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The date of 'Byrsa Basilica' and 'The Swedish Intelligencer'(s) of 1635.

A LATIN Comedy by the name of Byrsa Basilica sive Regale Excambium (The Royal Exchange), by one J.Rickets, is an obscure Cambridge play which remained in manuscript until 1939 when it was edited by R. H. Bowers.(1) With all the deficiencies of a closet play it would perhaps richly merit its obscurity, were it not for the fact that the writer leaves the impression of having just completed a seventeenth-century equivalent of an MBA. ff nothing else, Byrsa Basilica is thus of great value for anyone interested in the practices of early modern capitalism as dramatized by a writer whose extensive knowledge of business and commercial law goes beyond the more generic anti-capitalist satires of the Jacobean era. For those of us with but scant knowledge of Latin, Bowers has thoughtfully provided a facing line-by-line translation of excellent literary quality.

One of the problems associated with the play, however, is its date. No indication of a performance has as yet been found, but based on a letter mentioned in the course of the dialogue Bowers has provisionatly ascribed the play to 1633, the said letter bearing a 20 August 1633 date (1.370).(2) In this he is followed by Harbage. In support of his claim Bowers also cites the mention of three ships, the Carolus, the Maria, and the Jacobus (11.1105-6), which he says at least situate the play within the reign of Charles 1.(3) He might indeed have added that the names of two of the ships in fact situate the play exactly within the 1633 time-frame. Two royal ships, the Henrietta Maria and the Charles were under construction in 1632, and the Charles was launched in March 1633.(4) Whether the Mary was also launched at that time is not clear from Mathew's account, but that she was under sail by this date is evident from a comedy entitled The Launching of the Mary, or The Seaman's Honest Wife by one Walter Mountfort, licensed 27 June 1633.(5) We thus have what appears to be a pretty irrefutable terminus a quo. But not quite.

Byrsa Basilica III.v contains one of those invidious attacks on corantoes and newsbooks which were a stock joke for dramatists ever since Jonson started the vogue in 1626.(6) In this case, however, the news is neither faked nor burlesqued. Thus, for instance, the current situation in Germany is summed up as:

Caesar the conqueror triumphs! Germany

drinks - her own blood! Strange portents

[rovel] in Bohemia]


In anticipation of the modern journalistic practice of beginning with the most recent event and working backwards, Rickets opens his report with:

France publicly declared war on Spain!

(Hispano Gallus indixit bellum publice)


almost in the manner of a headline. Given the already established terminus a quo, this can only be referring to the declaration of war of 19 May 1635. Publice is the operative word here. Spain and France had been in a state of undeclared war ever since Richelieu embarked on a crafty policy of exploiting the war in Germany for the greater glory of France. Spain had been prepared to declare open war as early as 1632, but the Emperor demurred. In the interrim France occupied Alsace, Lorraine, and the Valtalline, and when war was finally declared, it was with all the solemn pageantry of a medieval challenge. The public ceremonials (in Brussels) were so elaborate that a contemporary account excuses its abridgement of the details on the grounds that a full report `would stuffe the booke too much'. This account is found in the eighth part of The Swedish Intelligencer, ent. S.R. 14 November 1635.(7)

Yet it appears that Mr Rickets did not avail himself of any of the other news in the eighth part of The Swedish Intelligencer, and so we are probably safe in assuming that he was aware of the declaration of war sometime closer to its actual date. In fact the rest of the news comes from the seventh part of The Swedish Intelligencer, ent. SR. 15 November 1634 and published in (presumably early) 1635.(8) Thus Caesar's great triumph is the first major Swedish reversal at the Battle of Nordlingen, 6 September 1634, to which the seventh part devotes the whole of chapter four and does its best to downplay the magnitude of the Swedish defeat. Strange portents in Bohemia is an allusion to a `strange token in the Ayre' which greeted the Saxon armies on their march into Bohemia (ch.VIII,p.23).(9) The incident occurred near the town of Melnick; and Molnicke, as we are informed elsewhere, is four leagues from Prague.(10) The item itself is signalled by a marginal gloss reading `Strange Portents'. Finally, Germany, while in English eyes always drinking, is here drinking her own blood in a nine-hour rampage of Crabats and Polakes through the Schwabian town of Hochstadt, 12 July 1634, which The Swedish Intelligencer plays up in all its nauseating detail (ch.1, p. 50). We thus have a new terminus a quo and, in view of the multiple references to 1634, reasonable grounds for assuming that the French declaration of war may also be a plausible index of the terminus ad quem; in other words, that Byrsa Basilica was definitely written in 1635, and likely before the appearance of the eighth part of The Swedish Intelligencer at the end of the year.(11) In any case the revised date also has a bearing on the third ship named above. By 1635 the RoyalJames had achieved a very special and unquestionably topical distinction as one of the three flagships of the royal navy.(12)



(1) J. Pickets, Byrsa Basilica (The Roya Exchange), trans. and ed. R.H. Bowers, Materials for the Study of the Old English Drama, New Series, XVII (Louvain, 1939). (2) Rickets, Introduction, xiv. (3) Ibid. (4) David Mathew, The Age of Charles I (London, 1951), 276, 281. (5) John Henry Walter, however, says the Mary was actually launched on 26 October 1626 (Walter Mountfort, The Launching of the Mary, ed. John Henry Walter, Malone Society (Oxford, 1933), Introduction, xii). Whether we are talking about two different ships here, or whether either Walter or Mathew is in error, is not clear to me. What is clear is that the Mary of the title refers to the Henrieta Maria; the pedigree of 'her whose glorious name the vessell beares' is given in fulsome detail, lines 2827-52, and marked for excision by the censor, Sir Henry Herbert. (6) It should be noted however that by the time the Byrsa was written newsbooks had already been banned October 1632), although England was not thereby deprived of news sources. The vacuum was filled by a rise in the number of street ballads as well as a resumption of the importation of Dutch newsbooks together with the publication of The Swedish Intelligencer. (7) The Modern History of the World, or an Historicall Relation of all the most memorable passages in GERMANY ... since the beginning of this present yeere 1635, The Swedish Intelligencer, pt. 8 (London, 1635). The imprint means it was published by March 1636. (8) The German History Continued. The Seventh Part, i.e. The Swedish Intelligencer, pt 7 London, 1635). In order to beara 1635 imprint it would have to be published after March 1635. (9) For the sceptical. the writer adds: `I know that whatsoever the Physiologers babble of naturall causes, yet such alteration in the Heavenly, and. avrie bodies, is alwayes prodigious...'(17). Clearly a sales pitch. (10) The Norimberg curranto of this week London, 1639), 340. (11) It could in fact be argued that if he play was written any later there would be little point in citing a letter dated 1633. Under early seventeenth-century notions of topicality, more flexible than our own, the distance in time between August 1633 and say) mid- 1635 is narrow enough to rate as current. (12) Mathew. 283.
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Author:Werner, Hans
Publication:Notes and Queries
Date:Dec 1, 1994
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