Reflections on The Early Modern Inns of Court and the Circulation of Text

The Early Modern Inns of Court and the Circulation of Text was an ambitious two-day conference which took place in the light and airy North Terrace of Bush House at King’s College London on the 14th and 15th of June 2019. It included events at Middle and Inner Temple, an exhibition of materials curated especially for the conference, and a professional revival of The Misfortunes of Arthur (1587), written by lawyers at Gray’s Inn, in the Chapel at Gray’s Inn, by specialist company, The Dolphin’s Back. Just over a month on, we feel ready to share reflections on the event and say how much we enjoyed it! We’d also like to use this space to reiterate thanks to our beneficent sponsors. The conference was supported generously by research groups within King’s College London, the Centre for Early Modern Studies, the English Department, the Collaborative Seed Fund Partnership, and the Text Histories and Politics Research Cluster. Outside King’s, we owe thanks to the London Shakespeare Centre, the Society for Renaissance Studies, the Inner Temple and the Society for Theatre Research. Thanks should also go to our speakers and chairs, some of whom travelled from as far afield as America and New Zealand to be a part of our conference!

The conference and the performance of The Misfortunes of Arthur were very well attended. We heard from early career and established scholars in the same sessions, which was truly inspiring, and the generous nature of questions and responses in the post-panel discussions created a sense that participants were really learning from each other. The dedication of speakers and delegates lasted right into the Q&A following the closing plenary (which debated the use of the terms ‘social network’ and ‘coterie verse’ by literary scholars) in an unusually energetic way for the end of a two-day conference. Luckily, those who were able to stay until the end were rewarded with a wine reception and dinner at which we continued to profit from the amicable atmosphere created at the conference.

The conference began with the aim of highlighting the importance of the Inns of Court as centres of literary production, centres which created texts whose transmission had a powerful influence on the social and political culture of early modern England and it resulted in revealing just how diverse those texts were. The opening plenary, by Professor Michelle O’Callaghan (University of Reading), broadened the humanist, self-governing ideal of the enclosed environment of the Inns by exploring letters that record female presence at the Inns, a miscellany of nonsense verse attributed to Middle Templar John Hoskins and Lady Mary Jacob and accounts for monies paid by the Inns to laundry women. Professor Arthur Marotti’s (Wayne State University) closing plenary shared details of manuscript collections kept by law students that include unique sets of poems, accounts of sobering deaths and records of dancing in revels. These collections trace courtly and provincial connections between the Inns and their members and reveal a non-systematic approach to textual collection which reflects the heterogeneous interests and pursuits of these communities. We were honoured to have such wonderful plenaries book-ending the conference and these talks highlighted the sheer range of textual predilections played out at the early modern Inns.

The panels generated a similar sense of the diversity of texts read and disseminated by students and lawyers at the Inns. For example, Penelope Geng (Macalester College) discussed Gray’s Inn member Francis Bacon’s distinctively poetic 1625 translation of the Psalms as an act of “professional piety”, Joshua Eckhardt (Virginia Commonwealth University) explored records of books owned by Innsmen and where they bought them from, while Jennifer Young (University of Greenwich) used the variant texts of Shakespeare’s Othello to demonstrate marketing and editing practices aimed at the specific readership of the Serjeants Inn. Other types of Inns-related texts explored by our speakers were poems by members of Lincoln’s Inn – Leonard Lisle’s The Husband and Thomas Overbury’s The Wife now the Widow, published in the wake of Overbury’s death in the Tower in 1613 – by Charles Cathcart (Open University), the record of the earliest known revels in the account books at Inner Temple, by Professor Alan Nelson (Berkeley) and even the names of Inns members, like Walter Raleigh and Henry Wriothesley, engraved on their smoking pipes, which Lauren Woking (University of Liverpool) used to illustrate Middle Temple’s close ties with the tobacco trade in the seventeenth century. Realising the extent of the diversity of the texts which were produced by and for the communities based at the Inns was a particularly rewarding outcome of the conference. Speakers and delegates were struck by the new ways of thinking about their own research which unfolded because of the conference’s, in effect, recategorisation of material as ‘Inns of Court literature’.

The diversity of approaches taken to Inns-related texts were also frequently commented on during the course of the conference. Our speakers demonstrated a variety of approaches from James Wallace’s (Independent Scholar/Director) historical digging and detective-work, which presented persuasive evidence for John Lyly’s being the subject of two poems by John Donne, to Amanda McVitty’s (Massey University) surveying of annotations in legal yearbooks as illustrations of a particular kind of legal character and masculinity performed and recorded in marginalia. Equally differing approaches were evident in papers from Kate Shaw (University of Reading) which focused on a 1563 marriage treatise by Mary Moore that was clearly influenced by her having to appearing in court to answer her first husband’s posthumous and outstanding debts, and Maria Salenius (University of Helsinki), which went from analysing sermons preached by Donne for the consecration of Lincoln’s Inn Chapel to showing how the need for buildings which house religious  – and indeed legal – practices is a human, rather than spiritual one. This level of diversity made the conference thoroughly engaging for all participants, who, at one point or another, were exposed to a methodology totally different from their own.

Lincoln’s Inn Chapel, where Donne’s sermons were preached. Image available on Wikipedia.

The conference also created new ways of thinking about the relationship between the law and the lawyers. Many students and members of the Inns were dedicated to the learning and practice of the law, which, of course, provided the rationale for residence and membership of the Inns, although they are, in literary studies at least, more famous for playgoing and revelling than attending to their studies. Interestingly, the conference noted a shift in this stereotype. Speakers highlighted that only forty-two percent of the in-take at the Inns had been to university before beginning their legal education, and while the conference paid close attention to the recreational culture in which the Inns engaged, it underlined the fundamental importance of the law to the students and residents at the Inns. Jackie Watson (Independent Scholar), in her discussion of Lording Barry’s 1608 comedy, Ram Alley, revealed that while some Innsmen supported and enjoyed the transgressive satirical drama, lawyers at Inner Temple also complained heavily about the actual Ram Alley, and how this liminal space allowed “lewd and idle persons” to pollute the space of the Inns. Similarly, Blessin Adams (University of East Anglia) pointed out that the sonnets in Ralph Stawell’s legal commonplacebook were written out just as carefully as his legal notes, showing that poetic and legal rhetoric were equally important to his education at Middle Temple, and Emma Rhatigan (University of Sheffield) demonstrated how Donne’s sermons on John 5:20 and 8:15, written for delivery at Lincoln’s Inn Chapel, reflect the interconnected power of the trinity and the different judicial systems which underpinned the professional lives of Donne’s original audience. Reconnecting the students and residents at the Inns of Court to the practice of the law itself might sound obvious, but participants noted the importance of remembering to do so alongside studying the textual records of the leisure culture fostered at the Inns.

Our received impression of the Inns as, in W. R. Prest’s words, “institutions devoid of any legal practice”, derives in part from the strong culture of dramatic production which formed part of their pedagogical practice. Dramas produced at the Inns were explored in detail by our speakers in new and productive ways. Molly Clark (Merton College, Oxford) used a discussion of rhyme in the earliest surviving Inns drama Gorboduc (1562), to show that the play is more experimental than we tend to assume because of its innovative use of half-rhyme, rather than continuous end-rhyme. Doyeeta Majumder (Jadavpuru University) Skyped in to give another perspective arguing that the custom of primogeniture which Inns tragedies, like George Gascoigne’s Jocasta (1566), Gorboduc, Tancred and Gismund (1566) and The Misfortunes of Arthur (1587) all demonstrate is an abuse of natural law. Alice Equestri (University of Sussex) used plays and legal records to illuminate the distinctions between fools and madmen, or idiots and lunatics, in the early modern legal system; the concept of idiocy was a legal construction designed to establish whether or not an individual could manage their own property or not; the formal process of determining idiocy is reflected in plays like Thomas Middleton’s The Changeling.

The Inns drama which received most attention from our speakers, fittingly, given its prominence elsewhere in our programme, was The Misfortunes of Arthur, written and performed by lawyers at Gray’s Inn and before the Queen for the 1587-8 revels. Felicity Brown (Jesus College, Oxford) discussed the play’s heavy textual borrowing from classical texts and the emphasis on incest which it shares with Jocasta. Professor Lorna Hutson’s (Merton College, Oxford) hugely informative and exciting paper highlighted the reasons behind the incest which is written into the Pendragon family by The Misfortunes of Arthur, proposing it as rather a genius strategy on the part of Thomas Hughes and his co-writers to naturalise the idea of a Scottish succession. Lorna Wallace (University of Stirling) ended the panel by reminding us about the special relationship which the Inns of Court enjoyed with the Crown and the coded political counsel which would have been located in the play by its original, and importantly, courtly audiences.

Producing a script-in-hand performance of The Misfortunes of Arthur to an extremely high professional standard, and creating a filmed record of the performance, was the most challenging aspect of this conference. We secured the invaluable involvement of expert practitioner James Wallace and The Dolphin’s Back, the company he founded specifically to stage rarely performed early modern dramas, early on in the planning stages. Wallace cut down the play from over three hours to a more manageable 90 minutes and put together an impeccable cast of eight actors whose command of the play’s relentless iambic pentameter, dense Senecan stichomythia and overwhelmingly long speeches were incredibly well received. Our cast was as follows:

Alan Cox – Gorlois, Chorus 4, Herald, Gilla, Howell

Laura Rogers – Guenevora, Chorus 3

Lucy-Rose Leonard – Fronia, Chorus 1, Gawin

Jen Shakesby – Angharad, Chorus 2

Patrick Walshe McBride – Mordred

Mark Hammersley – Conan, Nuncius 2 (Act 4)

 Matthew Flynn – Cador, Nuncius 1 (Act 2)

Oliver Senton – Arthur

Audience members commented on their excellent diction, passion and clarity, and the way Wallace’s relatively static staging increased focus on the words themselves. Readers might be wondering why, given how off-putting The Misfortunes of Arthur sounds from a performance perspective, we were interested in staging it at all!

Gorlois and the Chorus in rehearsal

The answers are simply that it has not been professionally attempted, ever, and that the play deserves more attention as a record of English drama in development, a bridge between esoteric neo-Senecan tragedies and later plays like Christopher Marlowe’s wildly popular Tamburlaine the Great, and those resonances can only be fully realised in performance. We worked with a camera crew from Kaleido Film to record this one-off performance which will be made available as a research tool. Please get in touch with one of the organisers if you would like more information about accessing this resource and watch this space for future research outcomes on the play!

Our access to the Chapel as a performance venue was kindly given by Gray’s Inn and we also received very generous support from Inner Temple, with whom we collaborated on an event in Temple Church. On 4th June, members of the Inner Temple Drama Society performed excerpts of The Misfortunes of Arthur interspersed with commentary and context from Nuttall, Neuhauser, Wallace and Professor Lucy Munro, who kindly agreed to add her expertise to the event. We have also strengthened the existing relationship between King’s College London and Middle Temple through this conference by working with Middle Temple Library. David Williams, a King’s College London MA student, under guidance from the organisers and Renae Satterley, the Inn’s Librarian, curated an exhibition of materials from the Middle Temple Library to which the conference gave its participants unique access, the library is not normally open to non-Inns members. The exhibition spoke clearly to the aims of the conference, for example, displaying translations of Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid by Innsmen, Sir John Davies (Middle Temple) and Barnabe Googe (Staple Inn), respectively, alongside sixteenth century works on policy by Guillaume de la Perrier (which were donated to the library in the early eighteenth century by lawyer, propogandist and Middle Templar William Petyt), to emphasise the importance of classical texts to early modern legal practice and education.

Our programme also included a preliminary event held at Middle Temple Library on 13th June, at which former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Igor Judge, gave a fascinating address on the formation of the Inns and their impact on Shakespeare’s history plays, as well as showing some of the items he has donated to the library. This talk is another indicator of the fruitful relationships which have been created with the Inns of the present through studying their early modern counterparts, and we look forward to building on those relationships in the future. Those interested in the next phase of our research can keep following on Twitter @EarlyModernInns and on this blog. We would like to thank all our speakers, delegates, collaborators and sponsors once again for what was a truly exciting and rewarding conference.


Tuesday evening in Temple Church, 4 June 2019

This week we collaborated on a truly special event with the History and Drama Societies at Inner Temple, who hosted us in the beautiful Temple Church. It was wonderful to meet present-day versions of the students and lawyers our conference will explore and share our work with practicing members of the Inner Temple. James Wallace, of The Dolphin’s Back, and Professor Lucy Munro, of King’s College London, kindly agreed to join us to add their expertise to the occasion.

Julian Neuhauser gave a great introduction to the playfully subversive treatment which the theme of governance received during Inns of Court revels; comic versions of a mismanaged country provided a didactic example of how not to lead the country. As he explained, The Misfortunes of Arthur (the 1587 Gray’s Inn drama we’re staging next week, yes, next week!) functioned in the same way, but presented its teaching through tragedy, rather than comedy. To help us explore The Misfortunes of Arthur and its relationship to the social role of the Inns in the Elizabethan period, Inner Temple’s Drama Society gave some stunning script-in-hand renditions of key scenes from the play, while we and our learned colleagues provided commentary and context. A quick side note – we are cursing ourselves for not making proper notes of all our actors’ names. Apologies in advance for referring to them as their characters rather than by name.

Romola Nuttall gives some background. Spot the suit of armour… very Arthurian!

We began with the Ghost of the Duke of Gorlois’ opening speech, which builds on the humanist, English translations of Seneca’s Roman tragedies that flourished at the Inns in the 1560s. This speech is full of Classical references and excessive desire for revenge on the House of Pendragon and its stock. Lloyd Thomas used the space of Temple Church to great effect, looking up to the windowed cupola when addressing “Cassiopea, gembright sign, | Most sacred sight, and sweet celestial star”, a reference to Elizabeth I, for whom the play was performed in February 1588.

Next was a dialogue between Guenevora, Arthur’s Queen, and Friona, a lady of her court and privy to her secrets. The actors created real intimacy here through the repeated gesture of Friona trying to arrange Guenevora’s hair, giving the sense that we were in a private space, not the nave of a cavernous church. In the scene, Friona offers moderating advice to the Queen in a way that is typical for Inns drama, which use scenes in which counsel is given to reflect their institutional identity. It was wonderful to hear this scene brought to life and share in Guenevora’s pain and passion; at this point in the play she is lamenting Arthur’s return from nine years of war because she’s in a long term love affair with Mordred, Arthur’s son. Guenevora’s passions were so frantic and exciting that it’s almost a shame that Friona successfully counsels her against plotting to murder Arthur on his return with the caution “A woman’s best revenge is to forgive.”

James Wallace spoke next about the complex psychologies at work in this play. Guenevora, for one. But also Mordred, the child of incest who begins a relationship with his father’s new wife…?! Mordred’s domineering character was showed off by Simeon Wallis in our third scene in which Gilla (a British earl), Gillamor (King of Ireland), Cheldrichus (Duke of Saxony) swear allegiance to him. The Drama Society used accent to very comic effect which brought the scene to life in a completely new way.

Lucy Munro then offered us a wonderful reflection on the close relationship between the Inns and London’s theatres, particularly the Whitefriars and the Blackfriars, which were located very near the Inns. She also pointed out how that many Arthurian plays were performed commercially and it’s exciting to think that The Misfortunes of Arthur might have influenced these slightly later plays. Sadly, only their titles survive so we don’t know how close the Arthurs that they presented would have been close to Hughes’ Arthur.

As we highlighted throughout this event, the Arthur of this play is unlike any other. He’s politically impotent, cuckolded by his own son and guilty of incest. In Hughes’ play, Arthur doesn’t appear onstage until Act 3, which is essentially a long build-up of his counsellors and close advisors persuading him to go to war with Mordred. Romola Nuttall explained Arthur and Mordred as foils to each other. Mordred is urged by his counsellors to make peace, advice which he does not heed. Arthur on the other hand, needs persuading to make war, as his pacifism and paternal love mean he is reluctant to do so, despite Mordred’s usurpation of his kingdom.

In our fourth extract, we saw Arthur move from his staunchly pacifist position. This scene is particularly interesting in the context of the Inns of Court and their social role. The leading justification for taking arms against Mordred is that his actions have wronged the law, and therefore, make action against him lawful. James Batten was a perfectly deliberating Arthur, weighing impossible options. As he cries to Fortune, “Each way on me she frowns: | For win I, lose I, both procure my grief.”

Arthur being persuaded unto war

The doom and gloom continued as Joshua Lynbeck gave a stunning reading in the part of Nuncius, a messenger who delivers the report of the battle scene in which Mordred dies. Mordred flings himself on Arthur’s sword and inflicts a fatal wound to his father’s head. The audience was riveted! Our final extract saw Arthur despairing of his own misfortunes to the typically impartial Chorus, another feature of Classical drama adopted by Inns plays. The Drama Society brought Mordred’s dead body into the playing area, as indicated in the original printed text of the play, adding to the general sense of, well, misfortune.

The misfortunes of Arthur embodied by the “corpse” of his son Mordred

This event was a fantastic taster of what is to come in the Chapel at Gray’s Inn next Friday, when The Misfortunes of Arthur will be performed by the Dolphin’s Back. We feel more excited than ever moving towards next week as this evening showed us that the play is even more dynamic and complex in performance than it is when read. Come and see what all the fuss is about next Friday by clicking here.

The quality of the Drama Society’s performance at our event was highly impressive, thank you! We urge everyone to attend their Shakespeare event on 15th July. Keep up with them @InnerDramaSoc, we certainly will be!

A Glimpse into Gesta Grayorum

Gray’s Inn’s mascot, the Griffin
(from Wikicommons)

We are putting on The Misfortunes of Arthur because it is exemplary of Inns Drama. It was collaboratively written by members of the Inns and it has been argued that the play served to counsel the court on political matters. But the Inns’ engagements with didactic literature were not always as dour as this play about political and familial betrayal would have them seem. In this blog post, Julian Neuhauser uses Gesta Grayorum (1688), a short book that details the events of the 1594 Gray’s Inn revels, to think about the revel’s relationship to a play like Misfortunes.

The revels were opportunities for members of the Inns to entertain themselves with a sort of upside-down version of their society. Foolery and wit replaced the more traditional virtues as estimable traits. However, this inversion didn’t mean that the revels were chaotic or anarchic periods. Much to the contrary, an entire mock-court, complete with a head of state—The Prince of Purpoole—was established to act as an anchor, keeping the mockery and unruliness focused safely inward while the Inns-men had fun playing as misbehaving statesmen.

Gesta Grayorum reads as if it is compiled from the lost records of an alternative English state. The account begins with the election of the Prince of Purpoole and the establishment of his court which, in the revels of Gesta Grayorum, consisted of over seventy officers. During the revels, the Prince and members of his court gave satirical orations and read mock-formal letters between Gray’s Inn and Inner Temple. They also put on (or paid to have put on) theatrical performances. In the year of Gesta Grayorum, Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors was performed at Gray’s Inn. The juxtaposition of the instructive and moralising Misfortunes of Arthur to the slapstick and farcical Comedy of Errors is an excellent illustration of the broad spectrum of theatrical engagement, interest, and production in Inns revels culture.

Just as the identities and lives of the characters in The Comedy of Errors were inverted, the other elements of Gesta Grayorum represented inversions in the day-to-day institutional life and proceedings of the Inns and of the English State. The man named the Prince of Purpoole in 1594, Henry Helmes, was elected because he was, ‘very active in Dancing and Revelling’.[1]  Helmes’ court consisted of ‘Knights of the Order of the Helmet’ (a pun on his name),[2] and the pronouncements made by his court and himself were often ridiculous.

Gray’s Inn Square (from Wikicommons)

For example, in a section of Gesta Grayorum that notes the ‘renderings’ unto the Prince by his land-holding subjects, the Arch Dukes of Stapulia and Bernardia (thought to be references to the now extinct Inns of Chancery that were attached to Gray’s Inn, Staple Inn and Barnard’s Inn)[3] were to give the Prince a gold crown and a ridiculous annual gift of ‘five hundred Millions, Sterling’.[4] Another demand of the Prince’s was that the members of the Nunnery of Clerkenwell ‘chaunt Placebo to the Gentlemen of the Prince’s Privy-Chamber’.[5] According to the OED, to sing (or chant) a placebo means to be sycophantic and to over flatter whomever one is directing the placebo at. That there was, of course, no longer a nunnery at Clerkenwell gives a good idea of the sort of female attention and flattery the Prince demanded for his gentlemen.

Gesta Grayorum continues, recording orations given by the Prince of Purpoole and by members of his court. These are just as satirical as the above ‘renderings’, and they include a general pardon, given to all by the Prince, for everything ranging from ‘Treasons, Contempts, [and] Offenses’ to ‘Washing, Clippings and Shavings’ to ‘Necromancies and Incantations’.[6] This pardon is then followed by five pages of exceptions to the pardon, affecting everyone from those that ‘imagine, think, suppose or speak’[7] anything against the Prince, to those that ‘shall put or cast into any Waters,’[8] to those that ‘hunt in the night’[9] and to ‘all commoners within any forest’.[10] When all was said and done, the Prince’s exceptions to his pardons made his own edict utterly pointless.

Other orations included a counsellor giving the bad advice that ‘the Divines find nothing more glorious to resemble our State unto, than a Warfare,”[11] and an oration advising ‘Eternizement and Fame, by buildings and foundations’[12] rather, it is implied, than by one’s deeds and good leadership.

There is more to Gesta Grayorum, including a description of the procession of the revels, letters to the military, a Latin oration, and even a masque. But the bits that have made it into this blog post are enough to see how Gesta Grayorum and The Misfortunes of Arthur are aimed at the same goal. The joke at the revels, if Gesta Grayorum is any indication, is that states can be ruled foolishly. Misfortunes shows a poorly led state, but the revels embody one. The members of the Inns embraced and enjoyed their chance to play as a Court of Misrule, but it was also perhaps a learning experience: how better to prevent a poor government than to know exactly what one looks like?
[1] B1v.
[2] C1r.
[3] See Elizabeth Goldring, et all, in John Nichols’s The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth I: A New Edition of the Early Modern Sources, 5 vols, page 791, note 355.
[4] C2r.
[5] C2v.
[6] C4r.
[7] C4r.
[8] D1r.
[9] D1r.
[10] D2r.
[11] F1r.
[12] F2r.

Interview with David Williams, curator of our exhibition at Middle Temple

Our conference features a specially curated exhibition of materials from the collections at Middle Temple Library, which we’ll visit on Saturday 15th June. It will be a unique opportunity to access items and spaces not normally available to the general public and we’re very grateful to Renae Satterly, Librarian at Middle Temple, and her colleagues for their collaboration. In this post, we talk to David Williams, who has curated the exhibition.

Tell us a bit about yourself and the exhibition project you’ve been working on?

Hello all, I’m David Williams. I’m a MA student at King’s College London on the World History & Culture programme. In putting together this exhibition I sought to use the materials within the collections of the Inns to demonstrate not only their historical literary associations but also the fluidity of the space and its role in knowledge circulation. It is my hope that such an exhibition could display materials which we are not always able to take pleasure in handling or seeing in person, and, more generally, shed light on the varied nature of life at the early modern Inns of court and the historical associations and contributions outside of law which the Inns and their members have had.

What did you know about the Inns of Court before beginning this project?

I was lucky that have I had a long interest in urban history and in particular, London. A such, I was able to come into this project with some ideas of the Inns of Court during the early modern period. Such old institutions had caught my attention through other studies so I had some background knowledge of the diverse nature of the Inns. However, my knowledge of particular elements of the Inns’ varied membership and their larger social and political interactions only developed as I began to prepare for the exhibition.

Has working on this project changed your views or understanding of the early modern Inns of Court; what is your sense of the Inns, or specifically Middle Temple, now?

I knew of members such as Bacon, and Marston and various others who participated in the royal, monarchic, courts. What I was not aware of was the degree to which Inns member interacted with other literary figures and the way in which this literary world of the Inns interacted with politics and influenced style. To label them as England’s “third University” seems to almost obscure the impact of the Inns as institutions themselves and of the members as individuals. The Inns were much more the a third university! Certainly there was influence from Oxford and Cambridge. However, the idea of the Inns in this period, which was constructed through their location, the legal profession at the time, and the social background and sense of self of the members, placed the Inns as institutions in a much more central role in their worlds socially and politically. In this, I think specifically of members’ beliefs in their role as advisors, or as deserving a place in the political dealings of the period. In such a case, their translation works of Seneca proved more than a way of developing literary styles and disseminating knowledge but also gave ways to act out their belief in their role as advisors. It is these roles and activities which have had the greatest change on my understanding of the Inns and helped to illuminate larger interactions of the time between societal groups, which in the present, can be seen as having very specific and contained roles within society and the political world.

What kinds of materials were you looking for in the collections at Middle Temple?

When it came to materials I needed to change how I addressed the topic of the circulation of text, knowledge and ideas in and around the early modern Inns. As I only had what was available at the Inns, I needed to look at what they could give me, rather than what I felt I needed to convey the sense of the cultural life of the Inns that I had become interested in. It’s really been the collections which informed what would be talked about and what themes would be displayed. Before I was able to have a detailed talk with the librarian, Renae Satterly, I assumed I would be able to find published works contemporary with this project’s period of interest but also the works of Inns members. This proved quite contrary, which reshaped my conception of the exhibition. I knew I wanted mostly literary sources (here I am excluding the Inn calendars and minute books), as I felt those would provide the best material for the exhibition’s two audiences – conference delegates and current members of Middle Temple – as they have very different bases of knowledge and interest. The literary sources I was particularly interested in were ones that could be used to show influence between Inn members and other literary figures.

Can you tell us a bit about your process or method for structuring the exhibition, any challenges you encountered?

I wanted to structure the exhibition around the themes which the material lent itself to. The greatest hurdle was not the intellectual structure but the confrontation of physical structures determined by the display cases. The structure of the exhibition is thus centered around compartmentalised sections within thematic display cases; some display cases have more than one theme while some themes exist across more than one display case. These provide general and detailed looks at Inns’ Revels and then a number of smaller case studies, of influence and knowledge circulation. These are situated within themes of: translation, ‘stage’ design, rivalry and collaboration, and literary styles.

What was your favourite find?

I actually have two personal favourites. These two works are: M. Giovanni della Casa’s Galatheo and the French/English translation work The Mirrour of Policie. Galatheo (Galateo) was a pleasant find as I spent some time this last semester with etiquette books and that one would pop up in relation to this project was cool. The Mirrour of Policie is displayed at the ‘tree’ of a good governance diagram. It is this page, in its ability to show how the author’s visually conceives what a good magister should strive towards, which made the piece a favorite.

What have the most positive aspects of working on the project been?

I loved that I was able to spend time looking at performances which have components of rituals within them while being able to, at the same time, develop a better understanding of the world of early modern London. I think one of greatest things to come out of this project was getting to try my hand at curating an exhibition and gain more experience in public history. Certainly not least of all, that through this project, I have come away with yet another side interest – the complex and interacting worlds which were the Inns of Court during the early modern period, the Marston and Jonson ‘rivalry’, inside jokes, and the ability to take literary associations and influences as a form of illuminating social interactions and life during the period.

It sounds like a fascinating exhibition that will provide exactly what we’d hoped – a chance to engage with the material culture and spaces of the Inns. We can’t wait to see it! Your selection and presentation of materials will really complement themes our speakers will be exploring. It’s wonderful that one of you stand-out pieces highlights the role of the Inns as monarchic advisors which is so evident in The Misfortunes of Arthur the Gray’s Inn drama we’re reviving. Thank you again, David, for being part of the project and being such pleasure to work with.

To join us in June for the conference, exhibition viewing, and performance of The Misfortunes of Arthur by The Dolphin’s Back, follow this link

The not-so dumb-shows: Francis Bacon and The Misfortunes of Arthur

The Quene’s Maieste being at Greenwich ther were shewed presented and enacted before her highnes betwixte Christmas and Shrovetide vii playes besides feattes of Activitie and other Shewes by the Children of Poles her Majesties own servants and the gentlemen of Grayes In on whom was Imployed diverse remnanttes of clothe of goulde and other stuffe oute of the Store.

So is the season when The Misfortunes of Arthur was shown before Elizabeth I by the gentlemen of Gray’s Inns documented in Albert Feuillerat’s transcription of the Records of the Revels Office. It creates a wonderful sense of the variety of court performance and of its lavish nature. Sadly, the production we’re staging won’t have access to a royal store of props and costumes but here, Romola Nuttall considers visual aspects of the play and their relationship to the politics that inform it. And who knows, we might be able to get hold of some “diverse remnanttes of clothe of goulde” between now and 14th June!

The parts of The Misfortunes of Arthur which are the most prop and costume-heavy, and which would have needed to take full advantage of the Revels Office’s store, are the dumb-shows which proceed each act and provide allegorical expositions of the action that will take place after them. The printed text of the play contains full explanations of the figures involved in the dumb-shows from their dress, what they carried to their movement, the kind of music that accompanied them, and their allegorical significance. These explanations were written by their chief deviser, Francis Bacon. They are not only a fantastic record of private performance practice but act as a kind of key to the play itself. I’ll share them with you and then get back to Bacon and the ideas behind the dumb-shows and the play more broadly.

In the first dumb-show, three furies, classical demons of revenge, appear “from under the stage, apparelled accordingly with snakes flames about their black hair and garments”. Very specific details are given about what they hold because of what these objects communicate about the pre-history of the play. The first holds a snake in the right hand and “a cup of wine with a snake athwart the cup, in the left… The second with a firebrand in the right hand a Cupid in the left. The thirde with a whippe in the right hand a Pegasus in the left.” The furies set off “masking about the stage” until “there came from another place three nuns which walked by themselves.” After allowing the audience to get a good look at them, the Furies went to Mordred’s (Arthur’s son’s) house, and the nuns to the cloister.” Readers of the printed copy would have been very clear about what was going on with these three furies because a helpful ‘Argument of the Tragedy’ is printed on the preceding leaf. The Argument tells readers that at a banquet, Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father, took a shine to Igerna, wife of Gorlois, Duchess of Cornwall. Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, being wise to the King’s passion quickly retreated with her behind his castle walls. Uther levied armies against his old ally but, growing impatient, persuaded Merlin to transform into a likeness of Gorlois thus allowing his “acceptance with Igerna”, after which, Uther returned to the siege and killed Gorlois in battle. Igerna gives birth to twins, Arthur and Anne, who commit incest and produce Mordred… Things are clearly only going to get worse. Children of incestuous liaisons, as Joffrey in Game of Thrones shows us, are never going to make the right choices or become good kings.

Jack Gleeson as Joffrey, son of twin siblings, Cersei and Jaime Lannister in HBO’s adaptation of G. R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books

Original audiences of the play at Gray’s Inn and Greenwich may not have known any of this backstory until after the first dumb-show, when Gorlois’ ghost appears onstage, recounting the past injustices he has suffered at Uther’s hands and his consequent desire to wreak direful revenge on the house of Pendragon. They would have had to work harder to connect the props and movements seen in the dumb-show with the action that unfolded after it. When the backstory is known, the props held by the furies take on clear significance. As the printed explanation confirms, the snake and cup stand for the banquet where Uther saw Igerna, the firebrand and the Cupid for Uther’s “unlawfull heate and love” which destroyed his allegiance with the Duke of Cornwall and the whip and Pegasus “prefigured the cruelite and ambition which thence insued and continued to th’affecting of this tragedie.”

As we learn from Gorlois’ first speech, havoc is sure to ensure because Arthur has been away winning wars in Rome for nine years while Guenevere, or Guenevora in the printed text, his Queen, has been at home conducting a love affair with Mordred, yes, Arthur’s son with his twin sister…! Mordred does not want his king and father back, and neither does Guenevora. By the end of Act 1, after contemplating murdering Arthur and suicide, she decides to retreat into a convent, a move heralded by the onstage nuns. I am full of curiosity about how “Mordred’s house” and the “cloister” would have been shown by the original performances, or if those details are perhaps reserved for the printed version. Either way, having the nuns and furies, diametric opposites of femininity, leave the stage by different exits would have conveyed the idea of these figures’ irreconcilability even if the side of the stage from which they entered did not carry distinguishing features.

There must have been multiple entry/exit points, or at least sides of the stage as indicated by the description of the second dumb-show:

Whiles the musicke sounded there came out of Mordred’s house, a man stately attired, representing a king … Then out of the house appointed for Arthur there came three Nymphes apparrailed accordingly, the first holding a Cornucopia … the second a golden braunch of olive, the third a sheaffe of corne. These orderly, one after the another, offered these presents to the king who scornfully refused : a second after which, there came a man bareheaded, with long black shagged haire down to his shoulders, apparrailed with an Irish jacetk and shirt, having an Irish dagger by his side and a dart in his hand. Who first, with a threatening countenance looking about, and then spying the king, did furiously chase and drive him into Mordred’s house.

This sequence is somewhat easier to unpack. Mordred refuses Arthur’s offers of peace, as shown by the rejection of the nymphs, and incites himself and his allies to “Revenge and Furie” which “the Irishman signified”. It does not say much about Elizabethan Anglo-Irish relations that a group of English lawyers felt comfortable using recognisably stereotyped Irishman to signify revenge and fury. Later in the play, an Irish King, Gillamor, swears allegiance to Mordred, confirming both roles’ association with all-things vengeful. The precarious state of England’s relations with Ireland and Scotland is an ever-present theme in the play, a deeply topical one in the late 1580s, as Bacon and the other lawyers involved in The Misfortunes of Arthur would have been well aware. They would also have been aware that their play would be shown at Gray’s Inn before an audience of prestigious statesmen and at court, before an even more prestigious audience whose members included the Queen.

The play’s negative impression of the rebellious usurper Mordred continues into the third act and its dumb-show which happened during the music given after the second act, creating a seamless impression of the performance. The printed text explains that “[t]wo gentlemen attired in a peaceable manner … brought with them  Table, Carpet, and Cloth” which they laid and furnished with incense and banqueting dishes and depart. Two soldiers carrying naked swords then entered. They laid their swords on the table to enjoy the banquet but were interrupted from feeding “on the dainties” by a letter-bearing messenger. After reading the letters the soldiers “furiously flung the banquet under feete and violently snatching the Swordes unto them, they hastily went their way.”

The soldiers signify Mordred’s impetuous defiance of Arthur, which, by this point in the play, is bringing the country to its knees. The overthrow of the sumptuous banquet embodies Arthur’s reluctance to punish Mordred and the ineffectual attempts, via messengers and heralds, he makes in the play to persuade Mordred to make peace.

This sequence is fascinating. It must have taken quite a long time for just two performers to lay out all those props. Would they have gone about their work with the silent calm of stagehands today, did they practice bringing the table on, laying the table cloth, putting the dishes and plates and goblets out in perfect synchronicity? Or was it left more to chance and the hope that the sound of the music would drown out any unwanted clunking of tableware? The sensory aspect is worth noting too, with the fumes and smells of incense mixing with the heat, smell and smoke of candles that would have already been lit in both the Hall at Gray’s Inn and the palace at Greenwich.

The fourth dumb-show symbolises the brutality of civil war with onstage violence. A courtly lady walks “softly” around the stage with a king carrying a “counterfeit child”. Four armed soldiers suddenly appear and rip the baby from her arms and fling it against the walls. The soldiers then set about tearing the king’s crown from his head and smashing it to pieces. This sequence requires the least explanation: “By this was meant the fruit of warre, which spareth neither man, woman nor childe, with the end of Mordred’s usurped crowne.”

The fifth and final dumb-show is similarly focused on the dire consequences of the rivalry between Arthur, Mordred and their armies. It involves the procession of four gentlemen carrying shields or targets, whose various depictions signal the fate of the leaders Arthur and Mordred have sworn to allegiance and who have perished in the civil wars. For example, “a target, depicted with a man’s heart sore wounded and the blood gushing out, crowned with a crowne imperiall and a lawrell garland ; thus written in the toppe: En totum quod superset ; signifying the King of Norway, which spent himself and all his power for Arthur”.  The shield bearers are followed by a king wearing blackened armour, bespattered with blood, leaning on the shoulders of two heralds who wear mourning gowns and hood. They are followed by a page carrying a target showing a pelican pecking at her own breast. The pelican symbolises “Arthur’s too much indulgencie of Mordred, the cause of his death.” What a sense of colour this sequence would have created, with the painted targets and blood-spattered king, but how easy would it have been to read in performance? I can’t help thinking of several moments in Game of Thrones when the significance of family sigils leaves one at a loss as to who is who and who is fighting who. Game of Thrones again … Perhaps I should do another blog post on all the links between GoT and Misfortunes of Arthur, I feel there are so many!

Sigils from Game of Thrones in a poster form by DeviantArt

This post has, so far, been quite the spoiler, but I suppose no one who is coming to see a play called The Misfortunes of Arthur expects it to end well! Now I’ve basically given away the ending, I’m going to think more about why the subject matter of this play was chosen by Hughes, Bacon and the other Inns men they worked with.

A year before The Misfortunes of Arthur was staged at court, Mary Queen of Scots had been executed, on 8 February 1587. (While the printed playtext bears the year 1587, it actually took place in the calendar year 1588 because England was still using the Julian calendar and so placed new year at on the 25March, not 1 January.) The fraught relations between Scotland and England in the intervening year – when Elizabeth, Queen of England, was writing to James, King of Scotland, her nephew, to exonerate and justify her execution of his mother – make a play that stages conflict between different parts of Britain, from Arthur the representative of England, to Mordred who allies with the Irish and the Scots, a bold move.

Inns of Court drama was known for representing coded political advice to the monarch. Gorboduc (1566) warns against the dangers of an unfixed succession while Gismund of Salerne (later revised as Tancred and Gismund) cautions against undue monarchic wrath, in a reflection of Elizabeth’s reaction to the unsanctioned marriage of the Earl of Seymour and Lady Catherine Grey. How does The Misfortunes of Arthur map onto this pattern, and how was Elizabeth intended to superimpose herself and her politics onto the play? Arthur, as he is portrayed in the play, is admittedly a conquering hero but he has been cuckolded by his own son and does not take sufficient steps to quell this son’s ambition, which results in civil war. Is the usurper Mordred supposed somehow to signify James of Scotland? At the time, it was feared that James would side with the Spanish, further complicating England’s position against her European, Catholic enemies, but well known that he was most likely to be named heir to the English throne.

The relationship of these events to The Misfortunes of Arthur and Bacon’s hand in them has been suggested by Evangelica H. Waller’s ‘A Possible Interpretation of The Misfortunes of Arthur’, Studies in Philology (1925). Waller points out that while Hughes is credited with writing the majority of the play, Bacon, as chief deviser of the dumb-shows must have had a thorough knowledge of the play and perhaps influenced Hughes’ choice of story. Her thesis is that the play dramatises Scottish political affairs rather than English ones and finds a way of reconciling, and even flattering, Elizabeth’s actions leading up to Mary’s execution.

For Waller, Arthur represents James because of his pacifism and desire for union. The usurper Mordred is intended as the younger Earl of Bothwell, son of Mary’s third and dastardly husband, whose open disregard for political authority James was warned to punish by Elizabeth. Mary Queen of Scots is reflected in Guenevora whose remorse at her unwise choices in men can be quite easily mapped onto Mary’s history. It is tempting to read the play, from the then English, courtly perspective as one of in-fighting among the Scots while smug England looks on from afar. In a final plus point for this theory, Waller suggests that Guenevora’s confidantes, a lady of her court and her sister, who, in the first act of the play persuade her not to take revenge on Arthur or commit suicide but retire to a convent, are synecdochic of Elizabeth and the advice she tried to impart to Mary during her lifetime and imprisonment, to give up her cause and claim to the throne.

More recently, in the article that I mentioned in my previous post on Thomas Hughes Curtis Perry’s article, ‘British Empire of the Eve of the Armada: Revisiting The Misfortunes of Arthur’, Studies in Philology (2011), suggests that, rather than focusing on individual political figures, the play dramatises an English anxiety about the imperial expansion that was currently being conducted in Ireland and further afield. Arthur’s fate is sealed by the beginning of the play, by the nine years he has spent away from England fighting against the Romans. Arthur conquered Ireland but was over-confident in the continuation of their tribute paying. In play, Mordred releases the Irish from their tribute and so makes them his allies, not Arthur’s. Perry’s reading aligns The Misfortunes of Arthur with the agenda of Lord Burghley, Lord Treasurer, patron of Gray’s Inn and, maternal uncle of Francis Bacon. Perry thinks it possible that Burghley “even had a hand in the arrangements for play’s performance”. Whether or not he did, as Perry writes, it is “unavoidable that the play’s authors would have had his interests in mind [as well as those of Queen Elizabeth] because of his enormous influence as a political patron and because of his active connection to the institution charged with presenting the play.”

Bacon would have been particularly well placed to comment on the Scottish affairs because, as Waller points out, of an acquaintance he made in 1576, and with whom he maintained correspondence: Sir Thomas Philips, the decipherer of Mary Queen of Scot’s correspondence. I’m not sure of the extent to which I invest in Waller’s reading of the play’s primary characters, but her reading is compelling when put against Bacon’s biography and his well-know desire to gain prominence at court. He is known to have tried to use the channels of influence that, he felt, should have been open to him via his close connection to Burghley. Perhaps more interesting, to me anyway, is the idea of Bacon as planner, choreographer, deviser and designer of dramatic performance which is conveyed by the dumb-shows in The Misfortunes of Arthur, and the kind of practical, rather than political, stage-business with which he would have been engaged at the Inns of Court.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the early modern Inns of Court, and their important relationship to socio-political issues of the time, stay tuned for further posts and have a look at our conference programme and registration details

And, if you’d like to come and see our production of the play directed by expert early modernist, James Wallace, and actors of The Dolphin’s Back, follow this link

Thomas Hughes: Thomas Who?

Not much is known about Thomas Hughes, principal author of The Misfortunes of Arthur, the Gray’s Inn drama that we’re returning to Gray’s Inn for the first time since 1587. In this post, Romola Nuttall shares existing information about Hughes and his relatively overlooked Inns of Court drama.

Gray’s Inn Hall, where The Misfortunes of Arthur was performed in 1587

My acquaintance with Hughes started the first time I read The Misfortunes of Arthur in the Rare Books Room at the British Library.

Hughes is not named on the imprint but is named as the chief author and ‘one of the societie of Grayes-Inne’ a few pages later, which tell us that Hughes was a member of Gray’s Inn and indicates a degree of affluence and education. It has been suggested that he attended the school at Shrewsbury which was founded by Edward VI in 1552 and received support for enlargements from Elizabeth I in the early 1570s. A short entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography by early-twentieth century scholar, J. E. Finkelpearl, fleshes out this picture of Hughes. He received an MA from Queen’s College Cambridge and began his legal education at Gray’s Inn in 1579. Hughes remained at Gray’s Inn, becoming a barrister in 1585, and a reader, a more senior member, in 1606. He was knighted on 4th November 1619. The year before, in 1618, he served as Dean of the Chapel. This project’s production of The Misfortunes of Arthur will take place in the Chapel at Gray’s and I like to think that we’ll be using a space that Hughes once had custodianship of.

There is also a record for Hughes in The History of British Parliament, written by Roger Virgoe. Hughes served as MP for Lyme Regis in 1586, the year before he wrote The Misfortunes of Arthur, which has interesting implications for Hughes’ relationship to contemporary politics as they are represented in the play because he was actively involved in leadership and had connections with influential figures. Indeed, Hughes’ fellowship at Queen’s College Cambridge, which enabled him to take his MA, was only gained through the Queen’s intervention. Hughes is thought to have attracted Elizabeth I’s attention through his connections to the Earl of Warwick, whose brother was Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, long-term favourite and powerful statesman throughout Elizabeth’s reign.

Other surviving records referred to by Finkelpearl’s ODNB entry show that Hughes wasn’t always on the right side of the law. In 1590 he was accused by another Inns member of robbery and in 1619 he ended up in the Fleet Prison on charges of giving erroneous legal advice! Hughes married Frances, daughter of Nicholas Mynn, although we do not know when, and had at least one son, to whom there is a reference in the Gray’s Inn pension book. After his career at the bar ended, in 1593, he moved to Somerset where he served as a justice. He died on 13th May 1626.

The Misfortunes of Arthur was first performed and published during Hughes’ time as a barrister, in 1587. As explained in my previous post, the gentlemen of the Inns staged and wrote plays that were performed for their seasonal revels and at court. The imprint (above) to Arthur tells us it was played before the Queen at the end of the revels season on Shrove Tuesday Night 1588. Inns dramas were understood as carrying coded political advice to the monarch. The messages of the play will be explored in a future post, for now, I want to focus on Hughes and the networks within which he moved around the time of the play’s first production.

Hughes must have known Francis Bacon pretty well, as Bacon wrote the dumb-shows which prefix each of the play’s five acts. It is also possible that Hughes knew William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who, as well as being Elizabeth’s chief advisor and Lord Treasurer at the time of the play’s first performance, was a member of Gray’s Inn and an active patron within the institution in the 1580s. For more on this connection see Curtis Perry’s fascinating article, ‘British Empire on the Eve of the Armada: Revisiting The Misfortunes of Arthur’ (2011). Hughes’ time at Gray’s saw the unfolding of events of huge national importance, from the Spanish Armada in 1588 and the increasingly troubled British presence in Ireland, as Perry’s work highlights. Hughes would have been a member of the politically active Inns community in the run up to the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, in February of 1587.

I’m interested in Hughes’ possible connections to members of the book trade. The Misfortunes of Arthur was printed by Robert Robinson whose shop was in Fetter Lane, near Holborn, so very near Gray’s Inn. We don’t know who facilitated the play’s publication, and maybe Bacon or one of the other writers involved (Nicholas Trotte and Francis Yelverton) had more input than Hughes in ensuring it went to press. No titles in Robinson’s output suggest a connection with these writers, but what is interesting is that just four years after The Misfortunes of Arthur was published, Robinson was involved in the publication of another Inns drama, Tancred and Gismund (1591). This play originated from Inner Temple rather than Gray’s Inn, but Gray’s and Inner would pair up for producing revels (Middle Temple paired with Lincoln’s Inn), which could indicate a connection between Robinson and a member, or members, of Gray’s Inn.

What I also find fascinating is that The Misfortunes of Arthur is one of only five inns dramas to have been published. The first was Gorboduc the tragedie of Ferrex and Porrex, performed before the Queen in 1561. Gorboduc takes ancient British history as its subject, which could well have provided inspiration for The Misfortunes of Arthur, but unlike Hughes’ play was written by members of the aristocracy. Two Gray’s Inn plays by George Gascoigne, Supposes and Jocasta (both translations of existing Italian plays and the latter written in collaboration with another Gray’s Inn member, Francis Kinwelmersh), were performed in 1566 and published with Gascoigne’s collected works A hundreth sundrie flowres in 1573. In 1591, Tancred and Gismund, a revised version of a play written and performed by gentlemen of Inner Temple in 1566 was published; Tancred is a tragic love story found in Bocaccio’s De Cameron.

Considering that Inns students wrote and performed their own plays annually, at least until 1587, when records show that they employed the professional companies more often than they performed the plays themselves (see further the wonderful Records of Early English Drama volumes on the Inns of Court edited by Alan H. Nelson and John R. Elliott), there must have been many more than five Inns dramas in circulation, but only five are known to have been printed. The Misfortunes of Arthur must, therefore, have been considered as particularly topical in 1587, and/or has having been well received in performance in order to have been considered worthy of investment for publication. Further, the play was printed very soon after its first performances, unlike the majority of the other printed Inns plays. I find, in this unusual production history, strong grounds for revisiting the play in research and in performance. I look forward to sharing more about the play’s topicality in my next post.

The Inns of Court in early modern London

Middle Temple’s magnolia tree, March 2019

The Inns of Court today are best known for their centrality to the practice of the legal profession and being beautiful spaces of quiet retreat amid the bustle of central London. This project explores the far-reaching cultural influence of the Inns in the early modern period. We are asking what kind of roles these institutions played in development of English literary culture at a time of huge social change and intense formal development for literature of all genres, from stage-plays to sermons. This first post is a general introduction to the Inns in the sixteenth century.

Lincoln’s Inn Fields in the 21st century: a popular al fresco lunch spot!

In Tudor England, the Inns were regarded as the country’s third university, back when Oxford and Cambridge were the only two. Upon matriculation, young men would relocate to London for seven years of further schooling in the law. However, the Inns were not just centres for gaining a legal education. They were effectively training grounds for the next generation of public servants and landowners and seen as ‘seminaries and nurseries wherein the gentrie of this kingdom are bred and trayned up’. J. E. Neale’s Essays in Elizabethan History (1958) writes of them with scorn as ‘finishing schools devoid of any intention of legal practice’. Certainly, by the 1580s the daily disputations had ceased and the educational rigour of these institutions may have lessened but by the end of the sixteenth century they represented a community of around 1,700 literary, relatively affluent men living, working, writing and pursuing leisure activities the heart of London. Such a mass of consumers must have contributed significantly to the growth of literary and theatrical production evident in Elizabethan England.

It cost around £30 per year to maintain a residency at Middle Temple, which gives us a sense of how relatively affluent students and members were. Most of the students were the sons of the nobility and the gentry but there was some social mixing. William Harrison’s Description of England (1587) reports that the yeoman class, categorised as the group below the gentry, ‘are also for the most part farmers to gentlemen … often setting their sons to the schools, to the universities, and to the Inns of Court’.

Geographically, they were located between the royal, political and religious centres of the city, which made aspirational students ideally placed for launching themselves into careers in politics or administration through agents at court. They provided opportunities for getting noticed, usually through literary endeavour, as the most senior statesmen of the day often visited the Inns and would have been in attendance for the presentation of disputations, revels, plays and sermons. As the image below shows, the Inns were spread out over a fairly large area of central London, from Middle and Inner Temple on the Thames, to Gray’s, further north in Holborn. Today the most well-known are the two Temples, Gray’s and Lincoln’s, but there were others, like Staples, which was part of Gray’s, and Furnival’s. Searjeants Inn, on Fleet Street, and the adjacent Court of Chancery, were home to senior barristers and solicitors rather than students.

Map of early modern London showing the Inns (red) in the middle of Whitehall and Westminster (blue) and Old St Pauls (purple). To see the full interactive map go to

As the map shows, the Inns also neighboured the epicentre of the book trade, at St Paul’s, and the theatrical performance venues which began to proliferate in London in the 1560s. Innsmen were known to have frequented commercial playhouses – there are two instances of brawls between them and acting companies in the early 1580s – and they also wrote plays which they performed in the Inns at seasonal revels and sometimes at court. We are reviving one of these, The Misfortunes of Arthur (1587), for performance in Gray’s Inn – more details below! The Inns were also involved in other kinds of performances and vastly different oral cultures, from pageants and tilts to sermons and disputations. It is these aspects of the Inns which make them particularly exciting to literary culture and its social role in early modern England.

This project aims to explore that role by bringing together material research, with an exhibition at Middle Temple Library, a workshop with the History Society at Inner Temple, traditional research into the textual practices and cultures developed at the Inns with a two-day conference, and practice-led research by reviving The Misfortunes of Arthur, a drama written for the Christmas Revels at Gray’s Inn in 1587 and not staged since. We are working with specialist company, The Dolphin’s Back, to return this overlooked play to Gray’s Inn. We owe huge thanks to Gray’s Inn for their generosity in granting us use of the Chapel, where the play will be performed. Together with James Wallace, the company’s director, we are exploring the representation of Arthurian legend in the time of Elizabeth I, performance-practices developed at the Inns, and this play’s relationship to better known works by Marlowe, Shakespeare and others.

The next post will feature Thomas Hughes, the lawyer who wrote the play, and the context in which it was first performed and published. You can buy a ticket to the performance on 14th June here:

This projects owes huge thanks to Gray’s Inn for in granting us use of the Chapel, where the play will be performed and to our generous sponsors: the London Shakespeare Centre, the Centre for Early Modern Studies, the Society for Renaissance Studies, the Society for Theatre Research, King’s College London, the English Department, the Text History and Politics Research Cluster and the Creative Research, Collaborations and Partnerships Seed Fund at King’s College London.