Travelling players, minstrelsy, Shakespeare and spies

Sometime in the early 1600s, the Warwickshire antiquarian Sir Simon Archer transcribed a document dated St Matthew’s Day – 21 September – 1444 and signed by John Talbot, second earl of Shrewsbury (and the hero of 1 Henry VI). In it, Talbot confirmed the rights of all Shropshire minstrels to gather in Shrewsbury each year on the feast of St Peter in Chains, held on 1 August, also known as Lammas Day.

On that day, they were to elect a king to govern them for the year to come and then march through the town beneath torches and banners to mark his inauguration. The right apparently dated back to the reign of William the Conqueror when Roger de Montgomery, then earl of Shrewsbury, was stricken with leprosy. A dream had told Montgomery to make pilgrimage to the chapel of Araske – otherwise unknown – where a drop of wax from an eternal candle, lit by the virgin Mary at the birth of her son, would heal him. Despite days of prayer and devotion, the wax refused to fall. But on the thirteenth day, the earl’s minstrel went to pray, the candle descended for him, and the wax dripped, and Roger was made whole. The minstrels’ right was Roger’s gift of thanks.

I came across the story in one of the Records of Early English Drama (REED) volumes for Shropshire. It seemed to articulate for me something compellingly strange and distant about the pre-Reformation itinerant culture of minstrelsy: its proximity to power; its capacity for solemnity as well as joy; the rituals of torchlight, of candlelight and music, of the procession or pageant, fashioned into statements of group identity; the moral seriousness of the mock court and the way that order and organisation – even of something as inherently chaotic as minstrelsy – was expressed through a pseudo-feudal hierarchy, sublimating, perhaps even resolving, what seemed to me an apparent tension between liveried servitude and the liberty of travel.

Of course, the legend may not be true. Alan Somerset, the editor of REED’s Shropshire volumes, doubts it on the factual grounds of the known lives of both Montgomery and Talbot, as well as the absence of confirmatory data in the extensive surviving Shrewsbury records. Nevertheless, such courts did exist: one at Chester lasted from 1210 until the eighteenth century; another, confirmed by John of Gaunt at Tutbury in 1380, was still active in the 1630s; and there were others.

We tend to think of travelling entertainers – insofar as we are aware of them – as marginal, anarchic figures, moving uneasily outside a rigid social order, and there is some truth to that image, particularly after the Reformation, when they became increasingly anomalous. But in the pre-Reformation world, they had wider claims to social legitimacy which the formation of guild-like organisations such as these underscores.

True minstrels wore their master’s livery and attended on his family as required for feast-day entertainments and family celebrations; but otherwise they travelled – both as part of the greater feudal retinue in a more peripatetic age – but also on their own or with other entertainers to supplement their earnings. Of course, there were always those who took advantage of the minstrel’s movable world to engage in the predictable round of thefts and fraud at inns, fairs and markets. But, presumably, the minstrel’s courts were in some senses an attempt to control such behaviour, that is, by legitimising a cadre of minstrels, disclaiming any association with petty crime.

As well as illuminating that desire for social order, the Shrewsbury legend also implies an idea of minstrelsy as a medium for the divine, which reminds us that the minstrel’s significance extended far beyond ballads and music to dance or march to, and that their music was a key ornament of both religious and secular life. Music – even at its most secular – has always opened a door to transcendence and bliss: John of Gaunt’s ‘deep harmony’ at the approach of death in Richard II or the way ‘The trumpets, sackbuts, psalteries and fifes,/ Tabors and cymbals…/ Make the sun dance’ as a messenger reports in Coriolanus.

The role of the minstrel – a term which covers all musicians, ranging from trumpeters, drummers and pipers to the more delicate, intimate playing of harps and lutes – was much more than that of mere entertainer. If they were not significant players in the rituals of power, minstrels were certainly central to the formal assertion and celebration of that power and very much identified with it: ‘The man that hath no music in himself,/Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,/ Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils’ says Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice.

Music was a kind of order in itself, but it also echoed the wider moral order of the society around it. Minstrels were engaged in a kind of propaganda: display and ceremony and expense were indivisible from the language of authority, and the brazen din of trumpets and drums were always also a blast of feudal privilege, a statement of intent.

The necessary proximity of the minstrels to their masters, attending to them in both public and private, conferred a sometimes surprising degree of intimacy to the relationship. It could be immediately useful; in September 1470, Edward IV – away from court in the North to suppress Warwick’s rebellion – had his life saved by Alexander Carlisle, his sergeant of minstrels, who roused him from dark sleep to warn of his enemies’ approach. But, if combined with the other defining characteristic of the minstrel – their freedom of movement – that intimacy and trust could bear unexpected fruit. As Ian Arthurson writes, in his study of late medieval espionage, ‘The norm for spying was the itinerant… the individual who, “in a society in which mobility was indubitably an important characteristic”, would hardly be noticed.’ Minstrels fit that definition perfectly, he argues. ‘The status of such men, not merely their peregrinations, made them spies.’

Holinshed tells how King Alfred disguised himself as a minstrel and entered the Danish camp, ‘and was suffered to go into every part, and play on his instrument, as well afore the king as others, so that there was no secret, but that he understood it’. The story is a desperate counterpart to that of Hortensio in The Taming of the Shrew, disguising himself as a man ‘cunning in music and mathematics’ in order to enter Baptista’s house to woo Bianca.

One of Henry VIII’s spies, a musician, went so far as to add his own compostions to his dispatches for the king’s amusement; his code name was Alamire, or La Ri Me. Players, too, when they came to prominence in the 16th century, were just as useful as couriers or conveyers of intelligence. When Sir Philip Sidney was in the Netherlands with the Earl of Leicester in January 1586, he used ‘Will my Lord of Leicester’s jesting player’ to carry letters back home to his wife. (Sidney’s apparent closeness to the players shows an unremarked side to his personality; as I note in my blog on Tarlton, Sidney was godfather to his son, a remarkably intimate gesture that would seem to transgress what we would consider to have been the norms of social hierarchy at the time.)

It’s sometimes suggested – hoped might be a better word – that this Will of Leicester’s was Shakespeare, although the reference to the player as a jester makes it more likely – if it is anyone whose name is known to us – to have been the clown Will Kempe, who took up Tarlton’s crown and would later act in the Chamberlain’s Men with Shakespeare in the 90s. Admirers of Shakespeare might do better to hope this is not their man: whoever this ‘Will’ was, he was not particularly competent, delivering the letters to Leicester’s wife by mistake. This was particularly unfortunate since the letters in fact contained what the DNB drily describes as ‘some undiplomatic remarks’ about Lady Leicester herself.

I don’t want to over-stress here the elusive and complex nexus of performance and espionage, although an awareness that the engagement of the two had roots stretching back centuries perhaps helps explain the otherwise slightly bafflingly numerous associations with spying among Shakespeare’s peers, most famously Marlowe, but also Jonson, Munday, Daniel and Watson. But the relationship between the two does highlight a truth about the players’ status that is worth noting: the players’ ability to move between different worlds made it difficult for others to define that status in a hierarchical and hereditary society, which inevitably generated a sense of unease.

Players had an unrivalled intimacy of access to any level of that hierarchy, and as such were always outside it. Other considerations aside, it is no wonder why they were often perceived as a threat to the social order. It wasn’t merely the disorder that could accompany performances; or the perceived lewdness and profanity of the plays themselves; or their competition for audiences with the church – a competition which the players largely won: ‘Woe is me! The play houses are pestered, when churches are naked; at one it is not possible to get a place, at the other void seats are plenty…’ complained one of Walsingham’s correspondents in January 1587.

It was also that the players by their very nature were slippery and protean: they could not be trusted. ‘Different’ and ‘difficult’ might have been their motto. Of course, I do not wish to make the point that minstrels or players were regularly dispatched with specific orders to spy. But it is clear that when they travelled, both within and without the lands of their patrons, they were always in themselves emblematic of their master’s authority: they wore his livery and represented something of his power and prestige. They were walking propaganda, but they listened as much as they talked.

FURTHER READING: Scott MacMillin and Sally-Beth Maclean The Queen’s Men and Their Plays; ‘Secular Musicians in Late-Medieval England’, the doctoral thesis of Richard Rastell, Professor of Historical Musicology at Leeds University, available online here

NOTE: For more Shakespeare, catholicism and the pre-Reformation festive culture, see my post here. My thoughts on the Shakespeare authorship controversy are here and here.

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