Friar Francis

Anon. (1594)

Historical Records

Performance Records

Playlists in Philip Henslowe's diary

Fol. 8v (Greg I.16)

Under the heading, “Jn the name of god Amen begninge the 27 of desemb[er] 1593 the earle of susex his men”
Res at frier frances the 7 of Jenewary 1593 . . . . . . . . . . . . iijll js
Res at frier frances the 14 of Jenewary 1593 . . . . . . . . . . . xxs
Res at ffrier ffrances the 20 of Jenewarye 1593 . . . . . . . . xxxs
NB. Henslowe's use of old style dating accounts for the 1593 date of what should be regarded as January of 1594 by new style standards.

Theatrical Provenance

Three known performances by Sussex’s men as an old play (probably at the Rose), as part of the company’s six week run in London (26 December to 6 February). According to Chambers, ES, II.95) the average takings in this period was £1 13s, which makes the average receipts of £1 17s for "Friar Francis" only slightly higher than usual (the first entry’s £3 1s, however, is markedly higher). An inhibition of plays by the Privy Council, most probably fueled by fears of plague, was issued on 3 Feb and the season ended shortly thereafter.

According to Heywood (see "References to the Play" below), it was also acted at King’s Lynn in Norfolk as an old play sometime “within these few yeares” before 1612. The date of this performance is uncertain. However, the event was also recounted in the anonymous A Warning for Fair Women (1599) (see "References to the Play" below), which suggests a sixteenth-century date, around the time of the London performances.

REED Norwich has records of Sussex's men appearing in Norwich but not specifically at King's Lynn, which is some 70km away. They received 20s on "the viijth of Marche 1588[9]" (p93), 20s in 1589-90 just before the "Turke wente vponn Roppes at newhall" (p96), 20s again on "the vth of Iune" in 1590-1 (p98), and another 20s "more given vnto the Lord of Sussex men by warrant" in 1608/9 (p132). This data suggest that Sussex's men were in the region in the late 1580s/early 1590s.

Galloway and Wasson, however, specifically note the following payment to Sussex's men at King's Lynn in 1592/3:

Item bestowed vpon the erle of penbrookes players . . . . . . . . . . . . xxs
more bestowed vpon the Erle of Sussex players . . . . . . . . . . . . xxs
(fol. 35v)

The editors footnote the Sussex entry with the Heywood reference and add "No other reference to the company has been found in the Lynn records."

Probable Genre(s)

Realistic Tragedy (?) (Harbage), domestic tragedy

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

From Heywood’s anecdote (see ‘References to the Play’ below), the play seems to be a domestic tragedy about a woman who murders her husband in order to pursue the affections of a young gentleman she doted on. The husband’s ghost subsequently haunts the woman.

References to the Play

In his Apology for Actors (1612), Thomas Heywood refers to a performance of the play at King’s Lynn in Norfolk, in the context of the discovery of concealed murders (cf. Hamlet’s ‘Mousetrap’ play, designed to solicit expressions of guilt). Described in the margin of Heywood’s text as “A strange accident happening at a play,” the incident referred to was apparently “a domestike, and home-borne truth, which within these few yeares happened”:

At Lin in Norfolke, the then Earle of Sussex players acting the old History of Fryer Francis, & presenting a woman, who insatiately doting on a yong gentleman, had (the more securely to enioy his affection) mischieuously and seceretly murdered her husband, whose ghost haunted her, and at diuers times in her most solitary and priuate contemplations, in most horrid and fearefull shapes, appeared, and stood before her. As this was acted, a townes-woman (till then of good estimation and report) finding her conscience (at this presenment) extremely troubled, suddenly skritched and cryd out Oh my husband, my husband! I see the ghost of my husband fiercely threatning and menacing me. At which shrill and vexpected out-cry, the people about her, moou'd to a strange amazement, inquired the reason of her clamour, when presently vn-urged, she told them, that seuen yeares ago, she, to be possest of such a Gentleman (meaning him) had poysoned her husband, whose fearefull image personated it selfe in the shape of that ghost: whereupon the murdresse was apprehended, before the Iustices further examined, & by her voluntary confession after condemned. That this is true, as well by the report of the Actors as the records of the Towne, there are many eye-witnesses of this accident yet liuing, vocally to confirme it. (Gv-G2; EEBO document image 30)

A similar account exists in the anonymous A Warning for Fair Women (1599):

. . . Ile tell you (sir) one more to quite your tale
A woman that had made away her husband,
And sitting to behold a tragedy,
At Linne a towne in Norffolke,
Acted by Players trauelling that way,
Wherein a woman that had murtherd hers
Was euer haunted with her husbands ghost:
The passion written by a feeling pen,
And acted by a good Tragedian,
She was so mooued with the sight thereof,
As she cryed out, the Play was made by her,
And openly confesst her husbands murder. (H2)

Critical Commentary

Malone (p. 293) does not connect this piece to the anecdote told by Heywood about a performance in Norfolk, but Collier does (p. 31, n.4). Fleay, BCED connects two plays to "Friar Francis" in that they also provide a similar anecdote: the German Hamlet and A Warning for Fair Women (2.299, #123). Greg II, #33, p. 159 and Chambers, ES 2.95 have nothing further to add.

Knutson tentatively links the play to other ‘friar’ plays of the period including Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, Munday’s John a Kent and John a Cumber, the anonymous John of Bordeaux, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, and later plays like Friar Spendleton (1597) and Friar Fox and Gillian of Brentford (1599) (p. 36).

Wiggins, Catalogue #924 dates the King's Lynn episode more in conjunction with A Warning for Fair Women (c. 1599) than with Sussex's play; he suggests that a record of the episode might be in Norwich archives.

It is not clear what role the eponymous friar character played: murdered husband, lover, or another role altogether. For recent work on stage friars, see Matusiak and Spain-Savage, below.

For What It's Worth

One possible clue to the role of the Friar Francis figure comes from an otherwise unlikely analogue/source text:

L.R. A subtill practise, vvrought in Paris by Fryer Frauncis who to deceiue Fryer Donnet of a sweet skind nun which he secretly kept, procured him to go to Rome, where he tolde the Pope a notable lie concerning the taking of the king of France prisoner by the Duke de Mayne: for which, they whipt ech other so greeuously in Rome, that they died thereof within two dayes after. 1590.

Only the coincidence of the name (Friar Francis) and the proximity of the date (1590) to that of the lost play (1593/4) encourage the association of this jest book with the Sussex's men play. Even then, it bears no relation to the facts related by Heywood, and at best might furnish the details of an unrelated comic subplot.


In L.R.'s text---an anti-Catholic tale of two lusty friars fighting over a nun---Friar Donnet was in love with a nun "about some nineteene yeares of age". Shortly after he sleeps with her, the French town in which they live is attacked. Friar Donnet asks Friar Francis in the neighbouring cell what the commotion is, and Francis sets off to find out. Seeking to undo Friar Donnet and gain for himself the coveted nun, Friar Francis returns and reports a "long tale of the tubbe, how the king entring the Citty, was taken by a common souldiour, and presented as prisoner to the Duke de Maine" (4). Francis advises him to rush to Rome and be the first to break the news to the Pope that Henry IV had been captured by Duke De Main. Donnet, "greedy of Honour and thankes which he hoped to reape by his message" (4), hastily "resigned his office, and sister in bedde to Frier Francis both at once, saying if he neuer returned his was the gaine, for he knew by inspiration, that great was the preferment which tended his newes" (4), and with that he sets off for Rome. Unfortunately, after Donnet tells this good news to the Pope and the celebrations have begun, Henry IV actually does engage in battle with De Main and chases him from the field (5). De Main writes "lamentable letters" to the Pope detailing his "ill fortune" and the letters arrive "in the middest of this triumphes and honors done to Frier Donnet" (6). Donnet blames Francis for any misinformation, and the story concludes with both friars punished for bringing lies to the Pope, by going "barefoote and barelegde through Rome," whipping each other with "whippes of wier" (6), in a comical fashion: "who so hath seene two iackes in a clockhouse striking hie noone with their opposite hammers may well conceiue this anticke resemblance" (7). Such is the severity of their injuries that they die within two days, and so ends "the cometragicall historie of these unfortunate Fryers" (7).

Works Cited

Anon. A Warning for Fair Women. London, 1599. EEBO.
Galloway, David. Norwich 1642. Records of Early English Drama. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1984.
Galloway, David and John Wasson. Malone Society Collections XI: Records of Plays and Players in Norfolk and Suffolk, 1330-1642. Ed. G. R. Proudfoot. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980-1.
Heywood, Thomas. An Apology for Actors. London, 1612. EEBO.
Knutson, Roslyn L. “Marlowe Reruns: Repertorial Commerce and Marlowe’s Plays in Revival.” Marlowe’s Empery: Expanding His Critical Contexts. Ed. Sarah Munson Deats and Robert A. Logan. London: Associated University Presses, 2002. 25-42.
L. R. A subtill practise, vvrought in Paris by Fryer Frauncis who to deceiue Fryer Donnet of a sweet skind nun which he secretly kept, procured him to go to Rome, where he tolde the Pope a notable lie concerning the taking of the king of France prisoner by the Duke de Mayne: for which, they whipt ech other so greeuously in Rome, that they died thereof within two dayes after. 1590. EEBO.
Matusiak, Christopher. "Lost Stage Friars and their Narratives," in Lost Plays in Shakespeare's England, eds. David McInnis and Matthew Steggle. Basingstoke:Palgrave, 2014. 208-28.
Spain-Savage, Christi. "Reimagining Gillian: The Merry Wives of Windsor and the lost "Friar Fox and Gillian of Brentford," in Lost Plays in Shakespeare's England, eds. David McInnis and Matthew Steggle. Basingstoke:Palgrave, 2014. 229-52.

Site created and maintained by David McInnis, University of Melbourne; updated by David McInnis and Matthew Steggle 28 June 2011.