Chester Tragedy

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The commentary on "Henslowe's Diary" by Walter Wilson Greg, attempts to shed some light on the missing play.

Philip Henslowe (c. 1550 – 6 January 1616) was an Elizabethan theatrical entrepreneur and impresario. Henslowe's modern reputation rests on the survival of "Henslowe's Diary", a primary source for information about the theatrical world of Renaissance London. The diary makes a reference to a play about the Earl of Chester: a play which has since been "lost". Maybe some of the history around the play conceals an untold story of spying on catholic plotters, or it could just be co-incidence.

Randal Earl of Chester

The reference in Henslowe appears to relate to a payment to Thomas Middleton on October 21st 1602 of £4 in "part payment for his play Chester Tragedy" and of 40s on 9 November of the same year in "full payment of his play called Randall Earl of Chester".

Thomas Middleton (baptised 18 April 1580 – July 1627; also spelt Midleton) was an English Jacobean playwright and poet. He, together with John Fletcher and Ben Jonson, were among the most successful and prolific of playwrights at work in the Jacobean period, and among the few to gain equal success in comedy and tragedy. He was also a prolific writer of masques and pageants. The "Chester Play", if it existed, would be among his earliest works.

The Wise Man of West Chester

This is another play which seems to concern Chester and is also lost but mentioned in Henlowe's diary several times. He first records its title in a note of a performance at "The Rose" playhouse on 3rd December 1594, as "The Wise Man of Chester", but in later entries the setting will instead be called "West Chester". Some scholars believe that it survives under a different title, "John a Kent and John a Cumber", but the evidence for this has been so far very weak. The play was something of a success after a very poor start.

There is some suggestion that this was a "disguise play", in which the actor's, who would have been very familiar to the audience, concealed their appearance and contrived plots which used multiple disguises for the lead players. Certainly, disguises feature in a further related play, as discussed below.

John a Kent and John a Cumber

John a Kent and John a Cumber is a sixteenth-century English play by Anthony Munday. Munday probably already had appeared on the stage as an actor when he was bound apprenticed in 1576 for eight years to the stationer John Allde, an apprenticeship from which he was soon released. By 1578 he was in Rome. In the opening lines of his English Romayne Lyfe (1582) he states that he went abroad solely in order to see strange countries and to learn foreign languages; but he may have been a spy sent to report on the Jesuit English College in Rome or a journalist intent on making literary capital out of the designs of the English Catholics then living in France and Italy. Under a false name, as the son of a well-known English Catholic, Munday gained recommendations which secured his reception at the English College in Rome. During the later part of the reign of Elizabeth the Jesuits staged a secret mission to England. In 1579, Pope Gregory XIII put the English seminary at Rome (which had been established in 1575 by William Allen) under the control of the Jesuits. Allen, who was regarded as the leader of the exiled English Catholics, visited Rome soon afterwards and took the opportunity to lobby for the Jesuits themselves to participate on the English mission, for which they had undertaken to train the seminary students. It was this mission that Munday was spying on.

The play refers to Ranulph the Earl of Chester and his court and to a romantic entaglement beteen the protagonists and the daughters of "Llwellen" (Sydanen) and the Earl of Chester (Marian). Other characters include a son to the Earl named Oswen. The author clearly has some knowledge of Chester as he is aware of the story of how Edgar the Pacific was rowed to St Johns. It is difficult to identify which Earl of Chester the play relates to: Ranulf de Blondeville had no known children although he was a contemporary of Llywelyn the Great and both were involved in the dynastic marriage of John Canmore to Elen ferch Llywelyn (1222). This is similar to the intened marriage of the daughter of "Llwellen" to "Moorton" (a Scot). In addition, another daughter of Llywelyn, Elen the Younger ferch Llywelyn (born before 1230; died after 16 February 1295), married firstly Máel Coluim II, Earl of Fife (son of Duncan Macduff of Fife and wife Alice Corbet), and secondly (after 1266) Domhnall I, Earl of Mar (son of William, Earl of Mar and first wife Elizabeth Comyn of Buchan). Elen and Domhall's daughter, Isabella of Mar, married Robert, the Bruce, King of Scots and had one child by him, Marjorie Bruce, who was the mother of the first Stewart monarch, Robert II of Scotland.

Guy Fawkes at Holywell as engraved by George Cruikshank (1840). Back in the summer of 1605, just a few months before the planned attack on the Houses of Parliament, a group of around 30 "pilgrims" made a journey from north London to Holywell. The group included many leading Catholics, including Anne Vaux, her sister Eleanor Brooksby and some of the most notorious figures in the Gunpowder Plot including Sir Everard Digby, Edward Oldcorne, Nicholas Owen and Father Henry Garnet. Guy Fawkes did not actually go on the pilgrimage.

It does not appear that there is any clearly overt political sub-text in the play, but plays of the time often contain references which are quite deeply concealed. Shakespeare borrowed the character Banquo from Holinshed's Chronicles, a history of Britain published by Raphael Holinshed in 1587 (2nd ed.). In the Chronicles Banquo is an accomplice to Macbeth in the murder of the king, rather than a loyal subject of the king who is seen as an enemy by Macbeth. Shakespeare may have changed this aspect of his character to please King James (king of England 24 March 1603 – 27 March 1625), who was thought at the time to be a descendant of the real Banquo. While the precise dating of the play is unknown, a holographic transcript (dated 1590 in another hand) exists and there is some evidence that it was being performed on stage as early as 1587 (i.e. the year of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots). Thus while the play predates the accession of James it would have obvious at the time that next king of England would almost certainly be James VI of Scotland, and that his son Henry Frederick would become both Prince of Wales (and eventually) Earl of Chester. There was no Prince of Wales or Earl of Chester during the reign of the childless Elizabeth (7 September 1533 – 24 March 1603).

Munday mentions St Winefride's Well (Holywell) several times in his play possibly indicating at least some familiarity with the area and his Robin Hood plays have mention of the "Earle of Huntington", one of the titles of John Canmore. The mention of the well is interesting as Henry VIII caused the shrine and any saintly relics to be destroyed, although in the 17th century, the well became known as a symbol of the survival of Catholic recusancy in Wales. Following the Reformation Holywell became the only shrine where Catholicism could be practised relatively openly, and the importance it therefore assumed for Catholics was immense. Even given that the Government frequently attempted to suppress St Winefride’s cult, Catholic resistance kept pilgrimages alive despite their having been proscribed and even though ministering as a Catholic priest was a capital offence. From early in their mission to England, the Jesuits supported the well. The first Jesuit Mission was established in Holywell in 1590 with a duty to record and safeguard reports of miracles. Pilgrims continued to visit the well, and constables turned a blind eye to these pilgrimages so long as the peace was not disturbed. Leading Catholic families such as the Mostyns, owning large estates near the well, played asignificant role in keeping St Winefride’s cult alive. In 1605, many of those involved with the Gunpowder plot, including Henry Garnet, visited it with Father Edward Oldcorne to give thanks for his deliverance from throat cancer, or as some said, to plan the plot. Sir Edward Coke, the barrister involved in the trial of the plotters, referred to the pilgrimage as "a ruse" to allow the conspirators to gather supporters.

Curiously, the only surviving copy of the text of the play was found in the collection of the Mostyn's, and as noted below is in the author's own hand. Sir Thomas Mostyn (c.1542 – 1618) was responsible for dealing with the persistent problem of St. Winifred’s Well in Holywell, the most prominent focus for Catholic resistance in the whole of Wales and north-west England. However Sir Thomas Mostyn was contemporarily described as "a man not very rigid against Catholics". He apparently discovered a secret catholic printing shop in a cave (possibly a mine) under the Great Orme and may well have allowed the escape of those operating it. The continued involvement of the Mostyn's with the well is implied by the following passage from the Topographical Dictionary of Wales (London, 1849) of Samuel Lewis:

  • "The delusive practices above mentioned were renewed in the reign of Mary, by the interest of Thomas Goldwell, Bishop of St. Asaph, who, on the accession of Elizabeth, fled into Italy. The last pilgrim of royal lineage that visited the shrine of St. Winifred was James II., on August 29th, 1686; on which occasion he is said to have received part of the dress worn by Mary, Queen of Scots, at the time of her execution. His queen addressed to Sir Roger Mostyn, Bart., an order for putting the chapel over the well into the possession of a Roman Catholic priest."

One complication is that according to some older accounts the original "finder" of the text of the play was the supposed forger John Payne Collier. So while we know that the play existed from secondary documents some doubt could possibly be raised over whether the existing text is real. However this is cleared-up if the text is as supposed, in the author's own hand and the date at the end added later. Also other sources give the discoverer as Frederick Madden rather than Collier, who was the printer of the first typeset edition.

The plot of the play, such as it can be understood, relates to a pair of magicians holding a "battle" in Chester which involves various illusions. The most common one being that they both appear alike in the form of an old hermit with a false beard (see: Hermitage for the link with Chester), appearing up to four times "at once" apparently with the assistance of mechanical props including a hollow tree and a trapdoor in the stage. Whether these are actually supposed to be two separate magicians or one and the same is not entirely clear. The trope of two magicians engaging in a contest seems to have been popular at the time and is also found in Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay a comedy written by Robert Greene.

The well at Holywell ran dry in 1917 when the miners 2.5 miles away excavating the Milwr Tunnel cut into the underground river which feeds it. The problem was fixed after some weeks.

There are hints in the text that the other players are also at times disguised. In the play John's arsenal of tricks also includes disguising himself as a Jesuit friar, producing magical music and generating a strange mist. His assistant, "Shrimp", appears intended as a "demonic" character who can become invisible to the characters in the play although they can hear his flute. The play cannot be described as a tragedy and is more of a comedy including a series of minor stage effects and tricks, and so is likely not be related at all to the lost "Randall Earl of Chester", which has been claimed to be a re-working of it. Little in de Blondeville's life could form the direct basis for a tragedy, which provides another reason for the "Randal" play (by Middleton) not being the same as "John" (by Munday).

John a Kent was a legendary figure about whom stories were still being told in the Welsh border counties into the nineteenth century. The legendary John o’ Kent or Jacky Kent is said to have lived in the Herefordshire/Monmouthshire borders at an unspecified medieval date. Dr. Ifor Williams, of the University of Wales Bangor, collected a compendium of the main suspects in 1925. He considered the most likely characters upon whom the legend is built are the Welsh Franciscan friar Dr John Gwent or Kent, who died in 1348, Dr John Kent of Caerleon, an astronomer, who wrote a treatise on witchcraft in the thirteenth century, and John Kent, a Robin Hood-like figure who roamed the Welsh Marches (interestingly, the play has a "mayde Marian"). Others, including John Hobson Matthews, favor the Franciscan friar, John of Kentchurch, who was not only an accomplished writer, poet and Welsh bard, but he was a scientist of note, seemingly able to perform "miraculous feats" by his knowledge of nature. It seems possible that The Wise Man (or men) of (West) Chester was somehow, probably loosely, based on this celebrated "wise man". There may well have been ballads about John a Kent, ballads that referred to him as the "Wise Man of Westchester", as there also undoubtedly were ballads about another character in the play, Ranulph Earl of Chester; although none about either man are extant. The ballad "Lord Randal" has been said to be based on the poisoning of Ranulph De Gernon. John a Cumber appears to have been created by Munday, and the "Cumber" refers to Cumberland which was part of Scotland at the time that the play is set. This also has a connection to the Earls of Chester as in 1092, King William Rufus of England invaded the Carlisle district, settling it with colonists. He created an Earldom of Carlisle, and granted the territory to Ranulf de Meschines then Earl of Chester. However, the first and second treaties of Durham had transferred much of the ancestral holdings of Ranulph De Gernon in Cumbria to the Scots.

All the above seems to suggest the play is a-political, however recent theories have suggested that Munday was secretly a Catholic sympathist. The earlier view was that he was distinctly anti-catholic. A tract published in the very beginning of 1582, written in vindication of the Jesuit Edmond Campion, and of others executed with him on 1st December, 1581, contains an attack upon Munday, who had been one of the witnesses against them. It is asserted in the tract that he had been a stage-player before he became an apprentice. The work claimss to be "A true reporte of the death and martyrdome of M. Campion, Jesuite and preiste, and M. Sherwin and M. Bryan, preistes, at Tiborne, the first of December, 1581. Observed and written by a Catholike preist which was present therat". Perhaps the reality is that either Munday was a catholic sympathiser who pretended not to be or someone who changed sides at some point (a very dangerous thing either way).

The "Chester plays" of Munday may be simple story-telling about traditional characters, but might also contain hidden "topical" references to catholicism (for example by the references to Winifried's well), a English/Scottish union and two (or perhaps just one) shady characters controling the action by disguise and deception. Possibly more on this play and how what might well be the author's own "fair copy" came to be near the well he mentions several times remains to come to light.

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