Saint Christopher

Anon. (1609)

Historical Records

Court of Star Chamber records for the proceeding involving Sir John Yorke of Nidderdale, brought about by the evidence of William Stubbs, Puritan minister of Pateley Bridge (Boddy 105, also discussed by Sisson in his commentaries).

The comedian, William Harrison, recalled playing the clown's parts in the two plays at Gowlthwaite, noting that:

One of the plays acted and played ... was Perocles, prince of Tire, And the other was Kinge Lere ... these plaies which they so plaied were usuall playes And such as were acted in Common and publick places and staiges ... and such as were played publiquely ... and prynted in the bookes. (quoted in Boddy 106)

NB. the spelling of the second play need not refer to Shakespeare's King Lear (printed in 1608); it could just as easily refer to the Queen's Men's King Leir (printed 1606), though most scholars have assumed it was Shakespeare's.

Theatrical Provenance

Strollers in Yorkshire (Harbage). Sisson elaborates: “acted at Golthwayt [or Gowthwaite Hall, Nidderdale] and in other places in Yorkshire about Christmas 1609, by a travelling company of local players. If we are to accept the evidence of the actors, the play was in print, and the printed copy used by them as their prompt-copy, even as they used in 1609 such printed books as Pericles and King Lear” (Sisson, “Keep the Widow Waking” 41).

Boddy relates that Saint Christopher was “a version of an old morality play with a cast of nine” (105).

Under the “Christopher” entry for 1609 (Nidderdale), the British Saint Play Records resource (housed by the EDAM project, under Clifford Davidson’s directorship) states (following Boddy) that “[d]uring the Christmas season, [Sir Richard] Cholmeley’s Men, a company of recusant players from Egton led by Christopher Simpson, a cordwainer, performed a play of St. Christopher from a printed book at Gowthwaite Hall. … Other plays in the players’ repertoire included King Lear, Pericles, and The Three Shirleys” (74).

Boddy (107-08) relates that in 1609, at Masham, North Riding, there was a repeat performance of the controversial play, this time under the auspices of Sir Thomas Danby: “The Simpsons performed the same Catholic version of St. Christopher as at Gowthwaite with the duel between yellow cross and the bible, devils, and flashes of fire. When the English minister was carried off by the devil ‘all the people greatlie laughed and rejoiced a long time together’.”

On account of the sensitivity of Catholic associations, the players were only unofficially patronised by Cholmley: “Unofficially they did travel as Sir Richard Cholmley’s men even though he could not acknowledge his patronage to the Privy Council” (Boddy 108).

Probable Genre(s)

Neo-miracle (?) (Harbage); “belated Mystery with topical additions” (Sisson, “Keep the Widow Waking” 41); “a version of an old morality play” (Boddy 105).

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources and Analogues

Boddy relates that the play “enacted the well-known legend of Reprobus ‘that neither feared God nor the Divell, nor was of any religion, but would serve the mightiest man upon the earth, and having served two kinges and an Emperour, and hearinge the Divell was of more might than they were, lefte them, and betooke himselfe to the Divell his service’. Then Reprobus discovered the Devil feared the crucifix, ‘whereupon Raphalus (Reprobus) left the Divell saying there was a mightier man than he was, and went to the cross’. The Simpsons [company; after Christopher and Robert Simpson] used a ‘great yallowe coloured crosse’. Reprobus submitted to the cross, received instruction from a hermit, did penance for his sins and received the new name of Christopher” (105).

The objection made by William Stubbs, which led to the Star Chamber proceedings, was founded on an interpolated Catholic interlude:

The interlude took the form of a diputation ‘counterfeyted betwixt him that plaid the English Minister and him that plaid the Popishe preist toucheinge matters of religion’. The minister argued on the basis of the Bible but the priest countered that this was not enough and held up the yellow cross. ‘The minister [did] shew forth his said booke or Byble to defend his profession withal, and that it was rejected and scoffed at’, alleged Stubbs. [Sir Stephen] Proctor [the Puritan Justice of Fountains Abbey] described how ‘he that plaide the foole (William Harrison) did deryd the minister’. When the minister was condemned or overcome ‘there was flashes of fire cast foorthe and then he that plaid the Divell did carrie the Englishe minister away’.

Another witness, William Browne, a Nidderdale linen weaver described: ‘the English minister in a blacke cloke, also a Popishe preist in a blacke (MS. Torn) and a crosse on his shoulder: one in whyte like an anngell, and more than one or two divells and a fool. … And the foole did clap the Englishe minister on the shoulder and mocked and flowred him, and said, “Well, thou must away anon”.’ (Boddy 105)

The audience, mostly Catholic, “loved this spectacle”: Boddy cites evidence from Proctor and Browne (105) attesting to the merriment.

Sisson (“Shakespeare Quartos”) claims that “[f]rom the account of the action of the play it appears to me to have a close relation with an Italian play, a Rappresentazione printed in 1575, which I came across in the Treasure Room of the Widener Library of Harvard College” (138). He gives the author as “Cesare Sacchetti of Bologna,” and gives the following quasi-facsimile transcription of the title: “Rappresentatione/di Santo Christoforo/Martire, Ridotta A/Vso di Comedia,/Composta da Cesare Sac/chetti Bolognese,/[Device]/Nouamente ristampata,/[Device]/In Fiorenza MDLXXV” (138n).

References to the Play

(Information Needed)

Critical Commentary

Referring to the evidence of the actors, Sisson notes that “[e]xceptional interest attaches to this evidence, to the full description of the play of St. Christopher, to the activities of this provincial company, and to the element of religious controversy imported into the play. This last factor, which lies at the root of the Star Chamber trial in 1613-14, brings the case into the first category of State Trials, and it hints at the degeneration of the Star Chamber into an instrument of royal inquisition” (“Keep the Widow Waking” 41).

Sisson subsequently explained (in his monograph) the controversy with slightly more detail: “players and audience alike were Catholics. Their play ridiculed the Church by law established in England, and spread disaffection among its hearers. In all its circumstances and setting it was too closely related to the recent Gunpowder Plot to be lightly treated” (4).

Sisson takes up the topic again, and at greatest length, in his Review of English Studies article (esp. 135-43), where he notes that “[i]t appears that Cholmeley’s Players acted two versions of their play of Saint Christopher, according to the religious colour of their audience. For a Catholic audience, they interpolated scenes representing a conflict between a Protestant minister and a Catholic priest, ending in the extreme discomfiture of the official man of God at the hands of his outlawed rival. In the houses of Protestant magnates these were omitted” (142). He further notes that these scenes must have been improvised rather than written in, since there would scarcely be room “in the scanty margins of a cheap quarto,” and it is known that the players used print copies for their prompt books (142). (Sisson relates that according to the Star Chamber records, the players “only acted plays which were in print and allowed, exactly as they were printed,” but queries whether this testimony was accurate [142]).

Boddy notes that the Protestant minister was carried off to hell: “How it must have comforted and uplifted the morale of these Catholics who clung to the old faith and practised it in stealth, to share such an occasion when a hundred were gathered together to watch a Catholic victory and to see the Protestant minister carried off in ridicule to Hell. How ominous and seditious it must have appeared to Stubbs and other Protestant interlopers” (106).

For What It's Worth

St. Christopher is the patron saint of travellers.

Sir John Yorke and his wife were fined and imprisoned for the interlude (Boddy 107).

Sally-Beth MacLean provides a civic and commercial context for plays in the West of England during the medieval period that featured saints. She argues that the most popular saints culturally were St. Nicholas and St. George, yet this popularity is not reflected in surviving evidence of plays featuring either one. Rather, the subject of the most saints' plays that survive in this area of England is "female martyr saints" (p. 51). According to MacLean, "Shrewsbury, home of an important shrine to a female virgin saint, is a likely urban centre for production of saint plays such as the two on record" (p.51). One of these featured Saints Feliciana and Sabina; the other featured St. Katherine of Alexandria (p. 55).

Works Cited

Boddy, G. W. “Players of Interludes in North Yorkshire in the Early Seventeenth Century.” North Yorkshire County Record Office Journal 3 (1976): 95-130.
Davidson, Clifford. British Saint Play Records. Early Drama, Art, and Music (EDAM) Project. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute, Western Michigan University, 2009.
MacLean, Sally-Beth. "Saints on Stage: An Analytical Survey of Dramatic Records in the West of England." Early Theatre 2 (1999): 45-62.
Sisson, Charles J. “Keep the Widow Waking: A Lost Play by Dekker.” The Library, 4th Ser., 8 (1927-28), 39-57.
Sisson, Charles J. “Shakespeare Quartos as Prompt-Copies, with Some Account of Cholmeley’s Players and a New Shakespeare Allusion.” Review of English Studies 18 (1942): 137-43. JSTOR.
Sisson, Charles J. Lost Plays of Shakespeare’s Age. London: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., 1970 rpt.

Site created and maintained by David McInnis, University of Melbourne; updated, 19 July 2016.