Post from the Past 2: A Week in the Life of William Fleetwood

Fleetwood to Burghley, 1584.

William Fleetwood was a significant figure in Elizabethan London.  He studied in early life at Eton and Oxford before attending the Middle Temple and being called to the bar there in 1551.  He was a freeman of the Merchant Taylors (1557), a long-serving MP (for London in 1572, 1584, 1586, and 1589), and an experienced judge.  Amid all these occupations, Fleetwood was also a keen antiquary and humanist, and many of his notes and writings survive.

Fleetwood’s relative prominence in theatre history has more to do, however, with his role as Recorder of the City of London.  He was elected to this role on 26 April 1571 and served until he retired from the post in 1591, giving him 20 years’ worth of experience surveying, policing, monitoring, and corresponding about London at the centre of the Before Shakespeare period. The position of Recorder makes Fleetwood a major figure in law enforcement; Paul E. Kopperman explains the role through the duties of one of Fleetwood’s successors:

The Lord Mayor’s Court was his preserve, despite its name, for he acted as sole judge there.  He was expected to attend the Hustings, in order to advise on legal points, produce precedents, explain former verdicts, and pronounce judgments of outlawry. . . . He probably performed some police duty, but again his main duties seem to have been judicial. [. . .] He served as a judge at sessions of oyer and teminer and of gaol delivery. (Paul E. Kopperman, Sir Robert Heath 1575-1659: Window on an Age, pp.20-21; qtd. in Allen D. Boyer, Sir Edward Coke and the Elizabethan Age (2003, p. 216)

It is in this role that Fleetwood comments on the social and criminal order of London in his communication with members of the Queen’s Privy Council (particularly Lord Burghley).  This often includes particular moments of tension, riot, or misdemeanour.  For instance, on the 19 January 1583, Fleetwood writes to Burghley about two offenders that he encountered in the Sessions at Finsbury, explaining that he has indicted them as “disturbers of the peace, for nightwalkers, for breakers of glass windows, Lanterns, and such like, and principally for the great riot that they committed the second of this month of January.  Light [one of the offenders] is specially indicted for singing in the church upon Childermas day, Fallantida dillie, &c” (BL Lansdowne MS 37, fo. 10).  This apparently unacceptable ditty was clearly provocative and blasphemous, sung in church on Innocents’ Day (Childermas, 28 December): a telling sign, perhaps, that the following week such a caroller might commit “great riot.”

It is in such correspondence that we glean information about playing and particualrly about the infractions of players and their redress (i.e. BL Lansdowne MS 26, fo. 191; Lansdowne MS 24, fo. 196).  On 5 October 1577–in the infancy of Burbage’s playhouse–we hear from Fleetwood that such structures are dinner party conversation among elites in London (perhaps not the dream historical dinner party guests, as in typical Elizabethan fashion the table talk concerns legal disputes):

At after dyner we heard a brabell betwene John Wotton and the Leuetenantes [Lieutenant’s] sonne of the one parte, and certen ffreholders of Shordyche for a matter at the Theater. (Lansdowne MS 24, 196r)


More substantially, however, in a letter to Burghley on the 18 June 1584 (Lansdowne MS 41) we hear about Fleetwood’s trouble dealing with a week of riots and disorders.  Early modern letters are often “endorsed” by secretaries in dockets on the reverse, and Burghley’s secretary has so marked this particular document with a statement that reads: “18 June 1584. Mr Recorder’s Discourse of Sundry Broils in Whitsonweek.”  Full facsimiles and a modernised transcription of the letter are provided below.


Docket for British Library Lansdowne MS 41

The letter details a host of transgressions committed across London in Whitsonweek (following Whitsunday, 7 Sundays after Easter).  All starts in good order, with Fleetwood’s visit to church and his work at Kingston in the courts.  Fleetwood’s words suggest that playing is a chief source of activity, noise, and bustle in London in the mid 1580s, as the city is (unusually, we might infer) sleepy on a Sunday when there are no plays: “And by reason no plays were the same day [Whitsunday], all the City was quiet.”

Yet by Monday evening Fleetwood finds a very different atmosphere, with the wards “full of watches” seeking to keep order.  The “cause thereof was for that very near the Theatre or Curten at the time of the plays there lay a prentice sleeping upon the Grass, and one Challes (alias Grostock) did turn upon the Toe upon the belly of the same prentice, whereupon the apprentice start up and after words they fell to plain blows.”  Challes’s provocative choreography on the stomach of dozing apprentice draws a crowd of “at least” 500 people.   Fleetwood finds it difficult to distinguish between The Theatre and The Curtain, and his phrasing makes them almost a metonym for playhouses generally–here in Shoreditch–in a manner in which they are often coupled throughout the 1570s, ’80s, and early ’90s.

This small toe-turning incident burgeons into “mutinies and assemblies” in which apprentices “did conspire to have broken the prisons and to have taken forth the prentices that were imprisoned.” The trouble points to tensions between apprentices and gentlemen, indicating a class friction bubbling beneath the order of Elizabethan society (for more on the containment of such order, see Ian W. Archer’s The Pursuit of Stability [1994]).  Similar moments of tension erupt throughout the period, and a few years earlier in 1581 an apprentice was whipped for inciting 1,000 apprentices to riot against gentlemen (and their servingmen, with whom London apprentices seem to have further friction) (see REPS 20 fo. 224).  The authorities in the City often associate instances of and provocations to disorder with “unlawfull games”; an Act of Common Council in 1573 encourages archery and sets out fines for undesirable recreational activity including coiting, bowling, coils, tennis, dicing tables, carding, and playing, fining any participants 6 shillings and 8 pence.  Apprentices are particularly targeted by these acts: “Item that no artificer or handycraftes man of any occupacion husbandman Apprentice laborer seruaunt of husbandry Journeyman or seruaunt or artificier marriner fisherman waterman or any seruingman may vse any vnlawfull game.” It is perhaps telling that the epicentre of the sundry broils in Whitsunweek 1584 is deemed by Fleetwood to be the Theatre or the Curtain.

Challes himself attacks the category and status of the apprentice: “This Challes exclaimed and said that he was a gentleman, and that the apprentice was but a Rascal, and some there were little better than rogues that took upon them the name of gentlemen, and said the prentices were but the scum of the world.”  We should remain wary of thinking of a homogenous “apprentice culture,” as Paul Griffiths warns (Youth and Authority, 1996), but nonetheless these moments point to acute differences and allegiances across different sorts in Elizabethan culture.

These disorders also point to the extraordinary crowds that could be drawn when moments of tension spill over into action.  On the Wednesday of Fleetwood’s busy week, a serving man in a blue coat by the name of Brown (“a shifting fellow” with a “perilous wit”) “did at the Theater door quarrel with certain poor boys, handicraft prentises, and struck some of them, and lastly he with his sword wounded and maimed one of the boys upon the left hand.”  Brown’s aggression indicates the type of violence that many associated with playing in the period, though the relatively infrequent nature of such incidents (at least in surviving records) suggests that extremes of violence were hardly commonplace at playhouses–all the more remarkable, considering the large crowds that would be frequenting places like the Theatre.  Nonetheless, Brown’s actions drew a crowd similar to spectators visiting a play, attracting what Fleetwood counts as 1,000 people.  The “Theater door” must have seen some action in its time, including (somewhere in the vicinity) a foul-mouthed James Burbage encouraging his son, Richard, to beat away the widow Margaret Brayne with a broom.  But that’s a story for another day…

Burbage’s difficult manner is suggested by Fleetwood, who by now must be rapidly tiring of his week.  On the Sunday, playing was suppressed and the Council succeeded in gaining the assent from the Privy Council for the “pulling down of the Theatre and Curtain” (with agreement by all except for the Lord Chamberlain and Vice-Chamberlain, who must eventually have acquiesced).  Fleetwood sent for the Queen’s Men (now a one-year-old company), comprising some of London’s chief actors, and the Lord of Arundel’s Men.  The leader of the Queen’s Men (? Robert Wilson is the first-named actor in the licence of 28 November 1583, REPS 21, fo. 10) recommends that Fleetwood bind “the owner of the Theater” [James Burbage]–somewhat uncharitably, as it reads, though the reason for such a suggestion from a leading player is not quite clear.  In response to Fleetwood’s request to appear and be bound, James Burbage promptly refuses to show up because he is Lord Hunsdon’s Man; he will instead ride to Lord Hunsdon in the morning (and presumably sort this matter out above Fleetwood’s head).  Fleetwood, understandably a little peeved by such a response, brings Burbage in by Under-Sheriff and Burbage, as Fleetwood puts it, “stowted me out very hasty.  And in the end I showed him my Lord his master’s hand and then he was more quiet, but to die for it he would not be bound.”  Although tempted to imprison him, Fleetwood permits Burbage to depart but be bound to show up in court.  Our writer remains confident, at the moment of penning this letter to Burghley, that Burbage will be bound at the very least.  The two companies listed by Fleetwood–Queen’s Men and Arundel’s Men–may be the two companies playing in the two playhouses at that time (Berry, in English Professional Theatre, 1530-1660 surmises that it was Arundel’s in the Curtain, 324, p. 410).

Burbage’s confidence in his patronage and his bolshiness accord with the other shades of his character that we can glean from the extensive legal records pertaining to the Theatre (though the fairness of such a judgment–going on the words of interested parties–remains open to question).  Yet if what Fleetwood writes is wholly accurate, Burbage’s caginess is understandable.  After all, Fleetwood and co were on a mission “for the suppressing and pulling down of the Theatre and Curtain.”  This is one of the bolder moves of the council in their attitude to playing in the the Elizabethan period, though clearly the attempt was a failure.  Shoreditch was outside the jurisdiction of the City proper, meaning they needed the assent of the Privy Council, which they apparently achieved, albeit not unanimously.  Perhaps Burbage’s confidence in Hunsdon’s patronage was well-placed, or his intractability effective, because the Theatre continued to thrive for another 15 years.

Lastly, the letter gives a glimpse of wider social order and disorder.  The week’s violence reached a climax on Wednesday when a tailor raised about 300 apprentices “and other light persons” to chase down a Clerk of the Common Pleas with whom he had been arguing.  Thinking that the Clerk had fled into Lion’s Inn (an Inn of Court), the mob “broke down the windows of the house and struck at the gentlemen, during which broil one Raynolds, a baker’s son, came into Fleet Street and there made a solemn proclamation for clubs.” An attack on the Inns of Court and its gentlemanly dwellers has a metaphorical significance in physically manifesting disregard for the legal structures and strictures of the city; it is paralleled in Sunday’s activity, when “a prentice was put in the cage and the cage was broken by a number of lewd fellows”–an act that subverts the purpose of public punishment.  Yet these moments did not last long, and all the wrongdoers were apprehended; Archer sees these instances of aggression as “negotiating strategies” (5, 7) that allowed the non-elite of London to push back against authority and eventually see some of their grievances more formally addressed.

It is not only apprentices, however, who are riotous and transgressive; Fleetwood points to instances where gentlemen are equally ill-mannered (and we have already seen Challes’s class-based taunting).  In one slightly comic episode, Fleetwood explains that Lord Fitzgerald “with a number of gentlemen” threw his hat into the face of a very tall apprentice, and then promptly high-tailed into the nearest house to avoid retaliation and “did scarcely escape without great danger.”  While Fleetwood is not particularly clear on the matter, he notes that one Cotton “procured my Lord to misuse the prentices,” sketching the picture of a duped gentlemen punching above his weight and consequently exercising the city youth in a plot fit for a Middleton comedy.

The lengthy letter offers a fascinating glimpse into an unusually riotous week in Elizabethan London through the pen of one its chief legal figures.  I have transcribed the letter below in modern English followed by photographs of the document.  There is much to be said about every paragraph, though not the room to say it here.  Insults, crowds, riots, attacks on an Inn of Court, two murders, a haughty James Burbage, GBH at a playhouse door, street fighting among servingmen: a riotous Whitsunweek, and at the heart of it are the Theatre and Curtain playhouses, which form the central paragraphs of Fleetwood’s letter and could be read in part as scapegoats for London-wide disorders among apprentices and gentlemen alike.



Right honourable and my very good Lord,

Upon Whitson Sunday there was a very good sermon preached at the New Churchyard under Bethlem whereat my Lord Mayor was with his bretheren. And by reason no plays were the same day, all the City was quiet.

Upon Monday I was at the Court and went to Kingston to bed, and upon Tuesday I kept the law day for the whole liberty of Kingston. and found all quiet and in good order. There lieth in Kingston Sir John Savage of Cheshire with his Lady at Mr Le Grise’s house, the which is at Vicarage.

That night I returned to London and found all the wards full of watches, the cause thereof was for that very near the Theatre or Curten at the time of the plays there lay a prentice sleeping upon the Grass, and one Challes (alias Grostock) did turn upon the Toe upon the belly of the same prentice, whereupon the apprentice start up and after words they fell to plain blows. The company increased of both sides to the number of 500 at the least. This Challes exclaimed and said that he was a gentleman, and that the apprentice was but a Rascal, and some there were little better than rogues that took upon them the name of gentlemen, and said the prentices were but the scum of the world. Upon these troubles the prentices began the next day (being Tuesday) to make mutinies and assemblies and did conspire to have broken the prisons and to have taken forth the prentices that were imprisoned. But my Lord and I having intelligence thereof apprehended 4 or 5 of the chief conspirators, who are in Newgate and stand indicted of their lewd demeanours.

Upon Wednesday, one Brown, a serving man in a blue coat, a shifting fellow having a perilous wit of his own, intending a spoil if he could have brought it to pass, did at Theater door quarrel with certain poor boys, handicraft prentises, and struck some of them, and lastly he with his sword wounded and maimed one of the boys upon the left hand. Whereupon there assembled were a 1000 people. This Brown did very cunningly convey himself away, but by chance he was taken after and brought to Mr Humphrey Smith, and because no man was able to charge him, he dismissed him, and after this Brown was brought before Mr Young, where he used himself so cunningly and subtly, no man being there to charge him, that there also he was dismissed. And after I sent a warrant for him and the constables with the deputy at the Bell in Holborn found him in a parlor fast locked in, and he would not obey the warrant, but by the mean of the host he was conveyed away; and then I sent for the host and caused him to appear at Newgate at the Sessions of Oier and determiner [a commission for the court of assize] where he was committed until he brought forth his guest the next day after he brought him forth, and so we indicted him for his misdemeanor. This Browne is a common Cousener, a thief, and a horse stealer and coloreth all his doings here about this town with a suit that he hath in the law against his a brother of his in Staffordshire. He resteth now in Newgate.

Upon the same Wednesday at night, two companions, one being a tailor and the other a Clerk of the Common Pleas both of the Dutchie and both very lewd fellows, fell out about an harlot, and the tailor raised the prentises and other light persons and thinking that the Clerk was run into Lion’s Inn came to the house with 300 at the least, broke down the windows of the house and struck at the gentlemen, during which broil one Raynolds, a baker’s son, came into Fleet Street and there made solemn proclamation for clubs. The street rose and took and brought him unto me and the next day we indicted him also for this misdemeanour with very many other more.

Upon Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday now did nothing else but set in commission and examine these misdemeanours. We had good help of my Lord Anderson and Mr Sackforth.

Upon Sunday my Lord sent 2 Aldermen to the court for the suppressing and pulling down of the Theatre and Curtain. All the Lords agreed thereunto, saving my Lord Chamberlain and Mr Vice-Chamberlain, but we obtained a letter to suppress them all. Upon the same night, I sent for the Queen’s players and my Lord of Arundel his players, and they all willingly obeyed the Lord’s letters. The chiefest of her highness’s players advised me to send for the owner of the Theater, who was a stubborn fellow, and to bind him. I did so. He sent me word that he was my Lord of Hunsdon’s man, and that he would not come at me but he would in the morning ride to my Lord. Then I sent the undersheriff for him and he brought him to me, and at his coming he stowted me out very hasty. And in the end I showed him my Lord his master’s hand, and then he was more quiet, but to die for it he would not be bound. And then I minding to send him to prison, he word sent that he might be bound to appear at the Oier and determiner [a commission for the court of assize], the which is tomorrow, when he said that he was sure the Court would not bind him, being a Counsellor’s man. And so I have granted his request, where he shall be sure to be bound or else is like to do worse.

Upon Sunday at afternoon, one brewer’s man killed another at Islington. The like parte was done at the White Chapel at the same time.

The same Sunday at night my Lord Fitzgerald with a number of gentlemen with him at Moorgate met a tall young fellow, being a prentice, and struck him upon the face with his hat; whereupon my Lord and his company were glad to take a house and did scarcely escape without great danger. The sheriff came and set him to his house, where he lodged, and imprisoned one Cotton that procured my Lord to misuse the prentices. The same night at Aldersgate a prentice was put in the cage and the cage was broken by a number of lewd fellows and I hearing thereof did send my men for him and sent him to the Compter [jail], where tomorrow he should answer for his misdeameanours with others.

A Frenchman, a dweller in Fleet Street, a hanger upon Monsieur Malvesour for having received a French boy into his house and for the conveying him away who had robbed one my Lord of Bedford’s gentlemen, was brought unto me. My Lord Malvesor sent unto me for him and said he would do Justice upon himself. I told the messenger what the law was and willed him to bring me the sureties and he should be bailed unto the Lords were certified thereof, the which they refused to do. But tomorrow at the Oier and determiner I will do as I am advised bythe lords the Justice. I sent the prisoner with his cause unto Mr Treasurer thinking that he would, being a counsellor, have taken order therein, but he returned the prisoner again to me. Surely, My Lord, I love not to have to deal with these ambassadors for surely I do often see here and find things done by them that are neither godly nor honourable.

The eldest son of Mr Henry Isham upon Monday at night, being yesterday, fought in Cheapside with one Boat, that is or lately was Mr Vice-Chamberlain’s man. And all was which of them was the better gentleman and for taking of the wall.

This day Mr Cheney of the Boyes brought me his youngest son, being nephew to Sir Henry Lee, and would needs have me to send him to Bridewell, where he had provided a chamber for him. But I would not agree thereunto, but sent him to be kept with my Lord of Winton’s Bailiff, at his house, the which is a place both sweet and clean. The young gent hath hurt two, whereof I learn they are like to die. The gentleman, as I can perceive, is wild, Et Lucidus inter valla, and even now he cometh inn my Lord of Winton’s bailiff and telleth me that he is glad to have there men to keep him both day and night in this extreme frenzy.

This Wednesday morning, the Oyer and determiner [a commission for the court of assize] sat at Newgate for the quieting of the daily and nightly brawls. There appeared my Lord Fitzgerald and one Cotton, a young man of 18 years of age, more bold than wise, a marvellous audacious youth standing altogether upon his gentry. It so fell out that by due examination my Lord of Kildare’s son dealt very wisely, well and circumspectly, without any manner of evil behaviour in any manner of wise. Mr Winter, son and heir of George Winter deceased, was there and advised my Lord so to do, for time’s experience. Mr Doctor Lewes and the admirall commission have made him a man of good understanding.              An old musician of the Queen’s Lord this last night meretricem in suo lectulo [taking a prostitute to his bed]. One Allen, a Constable, being homo barbatus [a bearded man], took them. The Italian most violently tore of Allen’s beard and said he might have a wench in his chamber, because for that he was the Queen’s man. Allen now is become a Marquesuto. My lord Mayor hath bound the Italian to aunswere at the next gaol delivery.

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2 thoughts on “Post from the Past 2: A Week in the Life of William Fleetwood

  1. Pingback: Birthday Post: A Year of Before Shakespeare | Before Shakespeare

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