Noble Thief, The

"Young Clifton" (1640)

Historical Records

In 1640, Sir Henry Herbert licensed the play for performance:

“The Noble Thief, by Younge Clifton, alld Bull Comp. 1640.” (Bawcutt, 206)

Theatrical Provenance

The Red Bull was used by two different companies in 1640. Before Easter, the company was the second Prince Charles’s Men; after Easter, that company moved to the Fortune and the troupe at the Fortune took over the Red Bull and became known simply as the Red Bull Company. Because Herbert’s record of licensing is not dated precisely, it is impossible to know which company owned this play.

Probable Genre(s)

The repertory of both companies emphasized plays that would appeal to broad audiences, particularly play incorporating special effects, sensationalism, violence, and jingoistic approaches to English history. The combination of both presumptively upper-class values (“Noble”) and lower-class activities (“Thief”) might imply a comedy.

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

The phrase “noble thief” may indicate that the narrative was based on the convention of the gentleman robber, most famously embodied by the figure of Robin Hood but also encompassing other figures—both historical and fictional—throughout the period (see Seal). The phrase have been metaphorical; certainly the portrayal of Robin Hood in other plays of the period, for example, usually presents the quality of his character as “noble”.

The phrase “noble thief” was used to describe Robin Hood in the lyrics to a song by Robert Jones, published in 1609; the second stanza of his song about Robin Hood and his romance with Maid Marian reads:

A noble thiefe was Robin Hoode,
Wise was he could deceive him,
Yet Marrian in his bravest mood,
Could of his heart bereave him,
No greater thiefe lies hidden under skies,
Then beauty closely lodgde in womens eyes.
            Hey jolly Robin. (Jones, L1v)

Besides Jones’s song, there are apparently no other uses of the phrase in the period.

References to the Play

There are no known references to the play in the period.

Critical Commentary

The play is listed by Loughnane as a Red Bull play, but he does not provide any commentary on it.

For What It's Worth

The identity of “Younge Clifton” remains a mystery. Herbert’s use of “young” implies a degree of familiarity or perhaps an attempt to distinguish the nonce playwright from another Clifton. There are, however, no known individuals with the name “Clifton” who were involved with theater in the late Caroline period, nor are there any published works by an author of that name. If there was an "old Clifton", then, he was possibly neither an actor nor a playwright.

One individual named Clifton associated with the English theater in the 17th century appears to have been Thomas Clifton, who had been abducted and physically abused by James Robinson, Nathaniel Giles, and Henry Evans as part of their attempt to form a boys’ company in December 1600 (Chambers, ES, 2:43–44); however, as Thomas Clifton was 13 at the time of his abduction, he would have been 53 when Herbert licensed The Noble Thief in 1640, certainly disqualifying him from being “Younge” Clifton.

Another Clifton who was involved in the theater at the time was Sir Gervase Clifton, who acted in a play at St. John’s College, Cambridge in 1605–6 and in Ben Jonson’s masque The Gypsies Metamorphosed in 1621. He too, however, would have been 53 years old in 1640. 

Sir Gervase’s first-born son might be a plausible candidate for the play’s authorship. Also named Gervase, he was born in 1612 and so would have been 28 at the time the play was licensed. He spent much of his youth at the family’s home in Clifton, Nottinghamshire, about twenty miles south of Robin Hood’s legendary territory of Sherwood Forest (his father had even been appointed Sheriff of Nottingham in 1610). While the idea of a baronet’s son writing a play for the commercial theater (particularly the Red Bull) might seem peculiar, young Gervase Clifton was, around 1640, probably more likely than most of his peers to do so: 

[H]is impulsive behaviour was in contrast to the gentlemanly style of his father, and caused conflict between them. He was described by Dr Robert Thoroton in his History of Nottinghamshire (1676) as “the wretched unfortunate, who was his father’s greatest foil”. In 1639 it emerged that he was in debt and had borrowed money on the security of his wife’s jointure estates. He was imprisoned in 1640 for assaulting two men serving a writ on him. (“Biography”)

If Gervase was indeed the playwright, this might explain Herbert’s use of “young” to describe him, since he would have indeed been known to the Master of the Revels and it would have been reasonable for the Master to use the adjective to distinguish Gervase from his influential (disapproving) father. 

Works Cited

Bawcutt, N. W. The Control and Censorship of Caroline Drama: The Records of Sir Henry Herbert, Master of the Revels 1623–73. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.
“Biography of Sir Gervase Clifton, 2nd Baronet (c.1612–1676).” University of Nottingham, Manuscripts and Special Collections, Family and Estate Resources.,2ndbaronet(c1612-1676).aspx. Accessed May 21, 2020.
Jones, Robert. A Musicall Dreame. London: Simon Waterson, 1609.
Loughnane, Rory. “Reputation and the Red Bull Theatre, 1625–42.” The Yearbook of English Studies 44 (2014): 29–50.
Seal, Graham. “The Robin Hood Principle: Folklore, History, and the Social Bandit.” Journal of Folklore Research 46 (2009): 67–89.

Site created and maintained by Matteo Pangallo, Virginia Commonwealth University; updated 29 May 2020.