This month, in the wake of the Brexit vote, Adrian Chiles travelled around the country to speak to those—particularly those at one remove from London—who voted Leave. Whatever one’s political leanings and whatever one made of the Panorama programme itself, Chiles sought to bring “News from the Midlands,” representing the views of those underrepresented, infuriated with the establishment, and frustrated by and cynical about politics. He almost immediately drew a distinction between London and “places like this” (West Bromwich)—distinctions increasingly being drawn by journalists and commentators. Sixteenth-century England was troubled by a similar gulf between London and England’s other regions. One pamphlet, Newes from the North (1579), offers a strikingly similar political “report” from non-elite voices outside of the capital. Two Shoreditch playhouses form an intriguing aspect of these extra-metropolitan complaints.
Recent political events, including but not limited to Brexit, have shown London to be somewhat different to the rest of England (if not Britain entirely): it voted overwhelmingly Remain in the EU referendum; its house prices remain exceptionally high; on a cultural level, it continues to entrench its privileged position as the nation’s artistic as well as social and economic capital, receiving the lion’s share of Arts Council funding.
That story is nothing new. Its artistic centrality begins to be entrenched, in theatrical terms, with playhouse construction in the 1560s and 1570s. More broadly, London has long been the focus of economic, social, and political power in England and, later, Britain in ways distinct from many of its surrounding nations. Neighbouring countries do not and did not share such a centralisation of power in their capitals, and it is perhaps one of the idiosyncrasies of a developing sixteenth-century England that London grew dramatically, in every conceivable sense.
There also existed a dislocation between “southern” power and Northern desires, achieving dangerous expression early on in Elizabeth’s reign with the Northern Rebellion (1569). Such concerns remained a major issue in national stability well into the seventeenth century and surrounding the Civil War(s). Needless to say, North-South tensions sit deep in the British psyche and remain everywhere familiar, from football chants to the Twitter commentariat:
For nation-uniter, May has v southern team:
— Peter Walker (@peterwalker99) July 13, 2016
As money, goods, and people poured into London in the sixteenth century, it became a metropolis sharply distinct from any other town in England. One of the earliest extant references to two playhouses, the Theatre and the Curtain, appears in a text articulating the shock of the capital for those who were no Elizabethan urbanites.
Newes from the North, written by the university student T.F. in 1579 (printed again in 1585), gives us an impression of what it might be like to visit London (as a non-Londoner) in the sixteenth century. It also provides two of the earliest references to playing that invoke by name those two famous playhouses in Shoreditch:
. . . if any freend or neighbour require him to goe with them to the Tauern, to the Ale house, to the Theater, to ye Courtain as they term it, or to Paris garden or any such place of expence . . . (H4v)
Theatre historians frequently cite such passages in isolation. Yet the pamphlet in which it appears is a fascinating debate about Elizabethan state centralisation, social order, corruption, and London living.
Newes from the North takes the form of a short sketch of the author’s stay in Ripon, Yorkshire, during his journey from Scotland to London. Seeking to explore the provinces, the narrator stops off at a curiously titled pub, The Greek Omega, and begins to talk with its landlord, Simon Certain. A “jolly olde fatherly man” interrupts their conversation, asking to borrow a fiver, because he had recently “spent all [his] mony in London.” This is a local resident, Piers Plowman (a name familiar to readers as a fictional social critic), and the rest of Newes from the North comprises a debate between Piers’s views of the social order and those of Sim the landlord.
Piers is furious to have been subject to various charges, fees, and legal proceedings leading to his loss of substantial sums into the pockets of magistrates. Sim Certain, on the other hand, sees such charges as a necessary instrument of governance—acts of public good. This pub chatter is neither theoretical nor trivial: it hits on some of the important changes facing the English population in the later sixteenth century.
Elizabethan England saw a sharp increase in state activity:
. . . governance was both expanding and deepening in early modern England. State authority was manifested not only in initiatives of control by central agencies, but also as a popular resource for the peaceful ordering of society, which might be employed and promoted at highly localised levels. (Steve Hindle, The State and Social Change in Early Modern England, c.1550-1640 , p.16)
Similarly, magistrates and their activities were also subject to socioeconomic developments. Ian Archer, an historian of early modern London, explains that
The late Elizabethan and Jacobean decades offered the sorry spectacle of the privatisation of key areas of civic responsibility. This was the age of the projector, a time when courtiers with an eye for a ready profit devised schemes purporting the benefit of the commonweal but in fact designed to line their own pockets. (“The Nostalgia of John Stow,” The Theatrical City: Culture, Theatre and Politics in London, 1576-1649, ed. Smith, Strier, and Bevington [1995; 2002], pp.20-21)
Archer points to London and the likes of John Stow, whose history of the city expresses wariness about trusting magistrates. Yet these questions were, it seems, part of a wider concern about the prioritisation of private gain over public trust—a concern that acted as a filter for wider social and economic expansion, including the burgeoning urban leisure industry.
Newes from the North takes on this question, with Piers insisting that magistrates are only interested in private (i.e. their own) profit. (Conal Condren has recently shown that “private” often indicates a misuse or lack of public office, indicating corruption and an “absence of right” [Argument and Authority, 2006, pp.73-74]). Piers supports his argument by referencing his own experiences in visiting London. In one comical anecdote, he points to the perceived severity of the law and its unfair handling of simple honesty in the city. He and his friends receive the “courtesie of London”—i.e., get so drunk in a tavern that their “heds were better laden with heare [hair] than with Wit” (C2v). In this state, they decide (who hasn’t?) to visit a “dauncing Schoole” (here a place more for formal training than a “freestyle” nightclub). The inebriate bunch watched from the door as a gentleman “wonderfully…leaped, flung and took on.” One of Piers’s company, we learn, was deaf and so couldn’t hear the music accompanying the dancing; he was therefore concerned for the leaping man’s mental state and rushed in to prevent the dancer, mid-galliard, from doing himself injury. This misunderstanding caused a great deal of commotion—and some violence—and eventually ended up with them all arrested for affray.
His experiences in London—both comic and serious—instill Piers with an extraordinary cynicism about the social order and about the structure of “modern” city life. He offers a view of the London theatre scene that places it within the context of corrupt magistrates, the expansion of the state, and increasing Elizabethan interest in governing the population’s social conduct:
I call to witness the Theaters, Courtaines, Heaving houses, Kissing booths, Bowling alleys, and such places where the time is so shamefully misspent, namely the Sabaoth dayes vnto the great dishonor of God, and the corruption and vtter destruction of youth. … (F4r)
Piers links together these activities—playgoing, prostitution, gaming—and suggests that they line the pockets of the authorities: every vice has its price, perhaps, or, spiritual pain is gain. He insists that “if there were as great gayn and profit to the Magistrates and Officers, in the godly lives and honest conversation of the common people as there is in the contrary: these harbours of ungodliness and misnurture, would have lesse favour and maintenance than they have” (F4r).
As a non-elite view from “the north,” Piers offers a fascinating fictional impression of London’s developing leisure industry. It is one in which playhouse entrepreneurs are in cahoots with the state and its agents, if not actively collaborating then aligned by a shared interest in profiting from vice.
Piers Plowman is by this date a generic figure in social criticism, often that of the disenfranchised agricultural labourer fighting against wealth and injustice. Sarah A. Kelen notes that in Newes from the North, Piers’s agricultural roots are played down and he is more moderate than earlier incarnations of the figure (Langland’s Early Modern Identities , p.72), but perhaps that is what is fascinating about his social concerns: he expresses a disarmingly casual and pervasive cynicism, and his beliefs are drawn from the dissolute world of London (which has put him out of pocket) more than rural Yorkshire.
Newes from the North situates the playhouses within debates over social justice, privatisation, class, and London exceptionalism. The author, born in Kent and self-proclaimed “Southern man,” offers a vaguely patronising comment that those in the North should “somewhat pittie rather than envie us,” suggesting that regardless of one’s opinions of magistrates, rapid developments in the south and London in particular undermine “Godlynes, vertue or good manners” (L2r).
Naturally, Adrian Chiles did not gesture to any London playhouses in his attempt to bring “News from the Midlands” this month, but in the 1570s and 1580s such buildings were clearly symbols of political discontent and of socioeconomic changes that were not, it seems, for everybody.