The Scope of the Henslowe-Alleyn Papers

The Scope of the Henslowe-Alleyn Papers

Grace Ioppolo

To begin with, Henslowe’s and Alleyn’s papers provide extensive, detailed, dated, and unique information about their daily, weekly or annual employment of dramatists and actors such as Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton, George Chapman, Thomas Heywood, Philip Massinger, Thomas Dekker, Cyril Tourneur, John Webster, Richard Burbage, Will Kemp and Nathan Field, among numerous others. Although William Shakespeare is not mentioned, he belonged to acting companies for which Henslowe commissioned plays or recorded income from play performances. As Henslowe’s famous ‘Diary’, or account book, makes clear, he contracted or staged over 325 plays, the texts of most of which are now lost. The 'Diary' thus greatly enlarges our knowledge of the canons of particular dramatists such as Jonson, Heywood, Chettle and Dekker, and establishes which authors wrote plays alone and how and when they collaborated with others. Henslowe also provides our most significant records for early modern performance schedules in general and in particular, especially in recording exactly when and where acting companies performed, and on which dates they moved to the provinces due to the closure of London playhouses in times of plague.

However, Henslowe's 'Diary' is not the only treasure among these papers. Letters patent, contracts, deeds, indentures, leases, depositions, travel diaries, personal letters, memoranda, briefly scribbled notes and a very wide variety of other manuscripts fully document Henslowe's and Alleyn's costs and revenues, and those of sharers, for all aspects of London theatre production and provincial touring, including the development, design, dimensions, construction and maintenance of public playhouses and blood sports arenas. The costs of staging plays are especially well documented, such as the commission and purchase of costumes, properties and sets from a variety of named tradesmen, as well as the loss of income during the plague by those whose businesses depended on playhouse attendance, such as 'watermen', who rowed passengers across the Thames.

More broadly, these extraordinary manuscripts explore the intersection between theatre and the political, cultural, religious and social spheres of early modern England. Henslowe and Alleyn document their personal and professional dealings with the most powerful figures from the 1570s to the 1620s, including monarchs: Queen Elizabeth I, King James I, Queen Anne, Prince Henry, and King Charles I; chancellors, Privy Councillors and courtiers: Sir Robert Cecil (Secretary of State), Sir Thomas Howard (Lord Treasurer), Charles Howard (Lord High Admiral), and William Herbert (Earl of Pembroke), as well as Sir Francis Bacon (Lord Chancellor), Sir Edward Coke, Sir Christopher Hatton, Ferdinando Stanley (Lord Strange), Thomas Sackville (Lord Buckhurst), George Villiers (Duke of Buckingham), and Henry Carey (the Lord Chamberlain and patron of Shakespeare’s acting company). Also included are the Master of the Rolls, Sir Julius Caesar; church leaders such as various Bishops of London, and John Donne, Dean of St Paul’s; foreign ambassadors, with the notorious Count Gondomar among them; local London officials such as Lord Mayors and Sheriffs; and the Masters of the Revels, Sir Edmund Tilney and George Buc. Other notable figures whose autograph papers are in the archive include Stephen Gosson, the polemicist and supposed scourge of the early modern stage.

In addition to their theatrical enterprises, Henslowe and Alleyn were shrewd investors in a number of businesses. As property developers, they purchased numerous parcels of land and leased commercial buildings throughout London, particularly in Southwark, Bishopsgate, Cripplegate, Shoreditch and Dulwich, as well as in York and Surrey. In fact, these records provide a virtual map of several London neighbourhoods. Henslowe particularly excelled in venture capitalism, earning income through banking, pawnbrokerage, mining iron ore, forestry and the marketing of Ashdown forest timber. But not all this financial success was for their own benefit: both men served as church-wardens and governors of various parishes, schools, and other institutions, through which they offered charity to the poor, sick or destitute, including colleagues imprisoned for debt. Alleyn's Diary especially documents his generosity in founding the Chapel and College of God's Gift, designed to educate twelve 'poor scholars', and the construction of adjacent almshouses for twelve elderly men and women. Even the beginnings of the Dulwich Picture Gallery are chronicled here.

All the detailed financial records of these enterprises, which illuminate a wide range of early modern economic, social, educational, regional, architectural and archaeological history, are also housed at Dulwich College. In sum, this manuscript archive is a rich, invaluable and unique part of English culture and heritage.