Strangeness, Jacobean Drama, and Chester

On 23 April 1610, the city of Chester in the north-west of England inaugurated its new St George’s Day horse races on the surrounding fields known as the Roodee—a tradition that endures today.  To celebrate the occasion, a raft of pageants and activities unfolded all over the city and its environs.  The festivities were recounted in a pamphlet of that year dedicating the races to James I’s eldest son, Prince Henry, which relates how the opening “act” (so to speak) saw “A Man by strange devices climbing to the top of a very high spire steeple”—the St Peter’s Church—and flying the flag of St George, shooting a gun, and “casting Fire-workes very delightful,” all while doing a handstand (Chesters triumph in honor of her prince, 1610; A3r).  This bizarre, elaborate, and visually spectacular performance seems to me an ideal emblem of “strange” performance.

“Strange devices” is a particularly choice phrase, especially in 1610.  Both words have a multiplicity of meanings in early modern English.  I was first drawn to the phrase when researching plays and their contexts in Jacobean England, and it sits at the heart of my book, Strangeness in Jacobean Drama, published today. There will be a launch event and roundtable on strangeness in early modern performance hosted by the University of Kent’s Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies (part of their digital seminar series for this term) on the 8 October at 6pm.  The book’s interest in “strange devices” broadly speaking spans the different meanings of “device”: across verbal constructions (ie how something is written or said) and material technology (a “device” in the sense of, say, a winch or perpetual motion machine).  

My prompt to explore “strangeness” itself as a dramatic concept came when I noticed how many plays in the years around 1610 employed the term or its derivations to describe their technological and rhetorical “devices,” as well as their narrative and generic peculiarities.  Despite its remarkable prevalence in characters’ speech, only two plays use the term in stage directions referring to visual action, both dating from the early 1610s—Shakespeare’s The Tempest (c.1610/11) and Heywood’s The Brazen Age (c.1613): “Medea with strange fiery-workes, hangs aboue in the Aire in the strange habite of a Coinuresse” (Brazen, G2v).

In turn, as the Chester festivities capture, I became especially taken with the term’s ambiguity and mystery. How on earth did the man in Chester climb to the top of the steeple?  A reader is left only to imagine what such a performance looked like.  Recovering the early modern connotations of the word “strange” seemed to me to be an important step in understanding how performance worked, as well as how it was articulated by playwrights, eyewitnesses, or commentators. 

A number of the thoughts underpinning the book have helped me approach the lived experience of Chester for middling individuals on this present project.  For starters, the term strange often speaks to questions of legal and/or geographical belonging, and the port city of Chester occupied a site of particular cross-cultural interaction and multi-lingualism: numerous residents spoke both Welsh and English; Chester was a mid-level trading port dealing with intra-coastal and overseas merchants; and the city sat in this period as England’s main “gateway” to Ireland and was therefore at the heart of the English state’s ongoing project of violent colonisation.  Simultaneously, the city (like many others across England) periodically expressed deep concern about “strangers”—which includes anyone born outside of Chester itself or not “free” to trade in the city, as well as those hailing from outside the nation.  The complex national and racial dimensions that underpin the label “stranger” are laid out in the ERC Tide project’s invaluable Keywords (see “Stranger”), and its enduring significance in this regard (as taken from a phrase in Othello) provides the exposition for Ayanna Thompson’s magnificent engagement with Shakespeare and race in contemporary American performance, Passing Strange

Early modern Chester is also marked by strangeness in other conceptual ways.  Like liberties in London such as the Blackfriars (which also happened to be characterised by a high population of immigrant craftspeople and was therefore especially strange), it sat at the time partly “estranged” from England: it had a complex jurisdictional arrangement as a “Palatinate,” which had for some time given it some autonomy apart from the Crown but whose separate authority was eroded and blurred by Elizabethan legal reforms.  Nonetheless, as Catherine A. M. Clarke has shown, the area’s broader cultural imaginary, formed through historical associations with the long-past kingdom of Mercia, cultivated a distinct “local” identity “which is contiguous—but not synonymous—with ‘England’ and ‘Englishness’” (202).

Such local distinctiveness is clearly visible through the vibrant records of performance in the city and the different “strange devices” at the heart of its musical, dramatic, and tumbling culture.  Indeed, the Stanley family who were Chester’s chief aristocratic champions included one Ferdinando Stanley, AKA Lord Strange (b.1559, d. 1594).  Strange not only gave his name to the London-based performing troupe of the period (whose plays, Lawrence Manley and Sally-Beth MacLean have shown, have strong regional markers linking them to the area), but the Derby/Strange family were also one of the only named early modern aristocratic patrons of a tumbling troupe (Revels Accounts, TNA AO 3/907; 1582)—a pastime especially popular in the north-west city.  

The term strange occupies a powerful position in the early modern English vocabulary, and it is one tool through which early modern English speakers and writers attempted to understand and articulate the human experience.  It therefore provides a fascinating example of one way in which a culture processes major change in a period of newness, doubt, and aesthetic and linguistic development.  This is just as true of the more “provincial” area of Chester as it is of London or the royal court.  

For early modern England, “strangeness” is at the root of legal questions of immigration and nationhood, it provides the means to make sense of challenging natural phenomena, and it is a site of debate about human communication and how individuals process and articulate their experience of the physical and social world. In the early years of James’s reign, the word begins to take on even more concentrated associations as it fell into the cultural spotlight: how is language related to thought and can words be trusted? What do mechanical inventions signify and to what ends can they be used? How should forbidden or queer desire be expressed?  How can we relate powerful sensory experiences? 

Strangeness in Jacobean Drama aims to plant some of the seeds for exploring these questions and identifying the widespread cultural and dramatic significance of “strangeness.”  In some oblique way, I also wonder if it might tell us something about the experience of living through times of extreme uncertainty and scepticism (something achingly familiar to us in 2020).  For, as I suggest in the book, the early modern concept of strangeness doesn’t simply serve to reflect or accept profound doubt but reacts to it—it represents an “attempt to resist total uncertainty and confusion by constructing open-ended and productively ambiguous aesthetic and linguistic responses.”

The Cally Family: Chester’s Early Modern Music Scene

This document details a rather formal conclusion to a brotherly quarrel.

BL Harley MS 2054

Dated 1599, it’s preserved as part of a manuscript “anthology” of copied and original documents from Chester’s administrative past by early antiquarian, Randle Holme II.

The brothers in question, Robert and George Cally, were both musicians, and they seem not to have been able to agree how to share the profits of their profession. This formal accord, signed by both of them, concluded that they should split the shares equitably between them based on the number of sons each had (1 and 2 respectively, at this date, with provision for this to change in the future). Having agreed to terms, they pledged to “Contynue be and remayne of one consorte and to play vpon their instrum{en}t{es} together still in one Company and be loving and frendlie.” The subsequent shape of their careers shows that this happy settlement didn’t last so long… But the Callies do present a fascinating case study of a large family of musicians adept at navigating the social hierarchy, status, and commercial possibilities of musical performance in the early modern city.

Meet the Callies

The Cally/Kelly family were something of a Chester dynasty of musicians. They had been active as musicians or performers from at least the mid-sixteenth century, and the George and Robert of this particular document were at their busiest in the early years of the 1600s.

After their agreement to continue as “one Company,” they seem to have split and sought different areas of patronage in the following decade. George, for instance, became a servant to the Earl of Derby (William Stanley), while Robert worked for Sir John Savage—both local elite figures. In their introduction to the Cheshire edition of Records of Early English Drama, Elizabeth Baldwin, Lawrence Clopper, and David Mills point out how the nature of this patronage arrangement speaks to a complex hierarchy of service: in 1609, under these new employment situations, George accused Robert of “crouching” to Savage (ie being servile or sycophantic), the erstwhile Mayor of the City, and he suggested that working for the mayor was far less prestigious than working for the noble Earl of Derby (lxiii).

Nearly a decade after signing the accord with his brother, George became the first musician to be made “free” of the city (granting him privileges and rights in accordance with his profession), granted in 1608 without any customary fee. He was clearly proactive not only in arranging his financial legacy for his children but in securing requisite status and authority within the city to practice music as a serious trade or profession.

The Case of the Missing Musicians

This proactive approach went further in 1613, when the Chester “waits”—the musicians who work formally for the city—just vanished without a trace! George saw this as an opportunity to petition the City for the role for himself and his company. He asked the Assembly whether he “and his felowe Musitians may be admitted waytes […] in steede of the Waytes now absent fyndinge Instrumentes of his own Charg to perform the service” (REED p. 387 and and Calendar of Assembly Minutes, ed. Margaret J. Groombridge, 1956, p. 66). The Assembly delayed a decision “vntill it may be vnderstoode what are become of the ould waytes.” This tantalising Case of the Missing Musicians notwithstanding, the Assembly did eventually grant the petition, and the mayor even gives them extra instruments on top of those Cally promised to secure himself: a “double Curtayle [a bassoon-like instrument] wantinge a staple of brasse for a reede, and one tenor cornett beinge the Citties instrumentes” (REED 383).

George was also more widely engaged in commercial competition and jostling for status, petitioning in 1615 for protection against “strangers” who were teaching music and dance. His complaint asserts his rights as a freeman of the city and also draws on his newfound public “office” as City Wait; he also emphasises how his musical ability and dance teaching have not only helped keep him and his family of ten children “but hath allso obtained & procured a good respecte and estimacion from men of the best sort & generall fashion truelie sensible and respectiue of the like faculties [of music and dance]” REED 407-08). Cally’s wording confers significant status on the public musician, indicating the role’s respectability and music’s potential for social mobility (and so speaking very closely to Ipswich’s Marten the Minstrel, who likewise occupied important public office as a town musician).

Just Dance 1612

Such musical rivalry is detectable throughout Chester’s rich history of music, play, and performance, sometimes overlapping with its wider leisure industry (especially in drinking!). In 1595, for instance, we hear of Richard Preston from Warrington, a musician who was visiting with his company when he gets into an altercation with an over-eager musical enthusiast (available on the Intoxicants website):

about 10 of the clock in the night upon Tuesday last this examinate and his company were playing upon their night’s music up St Werburgh’s Lane out of the Eastgate Street towards their host Foxall his house and saith that in that Lane Mr William Hicock clerk who came out of John Stile’s tavern overtook them and spake to this examinate and requested this examinate to leave him this examinate’s treble violin to play upon […]

Chester Record Office ZQSE 5/46

After a few drinks, the evening of violin-exchange turns into the theft of the musician’s sword by the drunken Hicock and a violent scuffle. In 1612, a Quarter Sessions case shows Robert involved in similarly impromptu performance, with an apprentice going to a “Sillibub” at Margery Waterson’s house, before meeting Robert Cally at 4 in the morning, whom he asked “to teache him daunce & stayed dancing one hower” (REED 391).

A pamphlet written by T. F. in 1579 offers a lively picture of what such dance teaching might have looked like. Written partly in satire and partly in censure of such revelry, the pamphlet’s speaker tells us how he visited a dancing school in London to partake in some of the pleasures “that were straunge and noueltie [sic] vnto vs of the Cuntrie”:

when wée weare come into the Schoole: the Musitions were playing and one dauncing of a Galiard, and euen at our entring hée was beginning a trick as I remember of sixteens or seuenteens, I doo not very wel remember but wunderfully hee leaped, flung and took on

Newes from the North C3r

T. F. indicates something of what visitors to Chester might meet in the Callies—a distinctly different urban leisure scene from quieter surrounding towns and villages. Such a difference is certainly borne out by the many different court documents of Chester from the mid-sixteenth-century onwards that recount individuals visiting or holidaying in the city, simply in order to sightsee, to drink in inns and taverns, or to meet up with friends. As such, individuals like the Callies helped create an atmosphere of play that was central to Chester’s economy and to the movement of people in and through its streets—in other words, to its local identity and sense of place.

Middling Musicians

The Callies therefore occupied a major role in the festive life of the city, while, even in a court case dealing with bad behaviour, delineating its propriety or respectability, in a similar way to George’s advertising of positive reviews from “men of the best sort.” As he intimates in his petition in 1615, by monopolising the trade of music and dance in the city, individuals like Cally could control its status and ensure that it was taught and performed to standard.

And so the document above signed between Robert and George in 1598/9 testifies to a rivalry developed early in their musical career. It also makes clear that at this earlier stage than the examples above, the two played together in a troupe, ahead of subsequent work for two different elite employers (Savage and Stanley respectively) and eventually for the city (at least for George and possibly for Robert or other Cally family musicians who may have formed part of George’s promised “company”). Despite their various quarrels, their brotherly connection and the longer family history of professional music-playing clearly helps map for them a way to make a living as musicians and dancing instructors. In this, they parallel the extraordinary rise to prominence of Edward Alleyn, a key and perhaps exceptional middling success story, who began as a player in a troupe with his elder brother; Shakespeare’s brother, Edmund, who followed the playwright to be an actor in London, also springs to mind!

The signatures of George and Robert Cally on this document offer a wonderful chance to get a little closer to the rich and tempestuous creative lives of these two remarkable personalities of early modern Chester.

Callan Davies