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 of this?” I arrkst.

“In my shop,” sayt he.  “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)