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Queen's Men History and Times

"...even if we know significantly less about the Queen's Men and their plays than we know about Shakespeare, it is certain that our theatrical inheritance would be considerably less rich if not for the twenty years they spent touring England as servants of their monarch."

Recognizing the significance of the Queen's Men's theatre history at the beginning of the 21st century requires digging and diligence. Most extant records dealing with them are dryly fiscal, their dramatic accomplishments have been overshadowed by the theatre scene of late sixteenth-century London, and none of their extant plays were written by a Shakespeare, a Marlowe, or a Jonson. But while they may fall below the radar of many contemporary audiences and readers of renaissance drama, their accomplishments were stunning, and from the beginning of their career, the Queen's Men were destined to be - if nothing else - remarkable.

Inception

The Queen's Men were, from their inception, a unique company. Founded in 1583 under the aegis of Queen Elizabeth I, the players who became members of the Queen's Men were drafted from existing troupes such as Leicester's Men and Sussex's Men to form an all-star company. Several explanations exist as to why the Queen's Men were formed - perhaps the theatre-loving Elizabeth granted her imprimatur to protect great players from anti-theatrical civic authorities, or perhaps she did so as part of an effort regularize playing companies - but their subsequent role and success are clear.

Popularity

Until the beginning of the 1590s, they performed regularly at court during the annual Christmas festivities, they were popular among London's discerning theatre audiences, and they were certainly the most prestigious and popular company in the nation. Traveling well-worn routes through the provinces, the Queen's Men would regularly appear in cities and towns, be granted permission to play, and would be paid - more than any other contemporaneous company - to perform. Even after the famous London companies such as the Admiral's Men became more popular than the Queen's Men at court and in the city, the Queen's Men continued to tour the provinces, and they remained the most successful company outside London until they finally disbanded in 1603.

Ideological Work

Apart from entertaining Elizabeth at court, the Queen's Men also performed political and ideological work on her behalf. As one might expect of a company who traveled under the queen's protection their plays espoused political views in line with royal policy when they toured the country: they idealized moderate Protestantism, they celebrated English nationalism, and they occasionally included encomiastic tributes to Elizabeth and her forebears. Indeed, their plays mostly lend themselves easily to this ideological work: regular doses of comedy no doubt contributed to their myth-making history plays that dealt with national monarchs including King Leir, King John, Henry IV, Henry V, and Richard III.

Quite possibly the Queen's Men also served as informants to the queen and her privy council, gathering information from the provinces when they traveled. Considering that Elizabeth's so-called spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham was integral in the founding of the Queen's Men - even though he otherwise showed little interest in drama - such questions about their work as informants seem inevitable.

Impact on Shakespeare

While it takes considerable digging and diligence to understand the Queen's Men at the beginning of the 21st century, their dramatic legacy was substantial and it remains quite familiar. For instance, though we're more likely to see one of Shakespeare's histories on stage than we are to see one of the Queen's Men's, it was the Queen's Men who invented the form of history play that Shakespeare reproduced to such great effect.

Shakespeare's professional relationship with the Queen's Men is unclear and it is likely to remain unclear unless new evidence is discovered, but Shakespeare certainly relied on the Queen's Men' plays when writing his own histories, taking plots, characters, and occasionally phrases from The True Tragedy of Richard III, for instance, or The Famous Victories of Henry V. Less precisely, the Queen's Men's also seem to have influenced Shakespeare's comic sensibility and they perhaps suggested to him the dramatic effectiveness of the juxtaposition of high and low scenes - a device that the Queen's Men use to great effect in most of their plays. Indeed, even if we know significantly less about the Queen's Men and their plays than we know about Shakespeare, it is certain that our theatrical inheritance would be considerably less rich if not for the twenty years they spent touring England as servants of their monarch.

Queen's Men Timeline and Touring

1583 1585 1586 1587 1588
1589 1590 1591 1594 1595
1598 1599 1603

1583

Queen's Men Formed - In late March, The Queen's Men are formed under the direction of Sir Francis Walsingham and the Earl of Leicester, composed of the finest actors from existing companies. Founder members include: John Adams, John Bentley, Lionel Cooke, John Dutton, John Garland, William Knell (poss. joined in 1585), John Lanham, Tobias Mills (or Myles), John Singer, Richard Tarlton, John Towne, and Robert Wilson. 

The Affray at Norwich - June 15, An affray involving members of the Queen's Men and a recalcitrant, unpaying audience member breaks out at The Red Lion in Norwich during a performance, leaving the audience member dead. Two members of the company, John Singer and John Bentley, are involved in the subsequent court case which seems to have been resolved without a trial and without recorded punishment for Singer or Bentley. For a detailed account of this moment in Queen's Men history, see Jennifer Roberts-Smith, "The Red Lion and the White Horse: Inns Used by Patronized Performers in Norwich, 1583-1624," Early Theatre 10:1 (2007) 110-111.

Clyomon and Clamydes - Likely date for the composition of Clyomon and Clamydes, though some argue that it was written as early as 1570. 

1585

John Bentley dies . - The register at St. Peter's Cornhill gives his age as 32. 

July, Tobias Mills dies - Buried at St. Olave's, Southwark in 1585. 

1586

William Knell marries 

1587

Richard Tarlton made Master of Fence 

Famous Victories - The latest possible date for The Famous Victories of Henry V. Tarlton's Jests includes a story about  Tarlton and Knell performing a scene from Famous Victories, and Knell died in June of this year. 

William Knell killed in Duel - A coroner's inquest reports that on 13 June, 1587, between 9 and 10 pm, Knell entered a close called White Hound in Thame, Oxfordshire and assaulted John Towne, his fellow actor. Towne, fearing for his life, took to the high ground of a nearby "mound" and put his sword through Knell's neck in self-defence. Knell was dead within the half-hour. The Queen pardoned Towne on 15 August after it was determined he acted in self-defense (Shakespeare in Warwickshire, 82-83, 157-158). 

Selimus - The earliest possible date for a performance of Selimus because Selimus is clearly a response to Marlowe's Tamburlaine. It was first published, without being entered in the Stationers' Register, in 1594 by Thomas Creede.

1588

Richard Tarlton dies. September 3, Richard Tarlton dies. He was buried in St. Leonard's Shoreditch.

Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay - Probably first performed before Tarlton's death on September 3; the part of Miles was likely written for him.

1589

Lawrence Dutton has joined the company - John Dutton's brother Lawrence Dutton reported as a member of the Queen's Men.

Three Lords and Ladies of London - Wilson composes Three Lords and Ladies of London. The play refers explicitly to The Spanish Armada and to the death of Tarlton, and it was first entered in the Stationers' Register in 1590 before being published by Richard Jones. 

Queen's Men Tour Ireland - July: A branch of the Queen's Men, in their most ambitious tour, visits Ireland. 

Queen's Men perform in Edinburgh - October, The Queen's Men travel to Edinburgh to perform at the wedding of James VI to Anna of Denmark; the wedding is postponed when Anna is trapped by adverse winds at Oslo. 

1590

Three Lords and Ladies of London - The play is entered in the Stationers' Register, and is published in the same year, by Richard Jones.

1591

The Troublesome Reign of King John Published- The Troublesome Reign of King John was published by Sampson Clarke without prior entry in the Stationers' Register. 

Old Wives Tale - Earliest possible date for the composition of Old Wives' Tale. In Old Wives Tale, Peele continues a public squabble with Gabriel Harvey that probably began in 1591. 

1594

Last Queens' Men Appearance at Court? January 6, The Queen's Men make their final recorded appearance at court. The company continues to tour the provinces.

Titus Andronicus - January 24, Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus is entered in Henslowe's diary, though it may have been written as early as 1589.

Queen's Men at the Rose - April 1-8, The Queen's Men appear with Sussex's Men at the Rose; this is their final recorded performance in London or the suburbs. 

Queen's Men Plays published - May 14, The Famous Victories of Henry V entered in the Stationers' Register for Thomas Creede. King Leir and Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay are registered for Adam Islip, though Islip's name is struck through and replaced with Edward White's name.

True Tragedy of Richard III - June 19, The True Tragedy of Richard III is entered in the Stationers' Register for Thomas Creede, and is published by Creede in the same year.

Selimuspublished by Thomas Creede without an entry in the Stationers' Register.

1595

Old Wives Tale Published - April 16, The Old Wives Tale is entered in the Stationers' Register for Ralph Hancock. The play was printed in the same year by John Danter to be sold by Hancock and John Hardie. 

Actor John Garland granted annuity - Company player John Garland was granted an annuity of 2 shillings a day by the Queen.

1598

Famous Victories Published- The Famous Victories of Henry V published by Thomas Creede. We believe it was performed before 1587 because Edward Knell is reported to have played Henry V and he died that year. 

1599

Clyomon and Clamydes - The play is published by Thomas Creede, but it is believed to have been part of the Queen's Men repertoire for many years.

1603

Final Recorded Performance by the Queen's Men - The Queen's Men perform their final show of which there is a record in Congleton, some time between Christmas 1602 and Elizabeth I's death. 

The Queen Dies - 24 March, Elizabeth I dies.

Interactive Map

This site will eventually include an interactive map showing routes and places visited on tour, with local information supplied from Camden and other historiographer pop-ups; and links to other websites, such as The Map of Early Modern London <http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/>.

Queen's Men Actors' Biographies

Patrons and Performances Website

(REED): <http://link.library.utoronto.ca/reed/> links to REED Volumes (all REED references to the QM).