Martin the Minstrel and the Playhouses of Suffolk

How did ordinary people “play” in towns and cities outside of London in early modern England?  Leisure is a crucial aspect of middling experience and a key theme for this project, which aims to understand the different elements of non-elite cultural experience, ranging from gambling to reading to musical tuition.

Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Ipswich and its surroundings—one of our community case studies—offers an insight into the vibrancy and variation of public forms of “play” in this period, one that tells us a great deal about how Tudor and Stuart people understood recreation (and, in turn, how the development of the playing industry in London had crucial “provincial” contexts).  Our work on Bristol has already shown how a long-standing playhouse in Wine Street (operative for some 20 years) sat at the centre of a lively political and commercial network of middling individuals in the early seventeenth century. This property was a tenement with one front door and several rooms—all let out for various purposes—in which one or two rooms were used to host “comedians.”  Despite, or perhaps because of, the multipurpose nature of this property, its proprietor Margaret Woolfe explained that it was “commonlie called the playhouse” by Bristolians (The National Archives MS C2/328/28).  Her description testifies to the flexible nature of the term “playhouse” and its applicability to a range of architecturally-, commercially-, and recreationally-diverse enterprises.

“for kepinge A pleyhowse”

The archives of Ipswich and wider Suffolk contain further evidence of the way expansive “play” activities shaped the lives of the non-elite.  

In 1627, Jacob Abadham was reportedly running a playhouse in Ipswich.  It’s not certain quite what was on offer in the establishment, but like the Woolfes’ venue in Bristol, the Quarter Sessions cited Abadham “for kepinge a Pleyhouse,” in this case among a list of individuals bound £10 “not to plaie att vnlawfull games” (which could encompass anything from dicing and carding to bowling) on the 17 January (Suffolk Archives  C/2/9/1/1/8, 178).  Two years later, John Payne was bound “not to suffer any pleyinge in his house” (28 July 1629; 198).  Such instances indicate how the term playhouse described, at least in this corner of the country, spaces where “game” was practised and extend the connections between the performance of playing and gaming along the lines recently identified by theatre historians such as Gina Bloom, Erika Lin, and Tom Bishop.  It also testifies to Peter Clarke’s remarks about how, in the wake of attacks on church-orientated festival, the alehouse increasingly became a centre of communal games and rituals (with a corresponding increase in regulation) (The English Alehouse [1983]).

These activities sat among a broader spectrum of what residents would have termed playing.  Visiting bearwards, for instance—particularly in the mid-to-late sixteenth-century—were popular purveyors of entertainment in the area.  One payment from 1565 records a fee delivered to the “dewekes bereward for his reward for baitinge of his beares vppon the corne hill” (Suffolk Archives C/3/2/1, 21v [19]).  This entry indicates where exactly bearbaiting would occur in early modern Ipswich—in the Cornhill immediately before the main civic building, the Moot Hall (or Town Hall). 

from John Webb, The Town Finances of Elizabethan Ipswich (1996)

This is not only where all the work of government and legal proceedings would take place, but it was also where visiting troupes of players would have performed before the town authorities and perhaps wider audiences.  These include “national” troupes patronised by major figures (including the Queen, Fortescue, Worcester, or Pembroke) but also troupes identified by their very regionality: “c{er}ten players of Lincolnshere” (SA C/3/2/1, 29r [27]) and “Mr Tewk{es} plaiers the highe sheriff of Essex” (21v [19]).  

When the cook Henry Semer was arrested in Ipswich on 14 March 1620 “for ffightinge w{i}th the pleyers” (SA C/2/9/1/1/8, 59), it may therefore have been an altercation with one of these well-rewarded visitors, but it could also have been for a quarrel with somebody he knew well.  The town had a long history of its own performers, particularly surrounding the prominent Martin the Minstrel, rewarded frequently in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign for his varied theatrical labours in and around the town.  It also seemingly commissioned its own drama from local schoolchildren; in 1565, the Chamberlain “paide for a play to mr Scott{es} lads the sonday before newe yeres day [10s]” (SA C/3/2/1, 12r).

Middling Minstrelsy?

But what does the elastic nature of “play” have to do with the cultural lives of the middling sort?  Play represents one vehicle for achieving prominent status in the community and for securing the type of local political and administrative agency that so often marks out those in the “middle” stratum of society from their more precarious, even disenfranchised, neighbours.

Community performance is one area that might afford such agency.  The study of civic pageantry is at present an especially lively field, and Tracey Hill’s work and her current REED Civic London project explore the breadth and extent of those involved in theatrical activity across livery companies, the mayoralty, and beyond in the early modern capital.  Ipswich’s political structures—upheld by the type of people this project aims to learn more about—were no less involved with the commissioning of play, and as a consequence (beyond “patronage” and livery), the notion of formal administrative “officeholding” extends in this period to performance.

In 1558, the first year of the Queen’s reign, the chief performer of early Elizabethan Ipswich Martin the Minstrel was carried by the Chamberlain and his horse to see the local MP, John Suliard (SA C/3/2/1, 6r).  Martin’s role in local diplomacy and civic ceremony indicates the crucial connection between public office and professional performance in this particular community, and he and his company also play “before” the bailiffs’ physical and symbolic “entry” into their roles in 1567.  

To Martyn the mynstrell for him & his company in plaienge before m{aste}r baylyff{es} at ther entrye of ther Baylywicke xs

(SA C/3/2/1, 29r)

To Martyn the minstrell for playenge before M{aste}r Bayly Whetcrofte at his goinge to m{i}chaelmas t{er}me [no cost entered]

(SA C/3/2/1, 29r)

It is highly likely that Martin the Minstrel is also William Marten, musician and player, who was funded by the town to perform in his various “entertainment” roles, including fees for him “and his companye for A playe at the mote hall” in 1572 (ibid. 38r).  By 1582, Ipswich had purchased

at the request of Will{ia}m marten musician the said Will{ia}m marten & his Company being 6 in all […] waight{es} [woodwind instruments] bought at the townes chardge & that he & they shall therewith s{er}ue the towne for one yere in suche order as by the bayliff{es} shalbe thoguht mete & requisit And the said Will{ia}m & his Company to send to the considerac{i}on of the towne, for ther wages in that behalf, And it is furder Agreed by the consent of the said will{ia}m that if the towne shall not lyke of ther s{er}uice At the yere ende that then he the said will{ia}m shall repaye the som{m}e f money the towne shall so disburse backe ageyne And for the better assurance of payment therof the said Will{ia}m p{ro}miseth to stonde bound with sufficient suerties Accordyngly as by mr Bayliff{es} for the tyme being shall thinke mete And allowe of/.

(SA C/2/2/2/1, 142)

The company were kept as the town waits (“musicians” or performers named after the popular woodwind instrument similar to the oboe—the “wait”) from this date forward, ratified again in 1590 (ibid. 293), before in 1597 they were discharged of their retainer in the time of sickness (March 1597).  Martin’s skills ranged in thirty-odd years of service from “playeng the fooles in the hall” (SA C/3/2/1, 30r) to professional musicianship.  His company’s career was already established by the time it was appointed to civic service, though continuance in that role seemingly depended upon the tastes and approval of the Ipswich governing authorities.  

The shawm or wait (Wikimedia Commons)

The hiring of Marten’s troupe formalised the existing relationship between Ipswich and the “independent” Martin the Minstrel and his company, instituting a new career phase in a public service role akin to the “watch” or to beadles, surveyors, or highways inspectors.  Other such offices rewarded by the Chamberlains include attorneys, pursuivants, and sergeants—roles more formally recognised today, perhaps, as part of a town hierarchy.  Yet Martin’s activities also position him as a man of both financial success (with regular reward from the Chamberlain) and “office,” as the local player and musician leader.  

More surprisingly, Marten also occupies a second formal role in civic administration as the clerk of the market.  From at least 1574 onwards, for several years, he received payments of 6 shillings and 8 pence per quarter for this responsibility, at the same time as he fulfilled his theatrical roles.  These successive payments from 1575 testify to a complementary relationship between creative performance and bureaucratic office in the early modern commonwealth:

It{e}m p{ai}d to Will{ia}m Marten clarke of the markett the xxiiijtie daye of Iune for his q{uar}ter wag{es} — vjs viiijd

It{e}m p{ai}d to will{ia}m marten Clarke of the markett more the xxtie daye of Iune by a warrant for musicke at ye gilde dinn{er} — xs

(SA C/3/2/1, 87r)

Marten’s social status is therefore determined by both public administration and play.  An inventory from 1580 made by the town treasurer indicates how these roles had similar material concerns regarding the township’s possessions, with the inventory of items “vnder the Custodie of will{ia}m Marten clark of the m{ar}kett” including several bushells, a chain, brass scales, “A pound wayte & A q{uar}ter of A pound” (165r).  A fortunate pun therefore draws together Martin the minstrel—player of the wait (the woodwind instrument)—with Marten the clerk, who commanded the town’s measures and weights. 

Not only does Marten rise above hand-to-mouth existence thanks to his regular employments here, but his negotiations between local authority, townspeople, and a paying public position him as a key civic actor, in all senses of the term.  Such roles are particularly important if we are to understand this broad and complex status of those between the “elite” and the wage labourer, particularly in the case of early modern Ipswich and Bristol: urban environments where major political power was increasingly monopolised by a closed oligarchy but where intermediate positions (such as Marten’s) delivered degrees of civic agency. Marten the Minstrel’s biography as gleaned from these records may be scattered, but it allows us to put him as an early, provincial parallel (albeit on a smaller scale) to successful actor-entrepreneurs with civic or royal responsibilities in London later in the century, such as Edward Alleyn.

Work, Home, and Play 

Marten’s offices represent one aspect of middling status inextricably bound up with theatrical performance, but the social significance of play for a range of non-elite men and women also extended to physical spaces.  We have seen, for instance, how Abadham was cited for running a playhouse and Payne fined for playing at his house.  In this sense, “play” can bring together the ostensibly closed domestic home with public and even commercial leisure activity.

Inns and taverns doubled up themselves as play/houses, and these spaces may indicate an overlap with Abadham’s or Payne’s properties: there was a worryingly thin line for authorities in this period between the common inn or alehouse and a household that played host to multiple visitors—not least in a period where regulation of victualling houses, rented rooms, and inns was intensifying (see, for instance, punishment by imprisonment of any “such p{er}sons as have taken any Inmates into their houses” [1625; SA C/2/9/1/1/8, 151]).  Those ranging from the JAMs (the just-about-middling—those above wage labour) to the upper ends of middle status (those pushing gentry level) frequented such spots to play, gamble, and/or drink, and Mark Hailwood’s study of the alehouse (ostensibly the “lowest” drinking spot) has illustrated the demographic diversity of these social spaces.  

What might be on the surface more clearly be defined as a domestic house—and middling homes in particular—also had sense of multiplicity and permeability.  Catherine and Tara explore in A Day at Home in Early Modern England how these properties acted as “multifunctional houses and spaces” with a “penetration of work and leisure, domestic and commercial production” (266).  This happens not only at the level of household production or artisanal practice (in the sense that a goldsmith’s workshop, say, may be in the street-facing room of their home), but at the level of game and play, too.  

When Peter Watlyn was indicted for “pleyinge & sufferinge pleye” in Ipswich in September 1621 (SA C/2/9/1/1/8, 92) or when Thomas Cowper was indicted simply for “pleyenge” (1623, ibid. 108) they were being accused of hosting and practising an activity that sat, uncomfortably for authorities, between public commerce and “private” sinfulness.  According to more cynical commentators, they also help to fill the civic coffers; T.F.’s Newes from the North (1579) complained that town officials only pay lip service to the punishment of unlawful gamers, arguing that “if there were as great gayn and profit to the Magistrates and Officers in the godly lives and honest conversation of the common people as there is in the contrary: these harbours of ungodliness and misnurture, would have less favour anad maintenance than they have” (F4r).  Watlyn, Cowper, and the Suffolk “playhouse” owner Abadham therefore, by circles, helped pay the wages of sanctioned civic players like Martin the Minstrel and formed part of a calculatedly, regulated-just-enough industry that simultaneously infringed upon and enriched the community. 

Such individuals were also “playing” in a range of establishments beyond the inn, as illustrated by examples like Bristol’s Thomas Rockwell, whose probate inventory records not only an array of pictures and painted hangings but “a payer of playing tables” in the closet next to the hall (Bristol Archives, EP J/4/18, Bundle 1620).  If “playhouse” were a fluid concept for early modern men and women, then certain semi-permeable middling homes could easily have represented spaces where household sociability borders on commercial recreation and where the line between the domestic house and the playhouse is teasingly thin.  

Games board from Granada, 16th century. V&A (154-1900).

Material items are one clue to how such interaction between work and leisure extended out from the household and across the spectrum of society, as is clear from the likes of Alexander Cooke and Nicholas Goldbolde, who found themselves in trouble with the Petty Court in 1576 for spending working hours playing at dice: 

about fortnett before Whitsontide Laste he this exa{m}i{n}a{n}te and one Nicholas Godbolde were in companie together & they played together at the dyce at the game called Passage for monie at w{hi}ch tyme the seid nycholas Godbolde ded Wynne of this exa{m}i{n}a{n}te Syxtene pence & then Lefte plaie And furdre this exa{m}i{n}a{n}te saithe that he this deponent & the seid nycholas Godbolde plaied together oth{er} tymes at the Dyce for monie At m{istre}s ffastoll{es} hayestacke when they had served ther Cattell And this vppon his othe he confesseth to be trewe./ ./ ./

(SA C/2/3/8/1, 155)

Dice are small material props that can instantly transform a space for work into a commercial or profit-based recreational activity—here, gambling in an outdoor work location.  Inside the inn, tavern, or even the domestic home, such items can have a similar effect: a pair of dice could conceivably be enough to transform John Payne’s “house” into a “playhouse” or (to use another common early modern term) “dicing house.”  Those of higher means and status are unsurprisingly much more rarely subject to legal repercussions than those with limited political or financial agency, but that does not mean that similar forms of recreation were not, directly or indirectly, important parts of their worlds.  

Dice and accessories from games board (above) from Granada, 16th century. V&A (154-19

Indeed, other physical items might advertise “greater” cultural capital but similarly align the house and the playhouse: the Woolfes’ theatre in Bristol, for instance, is associated with a pair of virginals that Nicholas Woolfe bequeathed to his son Miles.  Christopher Marsh has explained how ostensibly “high-status” instruments such as virginals might nonetheless be found in more “popular” non-elite spaces such as alehouses and taverns (Music and Society in Early Modern England [2010]); it’s not a stretch to imagine them in use in a theatre in a well-heeled part of town.  As such, the Woolfes’ household tuition, practice, and pastime merge in these objects into spaces designed for paid public performance.  

Virginal with date 1575 engraved, Horniman Museum and V&A M29.3.61/1

These examples, from Marten the Minstrel to the Woolfes in Bristol, indicate that “play”—in all its forms—could be a valuable, profitable, and respectable means to social preferment.  Such individuals combined creativity with business or administration to enhance their cultural, financial, and political capital—and just as importantly, one might imagine, to delight in and share their artistry.

Callan Davies

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