Somnium fundatoris

Anon. (1608)

Historical Records

The Christmas Prince

The play is alluded to in the manuscript account of the 1607-8 Christmas revels at St. John's College, Oxford, known as The Christmas Prince. While the manuscript preserves the texts of several entertainments that were presented, the "Somnium fundatoris" was only described:

The suneday after beeing the last day of the Vacation and tenth day of the moneth two shewes were priuately performed in the Lodging the one presently after dinner called Somnium fundatoris vid. The tradicion that wee have concearning the three trees that wee have in the præsident his garden this interlude by the reason of the death of him that made it, not long after was lost, and so could not bee heere inserted but it was very well liked and so wel deserued for that it was both wel penned and well acted.
(Oxford, St. John's College Library, MS 52, p. 116; qtd. Boas and Greg 135; cf. REED: Oxford 1:361).

Theatrical Provenance

Performed on Sunday, 10 January 1608 in the lodging of John Buckeridge, president of St. John's College, Oxford, as part of the College's Christmas revels. The performance was followed by the extant play The Seven Days of the Week.

Probable Genre(s)

Institutional History (Wiggins).

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

The play undoubtedly depicted the story of the foundation of St. John's College. According to tradition, Sir Thomas White, shortly after his term as Lord Mayor in 1553, dreamed that a three-trunked elm tree would mark the site where he would found a college. After a long search, White discovered the dreamed-of tree at Oxford, near St. Bernard's College, and founded St. John's. (See Stevenson and Salter 387–89.) One literary telling of the story roughly contemporaneous with the "Somnium fundatoris," one that perhaps sheds the most light on what was dramatized, can be found in the very same manuscript that contains The Christmas Prince (Oxford, St. John's College, MS 52). In the biography of Thomas White written in Latin verse c. 1610–11 by Griffin Higgs (1589–1659), "Minerva complains to Juppiter that White has done nothing for her" and "Juppiter promises that he shall found a College"; there is a "description of the realm of sleep" and "Morpheus addresses White, bidding him found a college and describing the site"; after an abortive visit to Cambridge, White settles on Gloucester Hall, Oxford, before he "recognizes the site described in the dream and begins to build at St. John's" (Stevenson and Salter 384). In Higgs's poem, however, the site that Morpheus reveals to White is not a three-trunked tree, but was to be known by the "ruins of an old building and two trees of the same height with another somewhat smaller" (Stevenson and Salter 388). Christopher Wren Snr. (1589–1659, B.A. 1608) added a note to the poem that one Triplet (perhaps Edward Triplet) "used to relate that as a boy he held White's bridle when he dismounted on beholding the said trees and fell on his knees and gave thanks to God for the sign that his vow was fulfilled" (Gutch 536n; Stevenson and Salter 389).

The story seems not to have been wholly apocryphal. In his 1567 funeral oration for White (Stevenson and Salter 406–11), Edmund Campion recalled that he often heard White say (eum saepius audivi dicere) that the site of the College had been revealed to him in a dream—although in Campion's version the signs that White recognized were an ancient structure (veterem structuram), the remains of two walls (reliquias duorum parietum), and an orderly row of trees (iustam et ordinatam seriem aliquarum arborum). The story of White's dream was well known enough to be alluded to in the entertainment that welcomed King James to the College on 27 August 1605 (REED: Oxford 315, 1029).

The specifically arboreal version of the story (such as that dramatized in the "Somnium fundatoris") is recounted by Anthony Munday in his Brief Chronicle of 1611, which mentions White's "priuate thoughts very often solliciting him, that he should (in time) meet with a place where two Elmes grewe," although Munday does not specify that this was a dream (sig. A6r). A dramatic analogue can be found in John Webster's Lord Mayor pageant Monuments of Honour, in which White was depicted sitting in a garden. Webster describes the background at length:

in the middest of the Garden, vnder one Elme-tree, sits the famous and worthy Patriot Sir Thomas White; who had a dreame that hee should build a Colledge where two bodies of an Elme sprang from one roote, and beeing inspired to it by God, first rod to Cambridge, to see if he could find any such, Failing of it there, went to Oxford and surueighing all the grounds, in and neere the Vniuersity, at last in Gloster-Hall-garden, he found one that somewhat resembled it, vpon which he resolued to endow it with larger reuenew, and to increase the foundation, hauing set men at worke vpon it, and riding one day out at the North-Gate at Oxford, he spied on his right hand the selfe same Elme had bin figurd him in his dreame, wherevpon he giues o're his former purpose, of so amply inlarging Gloster-Hall (yet not without a large exhibition to it) purchases the ground where the Elme stood: and in the same place built the Colledge of Saint Iohn Baptist, and to this day the Elme growes in the Garden, carefully preserued; as beeing vnder God a motiue to their worthy foundation. (sig. B4r-v)

In Webster's pageant, the allegorical figure of Learning recited a shorter version of the story for the audience:

We figure here a Garden, fresh and new,
In which the chiefest of our blessings grew:
This worthy Patriot here, Sr. Thomas White,
Whilst he was liuing had a dreame one night,
He had built a Colledge and giuen liuing too't,
Where two Elme-bodies sprang vp from on[e] root;
And as he dreamt, most certaine tis he found,
The Elme neare Oxford, and vpon that Ground,
Built Saint Iohns Colledge… (sig. C1r).

References to the Play

None known.

Critical Commentary


Stevenson (cited in Boas and Greg xi) thought that the recently deceased playwright must have been John Alder, who is mentioned elsewhere in The Christmas Prince and who died in 1608.

Harbage (503) suggested that John Sansbury (1576–1610) may have been the author of the play and offered other evidence to connect him with The Christmas Prince.

For What It's Worth

The description of the realm of sleep and visitation of Morpheus in Higgs's poem recalls the story of Ceyx and Alcyone in Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Works Cited

Boas, Frederick S. and W.W. Greg, eds. The Christmas Prince. Malone Society. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1922.
Bowers, R.H. "Some Folger Academic Drama Manuscripts." Studies in Bibliography 12 (1959): 117–30.
Carnegie, David, ed. Monuments of Honour. In David Gunby, David Carnegie, and MacDonald P. Jackson, eds. The Works of John Webster: An Old-Spelling Critical Edition. 3 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995–2007. 3:223–94.
Gutch, John, ed. The History and Antiquities of the Colleges and Halls in the University of Oxford: by Antony Wood, M.A. London, 1786.
Harbage, Alfred. "The Authorship of The Christmas Prince." Modern Language Notes 50 (1935): 501–5.
Munday, Anthony. A Briefe Chronicle of the Successe of the Times. London, 1611. STC 18263.
Stevenson, W.H. and H.E. Salter. The Early History of St. John's College, Oxford. Oxford: Clarendon, 1939.
Webster, John. Monuments of Honor. London, 1624. STC 25175.

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