel Royal should be furnished with well-singing children from time to time, we … do authorize our well-beloved servant, Nathaniel Giles, Master of our Children of our said Chapel, or his deputy … to take such and so many children as he, or his sufficient deputy, shall think meet, in all cathedral, collegiate, parish churches, chapels, or any other place or places…within this our realm of England, whatsoever they be.[2] 

This provides for the enforced recruitment of exceptional singers, not unrestricted kidnapping.  Henry Clifton claimed his son wasn’t musical, and that boys were being snatched from their schools, parents, and (in the case of apprentices) their masters. 

He may well have been exaggerating, but what were Evans, Giles, and James Robinson (the kidnapper named by Clifton) doing?

Probably recruiting for the Chapel Royal while also setting up a company of boy actors, thereby making the new Blackfriars theatre officially a training school for choristers, and unofficially the public-but-exclusive playhouse its builder James Burbage had intended it to be.

The theatre historian Joseph Quincy Adams writes “In a short time they brought together at Blackfriars a remarkable troupe of boy-players, who, with Jonson and Chapman as their poets, began to astonish London.”

Well, they certainly astonished the Cliftons.

[1] Printed in F.G. Fleay’s A Chronicle History of the London Stage 1559-1642 (1890)

[2] From J.Q. Adams’ Shakespearean Playhouses: A History of English Theatres from the Beginnings to the Restoration (1917)


20 thoughts on “148:  How Players Stole a Boy

  1. April Munday September 13, 2018 / 5:50 am

    More like Luvvie the devil cat from his picture. I notice he refers to ‘our master’, so he’s made himself at home.

    I can see how you might be tempted to overstep the mark with a warrant that broad. Some of the apprentices might have preferred working in the theatre.

    Liked by 1 person

    • toutparmoi September 13, 2018 / 3:39 pm

      Luvvie’s got his paws well and truly under the table in that household. It didn’t take long. No wonder Tricks is suspicious.

      The Master of the Chapel Children’s warrant looks incredible to the modern eye, and when I first came across a brief (and somewhat misleading) reference to it on the MoEML site I decided to do some digging. It’s clear from the wording quoted in the J.Q. Adams excerpt that the warrant was primarily a licence to headhunt talent from existing choirs and schools – though I suppose if someone heard a street kid of remarkable voice singing on a corner he could be dragged in for an audition.

      Musical boys may well have seen the Chapel Royal as a great career move – particularly if their parents were dismissive of their talent, or (as you suggest) they were apprenticed to a harsh master and/or in a trade they hated. So, looking at the Chapel Royal from that perspective, it might have been offering a ‘free and compulsory’ music and theatre education.

      Obviously, something went seriously wrong in the case of Thomas Clifton, a well-connected country gentleman’s only son and heir. But I wouldn’t mind betting that if/once Nathaniel Giles thought James Robinson and Henry Evans were abusing his warrant he’d have distanced himself from their theatrical enterprise pretty quickly.

      Liked by 2 people

    • April Munday September 13, 2018 / 6:56 pm

      Perhaps they just didn’t understand the limits of the warrant.

      Liked by 1 person

    • toutparmoi September 13, 2018 / 10:23 pm

      Robinson and Evans may not have, and Nathaniel Giles could have been too busy to keep an eye on them. According to the DNB, he’d been the organist and choir master at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, since 1585 and continued to hold that position after he became Master of the Chapel Royal Children in 1597. He was also a composer. And a married man with a growing family. The idea that he could have thought the best recruitment method for the elite Chapel Royal was to snatch boys off the streets seems more absurd each time I think about it.

      Henry Clifton’s complaint named several boys who’d been “unduly taken and employed”, including the later well-known actor/playwright Nathan Field, from St Paul’s school. Nathan was the son of an anti-theatre puritan minister, but must have thrived in his “employment”. (Could it be possible that young Thomas Clifton thought life on the London stage might be preferable to that of a country gentleman in Toftrees? Then Dad hammered on the theatre door.)

      On a slightly different topic, this blog post notes existing remnants of the original Blackfriars monastery:

      Liked by 1 person

    • April Munday September 14, 2018 / 1:15 am

      That’s an interesting post, thank you. I see the child actors get a mention. Now I’m wondering what they did to offend James I.

      Liked by 1 person

    • toutparmoi September 14, 2018 / 2:04 am

      Very little, I suspect, by our standards. Imagine if Queen Elizabeth II were as easily offended as her ancestors.

      Liked by 1 person

    • April Munday September 14, 2018 / 6:42 am

      For all we know, she is. There’s just not very much she can do about it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. chattykerry September 15, 2018 / 3:32 am

    You interpret history so beautifully, Denise, and I love the player cat. Could you give me the cure for ale-passion, please?

    Liked by 1 person

    • toutparmoi September 15, 2018 / 12:28 pm

      Alas, Kerry, if I knew what efficacious remedy was being sold by Onix’s master, I’d be packaging and marketing it myself! Always assuming, of course, that it would be legal. The Elizabethan’s were rather fond of “poppy-syrups” – i.e. opium derivatives.

      Liked by 2 people

    • chattykerry September 16, 2018 / 6:17 am

      I think I would rather not go down that road…😁

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Dave Ply September 16, 2018 / 8:51 am

    I suspect you’re right about Robinson and Evans using Chapel Royal as a front for a theater company, full of comely young wenches (er, boys). I’m assuming this was still the period when it was considered unseemly for women to act, so men and boys played the parts. They probably figured nobody would notice a few street urchins going missing, but picked one of the wrong “urchins” to kidnap.

    Liked by 1 person

    • toutparmoi September 16, 2018 / 9:51 am

      Yes – all male casts in those days. The whole episode is one of those fascinating little glimpses into the past that invite all sorts of questions.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Rachel McAlpine September 16, 2018 / 4:36 pm

    Impressive research! And what a great story, with a hero and villain… and subterranean nuances.

    Liked by 1 person

    • toutparmoi September 16, 2018 / 7:00 pm

      Very subterranean nuances! It’s a most intriguing tale.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Val September 17, 2018 / 11:52 pm

    Being furnished with well-singing children sounds like someone was collecting song-birds. Are we to know more of this or have you not found the manuscripts that explain it? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • toutparmoi September 19, 2018 / 9:24 am

      I like your song-bird analogy!
      I don’t think the cats will have more to say about this episode – they’re quick to lose interest in anything that doesn’t affect them directly. I have read (elsewhere) that Mr Clifton’s case against Evans, Giles, and Robinson seems to have taken a while to be heard. Perhaps the Essex uprising a couple of months later pushed it to the bottom of the Privy Council’s To Do list? Henry Evans was censured in 1602, and may have had to leave London for a while – but the records seem to be scrappy.

      And of course I got curious about young Thomas Clifton. Did he survive to adulthood? I poked about on the Net for mentions of him. He may be the Thomas Clifton of Toftrees noted as living during the reign of Charles I (i.e. after 1626 – by which time he would have been in his forties), in a late 18th/early 19th century history of Norfolk.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. colonialist October 5, 2018 / 9:51 am

    What an interesting and surprising warrant. I’m sure producers of this time and age would love something like that.
    We have a cat rescued from a factory very like Luvvie. Maybe his descendants acted badly and fell on hard times?

    Liked by 1 person

    • toutparmoi October 5, 2018 / 10:01 am

      That’s very likely. Life upon the boards would be hard for a cat.


  7. mitchteemley October 13, 2018 / 12:07 am

    Oh, dear! I know the military “pressed” men (sometimes very young) into service, but this is the first I’ve heard of the theatre doing so. Shame on my fellow thespians!

    Liked by 1 person

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