England’s First Happiness, or The Life of St. Austin

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Anon. (before 1641)

Historical Records

Stationers' Register, 15 April 1641. Entered for John Nicholson

three playes, vizt. A Tragedy called Charles, Duke of Burbon, The Parroiall of Princes & England's first happines, or, the Life of St. Austin... xviiid.

(Cited from Bentley, 5.1326).

Theatrical Provenance


Probable Genre(s)

Neo-miracle? (Harbage); History play

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

Saint Augustine was the seventh-century Archbishop of Canterbury who converted England to Christianity. What one might call the standard early modern English account of his life is provided by Holinshed, and is itself based on the opening chapters of Book 2 of Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England, conveniently available online and in translation here.

By putting together the relevant chapter summaries from Book Five of the 1587 version, one arrives at the following epitome of the story told by Holinshed:

Ceolric reigneth ouer the Westsaxons, the Saxons and Britains incounter, Ethelbert king of kent subdueth the English saxons, he is maried to the French kings daughter vpon cautions of religion, the king imbraceth the gospell, Augustine the moonke and others were sent into this Ile to preach the christian faith, the occasion that moued Gregorie the great to send him, buieng and selling of boies, the Englishmen called Angli commended, Ethelbert causeth Augustine and his fellowes to come before him, they preach to the king and his traine, he granteth them a conuenient seat and competent reliefe in Canturburie, the maner of their going thither and their behauiour there, the king and his people receiue the christian faith, and are baptised. The xix. Chapter.

Religion is not to be inforced but perswaded and preached, Augustine is made archbishop of England, Gregorie informeth Augustine of certeine ordinances to be made and obserued in the new English church, as the reuenewes of the church to be diuided into foure parts, of liturgie, of mariage, of ecclesiasticall discipline and ordeining of bishops: trifling questions obiected by Augustine to Gregorie, fellow helpers are sent ouer to assist Augustine in his ministerie, he receiueth his pall, reformation must be doone by little and little, not to glorie in miracles, the effect of Gregories letters to K. Ethelbert after his conuersion to christianitie. The xx. Chapter.

What reparations and foundations Augustine finished for clergimen to the supportation of the church, the building of Paules in London and saint Peters in Westminster vncerteine, a prouinciall councell called by Augustine, he restoreth a blind man to his sight, the Britains are hardlie weaned from their old custome of beliefe, an heremits opinion of Augustine, he requireth three things to be obserued of the Britains, he ordeineth bishops at London and Rochester; Sabert reigneth ouer the Eastsaxons, Augustine dieth and is buried. The xxj. Chapter.

References to the Play

None known.

Critical Commentary

"Nothing is known of a play with this title, or… of any play on the life of St Augustine of Canterbury" (Bentley, 5.1326, summarizing and concurring with Greg, BEPD). Sibley (47) suggests that therefore "perhaps" it was not a play, although this seems to go against the evidence of the record itself. Bentley also observes that "very few plays earlier than the times of James I were entered in the Stationers' Register for the first time in the 1640's".

England's First Happiness joins a rather small number of early modern plays dealing with Anglo-Saxon England. Among them are Middleton's Hengist, King of Kent, and Richard Brome's Caroline tragicomedy The Queen's Exchange. This lost play is a particularly interesting intertext for The Queen's Exchange since, as Richard Wood has observed, Brome's play seems to take the name of its heroine from the name of Ethelbert's wife, Queen Bertha. The Anglo-Saxon period as a whole is of interest to an early modern English audience - the audience seemingly interpellated by this lost play's title - as one demarcating "England" out as distinct from Britain. Kevin Sharpe describes how "Elizabeth's first minister, William Cecil, supported the scholars of the Parker circle in their researches into a Saxon past, which was to reveal the independence of England from Roman jurisdiction" (Sharpe, 49). In a similar use of the Anglo-Saxon period as a shorthand for Englishness, a Saxon is to be found on the frontispiece of Speed's Theatre of Great Britain (1611). Indeed, while Britain as a name could claim descent from the Trojan refugee Brut, "England" as a term traced its etymological origin only to the far more recent arrival of Hengist and Horsa (Helgerson, 81, 122, 140; Ioppolo, 89). Since "first happiness" as a phrase has distinctly pre-lapsarian overtones, this intriguing play seems to have been a celebration both of Saint Augustine of Canterbury and of an almost Edenic early England.

For What It's Worth

This play was registered along with two other lost plays, The Parroiall (Pareil?) of Princes‎ and Charles, Duke of Bourbon. John Nicholson was not a well-known printer of plays. The only extant play he printed was "J.D."'s The Knave in Grain… acted at the Fortune (1640). Is this a tenuous indication of the possible theatrical provenance of these three lost, anonymous plays?

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

Helgerson, Richard. Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1992.
Ioppolo, Grace. "Treason, Treasonous Sexuality, and the Eventful Politics of James I in Middleton's Hengist, King of Kent", The Ben Jonson Journal 3 (1996): 87-108.
MacLean, Sally-Beth. "Saints on Stage: An Analytical Survey of Dramatic Records in the West of England." Early Theatre 2 (1999): 45-62.
Sharpe, Kevin. Sir Robert Cotton, 1586-1631: History and Politics in Modern England. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1979.
Wood, Richard. "A Source for Bertha and Parallels with Henrietta Maria in The Queenes Exchange", Notes and Queries 54 (2007): 391-92.

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