Boss of Billingsgate, The

"Boss of Billingsgate" (1603)

John Day, Richard Hathway, and one or more "felowe poetes"

Historical Records

Payments to Playwrights (Henslowe's Diary)

F. 109 (Greg I.173)
Lent vnto Jube the 1 of marche 1602 to geue vnto}
John daye & hathwaye in earneste of a playe}
[called] the bosse of bellengesgate the some of …} xxxx s

Lent the 7 of marche 1602 in parte of paymente}
for the playe called the bosse of bellensgate vnto}
John daye & hathwaye the some of … } xxxxs

F.109v (Greg, I.174)
pd the 12 of marche 1602 for the company}
vnto John daye & his felowe poetes in fulle}
payment for his playe called the bossce of}
belleingesgate the some of … } xxxxs

Theatrical Provenance

The Admiral's men bought the play in March 1603, just as the playhouses were to be closed to observe the death of Queen Elizabeth; the company could not have known then that the playhouses would remain closed most of 1603 and into 1604 because of outbreaks of plague. There is no evidence to indicate whether The Boss of Billingsgate entered, then remained in the company's active repertory over this stretch of time.

Probable Genre(s)

Neither Harbage nor Wiggins hazards a guess.

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

The boss of Billingsgate was a fountain, in existence at the time when this play was performed. John Stow describes it as follows: "On the north side [of St Botolph's] is Bosse Alley, so called of a Bosse of spring water continually running, which standeth by Billinsgate, against this Alley, and was sometimes made by the Executors of Richard Whitington." (Stow, Survay, 164). Samuel Rowlands, in 1608, mentions the Boss as still among the tourist sights of London. An epigram describes a country visitor to London who is shown

sights to him most strange,
Great tall Pauls Steeple and the royall-Exchange:
The Bosse at Billings-gate and London stone,
And at White Hall the monstrous great Whales bone…
Samuel Rowlands, Humors looking glasse, D3r.

It is apparently still there in 1622, when it appears in another catalogue of tourist sights seen by a yokel, again in an epigram by Rowlands. Hodge will regale his father with tales of his visit to London:

As of the Tower, and the Lyons there,
Of Paris garden, and the Bull and Beare,
Of Westminster, what monuments there be,
And what two mighty Giants Hodge did see
With fearefull countenances in Guild-hall,
The old Exchange, the new Exchange and all.
The water-workes, huge Pauls, old Charingcrosse,
Strong London Bridge, at Billinsgate the Bosse.
Samuel Rowlands, Good newes and bad newes, F3v.

References to the Play

References to Billingsgate as a fish market and location of taverns were common in early modern drama, as illustrated Ben Jonson's work, according to Chalfont, who cites Eastward Ho! as especially rich in use of the location. She cites also instances in The Devil is an Ass, Epicoene, and Time Vindicated to Himself and to His Honours. (Google Books). Jonson characteristically calls the site "Belinsgate," a reminder of the legend that the place was named after old king Belin.

Critical Commentary

Fleay offers Wentworth Smith as a collaborator on the play (BCED I.108), but he doesn't list the play among Smith's known collaborations.

Greg confesses that "nothing is known" of the story, yet does identify the boss as a fountain and provide the title of the Lydgate ballad, "The marriage of London Stone and the fair pusell the bosse of Byllyngesgate" as printed in 1535 by Wynken de Worde in conjunction with Treatise of this Gallant (Greg II.227, Item 256).

Wiggins, based on the likelihood that the title refers to a fountain (real and metaphorical?), opines that the narrative could have addressed the origin of the fountain ("as a legacy from Mayor Richard Whittington") or told "a number of interlocking stories" related to the fountain and its geographical location (#1396). He considers without much enthusiasm the identification of Wentworth Smith as one of the unnamed poets.

For What It's Worth

The OED cites 1521 and "A Treatyse of this Galaunt with the marriage of the boss of Byllyngesgate vnto London Stone" as its earliest instance of the word "boss" in reference to a fountain. It cites further a saying dated 1539 that links the Boss of Billingsgate with Cheapside: "When the bosse of byllyngate wa[s]ythe so merye To daunce with a bagpipe at scala celi & the crose if chepeside dothe kepe a scole of fence" (Furnivall I.315).

The "treatyse" referred to is undoubtedly that by John Lydgate, popularly called "The Marriage of London Stone and the Boss of Billingsgate," 1521 (Greg notes a 1535 printing but made no further conjecture about a narrative connection).

In Lydgate's poem the speaker asks the indulgence of the auditors to help the bridal couple "bye their weddynge gere," which they cannot themselves do because "they be bothe naked/ & not worth an halfpenny knife." As if the celebrant, the speaker asks if anyone knows any impediment to the marriage. He identifies the bride as "the bosse at Byllyngesgate of beauty so fayre" and the groom as "London Stone/ curtes and gente." The speaker asks about impediments to the marriage, and London Stone repeats rumors ("euyll tunges") that the Boss "hath had a child./ By the well with two buckettes in bishop gate strete." Refusing to allow the rumor to disrupt the marriage, however, London Stone defends his bride:

He that in sclaunder / ony will dysclose
Of the deuylles rewarde / he shall not mysse
Therfore let my wyfe and me alone.
For by my study and wakynge many a nyght
I knowe by the sterres / that shone by the moone,
That fayre Bosse / hooly was in my syght
And that to my nature / she shoulde be coequal.
And remayne as my fere / euer in my syght.

The speaker then declares the couple "man and wyfe by dyuyne prouysyowne" and invites the auditors to join the revelry and dance; he closes with a blessing of the "goodly couple" and all present "Which brynge the herers / to lyfe eternall,/ Where god is regnynge permanent/ Amonge his aungelles celestial."
The happy conclusion of the Lydgate poem captures the tone of one other detail in the OED about the Boss of Billingsgate, namely, that it is "sweet" or "spring" water.

Follow links on The Map of Early Modern London (MoEML) for further commentary on Billingsgate (MoEML) and London Stone (MoEML).

Whatever the narrative of the lost play, these linguistic and literary associations are festive and thus comedic; moderns schooled by Freud, if not also Elizabethans, cannot miss also the gendering of London Stone and his fair (and fertile) Bosse.

Works Cited

Chalfont, Fran C. Ben Jonson's London: A Jacobean Placename Dictionary. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1978. (Google Books)
Furnivall, F. J. Ballads from MSS. (OED)
Lydgate, John. "Here begynneth a treatyse of this Galaunt with the marriage of the bosse of Byllyngesgate . vnto London Stone." EEBO. STC. 24242
Map of Early Modern London. "The Marriage of London Stone and the Boss of Billingsgate." (MoEML)
Rowlands, Samuel, Humors looking glasse. London: Ed. Allde, 1608.
Rowlands, Samuel. Good nevves and bad nevves. London, 1622.
Stow, John. A suruay of London. [London]: John Wolfe, 1598.

Site created and maintained by Christopher Matusiak, updated 7 March 2011; updated further by Roslyn L. Knutson on 11 April 2016 and Matthew Steggle on 19 April 2016.