Spanish Contract, The
In April 1624 the Lady Elizabeth's Men were in Norwich, where they advertised a play, "The Spanish Contract", for performance at the White Horse inn. According to the Mayor's Court Book, Francis Wambus posted a playbill without permission, and subsequently was summoned to appear before the mayor:
This day wakefild haueinge brought to mr Maior a note which he found festened vpon the gate of the howse of Thomas Marcon beinge the Signe of the white horse nere Tomeland in Norwich wherein was written theise wordes, Here within this place at one of the Clocke shalbe Acted an exelent ˹new˺ Comedy Called the Spanishe Contract By the Princesse Servantes / vivat Rex / Wherevpon mr Maior caused the seuerall persons named in the Instrument shewed forth on Saterday last namely Iohn Towneshend Alexander ffoster Ioseph Moore & ffrancis wambus to be warned forthwith to appeare before him & the other Iustices of peace before mencioned And the officer namely Henry Paman returned that he could speake with no more of the said Company then onely the said ffrancis wambus who onely appeared, and saide confidently that he & his Company would play the Comedy aforesaid And beinge demanded whether the bill nowe shewed vnto him conteining the wordes aforesaid was his handwrightinge or not, he saide yt was his handwrightinge & that he caused yt to be set yp this day...
- [Marginal note: "*Francis wambus misbehavinge himselfe Comited to prison*"]
- ff. 525v-6* (26 April 1624) (REED: Norwich, 181)
The Lady Elizabeth's Men (also known as the Queen of Bohemia's Men) performed at the Phoenix indoor theatre, alternatively known as the Cockpit, from 1622. Possibly "The Spanish Contract" was staged there in 1624, since the company was on tour in East Anglia in April that year and unsuccessfully attempted to stage the play in Norwich (see Historical Records and For What It's Worth). The company had previously performed in Norwich, England’s second city, in 1614, and were recorded at the same venue in 1616, by which time it was apparently the most popular among several playing spaces in the city; however, it was in decline by 1620 (Roberts-Smith, 128-31). The company's experiences there were not happy ones, since they had previously been prevented from playing (REED: Norwich, xxxii-xxxiii). On this occasion too they were forbidden to play, and Francis Wambus was imprisoned.
Political history; comedy (see Historical Records).
Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues
The firm dating of this play and the title are suggestive. The previous year had seen the unhappy conclusion of a longstanding plan for a royal marriage between the Stuarts and Habsburgs. It ended in failure. Not only would the Prince of Wales not marry the Spanish Infanta, as his father had hoped, but the relationship between England and Spain that James and his late queen had done so much to promote from the outset of the reign now lay in tatters: Charles would marry instead into the House of Bourbon, and within months of his accession in 1625 war had once again broken out between England and Spain.
This company had gingerly alluded to Charles and Buckingham's rather absurd and ill-conceived mission to Madrid while they were still in Spain in The Spanish Gypsy (see Taylor, "Historicism"). Following the return to England of the heir to the throne and the king's favourite and with no Spanish Match secured, the climate changed, both at Court and further afield. While Charles and Buckingham turned against the king's Spanish policy, their arrival in London was greeted with widespread public celebrations (Cogswell). Plays selected for the prince's entertainment over the winter included Middleton and Rowley's The Changeling, written for the Lady Elizabeth's Men in 1622 and presented at court on 4 January 1624 (see Hutchings). It is likely these plays were further revived in the more favourable political circumstances that now obtained. The King's Men famously staged Middleton's A Game at Chess repeatedly in August 1624, until the Spanish ambassador's complaint to the king moved the Privy Council to ban it. In December the same company was apparently willing to risk further wrath by staging The Spanish Viceroy without a licence.
We do not know when "The Spanish Contract" was written but it was in all probability designed to participate in and benefit from the prevailing anti-Spanish climate. Perhaps it was the revival at court of The Changeling that moved the company to seek to capitalize on the Madrid debacle, if that indeed is to what the title refers. The Lady Elizabeth's Men now had three "Spanish plays" in its repertory which it could capitalize on through scheduling practices.
References to the Play
Only the reference to the attempted performance in Norwich on April 1624; see Historical Records above.
Bentley conjectures that "The Spanish Contract" may be "an alternative title for some play now known by another name … [and] not much reliance should be placed on [Wambus's] assertion that the play was new" (5.1456). However, in the absence of firm evidence for such an alternative, and given the general interest in matters Spanish at this time (see above), it is entirely plausible that the play was so titled, and of recent composition.
Sibley does not include it in her 1933 study.
For What It's Worth
On the assumption that a play of this title did exist, we must conclude that the identity of the author is unknown. There is no dramatist working at this time to propose as a candidate on any solid grounds. It is tempting to conjecture that any of the four writers it is believed collaborated on the Lady Elizabeth's play The Spanish Gypsy (1623) --- Thomas Dekker, John Ford, Thomas Middleton, and William Rowley (Taylor, Spanish Gypsy, 1105-09) --- might have been involved, particularly since this play treats the notorious episode in Madrid involving the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Buckingham that year, a topic that most likely was revisited in "The Spanish Contract" (cf. Bentley 5.1456); but affiliations were fluid and there is nothing that connects any of these dramatists with this lost play other than circumstantial evidence of an extremely slight nature.
There is a nice irony in this company staging plays about Spain. James's daughter had married the Elector Palatine in 1613 and following his somewhat rash acceptance of the throne of Bohemia in 1619 Habsburg forces had moved speedily against them and defeated the protestant forces at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620, forcing the King and Queen of Bohemia into exile in The Hague. Deaf to his daughter's pleas for intervention, James was intent on preserving peace (and relations with Spain), apparently at any cost. But the cause was a popular one in England, and the presence of his daughter's acting company was a reminder of her predicament, in London and further afield. In a sense we might consider that, indirectly, these actors were able to remind audiences of the situation abroad. Certainly, by 1624, it was possible for the company to articulate a long-popular anti-Spanish sentiment that the shift in court politics (if not, yet, policy) had made possible, and certainly had made safer. This raises questions of how older plays as well as new engaged with, on the one hand the tricky subject of the Prince of Wales's reckless behaviour in travelling incognito and potentially imperilling the state as well as the future religious identity of the nation, and on the other contributed to the general welcome of his salvation, and the opportunity thereby to demonise Spain in the terms most starkly symbolized allegorically in A Game at Chess. The Spanish Gypsy – if it was revived in 1624 – now offered a gently comedic treatment in passing of what might conveniently now be regarded as an unfortunate episode from which the heir was lucky to escape, the play (like The Changeling, which was most probably further revived after its staging at court) also reminding spectators of the Catholic/Spaniard-rape figure that would re-emerge in A Game at Chess. These 1622 and 1623 plays surely operated differently in 1624 than when they were first conceived. What then of the content of "The Spanish Contract"?
Dramatists and companies that exploited the popular appetite for the expression of the kinds of anti-Spanish sentiment the playhouse offered treated this material differently before and after the Madrid fiasco. Commenting in a letter to William Trumbull dated 6 August 1624 on the staging of A Game at Chess, John Woolley remarked that "assuredly had so much ben donne the last yeare, they had eueryman ben hanged for it" (quoted in Taylor and Lavagnino, 865). The controversy that ensued over Middleton's play has obscured the extent to which it was possible to venture into international politics in 1624. While with The Spanish Gypsy, Lady Elizabeth's Men glanced obliquely at the prince's mission to Madrid as it was taking place – anything more direct would have been very dangerous – following Charles's safe return, and with the mood at court having undergone a remarkable volte face, it would have been possible to take a more adventurous approach. If the "contract" of the title directly or indirectly alluded to the plan for a Spanish marriage, no doubt the players undertook such a venture because they felt it was safe to do so. Beyond that surmise it is difficult to go with any certainty. But even if the play did not directly deal with the Stuart-Habsburg "contract" that was the object of the 1623 mission, there can surely be little doubt that this Lady Elizabeth's play participated in a climate of anti-Spanish feeling across the theatre landscape.
The historical trace left by the play at Norwich suggests that the play was written to capitalize on the long-running saga of Anglo-Spanish relations. The company had previously encountered difficulties at the same venue (Roberts-Smith, 129-30). By 1624, however, this venue was in decline; there is no evidence to suggest that the acting of the play was banned on (national) political grounds: rather, the company incurred the displeasure of the local authorities – a not uncommon occurrence throughout the period.
Site created and maintained by Mark Hutchings, University of Reading; updated 16 March 2017.