Rowland Whyte to Sir Robert Sydney
1599, October 26. Strand.
- "Two daies agon, the overthrow of Turnholt was acted upon a stage, and all your names used that were at yt; especially Sir Francis Veres, and he that plaid that part gott a beard resembling his, and a watchet satten doublett, with hose trimd with silver lace. It was full of quips; I saw it not, but I hard it was soe." (HMC, De L’Isle & Dudley, 2.406)
1599, October 27. Saturday. The Strand.
- "This after noone I saw the overthrow of Turnhold playd, and saw Sir Robert Sidney and Sir Francis Vere upon the stage, killing, slaying, and overthrowing the Spaniard. There is most honorable mention made of your service in seconding Sir Francis Vere being ingaged." (HMC, De L’Isle & Dudley, 2.408)
A rearranged version of this correspondence was published in Arthur Collins's 1746 edition of the Sydney papers, which was quoted by Chambers (ES, 1.322n):
- Two daies agoe, the overthrow of Turnholt, was acted vpon a Stage, and all your Names vsed that were at yt; especially Sir Fra. Veres, and he that plaid that Part gott a Beard resembling his, and a Watchet Sattin Doublett, with Hose trimd with Siluer Lace. You was also introduced, Killing, Slaying, and Overthrowing the Spaniards, and honorable Mention made of your Service, in seconding Sir Francis Vere, being engaged. (Collins 2.136)
Performed in October 1599, probably at a theater in London.
Topical Play (Harbage)
Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues
The play appears to have treated the victory of Maurice of Nassau, with an English contingent including Sir Robert Sidney and Sir Francis Vere, at Turnhout on January 24, 1597. Accounts of the battle were published within the year in pamphlets like A True discourse of the ouerthrovve giuen to the common enemy at Turnhaut, the 14. [sic] of Ianuary last 1597. by Count Moris of Nassaw and the states, assisted with the Englishe forces (London, 1597) and A discourse more at large of the late ouerthrovve giuen to the King of Spaines armie at Turnehaut, in Ianuarie last, by Count Morris of Nassawe, assisted with the English forces (London, 1597). The playwright(s) of "Turnholt" may have consulted sources like this. It's not impossible, however, that the playwright(s) may have also had access to direct testimony. Certainly some working in the professional theater had connections to military activity in the Low Countries: both Ben Jonson and Cyril Tourneur, for example, served under Sir Francis Vere at different times, and George Chapman served under Sir Robert Sidney (Schrickx). (Marlowe, too, was in Flushing during Sidney's administration, but not, apparently, to fight in support of the Dutch revolt.)
References to the Play
Chambers: "Up to a point the players had a fairly free hand even with contemporary events. They might represent, if they would, such feats of English arms as the siege of Turnhout with all realism." (322) "Turnhout was taken from the Spanish by Count Maurice of Nassau, with the help of an English contingent, on 24 Jan. 1598." (1.322n)
Sharpe: "The play may have been given by some company which was occupying the Curtain since the Chamberlain's men had left it, or even by Shakespeare's company at the Globe." (155)
Gurr: "There is nothing in Henslowe which indicates responsibility for [the description in the letter], so it may have been put on at the Globe." (145)
Shapiro: "whether it was staged publicly or privately is unclear" (187)
Wiggins, Catalogue (#1203) deduced from the vagueness of Whyte's phrasing (" ... upon a stage") that the location of the performance was not the stage of the Rose playhouse or that of the Globe.
Steggle places "Turnholt" in the context of the vogue for siege plays, including Tamburlaine, Henry V, A Larum for London, and Troilus and Cressida, as well as lost plays such as Timoclea at the Siege of Thebes (1574), The Siege of London (1594), and The Siege of Dunkirk, with Alleyn the Pirate (1603) (113-14).
For What It's Worth
The Date of the Battle
References to the lost "Turnholt" play often reiterate the date of the battle given by Chambers: 24 January 1598. This is, however, incorrect, and the point is worth clarifying given the close proximity between the real event and the staged depiction. The error has to do with a memory lapse by Sir Francis Vere himself, who gives the date of January 1597/8 in his Commentaries (publ. 1657): "In the same year one thousand five hundred ninety seven, about the latter end of September, I passed into the Low-countreys, took and gave the oaths that are usuall betwixt those of Holland the Governour and Townsmen of the Briell, and so was established in that Government." Vere then begins a new section entitled "The action at TURNHOULT": "That winter (one thousand five hundred ninety and seven) the enemy lying at Turnhoult, an open village, with four thousand foot, and six hundred horse; one day amongst other speeches I said to Mounsieur Barnevelt, that they did but tempt us to beat them…" (71-72). This confusion has also been (predictably) exacerbated by an incompatibility of calendrical systems. The actual date of the battle was 24 January 1597 in the Gregorian calendar used in the Low Countries, and 14 January 1596 in the Julian calendar used in England.
Aside from Vere's Commentaries, the contemporaneous historical records all indicate this earlier date. While a historian may account for the "1597" English pamphlets on Turnhout as having been printed before March 25 1597/8, the extant English manuscripts do not present such ambiguity. Vere's report on Turnhout sent to Lord Bughley from Breda is clearly endorsed "17 January 1596" (SP 84/54, f. 18v). Sidney's report from Flushing is dated "this 22th of January. 1596." (SP 84/54, f. 30r-31v). A congratulatory letter from Queen Elizabeth to Vere is twice dated "vth Febr. 1596." (SP 84/54, f. 66r-67v; cf. Markham 262). The list could go on. The January 1597 date is also attested in Dutch sources, such as the journals of Anthonie Duyck, who accompanied Price Maurice of Nassau (2.214-19), and the fact that pamphlets were soon published in the Low Countries on the battle bearing dates 1597 (New Style). It also appears in later English print sources, such as the 1613 English translation of The Triumphs of Nassau, which begins its account of the Battle of Turnhout on "the one and twentieth of Ianuarie 1597": this is clearly a date in the New Style, as the battle itself occurs on "the 24 of the said moneth" and the chapter is followed by battles taking place in August, September, and October of 1597 (Shute 197).
Chambers's erroneous dating of the battle in January 1598 is not uncommon in older English scholarship. In his influential 1888 biography of Sir Francis Vere (and his brother Horace), the English geographer Clements Markham devotes an entire chapter to the Battle of Turnhout, adhering to Vere's chronology by unambiguously dating the battle in January 1598 (254-62). Modern military historians have rectified the mistake (e.g. Weigley 11, 13; Puype 71-72; Trim; Van Nimwegen 71-72), but several recent biographies of Sir Robert Sidney have followed Markham's suit (Hay 103-5; Shephard; Croft x), and Chambers's 1598 is often repeated to contextualize Rowland Whyte's letter and the lost "Turnholt". The error seldom affects the points that scholars attempt to make using the evidence of Rowland Whyte's letter; however, the distinction is salutary, being relevant to our understanding of how quickly a contemporary international event might have become material for a play at the turn of the century.
It is unknown which company would have performed the play about Turnholt. Gurr rules out the Admiral's men, since "[t]here is nothing in Henslowe which indicates responsibility for" the description in Rowland Whyte's letter; Gurr therefore suggests "it may have been put on at the Globe" (Playgoing, 175). Another highly speculative suggestion might be put forward: that the play was staged by the earl of Oxford's company.
According to Whyte's letter, the starring character of the play seems to have been Sir Francis Vere, who was the first cousin of the earl of Oxford: Francis's father was the fourth son of John de Vere, fifteenth earl of Oxford, and younger brother of John de Vere, sixteenth earl of Oxford, whose son Edward de Vere succeeded to the earldom in 1562. The relationship between Francis and Oxford, as characterized by biographers of the latter, appears to have been an enduringly close one. "In the 1575 deed of entail [...], the earl speaks of his affection for his father's brother, Geoffrey's, family. There were four sons, John, Francis, Robert and Horatio. John and Francis were mentioned by name" (Pearson 152n). In 1576, Oxford appears to have wished to make Francis and his brothers his heirs, when he separated from his wife without male issue (Ward 126; Nelson 151, 462n; Pearson 170). At his death in 1604, "he made an attempt to circumvent the wardship system by giving his son Henry's guardianship to Sir Francis" (Pearson 170). Given the close relationship between, on the one hand, an indispensable English commander in the Low Countries, and, on the other, the patron of a playing company, might it be that the company decided to stage the play as an homage to their namesake patron and his family?
It is at least possible. Despite a dearth of evidence about Oxford's company, it seems that they were active close to 1599 before merging with Worcester's in 1601. The play The Weakest Goeth to the Wall was published (S.R. 23 October 1600) as having been "sundry times plaide by the right honourable Earle of Oxenford… his seruants" and the lost "George Scanderbeg" as having been "lately playd by the right honorable the Earle of Oxenford his servantes" (S.R. 3 July 1601). Gurr speculates that, with their access to London publishers, the company "may have concentrated its efforts entirely in London" around the turn of the century, rather than traveling as Oxford's company had done in the 1580s (Playing Companies, 309).
Although the pair of plays that we can associate with the final years of Oxford's Men is hardly sufficient to develop a full sense of its repertory, a play about Turnhout would not be inconsistent with the other two. As a "patriotic play" showcasing English superiority to continental Europe, *The Weakest Goes to the Wall* depicted Englishmen in the Low Countries as a Turnhout play necessarily would have done (Hoenselaars 98-99). "George Scanderbeg" was likely a triumphalist representation of religious warfare, as its eponymous fifteenth-century hero won victories against the Turks and guarded against the Ottoman expansion into Eastern Europe; a play about the Battle of Turnhout similarly would have represented territorial conquest in a war against religious enemies.
Possible queries (such as, "Would Rowland Whyte have been likely to mention that it was Oxford's company that performed the play?") might be raised as objections.
Site created and maintained by Misha Teramura, University of Toronto; updated 24 June 2013.