Randall, Earl of Chester (Chester’s Tragedy)

Thomas Middleton (1602)

Historical Records

Payments to Playwrights (Henslowe's Diary)

F.108r; Greg I, 171; Foakes, 205:

pd at the apoynt of wm Jube the 21
of octobʒ 1602 vnto mr medelton in pte of
payment ffor his playe called [felmelanco] Chester
tragedie the some of iiijli

(The title 'felmelanco' is crossed out, and 'Chester' inserted underneath.)

F.108r; Greg I, 171; Foakes, 206:

Lent unto Edward Jube the 9 of novmbʒ 1602
to paye vnto mr mydelton in fulle paymente
of his playe called Randowlle earlle of chester
the some of xxxx s

Theatrical Provenance

Admiral's Men.

Probable Genre(s)

Described as a tragedy in the first record. However, Greg suggests that the word 'tragedie' could have been part of the 'felmelanco' title and inadvertently left to stand (II, 225).

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

Greg notes that there were three Earls of Chester named Ranulph in history: Ranulph le Meschin (died 1129?), his son Ranulph de Gernons (died 1153) and Ranulph de Blundevill (died 1232) (Greg II, 225), also known as Ranulph I, Ranulph II and Ranulph III. Doris Feldmann and Kurt Tetzeli von Rosador note that le Meschin is mentioned only in passing by Holinshed, whereas both de Gernons and de Blundevill had lives colourful enough to be of interest to a dramatist (330).

There are fragmentary traces of a popular tradition about an heroic Earl of Chester named Ranulph, and a line in William Langland's Piers Plowman mentions the existence of "rymes about Robyn hood and Randolf Erl of Chestre" (V.395). Scholars have debated whether this legendary Ranulph is based on de Gernons or de Blundevill. James A. Alexander believes that de Blundevill's "pragmatic conservatism" could not have inspired popular legends, and identifies Langland's "Erl" with de Gernons (Ranulf, 101, "Ranulf III"). However, Glyn S. Burgess supports an identification with de Blundevill; he argues that de Blundevill became a hero in the popular memory, associated with resistance to unfair taxation, and later with the Robin Hood legend.

Whichever of the two earls inspired him, this legendary Ranulph appears in several plays relating to Robin Hood. He appears in Anthony Munday's plays The Downfall and The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon (Burgess 77-9l); Feldmann and Tetzeli von Rosaor state that this character is based on Ranulph de Blundevill as described in Holinshed's Chronicles (329-30). The Admiral's Men play Look About You (which may also be by Munday), is also set in the Robin Hood era, and features a Ranulph, Earl of Chester in a less prominent role (Feldmann and Tetzeli von Rosador 329). Munday also included a Ranulph, Earl of Chester in John a Kent and John a Cumber (Feldmann and Tetzeli von Rosador 329), but the historical period of that play is unspecified. J.W. Ashton describes the Ranulphs in these plays in detail.

Feldmann and Tetzeli von Rosador further suggest that the popular lost play The Wise Man of West Chester could have "kept Chester and its earls alive in the minds of Elizabethan theatregoers" (330).

Ranulph de Gernons in Holinshed's Chronicles

The following references to Ranulph de Gernons, Earl of Chester, appear in Holinshed's Chronicles, 1587 ed., volume 6.


Ranulph is described in Holinshed's genelogy of the Earls of Chester thus:

"Ranulfe or Randulfe Bohun, the second of that name, and fourth erle in number after the conquest, surnamed Geruous, succeeded his father, and married Alice, daughter to Robert erle of Glocester, base sonne to king Henrie the first by whome he had issue Hugh Keuelocke, the fift earle of Chester. He deceassed about the yeare of our Lord 1153, when he had beéne earle 29 yeares." (p.221)


Ranulph lived during the reign of King Stephen. When the Empress Maud arrived with "a great armie, to the intent that ioining with Ranulph earle of Chester (who tooke part with Robert erle of Glocester, bicause the same Rob. had maried his daughter) she might fight with King Stephan, and trie the battell with him" (p.51).

When Stephen's army besieged Lincoln, "Robert earle of Glocester, and Ranulph earle of Chester, Hugh Bigot, and Robert of Morley" arrive to "come to the succour of those that were thus besieged", and camp outside the city (p.51).

The armies of Stephen and the rebels faced off, and "the earle of Chester led the fore ward". Holinshed records a speech that Chester uttered to his fellow captains, "appointed in faire armour as he was":

"I giue you hartie thanks, most inuincible chiefteine, and you my fellow soldiers, which declare your hartie good wils towards me, euen to the ieoparding of your liues at this my request and instance. Sith then I am the occasion of your perill, it is conuenient that I make the first entrance, and giue the onset of the battell vpon that most disloiall king, who granting a truce, hath broken the peace; and swearing to be a subiect, is now prooued a most wicked vsurper: I therefore trusting both vpon reuenge of the vniust dealings of this king, and also vpon mine owne force and courage, shall straitwaies breake in sunder the arraie of his armie, and make waie through the middest of the enimies with sword in hand. It shall be your parts then to follow me, who will lead you the waie: for euen now my mind giueth me, that I shall passe thorough the battels, tread the capteines vnder foot, and run the king through with this my sharpe sword." (p.52)

During the battle, King Stephen encountered Chester, but was "ouercharged with multitude" (p.52).

Further battles ensued. Holinshed describes at length the despoiling of abbeys and churches by Stephen's men, and mentions one Robert Marmion, who was "going foorth to encounter with the earle of Chester (his mortall enimie, and being approched as then towards the citie)" but fell into one of his own ditches outside the same abbey that he had attempted to rob (p.55).

The Earl of Chester was by now governing the city of Lincoln. King Stephen attempted to retake it, but was repulsed by Chester:

"aduertisement was giuen, that the citie of Lincolne, which the earle of Chester had in keeping, was but slenderlie manned. Wherevpon the king conceiuing some hope to win the same, hasted forward: and comming thither in the night, laid siege therevnto, and began to cast a trench to stop them within frõ making any salies without."
The earle at the first being somewhat amazed with the sudden approch of the enimie, yet beholding from the walles the maner of them without, he perceiued the rankes to be verie thin: and thereby gessing their number to be but small, suddenlie issued foorth at the gates to encounter with them. The king abode not the giuing of the charge, bicause he was but weake and therefore fled;The siege raised. neither could the earle follow the chace conuenientlie, for the like cause; but setting vpon those that were about to make the trench, he slue 80. of the workemen, and then retired into the castell. (p.56)

After Stephen achieved a series of victories, Chester came "with a great traine of knights and gentlemen vnto the king, and so at length they were not vnfeignedlie accorded and made freends". However, Stephen was dissimulating, because

"the earle was craftilie taken at a parlement holden at Northampton, by the practise of K. Stephan, and could not be deliuered, till he had surrendred the citie and castell of Lincolne, with other fortresses perteining to the crowne into the kings hands." (p.56)

Stephen's treatment of Chester earned him "new hatred of his old aduersaries, and like supicion of such as were his freends, for it sounded not a little to his dishonor" (p.56).

Having given up Lincoln to Stephen, Chester now tried to win it back. He "came thither with an armie, to assaie if he might recouer that citie. But his lieutenant that had the leading of his men, was slaine at the entring of the northgate, and so the erle was beaten backe with the losse of manie of his men: and the citizens hauing got the vpper hand, reioised not a little for the victorie" (p.57).

The arrival of Henry Fitzempress in England encouraged many of Stephen's supporters to change sides. Holinshed lists Chester among the noblemen who joined Henry on a visit to King David of Scotland (p.57).

As the wars continued, Holinshed reports that the

"noble and valiant earle of Chester called Ranulfe departed this life, a man of such stoutnesse of stomach, that death could scarselie make him to yeeld, or shew any token of feare: he was poisoned (as was thought) by William Peuerell. After him succeeded his sonne Hugh, a man likewise of passing strength and vertue. Now although earle Ranulfe fauoured the part of duke Henrie, yet in these later yeares he did but little for him: wherefore it was thought that the death of this earle was not so great a losse to the duke, as the deaths of Eustace, earle Simon, and other the kings fréends deceasing about the same time seemed to further him: so that his part became dailie stronger, and the kings weaker." (p.60)

Ranulf de Blundevill in Holinshed's Chronicles

The following references to Ranulph de Blundevill, Earl of Chester, appear in Holinshed's Chronicles, 1587 ed., volume 6.


Holinshed describes Ranulph in his genealogy of the Earls of Chester thus:

"Ranulfe Bohun the third of that name, otherwise called Blundeuille, the sonne of Hugh Keuelocke, was the sixt earle of Chester after the conquest. He was also earle of Lincolne, as next cousine and heire to William Romare earle of Lincolne. He had three wiues (as before yee haue heard) but yet died without issue, about the yeare of our Lord 1232, after he had beene earle 51 yeares." (p.221)

When relating Ranulph's death, Holinshed summarizes his three marriages thus:

"This earle Ranulfe was thrice married, first to Constance daughter and heire to Conan earle of Britaine and Richmund, and so in right of hir was intituled earle of those two places: which Constance had beene first married vnto Geffrey the third sonne of king Henrie the second, by whom she had issue Arthur (as before yée haue heard.) But by earle Ranulfe she had no issue at all, but was from him diuorced, and afterwards married vnto Guy vicount de Towars. Then after earle Ranulfe was so diuorsed from the said Constance, he married a ladie named Clemence, and after hir deceasse, he married the third time the ladie Margaret, daughter to Humfrey de Bohun earle of Hereford and Essex, constable of England." (p.215)

However, "he neuer had issue by any of those his wiues, so that Iohn Scot his nephue by his sister Mawd succéeded him in the earldome of Chester, and William Dalbenie earle of Arundell, nephue to him by his sister Mabell, had the manour of Barrow, and other lands that belonged to the said Ranulfe, of the yerelie value of fiue hundred pounds" (p.215).


Holinshed's first reference to Ranulph de Blundevill, describes him fighting for King Richard against John. With other lords, he "besieged the castell of Notingham" (p.142). When Richard was crowned, Ranulph was present, and stood on the left side of the King of Scots (p.143).

Ranulph was married to Constance of Brittany, mother (by her previous husband) of Arthur of Brittany, whom Richard had nominated his heir. The marriage was not a success. When Constance made an attempt at speaking with Richard, Ranulph "meeting hir at Pountourson, tooke hir as prisoner, and shut hir vp within his castell at S. Iames de Beumeron". This action had great repercussions: "when hir sonne Arthur could not find means to deliuer hir out of captiuitie, he ioined with the king of France, and made great hauocke in the lands of his vncle king Richard, wherevpon the king gathered a mightie armie, and inuading Britaine with great force, cruellie wasted and destroied the countrie" (p.150).

Holinshed includes Ranulph among the lords who "accompted and proclaimed" John to be King of England after Richard's death (p.157), and later among those who attended his coronation (p.159). He is later listed among the lords who supported King John's league with Godfrey of Boulogne against the French (p.175), and among several high-ranking men who agreed to honour obligations toward the repayment of money owed to the Pope (p.182).

John's dissension with his barons may have arisen "bicause the king would without skilfull aduise haue exiled the earle of Chester, and for none other occasion than for that he had oftentimes aduised him to leaue his cruell dealing, and also his accustomed adulterie with his brothers wife and others" (p.184). Ranulf is listed among the some lords who, upon receiving a letter from the rebellious barons, "ioined themselues with the barons, vtterlie renouncing to aid king Iohn" (p.185).

Upon the death of John, and the accession of Henry III, Ranulph is listed among the lords who "fell to councell togither what waie should be best to take" (p.197).

During an insurrection led by Louis, Ranulph was among the lords who beseiged Montsorell Castle. He was later among the army that marched to liberate Lincoln, described as "a great puissance of people desirous to fight for the defense of their countrie against the Frenchmen and other aduersaries, rebels to the pope, and excommunicated persons" (p.199).

Later, Ranulph went on a crusade, having been sent to the Holy Land by Henry "with a goodlie companie of souldiers and men of warre, to aid the christians there against the infidels which at the same time had besieged the citie of Damieta in Aegypt, in which enterprise the valiancie of the same earle after his comming thither, was to his great praise most apparant". He successfully won the city (p.202).

After this success, Ranulph, "began to build the castels of Chartleie and Béeston, and afterward he also builded the abbeie of Dieu Lencresse, commonlie called Delacresse of the white order. Toward his charges susteined about the building of which castels and abbeie, he tooke toll throughout all his lordships of all such persons as passed by the same with any cattell, chaffre or merchandize" (p.202).

An incident subsequently took place in which Ranulph's castle at Fotheringay was captured by the rebellious Earl of Abermarle (p.202).

Later, "Iohn the sonne of Dauid earle of Anguish in Scotland, sisters sonne vnto Ranulfe earle of Chester, married the daughter of Leolin prince of Wales, as it were to procure a finall accord betwéene the said Leolin and Ranulfe" (p.204).

Various incidents then took place involving tensions between Henry and the barons; Ranulph is recorded as inconsistent in his loyalty to the King.

Ranulph "and other Noble men" conspired "against Hubert de Burgh lord chiefe iustice of England, by whose counsell (as it was thought) the king was more streict towards the nobilitie and other his subiects" (p.204).

King Henry then acquired the Pope's blessing to be considered of age sufficient to govern, and thus "anie castels, honors, manors or places apperteining to the king, were commanded to deliuer and resigne the same to his vse, which caused much trouble, as after shall appeare". Ranulph was amenable to this: when Henry demanded of Ranulph "the restitution of certeine lordships which ancientlie apperteined to the crowne", the earl "readilie obeied the kings pleasure, and resigned them all". Following his example, "diuerse of the rest of the barons were brought into such feare, that they were contented also to doo the like" (p.205).

Later, however, Ranulph led "a great puissance of warlike personages" against the King in a dispute about the Earl of Cornwall's land rights (p.209).

The Pope then began to demand "a tenth part of all the mooueable goods within the realmes & countries of England, Wales, and Ireland" (p.210). Ranulph resisted: "The earle of Chester onlie stood manfullie against the paiment of those tenths, insomuch that he would not suffer his lands to be brought vnder bondage, neither wold he permit the religious men and préests that held of his fee to pay the same" (p.211).

Henry began an invasion of France, but the purported treachery of the chief justice meant that not enough ships were available. "In this heat if the earle of Chester and other had not béene at hand, he [the King] had suerlie slaine the chéefe iustice euen there with his drawne sword, who was glad to auoid his presence, till his angrie mood was somwhat ouerpassed" (p.211).

During the invasion, King Henry made Ranulph one of the captain in charge of "defense of the countrie against the Frenchmen"; they made excursions into France where they won victories. After a battle with the French, Ranulph was one of three advisers who persuaded King Henry and King Louis into a peace agreement, "by which meanes they were at the last accorded. [...] Thus ceassed the warres for that time betwixt the kings of England and France, as some haue witnessed" (p.212).

Ranulph also "fortified the castell of S.Iames de Bewmero(n), which (bicause it belonged to the right of his wife) the earle of Britaine had (sith the kings comming ouer) restored vnto him" (p.212).

When the French attempted to invade, Ranulph was one of the captains who "found meanes to take and destroie all the cariages and wagons which came with vittels and other prouision to serue the French armie [...] and by consent of the earles of Britaine and Chester on the English part, a peace was concluded, or rather a truce to indure for three yeares" (p.214).

Holinshed describes Ranulph's death thus: "in the beginning of the seauentéenth yeere of [Henry's] reigne, Ranulfe earle of Chester and Lincolne departed this life the six and twentith day of October, whose bodie was buried at Chester, and his bowels at Wallingford where he died." (p.215)

After summarizing Ranulph's marriages (see above), Holinshed then relates an anecdote about Ranulph involving actors and musicians disguising as an army:

"Here is also to be remembred, that the afore mentioned earle Ranulfe (or Randulfe whether ye list to call him) atchiued manie high enterprises in his time, as partlie in this booke ye haue alreadie heard: he held sore warres against the Welshmen, till at length an agréement was concluded betwixt him and Leolin prince of Wales. I remember I haue read in an old record, that vpon a time as this earle passed into Wales with an armie, his chance was to be ouerset by the Welshmen, so that he was driuen to retire into a castell, wherein the Welshmen did besiege him. And as it fortuned at that time, Roger Lacie the constable of Chester was not then with him, but left behind at Chester to see the citie kept in order (for as it should séeme, their solemne plaies which commonlie are vsed at Whitsuntide were then in hand, or else their faire which is kept at Midsummer.)
"Wherefore the earle sent a messenger in all possible hast vnto his constable, praieng him with spéed to come to his succour in that extreame point of necessitie. Lacie made no delaie, but assembling all the forreners, plaiers, musicians, and others which he could find within that citie fit to weare armor, went foorth with them, and in most speedie maner marched toward the castell, where the Welshmen kept the earle besieged, who now perceiuing such a multitude of men comming towards them, incontinentlie left the siege and fled awaie. The earle then being thus deliuered out of that present danger, came foorth of the castell, returned with his constable vnto Chester, and in recompense of that seruice, gaue vnto his said constable Roger Lacie, the rule, order, and authoritie ouer all the forreners, plaiers, musicians, and other strangers resorting to Chester at the time, when such publike plaies (or else faire) should be kept & holden." (p.215)

References to the Play

None known.

Critical Commentary

Henslowe's Diary

Greg states that "there can be no reasonable doubt" that the entries transcribed above in Historical Records refer to the same play (Greg II, 225), and subsequent commentators have agreed. Where "felmelanco" has been crossed out and "Chester" supplied in its place, Foakes notes that the play title seems to be in Thomas Downton's hand, although Greg thought it was Robert Shaa's.

Possible additional historical record

The following entry for an unnamed play by Middleton appears in Henslowe's diary as follows:

F.116v; Greg I, 181; Foakes, 217:

Lent at the a poyntment of John ducke
in earnest of A playe called [title left blank]
the some of xxs 3 of octobʒ 1602
to mr mydellton

Doris Feldmann and Kurt Tetzeli von Rosador argue that this is an early reference to Randall, due to "[t]he progressive concretization of the title, the proximity of dates, [and] the complementary nature of the statements about the payments" (328). They suggest that if the untitled Middleton play of 3 October is Randall, it must have changed buyers during the process of writing from Worcester's to the Admiral's Men (328). They acknowledge that the resulting total of £7 is large, but they do not find the sum outside "Henslowe's limits" or the move to what they term "Henslowe's other company ... [an] uncommon procedure" (328).

Subject matter

Greg thought Ranulf de Gernons was the likeliest subject of the play (Greg II, 225).

Feldmann and Tetzeli von Rosador also suspect that Middleton's play was about Ranulf de Gernons. They argue that although de Blundevill's life has dramatic potential, involving opposition to England paying tithes to Rome, and a rescue from a besieged castle, it does not seem suited to tragedy. They consider the life of de Gernons, a baron who pursued his personal autonomy over the rule of King Stephen, took him captive, but was then captured himself and forced to surrender, to be closer to the pattern of tragedy. They imagine that Middleton's play might have depicted de Gernon's opposition to the King, his capturing of him, and his subsequent surrender after being captured himself. They suggest that although Holinshed describes further events in de Gernon's life - other "alliances, intrigues and battles" - Middleton could have created a tragic structure by having Ranulf be summarily killed after his surrender, perhaps "poisoned by William Peverell, whom, it is said, he had robbed of his land". They further speculate that an appearance by Empress Matilda could have provided the "element of sexual violence or violent sexuality" that Middleton often favoured (330).

Similarly, Martin Wiggins considers de Gernons the likelier subject "because he died in a suitably tragical way, by poison" (4:429).

Ashton and Burgess, however, believe that Randall and the extant plays about the legendary Earl are based on Ranulf de Blundevill (77). Based on surviving evidence about the legends of Ranulph, Ashton suggests that the following likely features of tales about him: "his reputation in arms", "his association with the Welsh, evidently a friendly one since the implications are that the Welshmen there come to his rescue", "his association with King John in the latter's romantic and other adventures", "love themes", and an association with Robin Hood (205-6).

Identifications with other plays

Greg suggests that Randall may have been Middleton's refashioning of The Wise Man of West Chester, which he believes to be the same play as John a Kent and John a Cumber, since a Ranulph, Earl of Chester appears in that play. However, Greg acknowledges that Ranulph does not play an important part in that play (Greg II, 225).

Greg also notes the contention of F.G. Fleay that Randall may be connected with William Rowley's The Birth of Merlin (which Fleay believed to be related to the lost Uther Pendragon). Fleay's justification is the presence in Birth of a character named "Edol, Earl of Chester", but Greg finds the names too different to indicate a connection (Greg II, 225).

For What It's Worth

(Information welcome.)

Works Cited

Alexander, James A. "Ranulf III of Chester: An Outlaw of Legend?" Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 82 (1982): 152-7.
Alexander, James A. Ranulf of Chester: A Relic of the Conquest (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1983).
Ashton, J.W. "Rymes of... Randolf Erl of Chestre", in English Literary History 5 (1938): 195-206.
Burgess, Glyn S. "I Kan Rymes of Robin Hood, and Randolf Erl of Chestre", in in "De Sens Rassis": Essays in Honour of Rupert T. Pickens,ed. Keith Busby, Bernard Guidot, and Logan E. Whalen (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005), 51-84.
Feldmann, Doris, and Kurt Tetzeli von Rosador, "Lost Plays: A Brief Account", in Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works, ed. Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007), 328-333.
Langland, William, Piers Plowman: The B Version, ed. George Kane and E. Talbot Donaldson (London: Athlone, 1975).

Site created and maintained by David Nicol, Dalhousie University; updated 4 August, 2015.