Play marred by an affray at Norwich

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Anon. (1583 or earlier)

NB. "Play marred by an affray at Norwich" is a descriptive assignation for this otherwise untitled play. The name is used here for convenience.

Historical Records

Affray at Norwich (15-17 June 1583)

A number of witnesses gave their accounts of an affray that took place at a performance by the Queen's Men at the Red Lion in Norwich. These include:

Henry Brown: who was at the play that afternoon and noted that "onf of her maiesties seruauntes was abused at the gate", whereupon Brown "with oters went owt and one in blew cote Cast Stones at Bentley and brocke his heade". Brown challenged the man, saying "villan wilt thowe murder the quenes man", but the man in turn called Brown "villan", so that Brown "stroke hym with his Sworde and hyt hym on the legg ... at Bloomes backgate betwne the red lyon & mr davyes howse" (70-71).

Subsequently, upon further examination on 17 June 1583, Brown was asked "how manye of the players went from of the Stage on Satturdaye to Stryke the man wych was Slayne" and Brown replied that "there were but two of the players wich went viz Bentley and one other in a black dublyt called Synger and Tareton also was going but he was Stayed by the way". When asked who else struck the murdered man, Brown responded "the other man wyche went owte with bentley Strake the man with an Armynge Sworde one blowe vppon the shoulder & followed the fellowe wiche fled ffrom the shyte horse gate in St Stephans vnto mr Roberte Davyes howse". He added that after he had struck the man, "Synger dyd Stricke the man" but Brown had "sayed to hyme give hym noe more for he dowted he had ynoughe already and wen they came from the man agayn Synger sayed to this examynate [i.e. Brown] be of good Chere for yf all this matter bee layed on the thowe shalt haue what ffrendshipe we can procure thee". Brown further added that "before he dyd Strycke the man he dyd see Bentley thrust at hym twice with his naked Raper the one thrust was about the kneee but hee knoweth not where the other thrust was" (71).

William Kylbye of Pockthorpe, worsted weaver: said that "on satturnday last in the after noone he was at a play in the yard at the red lyon in St Sephans and hee dyd see three of the players rvnne of the Staige with there Swordes in there handes being in the scaberdes and hard a noyse of Skufflinge at the lyon gate wherevpon this examynate [Kylbye] went out of the gate to se what the matter was and he dyd see a man at mr Robert Davyes howse leaninge agaynst a Stone bledinge" (71). One Edmund Kerrie told Kylbye "that two of the players dyd Rvnne after the man withe there wepons drawn and kerrie tooke one of the players in his armes & woold haue Stayed hym but one ran at hym with his sowrde and he feering some daunger to hym selfe lett thother goe and ffled hym selfe" (72).

Kylbye adds the detail that "they had begonne the play & one of them Ran owt in his playing apperell but he knoweth not the names of the players" (72).

(PRO KB29/219, mbs 150-2* (15-17 June 1583, reproduced in REED Norwich, 70-76)

Theatrical Provenance

This play was performed on the afternoon of Saturday 15 June 1583, by the newly formed Queen's Men (at the time only a month old) in the yard at the Red Lion in Norwich. Players present included John Bentley (in the role of a Duke), John Singer, and Richard Tarlton. When a playgoer (Winsdon) attempted to enter the venue without paying admission, he scuffled with Singer at the gate, causing Singer to spill the contents of his moneybox. An affray followed and another man ("George", claiming to be Winsdon's servant) was killed. Bentley had a rapier with him as part of his role as a duke, and used it in the fight. He chased George out of the playhouse and wounded him; George retaliated by throwing stones at Bentley and injuring him. Singer took a large "Armynge Sworde" from the stage, caught up with the wounded George and struck him. George subsequently died of his injuries. Bentley and Singer were held in prison for two days, and failed to appear at the associated court hearing on Monday 23 September 1583.

Probable Genre(s)


Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

Unknown. The reference to swords in scabbards and costuming including a beard and a black doublet do not shed any light on the possible subject matter.

References to the Play

See Historical Records above.

Critical Commentary

Wiggins (744), referring to this simply as "Play", notes that "Attempts to identify the play on the basis of the known repertory of the Queen's Men are futile, since most of the extant plays are almost certainly not early enough"; he therefore classifies this as a lost play.

Keenan (104-05) believes the play was The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, a play whose nationalism may have inspired rowdy behaviour, though she does acknowledge the possibility that "the play was one (now lost) with a duke as its leading role or authority figure" (105)..

Roberts-Smith offers an account of the venue itself, and conjectures that a mistaken assumption about Winsdon's motivations may have sparked the fracas:

Although an inn the size of the Red Lion probably had a spacious indoor hall suitable for entertainments, on a June afternoon, when spectators would not mind being outdoors, the possibility of accommodating a much larger audience while still controlling access through the ‘gate’ made the yard attractive. The gate money that Syngar was guarding could have been a very substantial sum, large enough that when Tarlton and Bentley saw it land on the ground, they might have thought Wynsdon was trying to steal the money rather than merely enter without paying. ("The Red Lion" 115)

For What It's Worth

(Information welcome)

Works Cited

Keenan, Siobhan. Travelling Players in Shakespeare’s England (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002)
Roberts-Smith, Jennifer. "The Red Lion and the White Horse: Inns Used by Patronized Performers in Norwich, 1583-1624". Early Theatre 10.1 (2007): 109-44.

Site created and maintained by David McInnis, University of Melbourne; updated 22 March 2017.