Cardinal's Conspiracy, The

Anon. (Revived 1639, but then an "old play": original date of composition and auspices unknown)

Historical Records

Letter from Edmund Rossingham to Viscount Conway

This letter is dated 8 May, 1639, and includes various items of news. The last of them runs:

Thursday last the players of the Fortune were fined 1,000l. for setting up an altar, a bason, and two candlesticks, and bowing down before it on the stage, and although they allege it was an old play revived, and an altar to the heathen gods, yet it was apparent that this play was revived on purpose in contempt of the ceremonies of the Church; and if my paper were not at an end I would enlarge myself on this subject, to show what was said of altars.
Bentley, JCS, 5.1300-01; M. A. E. Green, ed., Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, 1639 (London: Longman, 1856), 140-1.

Vox Borealis (?1640)

Vox Borealis, printed in (probably) 1640, is a satirical news pamphlet:

In the meane time, let me tell ye a lamentable Tragedie, acted by the Prelacie, against the poore Players of the Fortune play-house, which made them sing,
Fortune my foe, why dost thou frown on me? &c.
[f]or they having gotten a new old Play, called, The Cardinalls Conspiracie, whom they brought upon the stage in as great state as they could, with Altars, Images, Crosses, Crucifixes, and the like, to set forth his pomp and pride. But wofull was the sight, to see how, in the middest of all their mirth, the Pursevants came and seized upon the poore Cardinall, and all his Consorts, and carryed them away. And when they were questioned for it, in the High Commission Court, they pleaded Ignorance and told the Archbishop, that they tooke those examples of their altars, images, and the like, from Heathen Authors. This did somewhat asswage his anger, that they did not bring him on the Stage: But yet they were fined for it, and, after a little Imprisonment, gat their libertie. And having nothing left them but a few old Swords and Bucklers, they fell to Act the Valiant Scot
Vox Borealis, or the Northern Discoverie ( "Margery Mar-Prelat", "1641"), B2r-B2v; internal evidence suggests that the pamphlet's date is 1640 not 1641; the EEBO version is deficient, and there is a full facsimile at The Internet Archive

A Second Discovery by The Northern Scout (1642)

This pamphlet reproduces the story from Vox Borealis.

A Second discovery by the Northern Scout (London: B. W., 1642), 8.

Theatrical Provenance

Acted at the Red Bull Theatre by the Red Bull-King's Company in 1639. Original date and provenance unknown.

Probable Genre(s)


Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

The Cardinals' Conspiracy of 1517, in which the Sienese Cardinal Alfonso Petrucci and his co-conspirators attempted to kill Pope Leo X by inserting poison up his anal fistula.

The story is told at length by the historian Francesco Guiccardini, and can be briefly summarized as follows:

The Petruccis, wealthy and powerful Sienese nobility, have long been allies of the current Pope, Leo X, a Medici. Leo, though, has grown increasingly forgetful of the Petruccis, and allows the elder son, Borghese Petrucci, to be driven out from Siena by his enemies. The second son, Alphonso, a Cardinal in Rome, is furious.
Cardinal Petrucci decides to murder the pope, and hatches a plan to corrupt the Pope's doctor and insert poison up the Pope's anal fistula. He recruits conspirators including his friend Cardinal Bandinello; the wealthy Cardinal Riario; and Cardinal Antonio Castellesi, Bishop of Bath and Wells in England. As the plot develops, Petrucci himself leaves Rome, and directs the conspiracy by letter.
Some of these letters, however, fall into the hands of Leo X himself. Leo lures Petrucci back to Rome by promising him, and the Spanish ambassador, that no harm will befall him. Once Petrucci is in his power, though, the Pope immediately has him imprisoned, despite the impotent protests of the Spanish ambassador.
The doctor and others involved in the conspiracy are swiftly rounded up and brought to horrible execution. The Pope conducts a purge of the Cardinals, makes an address to the Cardinals, inviting them to throw themselves on his mercy, and taking advantage of the opportunity to conduct a thorough purge of those of them he does not like. As for Petrucci, the Pope has him strangled in his cell.

(See Guicciardini, The Historie of Guicciardin, 729ff.)

This whole story is also dramatized at length and in verse in a much later tragedy, Robert C. Jenkins's Alfonso Petrucci, Cardinal and Conspirator (1882). Jenkins's preface also includes a discussion of other early Italian sources for Petrucci's biography.

References to the Play

None known

Critical Commentary

Company and censorhip

Bentley in general thinks of the Red Bull-King's Company as lowbrow purveyors of "noise and vulgarity": this view has been opposed by John H. Astington. Martin Butler discusses the play as an example of the "two-track" system of early modern dramatic censorship, in which the not only the Master of the Revels but also the Archbishop of Canterbury have a role in censorship. Bentley comments on the fine: "Perhaps the fine mentioned in Rossingham's letter was exaggerated: surely no Fortune players of the time were successful enough to have been able to pay such a large sum." (5.1301).

Source and content

In work undertaken in connection with the Lost Plays Database, Steggle discusses the play's title, arguing that it identifies the play as a Personal Conspiracy play on a par with plays such as Jonson's Catiline His Conspiracy, Chettle and Wilson's Catiline's Conspiracy, and Gosson's Catiline's Conspiracies. Identifying a group of twelve early plays so entitled, Steggle argues:

Personal Conspiracy plays, in this group, are historically grounded tragedies. They are specifically about treason against one's own state, not about conspiracies against private people; nor meddling in the affairs of foreign nations; nor any of the multifarious other actions that we now might describe under the heading "conspiracy theory". They are always concerned with a projected killing of the conspirators' own leaders, and they are always unsuccessful. (159)

In particular, Steggle notes the central importance to this subgenre of Catiline. Some plays in it, such as Jonson's, directly dramatize Catiline, and even those which describe other Personal Conspiracies frequently invoke Catiline as the classic example of a ruthless conspirator. What is more, Catiline was famously blasphemous: he had established a blasphemous altar in his house to a military standard, and he made his fellow-conspirators take an oath by drinking human blood. In early modern sources, Catiline's two blasphemous acts are central to his reputation and importantly symbolic, demonstrating that his conspiracy, and those like it, are not merely criminal but also sacreligious.

Furthermore, Steggle uses EEBO-TCP to argue that when early modern print thought of a cardinal's conspiracy, it tended to think of the events of 1517 now often referred to as the Cardinals' Conspiracy. The precise phrase is not recorded this early in English, but its equivalent is used in early Latin accounts, such as Paulus Jovius's description of it as "eam cardinalium coniuratione[m]… cuius princeps fuerat Alfonsus Petrucius Senensis" [that cardinals' conspiracy… whose leader was Alfonso Petrucci of Siena] (Jovius, Vitae Illustrium Virorum, 2.103). Steggle further considers the numerous accounts of Petrucci in early modern England, which are frequent since the story was something of a gift to anti-Papal writers.

The altar

Elizabeth Williamson also explores the case in some detail, relating it to contemporary Laudian attitudes to altars. Early modern drama as a whole, she argues, had a long-running fascination with the materiality of sacred objects. This, argues Williamson, is the reason why The Cardinal's Conspiracy, with its representations blurring the lines between sacred and profane, touched a raw nerve in contemporary culture.

Steggle argues that the recurring motifs of the Personal Conspiracy plays suggest that the scene described by Vox Borealis is a mock-sacrament, on the lines of that famously undertaken by Catiline. In his reconstruction:

The play begins with a Cardinal based on Petrucci, "whom they brought upon the stage in as great state, as they could, with altars, images, crosses, crucifixes, and the like, to set forth his pomp and pride". One of his altars, to which he bows down, is not a conventional Christian one, but "an altar to the heathen gods", a blasphemous altar reflecting his secret treasonous intentions. We are introduced to "all his Consorts", the other cardinals. Petrucci swears them to secrecy, perhaps using a "basin" full of human blood as he does so, and then outlines to the others his plan to kill the Pope in, as it may be, a particularly unusual and dastardly way. As the play goes on, the Pope himself appears, and the conspiracy starts to unravel. At the climax of the play, the Pope has a meeting with Petrucci analagous to that described by Guicciardini, which ends with him betraying his promise and having Petrucci hauled off to prison. Petrucci complains at his scheme's failure (and doubtless at the Pope's Machiavellian wickedness) before being strangled to death. (168)

For What It's Worth

In 1633, the Pope made Laud a secret offer of a cardinalship, a secret which was certainly out by 1644. The secret offer is often mentioned by critics in connection with Shirley’s The Cardinal (1641), but if the information was in the public domain by 1639, it would add extra spice to the satirical potential of this play too. The story about Laud has been most fully documented by Norrie, who shows that it is referred to in print in 1641, but that it appears to be being alluded to, in private correspondence, as early as 1636.

Works Cited

Astington, John H. "Playing the Man: Acting at the Red Bull and the Fortune," Early Theatre 9.2 (2006): 130-43.
Butler, Martin. "Ecclesiastical Censorship of Early Stuart Drama: The Case of Jonson's The Magnetic Lady," Modern Philology 89 (1992): 469-481.
Green, M. A. E. ed., Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, 1639. London: Longman, 1856.
Guicciardini, Francesco. The Historie of Guicciardin, tr. Geoffrey Fenton. London: Thomas Vautroullier, 1579.
Jenkins, Robert C. Alfonso Petrucci, Cardinal and Conspirator: An Historical Tragedy. London: Kegan, Paul, Trench and co., 1882.
Jovius, Paulus. Vitae Illustrium Virorum. Basle: Petri Pernae, 1577.
Norrie, Aidan. “James Shirley’s The Cardinal and Archbishop Laud”, Notes and Queries (forthcoming, 2020).
A Second discovery by the Northern Scout. London: B. W., 1642.
Steggle, Matthew. Digital Humanities and the Lost Drama of Early Modern England: Ten Case Studies. Farnham: Ashgate, 2015.
Vox Borealis, or the Northern Discoverie. "Margery Mar-Prelat", "1641" [1640].
Williamson, Elizabeth. The Materiality of Religion in Early Modern English Drama. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009.

Site created and maintained by Matthew Steggle, University of Bristol; updated 30 July 2020.