Four Sons of Aymon, The
The first evidence of an English play with this title is contained in Henslowe's Diary. In late 1602 the actor Robert Shaw signed a memorandum acknowledging a loan of two pounds against a copy of " a booke Called the fower sones of Aymon," offered to the Admiral's men as an option for performance at the Fortune within the following twelve months. There is no subsequent evidence in Henslowe's records that the play was in fact produced, but Shaw died before the term of the agreement was complete, and Henslowe probably retained the manuscript, having in effect bought it.
A decade later, in An Apology for Actors (1612), Thomas Heywood wrote about the performance of a play with the same title acted (in English, presumably) in continental Europe:
at Amsterdam in Holland a company of our English Comedians (well known) travelling those Countryes, as they were before the Burgers and other the chiefe inhabitants, acting the last part of the 4 sons of Aymon, towards the last act of the history, where penitent Renaldo, like a common labourer, lived in disguise, vowing as his last pennance, to labour & carry burdens to the structure of a goodly Church there to be erected . . . [His diligence arouses the resentment of the other workers, and they plot to kill him while he sleeps.] Having spy'd their opportunity, they drave a nail into his temples, of which wound immediatly he dyed. (EEBO document images 30-31)
The stage scene triggers a confession to a similar murder from a member of the audience, providing one of Heywood's instances of the moral force of theatre.
A dozen years after the publication of Heywood's book his former colleague Ellis Worth, acting for Prince Charles's company, brought a text to the Revels Office for licensing, recorded by Sir Henry Herbert as "The Four Sons of Amon, . . . being an olde play tho' never allowed of before, nor of a legible hand." Legible or not, Herbert passed it for performance, and it presumably was shortly thereafter performed at the Red Bull, in the early part of 1624.
Admiral's at the Fortune; Prince's in 1624.
Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues
It is impossible to say whether the historical records refer to a single document, passed from Shaw to Henslowe, rented by Henslowe or Alleyn to a touring troupe, and finally licensed for English performance twenty-odd years later, or whether they indicate three distinct treatments of a well-known story deriving from a medieval French chanson de geste, Quatre fils Aymon, translated into English and published by Caxton in 1504. Caxton's translation was reissued in 1554; that version was probably the source for the anonymous dramatist(s) who adapted it for the stage. The subject is chivalric romance featuring the knights of Charlemagne; the prose version is very long, and it would have been selectively adapted for stage performance. The scene described by Heywood corresponds to the end of the story of the leading, and surviving, son, Renaut (Renaldo), although the details of his murder are not recounted with the grim detail of the stage enactment Heywood reports .
References to the Play
See Historical Records above for Heywood's reference.
For What It's Worth
The story and its leading figures were well known throughout Europe into the seventeenth century. In the 1540s the Bruges ommegang featured procession figures of the Four Sons of Aymon, with Charlemagne and the magic horse Bayard. In 1616 the Four Sons appeared in a festival entry in Stuttgart, in the presence of the Elector Palatine Frederick and his English wife, Princess Elizabeth. They are amusingly illustrated, all sitting on one horse, in the festival book published for the occasion, Repraesentatio Der Furstlichen Aufzug und Ritterspil (Stuttgart, 1616).
N. W. Bawcutt, The Control and Censorship of Caroline Drama (Oxford, 1996).
R. A. Foakes, ed., Henslowe's Diary 2nd ed, (Cambridge, 2002).
Thomas Heywood, An Apology for Actors (London, 1612).
J. R. Mulryne, H. Watanabe-O'Kelly, and M Shewring, ed., Europa Triumphans. Court and Civic Festivals in Early Modern Europe, 2 vols. (Aldershot, 2004).
W. Tydeman, ed., The Medieval European Stage 500-1500 (Cambridge, 2001).
Site created and maintained by John Astington, University of Toronto; updated 15 Feb 2010.