Mother Redcap

Michael Drayton and Anthony Munday (1597)

Historical Records


To playwrights in Philip Henslowe's diary

Fol. 37v (Greg 1.70):

layde owt the 22 of desembʒ 1597 for a boocke called . . . } iijll
mother Readcape to antony monday & mr drayton . . . . . . }

Layd owt the 28 of desembʒ 1597 to antoney monday . . . }
toward his boocke wch J delyvered to thomas . . . . . . . . . . . } vs
dowton . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .}

Fol. 43v (Greg 1.82):

A Juste a cownt of all suche money as J haue
layde owt for my lord admeralles [men] players begynyng
the xj of octobʒ whose names ar as foloweth
borne gabrell shaw Jonnes dowten Jube towne
synger & the ij geffes 1597
layd owt the 22 of desembʒ 1597 for a boocke called . . . . . } iijll
mother Read cape to antony monday & drayton . . . . . . . . . .}

layd owt the 28 of desembʒ 1597 for the boocke called . . . .} vs
mother Read cape to antoney mondaye . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .}

Fol. 44 (Greg 1.83):

layd owt for my lord admeralles meane as foloweth 1597
pd vnto antony monday & drayton for the laste . . . . .}
payment of the Boocke of mother Readcape the . . . } lvs
5 of Jenewary 1597 the some of . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . }


Philip Henslowe's papers in the Dulwich College Library

List of properties
Greg,Papers (APX. I. art. 1, p. 117, l. 79):
Under Henslowe's title, "The Enventary tacken of all the properties for my Lord Admeralles men, the 10 of Marche 1598" is:
Item, j syne for Mother Readcap
List of playbooks
Greg, Papers (APX.I.i, p. 121, col. 1, l. 194):
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:
"Read Cappe."

Theatrical Provenance

Henslowe paid Drayton and Munday a total of £6 on behalf of the Admiral's men at the end of 1597 / start of 1598.

Probable Genre(s)

Comedy (?) (Harbage).

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

Greg notes that " 'Mother redd cappe her last will and Testament,' presumably a chapbook, was entered S. R. 10 Mar. 1595." (2.189). F. P. Wilson assumes rather that this was a jestbook, giving the full name as Mother Red Cap Her Last Will and Testament, Containing Sundry Conceited and Pleasant Tales Furnished with Much Variety to Move Delight (147).

An entry for "Mother REDCAPS will and testament . . . vjd" in the Stationers' Register for 14 Aug. 1600 amongst the "thinges formerlye printed and sett over to the sayd Thomas Pavyer" (63) is evidently a reprint of this text.

An EEBO-TCP search for "mother red cap" (with variant spellings and variant forms enabled) currently returns 23 hits in 12 records. Of these, only 2 texts contain multiple hits. The Muse of New-market(1680), a collection of 3 drolls adapted from pre-Restoration plays (and sometimes associated with Thomas Nabbes on account of its debt to his Tottenham Court) contains a play called The Merry Milkmaid of Islington in which a character (Artezhim, the Lady Jolt) briefly pretends to be Mother Red Cap (a publican) buying malt; the episode is incidental to the narrative. The other text with multiple hits is much more likely to be a probable analogue of the lost play:

Michael Drayton, The Moone-calfe in The battaile of Agincourt. Fought by Henry the fift of that name, King of England, against the whole power of the French: vnder the raigne of their Charles the sixt, anno Dom. 1415. The miseries of Queene Margarite, the infortunate vvife, of that most infortunate King Henry the sixt. Nimphidia, the court of Fayrie. The quest of Cinthia. The shepheards Sirena. The moone-calfe. Elegies vpon sundry occasions. By Michaell Drayton Esquire. 1627.

The Moone-calfe is a likely candidate for an analogue to the play because in addition to containing the most references to Mother Redcap, it also has the advantage of having been authored by one of the playwrights responsible for the lost play.

The relevant part of the narrative (166-84) takes the form of a tale-telling contest between Mother Redcap and three other ladies: Gammer Gurton, Mother Bombie, and Mother Howlet (the former two notably being subjects of extant plays: the anonymous Gammer Gurton's Needle of 1553, and John Lyly's Mother Bombie of 1587-90). Each tells a tale and deciphers the meaning of another's. Redcap's tale concerns a terrible prophecy ignored by all but one honest man; a prophecy that floods of biblical proportions will inundate the earth. The one man who respects the prophecy takes refuge in a cave. Emerging after the storm, he sees a world gone mad: naked women ride horses past him, a man mistakes his neighbour for a horse and leads him to water, another man worships an ape as his god, and so forth. The unnamed island where Redcap's story takes place thus earns the title "Ile of Ideots" (171), and the man who first revealed the prophecy and was forced into the life of a hermit by the unbelieving masses is finally vindicated. Mother Bombie perceives the moral of the tale to be that the flood is a plague sent by God to punish the wicked, that the cave/rock to which the believer clings is a metaphorical vantage point from which to contemplate "the sad times / Of the declining World," and that "no goodnesse can proceede" from counselling fools (172).

Mother Bombie tells her tale next. It concerns a powerful Medea-like witch who lives on an unnamed island with numerous mooncalf creatures, chief amongst which is a Babian or baboon whom she trained in her craft, to carry out her plots. Not far from the island lived a wise and skillful wizard, who came to know of the witch through the spirits he sent abroad. He impersonates the ape, and his spirit impersonates the witch, and in these guises they separate their nemeses and drive the witch to drown herself in despair. The witch represents men's ambition for riches, the wizard "Sound counsell" (176).

Mother Howlet's tale concerns a man given to "blacke Sorcery" who could turn into a "war wolfe" if he gathered a magical herb and pronounced a magic spell (177), and would ravish and eat maidens in the woods, or steal fat little children for food. The werewolf's exploits are undone when a silly ass (actually once a man, transformed into an ass by a witch) is hunted, survives, and regains his human form through a magical spring. The werewolf signifies a man "giuen to blood, and cruelty"; the silly ass is a "iust soule" and instrument of God (181).

Finally, Gammer Gurton tells a fable about beasts and scarcity of resources, which Redcap correctly summarises as "For goods ill gotten doe consume as fast" (184).

References to the Play

Before she proposes her interpretation of the moral of Redcap's tale, Mother Bombie makes what might be construed as a metatheatrical quip referring to Drayton and Munday's lost play:

In my conceit this is a pretty Tale;
And if some hansome players would it take,
It (sure) a pretty interlude would make... (172).

Critical Commentary

Malone has no comment on the provenance and narrative of the play (p. 308), nor does Collier though he does tally the payments to dramatists to reach "the whole £6 ... for their play" (p. 117, n.2). Fleay, BCED also does not comment (1. #3, p. 157 ; 2. #4, p. 114). Greg II cites as possible story source a chapbook registered at Stationers' Hall in 1595 with the title "Mother redd cappe her laste will and Testament" (#122, p. 189).

Gurr cites an entry in Henslowe's diary dated 9 August 1598 as possible evidence that "Mother Redcap" was offered at court (p. 295). The entry documents a payment of xs to Anthony Munday "in earneste of a comodey for the corte" (the title of the play is not recorded); the entry also states that "mr drayton hath geuen his worde" that the "boocke" will "be done wth in one fortnight." It is signed by Thomas Downton. In a footnote to the citation of the entry, Gurr suggests that "[t]he linkage here of Munday with Drayton in the second entry, affirmed by the single payment, suggests that the court play might have been Mother Redcap (p. 295).

In a discussion of "the dramatic vogue" for witchcraft plays in the late 1590s (478), H. W. Herrington attends to "lesser strands" (482) such as plays featuring the type of the "wise" or "cunning" woman. Herrington cites lost plays like Mother Redcap as the originators of the fashion described as "the irruption of more realistic plays in 1597-98" (485):

The evidence for the initiation of such a vogue in 1597 is not conclusive only because the plays no longer survive. The indispensable Henslowe tells the story. In December, 1597, he mentions "Mother Redcap." This is probably a study of a wise woman, continuing the type of play got under way by Lyly's "Mother Bombie." Earlier in the same year 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. (478)

In the context of play portrayals of the "wise woman" type, Diane Purkiss suggests that "Mother Redcap, may possibly have been about a cunning woman, but may also have been a representation of the case of Alice Gooderidge and Elizabeth Wright, both tried in 1597. They were an appropriate subject for the theatre, for this was the first case in which the Puritan exorcist John Darrell was involved: the possessed boy in this case called the witch 'Mother Redcap'" (189). Purkiss cites The most wonderfull and true storie of a certain witch named Alse Gooderige (1597) as a source for this narrative, and adds that "Though both appear in 1597, the play probably postdates the trial, since Henslowe does not mention it till December" (197, n28).

For What It's Worth


Robert Kittowe's 1600 Loues load-starre Liuely deciphered supports Harbage's supposition that this lost play was a comedy. In Kittowe's text, Redcap is cited in the company of two very famous jesters, Will Summers and John Scoggin:

There he made a period to his oblatiue Antheme, the whole summe whereof, séemed as acceptable to woful Katherinas eares, as the talke of Will Summers, to a minde male-content: or the Tales of Mother Redde-cappe, to an heart-sicke Patient: or Scoggins Ieasts related to one meditating on the seuen Sobbes of a sorrowful Soule. (sig.G3)

However, in 1597, the same year as the lost play, in an account of thirteen year old Thomas Darling's strange fits and supposed possession by the devil, the author ("I. D.") of The most wonderfull and true storie, of a certaine witch named Alse Gooderige of Stapen hill relates one of the boy's fits in which Redcap appears to be a witch:

After this falling into a traunce, hee started sodainely and saide, Yonder comes mother Redde Cap, looke how they beate her braines out, see what it is to be a witch: see how the toades gnaw the flesh from her bones. (31)

Inasmuch as Redcap's tale (in Drayton's text) concerns a prophecy, and witches might be associated with prophecies, there is some consistency here. NB. An anonymous ballad of 1714, A prince and no prince. Or, Mother Red-cap's strange and wonderful prophecy, combines Redcap, Gurton, Howlet and Bombie's stories into one, which it attributes solely to Redcap, and emphasises the prophecy dimension.

Item, j syne for Mother Readcap

The name "Mother Redcap" is often associated with pubs. There was a pub called Mother Red Cap at least as early as 1593, when a certain "Philip Foulface" (a pseudonym) referred to "Tom Typsay, an english tapster, wel-nere choaked with a marueilous drie heat, which he of late had got by lifting ouerlong at old mother Redcaps" (sig.B).

In 1638 Richard Brathwaite (1588?-1673) describes passing through Holloway in his Barnabees journall:

Thence to Hollowell, Mother red cap,
In a troupe of Trulls I did hap;
Whoors of Babylon me impalled,
And me their Adonis called;
With me toy'd they, buss'd me, cull'd me,
But being needy, out they pull'd me. (sig.L4)

Pepys visited a pub by this name in Holloway (presumably the same pub) on 24 September 1661:

So we rode easily through and only drinking at Halloway at the sign of a woman with Cakes in one hand and a pot of ale in the other, which did give good occasion of mirth, resembling her to the mayd that served us; we got home very timely and well. (184)

Pepys's editors, Latham and Matthews gloss this pub as "The Mother Redcap; a well-known house on the Great North Road" (184n).

Jacob Larwood and John Camden Hotten, in their History of Signboards, assert (without providing a source) that "Formerly the following verses accompanied this sign":

Old Mother Redcap, according to her tale,
Lived twenty and a hundred years by drinking this good ale;
It was her meat, it was her drink, and medicine besides,
And if she still had drank this ale, she never would have died.

It is presumably in this context of her ale's vivifying quality that Thomas Heywood has Chartley announce (whilst drunk), "Come Haringfield, now wee have beene drinking of Mother Red-caps Ale, let us now goe make some sport with the Wise-woman" (The Wisewoman of Hogsdon, sig.C).

More importantly, Larwood and Hotten's information about signboards may help us make sense of the item in Henslowe's property list,

Item, j syne for Mother Readcap; j buckler.

Was this "syne" a signboard?


Larwood and Hotten also note that "Who the original Mother Redcap was, is believed to be unknown, but not unlikely it is an impersonification of Skelton's famous "Ellinor Rumming," the alewife" (96).

Works Cited

Brathwaite, Richard. Barnabees journall under the names of Mirtilus & Faustulus shadowed: for the travellers solace lately published, to most apt numbers reduced, and to the old tune of Barnabe commonly chanted. By Corymboeus. 1638. Print.
Drayton, Michael. The Moone-calfe in The battaile of Agincourt. Fought by Henry the fift of that name, King of England, against the whole power of the French: vnder the raigne of their Charles the sixt, anno Dom. 1415. The miseries of Queene Margarite, the infortunate vvife, of that most infortunate King Henry the sixt. Nimphidia, the court of Fayrie. The quest of Cinthia. The shepheards Sirena. The moone-calfe. Elegies vpon sundry occasions. By Michaell Drayton Esquire. 1627. Print.
Foulface, Philip. Bacchus bountie describing the debonaire dietie of his bountifull godhead, in the royall obseruance of his great feast of Pentecost. Necessarie to be read and marked of all, for the eschuing of like enormities. By Philip Foulface of Ale-foord, student in good felloship. 1593. Print.
Gurr, Andrew. Shakespeare's Opposites: The Admiral's Company 1594-1625. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Herrington, H. W. “Witchcraft and Magic in the Elizabethan Drama”. The Journal of American Folklore 32.126 (1919): 447–85. Print.
Heywood, Thomas. The vvise-woman of Hogsdon A comedie. As it hath been sundry times acted with great applause. 1638. Print.
I.D. The most wonderfull and true storie, of a certaine witch named Alse Gooderige of Stapen hill, who was arraigned and conuicted at Darbie at the Assises there as also a true report of the strange torments of Thomas Darling, a boy of thirteene yeres of age, that was possessed by the deuill, with his horrible fittes and apparitions by him vttered at Burton vpon Trent in the countie of Stafford, and of his maruellous deliuerance. 1597. Print.
Kittowe, Robert. Loues load-starre Liuely deciphered in a historie no lesse commendable than comfortable, for all those that in their louely affections, haue by the enmitie of their friends, bene molested with the menacing meteors of crossing misfortunes. Leading also all kinde and true louers, that in their choyces are frownd at by froward parents, vnto the portfull paradise of pleasurde patience, and patient pleasures. 1600. Print.
Larwood, Jacob, and John Camden Hotten. The History of Signboards, From the Earliest Times to the Present Day. 2nd edn. London, 1866. Print.
Latham, Robert, and William Matthews, eds. Samuel Pepys. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, vol.2: 1661. Berkeley: U of California P, 1970. Print.
Pepys, Samuel. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, vol.2: 1661. Ed. Robert Latham and William Matthews. Berkeley: U of California P, 1970. Print.
Purkiss, Diane. The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations. Milton Park: Routledge, 1996. Print.
Wilson, F. P. "The English Jestbooks of the Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries." Huntington Library Quarterly 2.2 (1939): 121-58. Print. JSTOR

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