Doctor Lambe and the Witches

Anon. (1634)

Historical Records

Sir Henry Herbert's "Office Book"

A record of the play's licensing survives in Malone’s transcript of Herbert’s now missing "office book":

An ould play, with some new scenes, Doctor Lambe and the Witches, to Salisbury Courte, the 16th August, 1634, — £1
(cited by Bawcutt in Control and Censorship, 189).

One month earlier (on 20 July), members of the King’s Men had petitioned the Master of the Revels to prohibit an unnamed company’s:

intermingleing some passages of witches in old playes to ye priudice of their designed Comedy of the Lancashire witches
(NA LC5/183/148, cited by Bawcutt, 189)

Theatrical Provenance

The revised version of this play was licensed for the King's Revels Company at the Salisbury Court Theatre. The provenance of the older version of the play is not known.

Probable Genre(s)

Topical (Harbage), Tragedy (?)

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

The biographical pamphlet A briefe description of the notorious life of Iohn Lambe (1628) EEBO testifies to the real-life London celebrity of "Doctor Lambe," a figure "whose Scandalous life hath beene a long subiect of discourse in this Kingdome, and whose tragicall and vnexpected death of late happening, hath giuen cause of a sadde Example to all such wicked persons." (1) The same text may recount the sensational events adapted by the play that bore his name.

After an early career tutoring children in gentle households, Lambe turned to medicine and astrology, unabashedly styling himself “Doctor” despite his lack of university training. According to A briefe description:

He began within short time after he professed Physick in the Country, to fall to other mysteries, as telling of Fortunes, helping of diuerse to lost goods, shew[ing] to young people the faces of their Husban[d]s or Wiues that should be in a Christall glasse: reuealing to wiues the escapes and faults of their Husbands, and to husbands of their wiues. (2)

In 1608, Worcestershire assizes found him guilty of “the Deuillish Art of Coiuration,” specifically of trying to “disable, make infirme, and consume the body and strength” of Thomas, sixth Lord Windsor. Lambe confessed to summoning four malevolent spirits (including one “Benias”) with a crystal. After the trial a number of jurors suspiciously died and judgment was suspended. Lambe narrowly evaded the gallows, but by 1622 he was confined to Worcester Castle, charged again with being an “invocator and adorer of impious and wicked Spirits.”(A briefe description, 4-12).

In 1623, Lambe was transferred to London where he occupied two rooms in King’s Bench prison, living “in great plenty of money, and much resorted vnto by people of seuerall conditions.” His chamber was reportedly “fraught with women,” an entourage of laundresses permitted to accommodate him, including one “Becke,” who trained in his art. Lambe’s reputation drew desperate and calculating courtiers. In sessions with the infamous Lady Purbeck, he is rumored to have prepared “powders and potions” used to “intoxicate her husband’s brains" (SP 14 184, f. 77-78). More significantly, there were consultations with George Villiers, the ascendant Duke of Buckingham, who granted Lambe his protection. When Lambe was found guilty of raping an eleven-year-old girl, Joan Seager, as she delivered a basket of herbs to his chamber, political connection appears to have secured his timely pardon and eventual release (A briefe description, 15-20; SP 14 167, f. 25).

For the next four years, Lambe, now in his seventies, remained a notorious presence in Westminster, his name popularly linked to both black magic and the circle of his patron, the Duke of Buckingham. London gossip credited him with conjuring a great mist over the Thames near Buckingham’s residence, preparing love charms used by the Duke to corrupt young women, and foretelling the Duke’s death by way of an image in his glass of a heavy man holding a dagger (Rushworth, Historical Collections 1:391; Birch, Court and Times of Charles the First, 2:252).

The reputation of being “Buckingham’s wizard” precipitated Lambe’s grim end. In June of 1628, he was attending a play at the Fortune when “the boyes of the towne, and other vunruly people hauing obserued him present, after the Play was ended, flocked about him … [and] began in a confused manner to assault him” (A briefe description, 20). The mob promptly pursued him through the surrounding streets and fatally bludgeoned him with clubs and stones outside the house of a lawyer in Old Jewry.

According to John Rushworth’s Historical Collections (1659) EEBO :

Doctor Lamb, so called, having been at a Play-house, came through the City of London and, being a person very notorious, the Boys gathered thick about him, which increased by the access of ordinary People and the Rabble; they presently reviled him with words, calling him a Witch, a Devil, the Duke's Conjurer, &c. he took Sanctuary in the Wind-mill Tavern at the lower end of the Old Jury, where he remained a little space; but there being two Doors opening to several Streets out of the said House, the Rout discovering the same, made sure both Doors lest he should escape, and pressed so hard upon the Vintner to enter the House, that he for fear the House should be pulled down, and the Wines in his Cellar spoiled and destroyed, thrust the imaginary Devil out of his House, whereupon the tumult carried him in a croud among them, howting and showting, crying a witch, a Devil and when they saw a Guard coming by order of the Lord Mayor for the rescue of him, they fell upon the Doctor, beat him and bruised him, and left him for dead; With much ado the Officers that rescued him got him alive to the Counter, where he remained some few houres, and died that night; The City of London endeavoured to find out the most active persons in this Riot, but could not finde any that either could, or if they could, were willing to witnesse against any person in that businesse. This happened to be in Parliament time, and at that instant of time when they were about the Remonstrance against the Duke. (630)

The account in A brief description is even more vivid, adding that Lambe's "skull was broken, one of his eyes hung out of his head, and all partes of his body bruised and wounded so much that no part was left to receiue a wound" (21). ”A woodcut depicting the attack illustrates the frontispiece of A briefe description and was copied several times thereafter.

At the time of his death, Lambe was reportedly carrying a crystal ball, a collection of knives, a picture of the Countess of Somerset’s jailor, a nightcap of gold thread, and forty shillings (Goldstein, "The Life and Death of John Lambe," 26-27). For the few months remaining in Buckingham’s life, the popular refrain circulated throughout London: “Let Charles and George do what they can, / The Duke shall die like Doctor Lamb.” (Historical Collections, 630).

References to the Play

A 1628 ballad by Martin Parker entitled The Tragedy of Doctor Lambe frames the event within the genre of moralizing de casibus tragedy. The woodcut of a conjurer adorning this broadside is identical to that illustrating the 1616 quarto of Doctor Faustus. For seasoned playgoers, the old sorcerer's violent death at the hands of a mob perhaps reflexivly echoed the final act of Marlowe's play.

An allusion to an earlier version of Lambe may occur in Fletcher's The Fair Maid of the Inn (1625), wherein a deceptive and lascivious mountebank, Forobosco, describes an excursion to England in the guise of “Dr Lambe-stones” (Beaumont and Fletcher, Comedies and Tragedies, Ggggggg2v).

Jonson's The Staple of News (acted 1625) features an absurd exchange between gossips, one of whom claims to know "which Boy rode vpon Doctor Lambe, in the likenesse of a roaring Lyon, that runne away with him in his teeth, and ha's not deuour'd him yet" (49).

The poet Thomas Randolph, who wrote at least two plays for the Salisbury Court in the early 1630s, may also allude to the stage Lambe in a light-hearted verse on his failure to predict the sex of an aunt's new child:

Is Friar Bacon nothing but a name?
Or is all witchcraft braind with Doctor Lambe?
(Poems, 53)

Critical Commentary

Bentley argues that fresh witch scenes were wedged into the revived play to capitalize upon the same Pendle witch scare that inspired Heywood and Brome to write The Late Lancashire Witches for the King's Men in 1634 (The Jacobean and Caroline Stage, 3: 73-76, 5: 1455).

For What It's Worth

Lambe's legendary exploits suggest numerous opportunities for stage juggling and spectacle. Contemporary anecdotes describe his invocation of devils, his conjuring "a little boy in greene" to fly from Worcestershire to London for wine, his compelling an unwitting woman's skirts to lift in public, his raising a tree out of the ground, and his shaking a house. One might conjecture that the "witches" of the title refers to "Becke" and Lambe's other female associates in King's Bench prison.

If, as theatrical allusions suggest, the lost play was written around the time of Lambe's release from King's Bench prison c. 1624, circumstantial evidence gestures toward Richard Gunnell as its author (or at least its first owner). Gunnell, a player groomed in Edward Alleyn’s orbit, was at that time taking on increased managerial duties on behalf of Palsgrave’s Men at the Fortune. Fire famously destroyed the company’s theatre, properties, and playbooks in 1621, forcing Gunnell to resupply its assets. In 1623 and 1624, he wrote at least two plays (The Hungarian Lion and How a Man May Please His Wife) and this would seem the ideal time to have also written a topical play on the notorious, newly released Lambe (Bawcutt, Control and Censorship, 147, 151). Gunnell likely retained these three scripts when he moved to the Salisbury Court in 1629 – and notably each is now lost. This pattern of lacunae arguably makes sense when we observe that Gunnell died intestate later in 1634. His estate remained unsettled until the 1650s, perhaps thereby preventing these playbooks from returning to theatrical hands.

Works Cited

Anon. A briefe description of the notorious life of Iohn Lambe otherwise called Doctor Lambe. Together with his ignominious death. Amsterdam, 1628. EEBO

Bawcutt, N.W. The Control and Censorship of Caroline Drama. Oxford, 1996.

Beaumont, Francis and John Fletcher. Comedies and Tragedies. London, 1647. EEBO
Bellany, Alistair. “The Murder of John Lambe: Crowd Violence, Court Scandal, and Popular Politics in Early Seventeenth-Century England,” Past and Present 200 (2008): 37-76.

Bentley, G. E. The Jacobean and Caroline Stage. 7 vols. Oxford, 1956.

Birch, Thomas. The Court and Times of Charles the First. 2 vols. London, 1848.

Goldstein, Leba M. “The Life and Death of John Lambe.” Guildhall Studies in London History 4 (1979): 19-32.

Jonson, Ben. Bartholmew fayre : a comedie, acted in the yeare, 1614 by the Lady Elizabeths seruants, and then dedicated to King Iames, of most blessed memorie ; The diuell is an asse : a comedie acted in the yeare, 1616, by His Maiesties seruants ; The staple of newes : a comedie acted in the yeare, 1625, by His Maiesties seruants by the author, Beniamin Iohnson. London, 1631. EEBO
McConnell, Anita. “Lambe, John (1545/6 – 1628).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Web. ODNB

Parker, Martin. The Tragedy of Doctor Lambe. London, 1628. UCSB English Broadside Ballad Archive

Randolph, Thomas. Poems with the Muses looking-glasse: and Amyntas. Oxford, 1638. EEBO

Rushworth, John. Historical collections of private passages of state Weighty matters in law. Remarkable proceedings in five Parliaments. Beginning the sixteenth year of King James, anno 1618. And ending the fifth year of King Charls, anno 1629. London, 1659. EEBO

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