Black Joan

Anon. (1598?)

Historical Records


Philip Henslowe's papers in the Dulwich College Library

List of properties
Under Henslowe's title, "The Enventary tacken of all the properties for my Lord Admeralles men, the 10 of Marche 1598" is the following (Greg, Papers, APX. I, art. 1, p.118, l. 91):
Item, j frame for the heading in Black Jone.

List of plays
Under Henslowe's title, "A Note of all suche bookes as belong to the Stocke, and such as I have bought since the 3d of March 1598" is the following (Greg, Papers, APX. I. 1, p.121, col. 1, l. 185):
Blacke Jonne.

Theatrical Provenance

Although "Black Joan" does not appear in lists of performances in Henslowe's diary, its presence on an inventory list found among Henslowe's papers—and subsequently lost, after having been transcribed— confirms acqisition and performance by the Admiral's Company (Greg, Papers, 121). There are other plays on that inventory list that, like "Black Joan" (spelled "Blacke Jonne" on the inventory list), do not appear in Henslowe's lists of performance, including "Sturgflaterey," "Brunhowlle," and "Alls Perce." Greg concludes that these four plays had had a prior history with Pembroke's players and that they had come to the Admiral's company in July-November 1597 as a result in some sense of the brouhaha over "The Isle of Dogs." (Greg, II, 186-7). Greg adds another pair of plays on the inventory list to the group migrating from Pembroke's: "Hardicanewtes" and "Borbonne." Unlike "Black Joan," these two do appear in Henslowe's playlists (for October and November 1597).

Probable Genre(s)

Tragedy (?) (Harbage (pp. 64-5); Wiggins, Catalogue #1108).

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

See For What It's Worth below for sources associated with plausible story lines for "Black Joan/John."

References to the Play

None known.

Critical Commentary

See For What It's Worth below for highly speculative criticism of this play.

For What It's Worth


For reasons without much evidentiary support, some scholars have suggested that this was a witchcraft play. H. W. Herrington, for example, posits a “dramatic vogue” for witchcraft plays in the late 1590s (p. 478), and, after discussing Mother Redcap, writes:

Earlier in the same year [1597] Henslowe notes a performance of "The Witch of Islington." By the next year had been written "Black Joan." The former was either an out-and-out witch play, or else such a play with political bearings. The latter, in all probability, was a witch play also. If we may judge from the titles and the growing realism of dramatic treatment, they were of a kind far closer to actual life than those hitherto considered. (p. 478)

Purkiss also suggests a mini-vogue for witch plays at this time, and speculates that the play may have influenced Shakespeare's Joan la Pucelle in 1 Henry VI (p. 197 n.28).

However, in the second reference to the play ("Blacke Jonne") the spelling would seem to indicate "John" rather than "Joan". This might be said to undermine the suggestion that the entries refer to a witchcraft play; although witches were not exclusively female, of course. See Wiggins, Catalogue for Henslowe's spelling habits regarding "Joan" and "John" (#1108).

It is also unclear why "Black Joan" (if indeed the title is "Joan" and not "John") should refer to a witch. There is no OED evidence to support an association between "black, adj." and "witchcraft"; the earliest example of "black magic" (from the French, magie noire) in the OED comes from 1871; Lexicons of Early Modern English (LEME) has a definition of "Goetie" as "the black Art; divelish Magick or Witchcraft" which it cites from Thomas Blount's Glossographia or a Dictionary, but this is from 1656. "Black" is used to connote criminality in the case of the eponymous highwayman of the lost Black Dog of Newgate, Parts 1 and 2 (1602, 1603); to connote ghostliness (or criminality again, if the Robin Hood connection is accepted) in the lost Black Bateman of the North, Parts 1 and 2 (1598); and possibly to connote disaster of some kind in the lost The Black Wedding (1653). In none of these cases does it suggest an association with witchcraft (though it just possibly may in the lost The Black Lady of 1622).

Additional suggestion, October 2014: There is a hitherto unnoticed use of the phrase "Black Joan" in the period. This occurs in Humphrey Mill's sprawling satirical poem, A Night's Search (1640), a wide-ranging attack on the sinfulness of London. The narrative in the relevant section of the poem describes how an (unnamed) unfaithful husband leaves his (unnamed) honest wife for a whore. The virtuous wife dies of grief, and the whore's reaction to the news is one of delight:

Farewell that hag, which did my person hate;
I'le mourne in sack: now she will raile no more,
Nor send her elfes to harken at the dore.
She will not whine, nor can she heare us talke,
Nor spy us here, unlesse her ghost doth walke:
Come, drink to me, I'le pledge it o're her grave
My honest chuck? a better friend none have!
She spit her venom, owing me a spight;
Thou wast so constant, would'st not break delight.
Now thou art mine; come, take a thousand kisses!
Black Ioane's not here to keep us from our blisses!
(Mill, A Night's Search, 134).

No further explanation of the phrase is given, but in the context "Black Joan" appears to be an insulting name for the wife, described elsewhere in this passage as a hag and a witch. Even though Mill's work as a whole is deeply interlinked with the theatre, this reference occurs more than forty years after the play "Black Joan" is recorded, so it seems unlikely to be a direct reference to that play. On the other hand, it does seem to suggest that in this period "Black Joan" is a meaningful phrase, and it does seem to associate the phrase with witchcraft.

'j frame for the heading'

The stage property itself

With regards to the 'frame for the heading', Harrison suggests that this refers to 'a piece of stage machinery to produce the illusion of a beheading' (p. 103). This would not be for the execution of a witch, if the play is indeed a witchcraft play: witches were hanged or, if the play is a historical one set before the witchcraft acts of 1542 and 1563, burnt.

Another interpretation of the "heading" might be as "pillory" or "stocks", an alternative form of "frame" which could easily be presented on stage and which could retain the association with a "transgressive woman" character-type.

Sharpe takes "frame" and "heading" literally, deducing that "Black Joan" :"was a crime play of Halifax, the only locality were the process of 'heading' at this time" was a guillotine; he cited J. F. Fletcher, whose research on Halifax turned up "forty-nine [people who] were decapitated, 1542-1650, five of them women" (p. 108, and n.62). Wiggins, Catalogue includes Sharpe's suggestion of Halifax as the site of the play (#1108)

Alternatively, "heading" could literally refer to a heading: a "title board" of the type discussed by Tiffany Stern in "Watching as Reading".

Handling Large Properties in Performance

Leslie Thomson, in the chapter "Large Properties Off and On Stage" (pp. 177-98), includes the frame used in "Black Joan" (which she annotates "a scaffold" with a question mark) in a list of larger items gleaned from the inventory lists of properties and costumes compiled by Philip Henslowe at the Rose playhouse in 1598 (or 1599). Basing her commentary largely on stage directions in surviving plays, she affirms the frequency with which large properties were used not only at indoor and outdoor playhouses but also at court and on tour (p. 193). She discusses scaffolds in the context of multiple large properties such as tables and chairs, which were "brought on stage by players or stagehands" (p. 177). Her examples illustrate the ways in which a company with a scaffold such as the frame for Joan's heading handled its storage as well as use during performance.

Several scholars have called attention to lost plays in the context of onstage beheadings, for example Owens (p. 139), Rutter (p. 137), and Martin (p. 65).

Thomas Cranmer

Additional suggestion, 28 November 2014: According to Diarmaid MacCulloch (21-22), Thomas Cranmer's wife was scornfully referred to as "black Joan of the Dolphin" at his trial in 1555. Some explanation here is required. Cranmer hastily married Joan sometime between 1515 and 1519, after taking his MA at Cambridge, which meant he had to forfeit his fellowship at Jesus College. He took up a readership at Buckingham College (now Magdalene) instead, MacCulloch notes was a "step down in the status-conscious world of the University". Without a home at Jesus, "he turned to one of his relatives in Cambridge, the landlady of one or other of two Cambridge inns called the Dolphin, to provide a lodging for his wife, while he apparently lodged elsewhere". (Joan may have worked in the inn to pay her room and board.) Within a year of their marriage, Joan died in her first childbirth and the child was also lost. "If they had lived," MacCulloch notes, "Cranmer would not have been ordained, and the course of the English Reformation would have been very different". MacCulloch also records how "Cranmer was so reticent about it later, no doubt feeling the pain of his double loss, that we cannot even be sure of Joan's surname, although the interrogatories at his trial in 1555 seem to say that it was Black or Brown". Either way, "the association with the Dolphin inn would cause Cranmer's Catholic enemies a good deal of snobbishly malicious glee in later years: starting within a few months of his becoming Archbishop, the simple esquire's son was repeatedly dismissed in popular abuse as 'an ostler'".

Earlier (and no doubt biased) accounts suggest a seedier chronology, that Cranmer secretly married "Black Joan" while she was the barmaid at the Dolphin, the "college tavern" he frequented. Whatever the truth may be, he violated his vows to be with this woman, an act that severely impeded his career.

Given the demand for English history plays, is there enough in this episode — Reformation politics, domestic life and intrigue, anti-Catholicism — to inspire dramatisation?


Additional suggestion, 28 November 2014: Imtiaz Habib discusses one "Black Joan," a black woman appearing in south London churchwardens' accounts as "receiving payment for menial tasks such as washing Sharpe's boy in 1626 and stripping and winding a poor man found dead in a barn in 1635" (149). While too late to be directly identified with the play, one important feature of the account is that it relates "the casual procedure of the naming of Black Joan's blackness, which confirms the typology of many names surmised to be black" during the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods (149). So, perhaps the titular "Black Joan" is neither a witch or a criminal, but simply black.

Black John

Additional suggestion, 28 November 2014: Another possibility is that the play is titled "Black John", not "Black Joan". Sir John Norreys (or Norris), Essex's middle-aged rival and a famous swashbuckling veteran of military campaigns in France, Ireland, and the Netherlands, was nicknamed "Black John" by the troops he commanded on account of his hair, reputation as a fierce disciplinarian (Nolan 9, 138), and his family crest (Langston 67).

Barry Langston has recently argued that the harey the vj staged at the Rose in the summer of 1592 "was an especially topical play with a specific thrust", with the character of Talbot — often thought by critics to stand for Essex — finding a "more appropriate counterpart in the person of Essex's middle-aged rival, Sir John Norreys, known as 'Black John' (or 'Black Jack')" (61-62). Langston also suggests that "the insult 'upstart Crow' has added meaning when Talbot has been recognized as a Norreys surrogate", pointing to the crow recently added to the Norreys crest (67; the 'crow' was imported from Lady Margaret Norreys' family crest, and she was affectionately called 'the crow').

In the 1592 Royal Entertainment at Rycote, given at Henry Norreys' household in Oxfordshire, Norreys, along with his father, mother (called 'the crow' in the script), and brothers featured as characters.

Norreys died in September 1597 while serving as President of Munster in Ireland. Henslowe's entry for March 1598 could therefore refer to inventory required for a play written in celebration of his vast and varied military exploits.

Works Cited

Habib, Imtiaz. Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677: Imprints of the Invisible. Farnham: Ashgate, 2008.
Harrison, G. B. Introducing Shakespeare (3rd ed.). London: Pelican, 1966.
Herrington, H. W. “Witchcraft and Magic in the Elizabethan Drama”. The Journal of American Folklore 32.126 (1919): 447–85.
Langston, Barry. "Topical Shakespeare." Shakespeare Survey 67 (2014): 60-68.
MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Thomas Cranmer: A Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.
Martin, Fiona. “‘Morbid Exhilarations’: Dying Words in Early Modern English Drama.” PhD dissertation. University of Waikato, New Zealand. 2010.
Nolan, John S. Sir John Norreys and the Elizabethan Military World. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1997.
Owens, Margaret E. Stages of Dismemberment: The Fragmented Body in Late Medieval and Early Modern Drama. Newark: U of Delaware P, 2005.
Purkiss, Diane. The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations. Milton Park: Routledge, 1996.
Sharpe, Robert B. The Real War of the Theaters. Boston, D. C. Heath, 1935.
Stern, Tiffany. "Watching as Reading: The Audience and Written Text in the Early Modern Playhouse." How To Do Things With Shakespeare. ed. Laurie Maguire. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008. 136-59.
Thomson, Leslie. From Playtext to Performance on the Early Modern Stage: How Did They Do It? Routledge, Oxford and New York, 2023.
Thorn-Drury, George, ‘Mill, Humphrey (fl. 1639–1646)’, rev. Joanna Moody, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, accessed 3 Feb 2014.

Site created and maintained by Simon Davies, University of Sussex, 13 May 2011. Updated by: David McInnis 27 July 2012; Matthew Steggle 1 October 2014; Brett Greatley-Hirsch, 28 November 2014.