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The Simpson players of Jacobean Yorkshire and the professional stage.

The Simpson players of Jacobean Yorkshire, led by recusant shoemakers Robert and Christopher Simpson, are known to early modern and Shakespearean scholars for two things in particular. Firstly, they are alleged to have staged an anti-Protestant interlude at Gowthwaite Hall, the Yorkshire home of Sir John Yorke, during the Christmas holidays, 1609-10; the interlude was reportedly part of their performance of a saint's play called St. Christopher. Secondly, the company is alleged to have performed "Perocles, prince of Tire, And [ ... ] King Lere" at the same Hall around Candlemas 1610 (Star Chamber MS 8/19/10 mb. 30). Scholars have usually identified these plays with those of the same name by Shakespeare, printed in 1609 and 1608, respectively (although the 'Lere' could have been the earlier, anonymous King Leir, printed in 1605). One of the players claimed that the troupe also owned a play called The Three Shirleys (Star Chamber MS 8/19/10 mb. 6), which is probably another name for The Travels of the Three English Brothers by John Day, William Rowley and George Wilkins (printed 1607). Evidence of these alleged performances at Gowthwaite Hall--and the allusion to the troupe's ownership of The Three Shirleys--is preserved in the records of a 1611 Star Chamber case against Sir John Yorke, preserved in The National Archives, London: Star Chamber MS (hereafter STAC) 8/19/10. (1)

On the face of it a group of mainly recusant Catholic shoemakers-turned players, acting printed plays in one of the "dark corners" (Hill 3) of the land, could be mistaken for Yorkshire versions of Bottom and his fellow Mechanicals in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Recent studies of the company have challenged perceptions of the troupe as theatrically crude and as socially, spiritually and politically marginal, emphasising instead their possible role, and the role of communal drama more generally, in fostering recusant Catholic culture in the north of England, and the players' connections with powerful figures within that culture, such as Sir Richard Cholmley of Whitby and Sir John Yorke of Nidderdale (see, for example, Jensen, Whitfield White, and Wilson).

Cholmley, who was a suspected closet Catholic with a record of political dissent, having been implicated in the Earl of Essex's rebellion in 1601, was accused in 1609 of patronising and protecting the Simpson players in their performance of "popish" plays (STAC, 8/12/11 mb. 2). (2) Although there is no evidence to support this claim and Cholmley himself denied that he was the players' patron (STAC 8/12/11, mb. 1), he did watch them perform and may have protected them from arrest, as did other hosts. The same appears to have been true of Yorke, another probable closet Catholic. In 1611 local puritan justice Sir Stephen Procter brought the Star Chamber case against Yorke which is the source of our information about the Simpsons' performances at Gowthwaite Hall. Procter accused Yorke not only of hosting a performance of the Simpsons' St. Christopher play and its controversial anti-Protestant interlude (in which a priest defeated a minister in a religious debate), but of harbouring priests and involvement in the 1605 Gunpowder plot against King James I. Although the more serious charges were later dropped on the grounds of insufficient evidence, it is clear that Yorke and his family had a vexed relationship with the established church and state and were engaged in some level of resistance to it throughout the Stuart era. (3)

However indirect their relations with such influential Yorkshire men, in performing in their houses, the Simpsons were clearly moving in circles that were far from marginal either socially or politically, while their performance of at least one "popish" play and their engagement in satire of the established church shows that their role within northern Catholic culture was not a passive one. Phebe Jensen has recently argued that "play-hosting and performing could be a way of creating and sustaining recusant identity" (Religion 46), reading such performances as a kind "replacement for forbidden communal religious rituals", particularly in the case of St. Christopher "where the entertainment represents the administration of a sacrament" ("Recusancy" 111). The troupe's performance of plays such as The Travels of the Three English Brothers, Pericles and, perhaps, Lear has been read as indicating that that these plays--and their authors--may have been perceived as sympathetic to Catholicism, too (see, for example, Jensen, "Recusancy" 116 and Greenblatt 122). But this fascinating story about the role of the Simpsons and Shakespearean drama within northern Catholic culture in the Jacobean era is not the only one told by the records. I will argue that the known documents relating to the Simpson players also tell the story of a group of men keen to escape the margins in theatrical terms, as they adopted not just the plays but some of the practices of the professional London stage and its many craftsmen-turned-players.

I: The Simpson Company

The Simpson troupe was apparently founded by Robert and Christopher Simpson of Egton, North Yorkshire. As G. W. Boddy notes, the two men were related but it is not clear whether they were brothers or uncle and nephew (31). Egton was an area known for its significant numbers of Catholics, and the Simpson family appears to have belonged to this recusant community (Aveling 102). The date of the troupe's establishment is not known, but the Simpsons appear to have been theatrically active as early as 1595 when Robert and Christopher Simpson were identified as players in a list of recusants in the Province of York (Talbot 32-33). (4) The latest evidence of the Simpson troupe's activities appears to date from January 1616, when eight members of the company were fined as "comon players of Enterludes vagabonds and sturdy beggars" at the North Riding Quarter Sessions: the players punished were George White, weaver, 24, of Egton; John Simpson, cordwainer, 25, of Egton; Richard Simpson, cordwainer, 24, of Egton; Cuthbert Simpson, cordwainer, 18, of Egton--all of whom were described as "Recusantes papales"--and Nicholas Postgate, labourer, 13, of Egton; Edward Concett, tailor, 30, of Egton; Robert Simpson, cordwainer, 7+ of Staithes, and Robert Harbutt alias Cawdmer, husbandman, 7+, of Goteland (North Riding Quarter Session Minutes MS--hereafter NRQSM--2/2 fol. 198v). As Boddy notes, the players may have fallen foul of "a strong drive against Catholics" in 1616 organised by the then Lord President of the Council of the North, Lord Sheffield (25). The professional Jacobean acting companies relied on their royal patronage and, later, licences from the Master of the Revels, to authorise their performances when touring the country. By contrast, the Simpson players were never legally licensed to perform and were officially without a patron, although Sir Thomas Hoby claimed in 1609 that they received unofficial support from Sir Richard Cholmley of Whitby (as noted above), leading some scholars such as C. J. Sisson to refer to the troupe as Cholmley's players (STAC 8/12/11 mb. 2).

The precise size and make-up of the Simpson company appears to have varied over the twenty or so years that it appears in the extant records. Several actors testified that the company which performed at Gowthwaite in 1609-10 was made up of only nine players: Christopher Simpson, Robert Simpson, John Simpson, Richard Simpson, Cuthbert Simpson, Edward Whitfield, Robert Lawnde, Thomas Pant and William Harrison (STAC 8/19/10 mb.s 30, 44, 31). These were the names given by William Harrison, Robert Lawnde, and Edward Whitfield during the 1611 Star Chamber case. Thomas Pant, who was also questioned, did not list the full cast (STAC 8/19/10 mb.s 5-6); and Richard Simpson, the only other player to give a deposition, named only seven players (STAC 8/19/10 mb. 29). The names he gives match those listed by Harrison, Lawnde, and Whitfield, but he omits the names of Whitfield and Pant. This is presumably an oversight (deliberate or otherwise) as we know from their own testimony that these individuals were involved in the Gowthwaite performances. At its largest, the troupe may have consisted of as many as fifteen players, a possible sign of the troupe's theatrical ambition and desire to perform some of the large-scale and large-cast plays associated with the professional stage in the period. (5)

In the capital it appears to have become usual for professional troupes to nominate one or two members to deal with managerial jobs, such as the collection of fees for court performances. The King's Men, for example, appear to have "delegated control of their finances [ ... ] to John Heminges" (Gurr 98). The Simpson players appear to have imitated this practice with Robert and Christopher Simpson functioning as the troupe's early actor-managers, and thus usually being mentioned as the leaders of the troupe in the surviving records. Similarly, although consisting mostly of adult men, the troupe included boy players, as did the professional adult companies in London. In 1609-10 there appear to have been three such players in the troupe: Thomas Pant (approx. 15), Robert Lawnde (approx. 14), and Cuthbert Simpson (approx. 11-12). By 1616, and following the departure of Pant and Lawnde, the company appears to have recruited three new youths: Nicholas Postgate (13), Robert Simpson (7+) (probably the son of Robert Simpson senior), and Robert Harbutt, alias Cawdmer (7+) (NRQSM 2/2 fol. 198v). Like their London peers, it seems that the Simpsons recruited the boys as apprentice players, although the boys were not necessarily originally or explicitly recruited as theatrical trainees, as Thomas Pant revealed. In 1610, and perhaps as a consequence of the controversy surrounding the company's St Christopher performance at Gowthwaite Hall, Pant, who was apprenticed to Christopher Simpson, complained at the Topcliffe Quarter Sessions "that he hath not bene imployed in his occupation according to the Covenantes of his Indenture made betwene him & his said Mr", and therefore wished to be freed from his bond to Simpson (NRQSM 2/2 fol. 17). Pant had been apprenticed to Simpson to be trained in the trade of shoemaking but claimed that he had actually been trained to play. In the world of the London theatre, this was not at all unusual. As David Kathman has shown, apprentice "players were typically bound to masters who were free of companies such as the Drapers, Goldsmiths, or Grocers and they were sometimes freed as members of those same companies despite being trained entirely for the stage" (2) (see also Astington 76-107). Although the decision to train Pant in acting could have been opportunistic, it is possible that Christopher Simpson used the trade apprenticeship system to bind Pant to him while actually planning to train him for the stage. If this was the case he was perhaps again aping the practices of professional actors such as John Heminges and theatrical impresario Philip Henslowe (see Kathman 8, 15).

Where the Simpson company may have been less typical of some of the professional London acting troupes is with regards to the closeness of the connections between its personnel. Most of the company members appear to have been related to the Simpsons and/or each other, and most were from Egton, were recusant Catholics, and were artisans by trade, although it is perhaps equally worth noting that the Simpsons were ready to welcome outsiders into the troupe. When giving their depositions in the 1611 Star Chamber case William Harrison, Robert Lawnde and Thomas Pant all claimed not to be related to the Simpsons; Harrison was identified as a labourer and Lawnde as a husbandman; and all three appear not to have been recusants (STAC 8/19/10 mb.s 24, 26, 5). Indeed, when questioned, Harrison insisted that "he is no recusant but cometh orderly to the Cherche on Saboath and other holy daies" (STAC 8/19/10 mb. 24). It was not unknown for the metropolitan based acting troupes to include members who were related and/or involved in other trades, but their membership was characteristically more diverse, including men and boys drawn to the London theatre world from different parts of the country and from varying backgrounds.

How the Simpsons and their fellow troupe members came to take up acting has prompted much speculation, as has the question of what previous experience they may have had of drama. In his pioneering study of the company, G. W. Boddy speculated that the Simpsons first gained some experience of performance having seen or participated in one of the traditional Egton "Plough Stots", an annual entertainment involving "dancing and acting", performed during the Christmas season (27). Another possibility is that the men and boys gained some knowledge of performance either as actors or spectators of local parish drama. With this possibility in mind Paul Whitfield White has speculated that St. Christopher could find its origins in such a tradition (151). The publication of the Records of Early English Drama (REED) volume for the North Riding of Yorkshire (currently being prepared by David Klausner) should prove illuminating in this respect, gathering together any evidence that there is of parish drama in the region. Alternatively, the Simpsons and their companions may "like many Tudor schoolboys" have developed their "taste for acting and making music at school" (Boddy 27). There was certainly a schoolmaster in Egton Edward Nickson (Boddy 27)--and the reading and performance of plays was a common feature of school education in the period, as a means of fostering pupils' knowledge of Latin, in the case of the study of classical comedies and tragedies, and as a way of developing their oratorical skills, in the case of plays in the vernacular (see Astington 38-47 for a discussion of playing in schools).

With the company's predominantly recusant make-up in mind and their reputation for popish dramas such as the controversial interlude in St Christopher, other scholars, such as Hugh Aveling, have speculated that the company was specially formed and trained by recusant clerics. Thus, Aveling writes: "The players were ... hardly educated men. We are bound to suspect that they had been coached by priests--who had been brought up to the performance of plays at Douai" (290). There was a lively dramatic tradition within the Jesuit colleges in Europe, including those attended by English Catholics such as the English College at Douai (founded in 1568) (Aveling 53), where one of the later boy members of the troupe (Nicholas Postgate) "eventually went [ ... ] himself to become a priest" (Boddy 28). In this context it is perhaps also worth noting that one of the plays found in the troupe's repertory (Pericles) features in a list of books owned by the English Jesuits at Saint-Omer in 1619 (Schrickx 21). That some English-based Catholics and recusant clerics should have aimed to imitate this continental theatrical tradition is not impossible. Indeed, Phebe Jensen wonders whether the Simpsons' ownership of St. Christopher (a saint's play and a genre traditionally associated with Catholic drama), along with the survival of the so-called Stonyhurst Pageants (c. 1609-25) from neighbouring Lancashire, "suggests the possibility that some contemporary educated Catholics, lay or clerical, were making a concerted effort to recreate late medieval dramatic culture" ("Recusancy" 108) in the Jacobean north.

The Simpsons' performance of plays derived from the public theatres in London suggests that they and their companions may have had some experience of professional theatre too, either because they had visited London and its theatres, or perhaps more likely, because they had some experience of touring acting companies. Although the REED volumes for Yorkshire have yet to appear the edition of York's dramatic records shows that professional acting companies did visit the region, with at least some performing in York (see Johnston and Rogerson). There was even a playhouse in the city briefly in 1609 (see Keenan 155-61) and later a York company of King's players led by William Perry (1629) (Gurr 392). Intriguingly, the York corporation decided to deny permission for the 1609 theatre (after initially being disposed to support it) when the collective that had requested licence to establish the playhouse apparently proceeded with its creation before receiving official authorisation and because it was alleged that they had "drawne vnto ther companyes straingers that did inhabitt in the Countrie, and likewise some of manuell occupacions in this Cittie who do intend to give over ther occupacions and fall to [ ... ] an idle course of life" (Johnston and Rogerson 531). One wonders whether the strangers from the country might have included men such as the Simpsons, keen to exchange their occupation as shoemakers for a profession in the theatre, and whether the plans for the theatre encouraged the importation of recently printed plays into the city, making them available for purchase by aspiring players like the Simpsons.

II: Repertory & Performance

Surviving records preserve the names of only four plays performed by the Simpson players (as mentioned above): St Christopher, The Three Shirleys, Pericles and 'King Lere'. St. Christopher is now lost, but we know from the accounts of its performance at Gowthwaite Hall that it was a fairly traditional saint's play, dramatising the story of St. Christopher's penance and conversion. The players claimed that their performance of the play was based on a printed text (STAC 8/19/10, mb.s 29, 30, 31), like their performances of Pericles and 'Lere', but there is no record of St. Christopher ever having been published in England. This could mean that the play was published on the continent or that the players were being economical with the truth. Modern scholars such as Hugh Aveling have speculated that the play was specially written for the troupe by clerics associated with the nearby Grosmont Priory, Whitby, a well-known centre of recusancy (290). Building on this possibility, Phebe Jensen speculates that the writer of St. Christopher "could [ ... ] have been influenced by contemporary Jesuit drama, if he was not a Jesuit himself, for penance and conversion were also popular elements in that tradition" ("Recusancy" 108). The company's other known plays do appear to have derived from the London playhouses: The Three Shirleys appears to have been another name for the collaborative play The Travels of the Three English Brothers (1607); Pericles is probably Shakespeare's play, co-written with George Wilkins (1609); and 'King Lere' is either the anonymous True Chronicle History of King Leir (1605) or Shakespeare's King Lear (1608).

To find an acting company in the north of England staging plays only recently published and derived from the London theatre world is noteworthy. A number of early English printed plays are prefaced by title-pages which anticipate their use as acting texts (Sisson 131-33), and there are several dramatic allusions to acting companies buying printed plays so that they might adapt them for performance, as in Thomas Middleton's Mayor of Queenborough where the play's mayor is robbed by a group of actors later described as taking "the name of country comedians" only "to abuse simple people / with a printed play or two, which they bought at Canterbury for six pence" (5.1.264, 266). There is also some evidence of printed playbooks being used as promptbooks for amateur household productions (as at the home of Sir Edward Dering in Surrenden, Kent) (6) and by professional touring actors. (7) But the Simpsons' repertory affords rare, specific evidence of an entirely provincial acting company also apparently using printed play texts as prompt-books.

The Simpson troupe's reasons for touring with recently published plays (as well as St. Christopher) are likely to have been several. As new plays from the world of the London playhouses, such dramas were fashionable and promised to be popular with audiences, and all were prefaced with title-pages which alluded to their recent or on-going performance, thus emphasising their performability and currency, as Gabriel Egan has noted (105). At the same time, by revealing themselves to be familiar with plays from the London theatres and performing the same works as professional companies the troupe was perhaps implicitly calling to be compared with such licensed troupes. Indeed, in the absence of any official patron, the troupe seems to have used their performance of printed plays as one way of claiming license for their acting, insisting in their Star Chamber depositions that they acted only "such matters as were prynted in the books" and such as were played in "Comon and publick places and staiges" (STAC 8/19/10 mb. 30). Their critics may not have accepted this argument, but they do seem to have believed in the troupe's reliance on printed plays. Hence, when Sir Stephen Procter sent out warrants following the Gowthwaite performance of St. Christopher, they were not only for the arrest of the actors but "for searchinge for & bringinge before this deponent of all such play bookes as could or might be founde in their possessions" (STAC 8/19/10 mb. 19). Yorke's reasons for hosting the Simpsons and for choosing to see Pericles and 'Lere' as well as St. Christopher could have been similarly varied, ranging from the pragmatic--they may have been all that he was offered on the occasion that actor William Harrison alludes to (STAC 8/19/10 mb. 30)--to the more symbolic: Yorke may have enjoyed contemporary drama and/or hoped to impress his guests with his fashionable cultural tastes, as did many of the noblemen and women who hosted performances by touring professionals in the period (see, for example, Keenan 74-75).

Sir Thomas Hoby's characterisation of the Simpsons' repertory as "popish" could conceal another reason for the Simpsons' acquisition and performance of Pericles, Lear, and The Travels of the Three English Brothers and for Yorke's hosting of such plays (STAC 8/12/11 mb. 2). As recent scholars of English Catholicism have shown, all three plays "have obvious or arguable appeals to a Catholic audience" (Jensen, "Recusancy" 116). The Travels of the Three English Brothers includes Sir Anthony Shirley visiting and praising the Pope and is characterised by a consistent emphasis upon the importance of loyalty to one's faith, as when Robert Shirley declares "Ile choose to dye / Before the faith I do professe, deny" (sig. E); Pericles can be read as a kind of saint's play in which loss and suffering gives way to miraculous redemption (see Womack 169-87); and in Shakespeare's King Lear (if this was the 'Lere' owned by the Simpsons), all the "good characters" are "suffering from exile, banishment, disinheritance and persecution" of a kind that Jacobean Catholics might be expected to relate to, as Peter Milward notes, while the hunting of Edgar and his enforced disguise as Poor Tom might seem to mirror "precisely the situation of Catholic priests, not least the Jesuits among them, in Elizabethan England" (83, 87) (see also Greenblatt 122 and Wilson 271-90).

Although it is possible that part of the appeal of these professionally-written plays was their amenability to pro-Catholic readings of this sort, the idea that the Simpsons procured them for this reason is more problematic. Thomas Pant reportedly said that St. Christopher had "byn brought from London" (STAC 8/19/10 mb. 1). If this was true of St. Christopher and the company's other printed plays (and it might not be), how did the actors obtain the texts and who brought them north? Were the plays bought for them, for instance, or did the Simpsons borrow them from others locally? If the players were patronised by local nobleman, Sir Richard Cholmley (as Sir Thomas Hoby alleged) or trained by priests, as Aveling speculates, either scenario is possible and might explain how the players would know that the plays were in tune with recusant interests. On the other hand, it is perhaps as, if not more, likely that the players obtained most of their play texts from one of the booksellers in York, such as John Foster, who we know stocked up-to date vernacular literature, including playbooks, in the early Jacobean era. (8)

When Foster died in 1616, the inventory of his stock included "Twenty seaven Play books", worth "4d. each" as well as a copy of the newly published Workes of Ben Jonson (Barnard and Bell 93, 28). (9) No plays are named individually but Foster definitely stocked Shakespearean literature, the inventory including The Passionate Pilgrim and Venus and Adonis (Barnard and Bell 85). Most of Foster's customers appear to have been based in York, but his list of debtors included people "in a thirty-mile radius round the city" and at least one man based in Cleveland (the Simpsons' base of operations) and familiar with the controversial players--"R. Firbank", vicar of Thirkleby (Barnard and Bell 17). Robert Firbank was one of the deponents in the 1611 Star Chamber case against Sir John Yorke. Although Firbank claimed not to know any of the players personally he was aware of the Simpsons' activities having been sent a warrant for their apprehension from the "Commissioners for causes Ecclesiastical at Yorke", in which business he employed several people, including "William Browne of Thirklebie", who came very close to arresting the troupe at the home of Mr. Bowes of Ellerbeck (STAC 8/19/10 mb. 17). If Firbank was aware of Foster's shop it is equally possible that it was known to others in York's environs, including the Simpsons, especially as Foster's bookshop appears to have been used by recusant Catholics as well as Protestants, and stocked a small corpus of Catholic works as well as anti-Catholic religious literature (Barnard and Bell 29-30). The stocking of Catholic texts was probably officially a way of providing material for local anti-Catholic writers and clerics such as Tobie Matthew, Archbishop of York from 1606, but, as John Barnard and Maureen Bell note, Foster "may have been prepared to sell" such works to "local Catholics and others of unorthodox interests", too (31). If this was the case, it would point to a religious opportunism and a readiness to cater for differing audiences on Foster's part akin to that of the Simpsons, who we know performed for Protestants as well as Catholics during their tours in the vale of Cleveland. In his deposition, Sir Stephen Procter claimed that the Simpsons performed St. Christopher in Protestant as well as Catholic households, omitting or including the controversial interlude accordingly (STAC 8/19/10 mb. 18).

If the Simpsons did buy their play texts themselves, either in York or London, rather than borrowing them or having them bought for them, the theory that their choices were religiously nuanced is more difficult to substantiate. Contemporary title-pages might name the author, performing company and/or venues of performance, but usually only give a brief indication of content or theme, as is true of the title-pages of the plays they reputedly owned. The full title-pages of the plays read as follows: The Travailes of The three English Brothers. Sir Thomas Sir Anthony Mr. Robert Shirley. As it is now play'd by her Maiesties Seruants; The Late, And much admired Play, Called Pericles, Prince of Tyre. With the true Relation of the whole Historie, aduentures, and fortunes of the said Prince: As also, The no less strange, and worthy accidents, in the Birth and Life, of his Daughter Mariana. As it hath been diuers and sundry times acted by his Maiesties Seruants, at the Globe on the Banck-side. By William Shakespeare; and The True Chronicle History of King Leir, and his three daughters, Gonorill, Ragan, and Cordella. As it hath bene diuers and sundry times lately acted or M. William Shak-speare: His True Chronicle Historie of the life and death of King Lear and his three Daughters. With the vnfortunate life of Edgar, sonne and heire to the Earle of Gloster, and his sullen and assumed humor of Tom of Bedlam: As it was played before the Kings Maiestie at Whitehall vpon S. Stephans night in Christmas Hollidayes. By his Maieties seruants playing vsually at the Gloabe on the Bancke-side.

If the Simpsons bought the plays locally their choices may have been dictated by what booksellers such as Foster stocked, but if there was some choice or they were buying them in London, presumably they would have had little more than the title-pages (and any personal recommendations or experiences) to go on. In this case, the Simpsons' choices were as likely to be based on the apparent quality of the original performing company, the currency of the plays as Egan suggests, and, possibly in Shakespeare's case, the fame of the author, especially in print (see Erne 12-29), as on any knowledge of the plays' content. Indeed, tempting as it may be to read the Simpsons' apparent performance of Lear, Pericles and The Travels of the Three English Brothers as confirmation of the openness of these plays to pro-Catholic interpretation (and perhaps of their authors' Catholic sympathies) there is no direct evidence that this was why the troupe acquired these plays even if they and their recusant audiences later read them in such a way. That the Simpsons' interest in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries was primarily motivated by a religious agenda is open to question too. Clearly, the Simpsons were interested in religious drama and pro-Catholic propaganda, as is illustrated by their performance of St. Christopher and the satirical interlude featuring the vanquishing of an English minister by a priest. But, if the troupe's only interest was in religion or in being Catholic propagandists they could have confined themselves to performing religious drama and anti-Protestant satire, and they did not choose to do this. In acquiring newly printed secular plays from the public theatres, the Simpsons were, implicitly, imitating the period's professional acting companies and tapping in to (and perhaps expressing their) interest in the fashionable world of metropolitan drama.

That the Simpsons were interested in emulating the period's professional touring actors would also seem to be suggested by their staging practices. Contemporary allusions to country players tend to be derogative, characterising them as comically unsophisticated, or as crudely simple, as in Ben Jonson's Poetaster, where Tucca describes the strolling country player as one who stalks "vpon boords and / barrel heads to an old crackt trumpet" (3.4.169); but the example of the Simpsons suggests that we should not be in a hurry to assume that country-players' performances were crude, or that they were as theatrically naive as Shakespeare's artisans-turned-players in the Dream. We know from witness accounts of the Simpsons' performance of St. Christopher that they performed on a stage and used costumes and props, like professional playing troupes of the period (STAC 8/19/10 mb. 6). Thomas Pant reports that Raphabus (later St. Christopher) appeared as "a wilde man apparrelled all in greene, wth a greene [ ... ] Garland about his head", the Hermit (who meets Raphabus and who appears to have doubled as the priest in the added interlude) wore "a black gowne" and the Angel, played by Pant, appeared "in whyte" (STAC 8/19/10, mb.s 6, 10, 12). Few props appear to have been used for St Christopher but those employed were similarly memorable, witnesses describing "a great yallowe coloured Crosse", a book like a Bible and "a Chaine of Iron" (STAC 8/19/10, mb.s 18, 15). The performance included special effects, too, such as the entry of Lucifer with "flaunt of fyre" and the carrying away of the English minister to hell in the added interlude "wth thundering & lightning" and "flasheings of fire" (STAC 8/19/10, mb.s 1, 18), pyrotechnic tricks probably achieved with fireworks. While such effects might have been familiar from the biblical pageants performed in cities such as York until the late sixteenth century that the Simpsons attempted them is indicative nonetheless of their theatrical ambition as performers.

The company's skill with special effects may have been facilitated and complemented by their ownership of a selection of musical instruments (such as drums and trumpets) and their inclusion of one or more musically-able members, as was often true of the professional touring troupes (Keenan 17). That there was some musical expertise in the Simpson family and/or their group of players finds some support in the fact that Christopher's son, Christopher Simpson junior, went on to become one of the seventeenth century's most famous musicians and composers (see Bartlett; also Saker 329-30), possibly after beginning his career as a viol player with his father's troupe. (10) Such musically-able members might have provided sound effects, like thunder (using drums), and music of the kind called

for to rouse Thaisa in Pericles or to wake Lear, if the Lere that the Simpson company performed was, indeed, Shakespeare's.

III: Touring & Audiences

Further evidence that the Simpsons' interest in playing was commercial and theatrical (as well as religious), and that they were at least partly motivated by a desire to imitate the period's touring professional players would seem to be afforded by what we know of the company's touring habits and audiences. The most detailed information in this regard survives from 1616, when a number of the Simpsons' hosts were prosecuted alongside them. Table 1 is based on the records found in NRQSM 2/2 fos 198v-202v; the names of hosts known to be Catholic recusants or Catholic sympathisers are shown in bold.

According to Thomas Pant, the troupe sometimes "plaid openly in ye town" (STAC 8/19/10 mb. 1) but during this tour the actors appear to have performed mainly in private houses, including the homes of nobles, gentlemen and yeomen, and in the homes of Protestants as well as Catholics and Catholic sympathisers. As this reveals, the Simpson players did not confine themselves to performing before recusants despite their reputation as popish players, just as they did not confine the membership of the troupe to recusant Catholics. Implicitly, they were ready to perform for anyone who was willing to host them.

We do not know how much the players earned by performing or how it was collected, although there presumably was money to be made from performing if the Simpsons were able to spend at least some of their time "wandring in ye Contry & playing of Interludes", rather than shoemaking (NRQSM 2/2 fol. 17). It is possible that when performing publicly they collected offerings of money from spectators at the end of the performance. When performing in private houses this kind of audience "gathering" might have been supplemented or replaced by a gift of money from the host, but such payments do not appear to have been documented. Thus, the hosts prosecuted alongside the players in 1616 were "fined on three counts: receiving the players in their dwelling houses, giving them bread and drink, and suffering them to escape unpunished" but no mention was made of payments of money to the players (Boddy 20).

If they performed at each house, the sample itinerary in Table 1 would indicate that when touring the troupe's schedule was intensive, the company performing almost every day. It is perhaps no coincidence that most of these performances occurred during the Christmas holidays, a time when usual working patterns were often temporarily suspended. We know from other evidence that the Simpsons' performances often coincided with traditional holiday times, including Candlemas, Ash Wednesday, Easter, and May day, as well as Christmas (STAC 8/19/10, mb.s 30, 11, 15, 47), a fact which would seem to confirm Alison Shell's argument that the "strong association of drama with liturgical festivity continued" in early modern English culture despite the increasing separation of drama from religion at the level of overt dramatic content in the post-Reformation era (67).

The association of the troupe's performances with traditional holiday times could also be a sign that the Simpson players were essentially amateurs, only touring and performing during holidays from their usual trades; but Thomas Pant suggests that acting was a more regular practice than this. His new master William Symonds described Pant as reporting that "Christofer Simpson wth others did use to playe [ ... ] in the winter tym" (STAC 8/19/10 mb. 1). That playing was more than a holiday activity, and perhaps more than a seasonal activity, is seemingly confirmed by Pant's complaint at the Topcliffe Quarter Sessions (1610) regarding his shoemaker's apprenticeship to Simpson. Pant claimed that as Simpson's apprentice he had actually been "trayned vp for iij yeres last past in wandring in ye Contry & playing of Interludes as a player", rather than trained in the arts of shoemaking (NRQSM 2/2 fol. 17). If Pant's testimony is true (and the court seems to have accepted it, as they agreed to free him from his indentures to Simpson) it would suggest that playing, rather than shoemaking was Christopher Simpson's usual or preferred trade and that he wished to make it his profession, as did the actors of the London stage. If this was, indeed, the case it would seem that he, and perhaps his companions, were at times (in their careers or the year) semi-professional--perhaps even professional--players, rather than shoemakers or craftsmen simply moonlighting as players. This in turn would suggest that the worlds of amateur and professional theatre may have been closer, and the boundary between them less clear cut, than scholars of early modern theatrical culture have assumed.


The career of the Simpson players can teach us not only about northern Catholic culture and the role of drama within it but about the development of theatre outside early modern London and the connections and parallels between the professional and amateur theatre worlds. As such their history as players invites more scholarly attention. The Simpsons' adaptation of plays from the professional theatre world, including at least one and possibly two by Shakespeare, raises some fascinating questions about the circulation of knowledge about plays and play texts outside of early modern London, confirming that regionally-based players were not necessarily unfamiliar with metropolitan theatrical culture and potentially had local access to printed plays. For some regional actors, like the Simpsons, performing printed plays appears to have been a way of claiming authority for their performances, of attracting audiences, and of inviting comparison with professional troupes. At the same time, the troupe's performance of such plays indicates that in some regional communities people may have been introduced to the works of contemporary playwrights such as Shakespeare by local actors, rather than, or as well as, professional touring companies, and that this may have helped foster interest in the drama of the London stages. The Simpson players' apparent performance of The Travels of the Three English Brothers, Pericles and possibly Shakespeare's King Lear has raised questions about the amenability of such plays to pro-Catholic interpretations. Intriguing as these questions are, further research reveals no direct evidence that this was the Simpsons' chief reason for obtaining the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Arguably what is more striking, as G. W. Boddy notes, is the indication that the troupe's ownership of one or more of Shakespeare's works gives of how his reputation--and the popularity of his printed plays--appears to have "extended deep into the provinces", even before his death (16), reinforcing Erne's recent argument for 'Shakespeare's predominance as a published playwright in early modern England' (Erne 19). At the same time, the fact that Protestant as well as Catholic hosts chose to see the company's only known overtly religious play, St. Christopher, affords important evidence of a continuing taste for religious drama both within and beyond the recusant Catholic communities of the North Riding.

The Simpsons' performances of their adapted version of St. Christopher for recusant audiences clearly suggests that drama, and the sharing of such performances, had a part to play in fostering the values and solidarity of northern Catholics, as recent scholars of English Catholic culture have increasingly recognised, but this was not the players' only, or necessarily their chief, motive for performing such plays, any more than it was necessarily their Catholic hosts' only reason for sponsoring such productions. Sir Richard Cholmley's interest in the troupe's productions was not necessarily or exclusively religious, for example. He may have been partly motivated by a personal taste for theatre, inspired by his experiences of drama at university, where, as his son reports, Sir Richard "acted the part of a woman in a comedy at Trinity College, in Cambridge, [ ... ] with great applause, and was esteemed beautiful" (he played the part of Ardelia in Leander, 1597-98) (Nelson I, 374; Nelson II, 721). That Cholmley did have a taste for drama is suggested by the fact that he attended the theatre in London, too, famously challenging a fellow spectator at the Blackfriars theatre to a duel there in 1603 (Binns 70-71). Similarly, the Simpsons' readiness to act alongside and before Protestants as well as Catholics, and to perform fashionable plays from the London theatres, such as Shakespeare's, alongside more traditional religious dramas, suggests that their primary agenda as players may have been commercial, rather than ideological, and driven by their taste for theatre and the business of playing. Indeed, even their performance of St. Christopher and its controversial interlude may have been partly a way of "exploiting the excitement around, and popular interest in, controversial religious events or affairs", as Paul Whitfield White notes (169). The fact that not all of their fellow players were recusants and that Protestants as well as Catholics chose to play host to them tends to confirm that the Simpsons were seen by many of their peers as players or entertainers first, and as recusants and possible Catholic propagandists second. The experiences of the Simpsons also tend to confirm the conclusion of Phebe Jensen and other scholars of early modern English Catholic culture that "neither Catholics themselves nor the ideas and rituals associated with them in every context elicited the animosity that such virulent public polemic might predict" ("Recusancy" 101).

The Simpson players may never be as well known as the professional London companies who performed the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries in their lifetimes, such as the King's Men, but their career sheds new light on the world of provincial drama in this era and suggests that we will only gain a fuller understanding of early modern theatrical culture if we take into account regional performances, including those staged by troupes like the Simpsons, troupes who may not have been wholly professional but who were clearly inspired by the example of the professional stage and its plays. Perhaps most significantly, the example of the Simpsons and their many borrowings from professional theatrical practice suggests that our assumptions about amateur and professional theatre in the period, including our making of this distinction, need to be re-examined and subjected to more detailed investigation. In this respect, the on-going research of the REED project and the publication of the dramatic records for regions such as the North Riding of Yorkshire promises to teach us much, as we continue to write the histories of acting companies and theatre in early modern England.

Works Cited

Astington, John. Actors and Acting in Shakespeare's Time: The Art of Stage Playing. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010.

Aveling, Hugh. Northern Catholics: The Catholic Recusants ofthe North Riding of Yorkshire, 1558-1798. London: Chapman, 1966.

Barnard, John, and Maureen Bell, eds. The Early Seventeenth-Century York Book Trade and John Foster's Inventory of 1616. Leeds: Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, 1994.

Bartlett, Ian. "Simpson, Christopher (c.1602-1669)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004; online edn, 2008.

Binns, Jack, ed. The Memoirs and Memorials of Sir Hugh Cholmley of Whitby, 1600-1657. Rochester: Boydell, 2000.

Boddy, G. W. "Players of Interludes in North Yorkshire in the Early Seventeenth Century". North Yorkshire Record Office Publications. Offprint from 7.3 (1976): 1-40.

[Day, John, William Rowley, and George Wilkins]. The Travailes of The three English Brothers. STC 6417. London: John Wright, 1607.

Dobson, Michael. Shakespeare and Amateur Performance: A Cultural History. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011.

Egan, Gabriel. "'As it was, is, or will be played': Title-pages and the Theatre Industry to 1610". From Performance to Print in Shakespeare's England. Eds. Peter Holland and Stephen Orgel. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. 92-110.

Erne, Lukas. "The Popularity of Shakespeare in Print". Shakespeare Survey 62 (2009): 12-29.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Shakespearean Negotiations. Oxford: Clarendon, 1990.

Gibson, James M., ed. REED: Kent: Diocese of Canterbury. 3 vols. London: British Library, 2002. II.

Gurr, Andrew. The Shakespearian Playing Companies. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.

Hill, Christopher, Change and Continuity in Seventeenth-Century England. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974.

Holland, Peter. "Theatre without Drama: Reading REED". From Script to Stage in Early Modern England. Eds. Peter Holland and Stephen Orgel. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. 43-67.

Howard, Christopher. Sir John Yorke of Nidderdale, 1565-1634. London: Sheed & Ward, 1939.

Jensen, Phebe. "Recusancy, Festivity and Community: the Simpsons at Gowlthwaite Hall". Region, Religion and Patronage: Lancastrian Shakespeare. Eds. Richard Dutton, Alison Findlay and Richard Wilson. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2003. 101-20.

Jensen, Phebe. Religion and Revelry in Shakespeare's Festive World. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008.

Johnston, Alexandra F. and Margaret Rogerson, eds. REED: York. 2 vols. Toronto: University of Toronto P, 1979. I.

Jonson, Ben. Poetaster. The Works of Ben Jonson. Eds. C. H. Herford and Percy Simpson, 11 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1925-52. IV. 1932; repr. 1954.

Kathman, David. "Grocers, Goldsmiths, and Drapers: Freeman and Apprentices in the Elizabethan Theater". Shakespeare Quarterly 55.1 (2004): 1-46.

Keenan, Siobhan. Travelling Players in Shakespeare's England. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

Middleton, Thomas. The Mayor of Queenborough. The Works of Thomas Middleton. Ed. A. H. Bullen. 8 vols. London: Nimmo, 1885-86. II.

Milward, Peter. The Catholicism of Shakespeare's Plays. Southampton: Saint Austin P, 1997.

Murphy, John L. Darkness and Devils: Exorcism and King Lear. Athens, Ohio: Ohio UP, 1984.

Nelson, Alan H., ed. REED: Cambridge. 2 vols. Toronto: University of Toronto P, 1989.

North Riding Quarter Session Minutes MS (NRQSM) 2/2 fol. 17 (October 1610). North Yorkshire County Record Office (NYCRO), Northallerton.

North Riding Quarter Session Minutes MS (NRQSM) 2/2 fos 198v-202v (January 1616). NYCRO, Northallerton.

Saker, Stanley, ed. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 20 vols. London: Macmillan, 1980. 17.

Schrickx, Willem. "Pericles in a Book-List of 1619 from the English Jesuit Mission and some of the Play's Special Problems". Shakespeare Survey 29 (1976): 21-32.

Shakespeare, William. The Late, And much admired Play, Called Pericles Prince of Tyre. STC 22334. London: Henry Gosson, 1609.

--. A Midsummer Night's Dream. The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. London: Norton, 1997. 814-61.

--. His True Chronicle Historie of the life and death of King Lear and his three Daughters. STC 22292. London: Nathaniel Butter, 1608.

Shell, Alison. Shakespeare and Religion. London: Black, 2010.

Sisson, C. J. "Shakespeare Quartos as Prompt-Copies. With some account of Cholmeley's Players and a new Shakespeare allusion". Review of English Studies 18 (1942): 129-43.

Star Chamber MS (STAC) 8/12/11 (1609). The National Archives (TNA), London.

Star Chamber MS (STAC) 8/19/10 (1611). TNA, London.

Takenaka, Masahiro. "King Lear and History". The Renaissance Bulletin 23 (1996): 27-31.

Talbot, Clare, ed. "Miscellanea: Recusant Records". Catholic Record Society 53. Newport: Johns, 1960.

The True Chronicle History of King Leir, and his three daughters, Gonorill, Ragan, and Cordella. STC 15343. London: Simon Stafford for John Wright, 1605.

Whitfield White, Paul. Drama and Religion in English Provincial Society, 1485-1660. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008.

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(1) Thanks must go to The National Archives (hereafter TNA) for permission to quote from this and the other TNA manuscripts discussed in this essay. Quotations from all TNA manuscripts retain the original spelling but expand contractions in italics. STAC 8/19/10 is written on large membranes of paper, abbreviated as mb. Thanks must also go to the North Yorkshire County Record Office, Northallerton, for permission to quote from the North Riding Quarter Session Minutes, 2/2. The Simpson troupe has long been known to Shakespeare scholars and their activities have attracted periodic interest because of their alleged performance of Pericles and King Lear, but the mainly Catholic company has received fresh attention in recent years, following renewed interest in Catholic culture in early modern England and Shakespeare's possible Catholic sympathies. Among the most significant studies of the Simpson players are those found in the following: Boddy, Holland, Howard, Jensen, "Recusancy" and Religion, Murphy, Sisson, Takenaka, Whitfield White, Wilson, and Womack.

(2) On Cholmley's involvement in the Essex plot, see Aveling 121. The accusation that he patronised the Simpsons was made by Sir Thomas Hoby (STAC 8/12/11 mb. 2). In alleging that Sir Richard was the troupe's patron, Hoby may have been seeking to blacken Cholmley's reputation. As a suspected Catholic, Richard Cholmley was precisely the kind of person whom Hoby as a puritan activist was most keen to attack and remove from positions of power in regional government. However, his antipathy for Cholmley was probably rendered more acute by a series of conflicts between them in the early years of the seventeenth century, including an acrimonious incident in 1600, when Richard Cholmley and a "party of young men" called at Hoby's home "while on a hunting expedition" and reportedly behaved in a rude and offensive manner (Boddy 7). Hoby noted in his 1609 complaint that Cholmley "was iustly censored in your Maiesties high Courte of Starrchamber" for his part in the "disgrace and outrage" offered Hoby in his home (STAC 8/12/11 mb. 2).

(3) Sir John Yorke and other members of his family and household were eventually fined for allowing religion to be brought upon the stage during the St. Christopher performance and for failing to "rebuke or arrest" the players (Howard 45). For more information about the life and trial of Sir John Yorke, see Howard.

(4) There is some ambiguity about the reference to Christopher, as the person listed as "a plaier" after Robert Simpson in the list of Egton recusants is named as "Christopher Cordiner", but this is probably--and is usually accepted as--an allusion to Christopher Simpson and his theatrical activity (Talbot 32-33).

(5) This is how many people Thomas Pant reportedly listed as performing St Christopher around 1609-10. In his summary of Pant's testimony, Pant's new master, William Symonds reports that the troupe consisted of Thomas Pant, Christopher Simpson, Robert Simpson, John Simpson, Richard Simpson, Edward Whitfield, Robert Whitfield, Edward Concett, George Ellerby, George Hodgson, and Edward Millington (STAC 8/19/10 mb. 1).

(6) As well as being famous for his conflated adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry IV, Parts I and II, Sir Edward Dering is known to have bought multiple copies of printed plays on several occasions in the early 1620s with an apparent view to using them for amateur household productions at Surrenden, including "6 playbookes of Band Ruff and Cuff" in 1623-24 (Gibson 920, 913-14, 917-18, 921-23). Dering's household papers also include a cast list for one such production--a production of John Fletcher's The Spanish Curate--with the listed actors including Dering himself, friends, relations and "Iacke of ye buttery" (Gibson 916). See Dobson 26-30 for a fuller discussion of the amateur theatricals at Surrenden.

(7) One possible example of a professional touring company using a printed play as a promptbook is described by C. J. Sisson. He notes that the Chicago copy of the printed quarto of A Looking Glass for London and England appears to be annotated for performance and includes in one stage direction the name "Mr Reason". This is probably an allusion to the professional actor and one-time leader of Prince Charles' players, Gilbert Reason and could mean that the printed play was used as a promptbook by the company during one of their tours "between 1613 and 1625" (134).

(8) There seem to have been at least six men involved in the York book trade around 1616. See Barnard and Bell 4.

(9) Thanks must go to Kate Loveman for drawing my attention to Foster's inventory and the presence of playbooks within it.

(10) Richard Wilson speculates that Christopher Simpson Junior was taught music in the Cholmley household (273).

Siobhan Keenan is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature at De Montfort University, Leicester. She is the author of Travelling Players in Shakespeare's England (2002) (which was short-listed for the Theatre Society Book Prize, 2002) and Renaissance Literature (Edinburgh Critical Guides to Literature, 2008); and she is currently completing a book on Acting Companies and their Plays in Shakespeare's London for the Arden Early Modern Drama Series (forthcoming 2014).
Table 1: The Simpsons' Hosts

Host                 Status      Place                Date

Ralph Rookby#        Armiger     Marske               1 January
William Stephenson   Gentleman   Wilton               2 January
John Wildon#         Gentleman   Marton               3 January
John Gower#          Armiger     Stainsby             4 January
William Chater       Armiger     Croft                6 January
Marmaduke Vincent    Armiger     Smeaton              7 January
Thomas Best          Gentleman   Hornby               8 January
Richard Lodge#       Yeoman      Appleton Sub Wiske   8 January
Richard Stringer     Yeoman      Lealholm             13 January

Note: The names of hosts known to be Catholic recusants or
Catholic sympathisers are shown in bold.
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