Thomas Pestell (1632)

Historical Records

Lost Manuscript

A manuscript of the play was apparently seen by the antiquary John Nichols, who mentioned it in The History and Antiquities of the County of Leicester (1804) in his biographical sketch of the poet and vicar Thomas Pestell:

By the favour of one of his immediate descendants I have now before me a volume of MS Poems by Mr. Pestell; among which is a Latin comedy, dated 1631, under the title of "Versipellis;" which appears to have been acted (probably at Cambridge) by the following gentlemen, whose names are added to the Dramatis Personæ: Ds. Bryant; Flout; Ds. Woodhall; Ds. Bea....; Richards; Freear; Ds. Rogers; Mr. Harflett; Jocelin; Overton; Mr. Kemp; Mr. Rogers; Ds. Cantrell; Ramsbottom; Ds. Johnson; Hemson; Bradler; Wills; Ds. Carlisle; Penson; Pestell; Ds. Allen, senior; Crofts.—The scene is at Antwerp.
(Nichols 927)

"Ds." represents an abbreviation of dominus, indicating that some actors had received their B.A. degrees.


Correspondence of John Pory

On the basis of the identifications made by Smith and Bentley, it seems likely that the following passages are relevant to "Versipellis."

25 February 1632. To Viscount Scudamore.

On Tuesday both their Maiesties departed hence to Theobaldes, and thence to Roiston, Cambridge, and Newmarket, and at Cambridge there are three Comedies prouided for their entertainment…
(National Archives, C 115/106, letter #8393; qtd. REED: Cambridge 1:637)

3 March 1632. To Viscount Scudamore.

The King and Queen are nowe at Newmarket, and a scholer of Cambridge writes to mee, that their Maiesties are expected at Cambridge on Wedensday the 7th of this present, being (as hee saith) that famous daye on which King lames went first thither to heare Ignoramus. Hee saith, they purpose to break their fast at Newmarket about 9. then to goe to Cambridge, there to heare one Comedy that afternoon, and another the next morning, the first in latine, and the second in Englishe, and so to departe thence…
(National Archives, C 115/106, letter #8395; qtd. REED: Cambridge 1:638)

17 March 1632. To Viscount Scudamore.

On Thursday was fortnight my lord of Holland running in the kinges company on horseback in full speed, fell, and pich't most dangerously upon his head and was taken up for dead by my lord Chamberlain, and muche compassionated by their Maiesties Whereupon the acting of the Comedies at Cambridge was putt off from Wedensday the 7th untill Munday next which shalbe the 19th of this present: meanwhile his lordship being carried to his lodging & there lett bloud and taking a Chlyster recouered by degrees a hurte at first despaired, and is now returned to so perfect strength…
(National Archives, C 115/106, letter #8396; qtd. REED: Cambridge 1:639)

Theatrical Provenance

Perhaps performed by students of Queen's College, Cambridge, in March 1632. Three plays were prepared for the visit of King Charles and Queen Henrietta Maria; John Pory specified that a Latin play was to be performed on the afternoon of their arrival on 7 March. The performances of the plays were delayed when the chancellor of the university (Henry Rich, Earl of Holland) injured himself. Two plays, both English, are known to have been performed that season: Peter Hausted's The Rival Friends on 19 March and Thomas Randolph's The Jealous Lovers on 20 March.

Probable Genre(s)

Latin Comedy (Harbage).

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

The Latin word versipellis (literally "turn-skin") could be used in a variety of contexts. Pliny and Petronius both use the word to refer specifically to werewolves (Natural History, 8.34; Satyricon 62.13), as does Thomas Heywood: "Concerning Lycantropia, or men that change themselues into Wolues […] the Latines (or the Romans) call them Versipelles, i. Turne-coats, or Turne-skinnes, as Plinie in these transmutations hath obserued" (sig. 2N1v). The word could be used to describe other kinds of transformation as well. In Apuleius' Metamorphoses, when Thelyphron is hired to protect a corpse from witches, he is warned that "those horrible creatures can change their skins and creep in secretly with their looks transformed into any sort of animal at all" (cum deterrimae versipelles in quodvis animal ore converso latenter arrepant). In Plautus' Amphitryon, Mercury explains of the shape-shifting Jupiter: "He changes appearances like that whenever he wants" (ita uorsipellem se facit quando lubet) (123). The word could also be used figuratively, as in Plautus' Bacchides, when Chrysalus describes the need for people to be both good and bad according to the circumstances: "a man who has cleverness in his heart should be able to change his spots" (uorsipellem frugi conuenit esse hominem, / pectus quoi sapit) (658–59). Indeed, Thomas Elyot's Dictionary defined versipellis as "a crafty person that wyll tourne often as he lysteth," and Huloet adds "Chaungeable in words and deedes, as inconstant without credit" (sig. H4v). The word could be used as a term of reprobation, as in a letter from William Herle to Burghley dated 1 April 1572, in which Herle condemns James Chillester, "whom all the world knowes to be a Papiste & a versipellis" (National Archives, SP 12/86, fol. 5r; cf. Scott-Warren 231), or when the Catholic writer John Floyd glosses the term as "Turne-coates (such as change the first faith wherwith they were cloathed in Baptisme)" (sig. B2v). Conversely, Pico della Mirandola, in his Oration on the Dignity of Man, used the term in describing humans' wonderously chameleon-like qualities: "Not without reason, Asclepius the Athenian said that man was represented in the secret rites by Proteus because of his changing and metamorphous nature" (Quem non immerito Asclepius Atheniensis, versipellis huius et se ipsam transformantis naturae argumento, per Protheum in mysteriis significari dixit) (124–25).

References to the Play

(Information welcome.)

Critical Commentary

Lee, in his entry on Thomas Pestell in the Dictionary of National Biography, proposes that the poet's son, who graduated B.A. from Queen's College in 1632 and M.A. in 1636, is more likely the author of the play. (Lee, however, mistakenly gives 1638 as the date of performance.)

Peile assigns the play to the younger Thomas Pestell, repeating the DNB's date of 1638 (394).

Smith, locating the full names and degree dates for most of the actors, notes that all were students of Queen's College and that the date given by Nichols is likely accurate (85–86, 110).

Buchan confirms that the manuscript Nichols saw cannot be identified with either of the two extant manuscripts of Pestell's poetry: Bodleian Library, MS Malone 14 and Harvard University, Houghton Library, MS Eng. 228 (xxi). She also notes that the date given by Lee is incorrect and that his attribution of the play to the son is unsubstantiated (xxiv). (Buchan, however, erroneously claims that the "Pestell" named in the cast is identified as "Dr. Pestell.")

Bentley, JCS notes that ten of the actors for "Versipellis" also appeared in Peter Hausted's The Rival Friends, which was acted before the King and Queen on 19 March 1632 when they were visiting Cambridge (4:954). (The cast of Hausted's play is recorded in manuscript annotations on a copy of the quarto apparently owned by Queen's student Thomas Alston: see British Library, General Reference Collection 644.b.45; Smith 86–87; REED: Cambridge 2:960-61.) The timing of the degrees confirms the date as 1631, "perhaps referring to 1631/2, just after Allen and Carlisle had received their B.A. degrees. If this is true, the play was acted in the same season as Randolph’s Jealous Lovers and Hausted’s Rival Friends." Bentley finds confirmation in the correspondence of John Pory evidence that three plays had been prepared to entertain the King and Queen upon their visits. He, like Buchan, also notes an error in the DNB's statement that the play was performed in 1638, which informs Lee's attribution of the play to the son rather than the father.

Heinemann translates the title as "The Turncoat" and speculates that the play "had a satirical, irreverant tone like that of many of Pestell's surviving poems" (240–41).

McDowell proposes that the polemicist and future Leveller Richard Overton decided to act in "Versipellis" by Pestell, "who moved in puritan gentry circles and was fined by Laud's High Commission in 1633," but not in "prominent Laudian" Peter Hausted's The Rival Friends, which "contains a good deal of anti-puritan and anti-sectarian satire" (234).

Wiggins, Catalogue offers "The Shape-Changer," "The Werewolf," and "The Apostate" as possible translations of the title and notes that James Cobbes's Alopichos (Bodleian Library, MS Rawlinson poet. 178) features the character of a corrupt clergyman named Versipellis (#2362, #2042).

For What It's Worth

(Information welcome.)

Works Cited

Buchan, Hannah, ed. The Poems of Thomas Pestell. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1940.
Elyot, Thomas. The dictionary of syr Thomas Eliot knyght. London, 1538.
Floyd, John. The Ouerthrovv of the Protestants Pulpit-Babels. Saint-Omer, 1612.
Heinemann, Margot. Puritanism and Theatre: Thomas Middleton and Opposition Drama under the Early Stuarts. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980.
Heywood, Thomas. Gynaikeion: or, Nine Bookes of Various History. London, 1624.
Huloet, Richard. Huloets Dictionarie. London, 1572.
Lee, Sidney. "Pestell, Thomas (1584?–1659?)." Dictionary of National Biography. Volume 45. Ed. Sidney Lee. London, 1896. 45–46.
McDowell, Nicholas. "Latin Drama and Leveller Ideas: Pedagogy and Power in the Writings of Richard Overton." The Seventeenth Century 18 (2003): 230–51.
Nichols, John. The History and Antiquities of the County of Leicester. Volume III. Part II. London, 1804.
Peile, John. Biographical Register of Christ's College, 1505–1905, and of the Earlier Foundation, God's House, 1448–1505. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1910.
Pico della Mirandola. Oration on the Dignity of Man: A New Translation and Commentary. Trans. Francesco Borghesi, Michael Papio, and Massimo Riva. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012.
Smith, G. C. Moore. College Plays Performed in the University of Cambridge. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1923.
Scott-Warren, Jason. "Meet the Chillesters: The Printed Counterfeit in Early Modern London." ELR 46 (2016): 225–52.

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