Thomas Middleton – a summary

Thomas Middleton was another leading dramatist and poet of the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean period. Active from about 1597 onwards, he collaborated with William Shakespeare on Timon of Athens,and recently there has been some speculation that he also had a hand in the writing of All’s Well That Ends Well. Macbeth and Measure for Measure are also believed to have heavily involved Middleton, possibly after Shakespeare’s death.

Thomas MiddletonBorn in London to upwardly mobile parents in April 1580, Thomas Middleton was the first son of William Middleton and his wife, Anne. William’s trade as a bricklayer allowed him to join one of London’s trade guilds, the Honourable Company of Tilers and Bricklayers, which brought him prosperity. By 1568 he enjoyed that status of ‘gentleman’ having been granted a family coat of arms. When William died five years after Thomas’s birth, his estate was valued at £335.

Unfortunately for the young Thomas and his sister, his mother remarried hastily. His new stepfather, Thomas Harvey, made a claim on a trust which had been established for the siblings, and a fifteen-year legal battle ensued. Middleton’s plays would later feature biting satires of the legal profession, probably coloured by this experience.


Middleton enrolled at Queen’s College, Oxford, in April 1598, leaving without attaining a degree. By February 1601, he was in London and writing for the theatre. A prolific and diverse writer, he wrote or co-wrote over thirty plays, as well as fourteen masques, poetry and numerous prose works. Apart from Shakespeare, he is the only one of his contemporaries who is considered to have written masterpieces in every genre of drama – history, comedy and tragedy. The best-known of these works include Women Beware Women, The Revenger’s Tragedy and The Changeling. But unlike Shakespeare, he had no allegiance to a particular playing company, preferring instead to work on a freelance basis.

In 1603, the year of Queen Elizabeth’s death and the ascension of James I to the throne of England, Middleton married a fellow Londoner, Mary (or Magdalen) Marbeck, the granddaughter of the famed musician John Marbeck, and niece of Roger Marbeck, one time chief physician to the queen. The couple had only one child, Edward. Although the exact date of the child’s birth is unknown, he is believed to have been born between November 1603 and November 1604.

Thomas Middleton died at the relatively young age of forty-seven on the first or second July 1627, and is buried in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church in Newington. Despite achieving widespread popularity, Middleton left little money behind to look after his widow. She died, impoverished, a year later.

Shakespeare IAHSinead Fitzgibbon

William Shakespeare: History In An Hour by Sinead Fitzgibbon, published by William Collins, part of HarperCollins, is available in various digital formats, only 99p / $1.99, and downloadable audio.

See also article on John Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s father, Richard Burbage, a pre-eminent stage actor of the late Elizabethan era, and Christopher Marlowe.

Ben Jonson – a summary

Ben Jonson was an English actor, poet, dramatist and critic. Active in the early Stuart period, he is one of the most influential literary figures of the time, although perhaps less popularly revered than William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. His plays include Every Man in His Humour, The Alchemist and Bartholomew Fayre. He also co-wrote the now-lost play, Isle of Dogs,with Thomas Nashe, which, for reasons unknown, was suppressed by the authorities.

NPG 2752; Benjamin Jonson by Abraham van BlyenberchJonson was born in London on 11 June 1572, a month after his father’s death. His widowed mother struggled financially until her remarriage a few years later to Robert Brett, a bricklayer. The family then took up residence in Hartshorn Lane, near Charing Cross. (Pictured: Benjamin Jonson by Abraham van Blyenberch).

As a child, Jonson attended an educational establishment run by St Martin-in-the-Fields church, before moving on to Westminster School at the age of 7. Here he studied under William Camden, an antiquarian who wrote the first definitive history of Elizabeth’s reign. A tradition of Westminster School was to encourage the study of English translations of Latin and Greek writings, which influenced his future work.

The stage beckons

Once his education had ended, there was a brief foray into the world of labouring. It soon became clear, however, that there was no hope of Jonson entering his step-father’s profession as it was something he ‘could not endure’. In the early 1590s, the young man signed up to fight with English forces in the Netherlands. Upon his return, he was drawn to London’s theatre world, where he began work as both an actor (he is believed to have played the role of Hieronimo in Thomas Kyd’s most well-known play, The Spanish Tragedy) and a playwright.

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Richard Burbage – a summary

Richard Burbage was the pre-eminent stage actor of the late Elizabethan era. He was also a successful theatre impresario and a long-time friend of William Shakespeare.  The two men were founding shareholders in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men theatre company, which would become the King’s Men following James I’s ascension to the English throne in 1603.  Burbage was the first person to play a number of Shakespeare’s now-iconic roles, including Lear, Hamlet, Othello and Richard III.

Born 6 January 1567, Richard Burbage was the son of James Burbage, an actor and theatre manager, and his wife, Ellen Brayne.  He was the younger of two surviving children, his older brother being Cuthbert Burbage, who also became an actor of some renown.


Richard BurbageIt is thought that Richard began his acting career in 1584, just as London’s theatre scene began to flourish.  Initially, he worked mainly for The Theatre, one of London’s first purpose-built playhouses, which had been built and was managed by his father.  Such was the power of his performances, he had gained widespread popularity by the age of 20.

When Burbage Senior died in 1597, a dispute arose between his sons and the owner of the land on which The Theatre was built.  When no resolution was forthcoming, Richard and Cuthbert dismantled the playhouse in 1598 and, having transported any salvageable materials across the Thames, they set about building The Globe theatre on a site known today as Bankside.  Construction was completed in 1599.

It was around this time Richard Burbage married Winifred Turner.  Winifred bore eight children, including one born after her husband’s death in 1619, only one of whom would live to see adulthood.

The Bard’s Will

Richard Burbage was mentioned in William Shakespeare’s will – the playwright left a small sum with the instruction that his friend buy a memorial ring in his honour.

Burbage would not long outlive Shakespeare, however – he died 13 March 1619, and is buried in St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch.  He was memorialized in an anonymous poem, part of which reads:

He’s gone and with him what a world are dead.
Which he review’d, to be revived so,
No more young Hamlet, old Hieronymus
Kind Lear, the Grieved Moor, and more beside,
That lived in him have now for ever died.

Shakespeare IAHSinead Fitzgibbon

William Shakespeare: History In An Hour by Sinead Fitzgibbon, published by William Collins, part of HarperCollins, is available in various digital formats, only 99p / $1.99, and downloadable audio.

See also article on John Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s father.

Tales From The Royal Bedchamber – A Revolution Is Born

Living in a world where privacy is only ever relative and your every move is considered to be something that the public or your advisers should be kept abreast of may not sound that unusual in modern society. After all, it is something that the British monarchy and today’s quasi-celebrities have had to grow very much accustomed to.

Charles II of England (1648)Even prior to 24 hour news channels and persistent paparazzi, for those in the public eye a moment of peace was something of a rarity. As far back as the reign of King Charles II (pictured) and for many years previous, monarchs had to go to great lengths to achieve total privacy – and their abode of choice was the private royal bedchamber.

A new exhibition at Hampton Court Palace for the 2013 tourist season – Secrets of the Royal Bedchamber – reveals some of the fascinating rituals and deepest, darkest secrets of the privileged courtiers and monarchs who gained access to one of the Palace’s most iconic corridors of power. Also unearthed by the Historic Royal Palaces staff while researching the exhibition were some fascinating stories; not least that of a baby whose birth in private quarters became more of a public scandal than could ever have been imagined.

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‘Nasty, brutish, and short’: the dangerous world of Thomas Hobbes

There are many phrases which have remained in popular use but whose original context, and sometimes author, has been forgotten. A good example is the stark depiction of life being “nasty, brutish and short”. Only recently this phrase was evoked to describe the likely career path of modern football managers. The man who coined it was correctly identified as the 17th century English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, but what was the historical context in which it was made? It was the English Civil War. Simon Court explains.

Thomas HobbesThomas Hobbes was writing during the turbulent years of the 1640s and early 1650s which saw a bloody military conflict between the Royalist supporters of King Charles I and his Parliamentarian opponents; the defeat of the King and his trial and execution, and the imposition of a Commonwealth in which the monarchy and the House of Lords was abolished. Whilst not directly engaged in this political upheaval Hobbes was horrified by it, and he sought to show in his political theory how the catastrophe of the civil war could have been avoided, and how future conflicts could be averted.

A ‘state of nature’

Hobbes had been developing his political thought throughout the 1640s but it received its most famous (indeed notorious) articulation in 1651, two years after the execution of Charles I, in his work Leviathan. Hobbes’ central idea is wonderfully simple. He contemplates what life would be like for people if they were not organised under a sovereign political power. He looks at them in this ‘state of nature’ and sees that they are driven by a common passion: a desire to be superior to others for the dual purpose of self-gratification and self-protection. This is of course impossible to achieve: all men cannot dominate each other. So they find themselves in perpetual conflict with a restless anxiety about the future. It is a bleak world where there is:

“continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.

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The New Model Army: why Parliament won the English Civil War

When King Charles I raised the Royal Standard at Nottingham Castle on 22 August 1642 and declared war on his own people he did so with his customary appeal to regal pomp and circumstance. Yet the ceremony degenerated into farce as Charles made last minute corrections to the Proclamation which the Herald then had difficulty reading out, and when the Standard was blown down in a storm on the same night it was interpreted by many as a bad omen. This fiasco symbolised the incompetence which hampered the Royalist campaign, and compared unfavourably with the organisation displayed by the Parliamentarian military forces during the years of conflict. For after raising the armies and an indecisive period of hostilities, what proved to be the determining factor in the war was the command, discipline and conviction of the New Model Army. Simon Court explains.

Raising the armies

Charles IThe Royalists (or ‘Cavaliers’) found it initially more difficult to raise funds and troops because it was harder to persuade men away from their harvest and towards a political cause which was purely reactionary and sought to defend the King’s absolute right to govern unfettered by Parliament. (Pictured: Charles I). By contrast, the Parliamentarians (or ‘Roundheads’) could appeal to the need to make the King more accountable to his people through their elected representatives in the House of Commons, and were also able to draw on the support of the English Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians whose religious conviction was that God was on their side. Both politically and religiously, the Roundheads were more highly motivated.

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Mary Queen of Scots – a summary

Mary Queen of Scots was born at Linlithgow in Scotland on December 8, 1542, the daughter of King James V of Scotland and Marie de Guise. Her father had been ailing for some time, possibly of a complete physical and mental breakdown and finally died six days after Mary was born. Mary was crowned Queen on September 9, 1543 at Stirling Castle. Mary’s great uncle, King Henry VIII of England, made it clear he wanted the baby Mary to marry his young son Edward when she turned ten, and come to England to be brought up. The Treaty of Greenwich confirmed the marriage.

Mary Queen of ScotsWhen, in January 1547, the nine-year-old Edward became King of England as Edward VI, his uncle Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, was appointed his Protector and ran his government. His regime was to harass the Scots unmercifully with the object of capturing the Queen. The government of Scotland decided the young Queen must be spirited out of the country and negotiated a treaty for her to marry the Dauphin of France, thus breaking the Treaty of Greenwich. She left Scotland for France where she grew up with the French royal children in the Catholic Faith. She and the Dauphin Francis were married in April of 1558. She was fifteen. Henry II, King of France died from a grisly jousting accident and Francis and Mary became King and Queen of France on July 10, 1559.

Make sacrifice of me

Francis suffered acutely from an abscess in his inner ear and died on December 5, 1560. Mary had been Queen of France for less than two years. It was decided her best option was to return to Scotland and take over her government. Before leaving she asked permission from Elizabeth I, who had been queen of England, and Ireland, since November 1558, to have safe passage through England if she was blown off course. Elizabeth refused permission. In response, Mary said if Elizabeth “shall have me in her hands to do her will of me; and if she be so hard-hearted as to desire my end, she may then do her pleasure, and make sacrifice of me; peradventure that casualty might be better for me than to live. In this matter, God’s will be fulfilled.” Little did she know she was predicting her own denouement.

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Politics, Protestantism and Personality: the Causes of the English Civil War

The English are admired for the stability of their political constitution and their healthy scepticism towards any radical ideas which threaten it. Yet when King Charles I raised his Royal Standard at Nottingham and declared war on Parliament in 1642 he plunged his country into a chaos which saw families divided in mortal combat, a frenzied explosion of religious zealotry, the trial and execution of a king, the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords, and the imposition of a military dictatorship.

Charles ISuch violent upheaval of the nation-state, its institutions and society was a fully-blown revolution on English soil. But what is striking is that this revolution was not inevitable: for although it was rooted in deep conflicts in political ideology and religion, the extraordinary course of events could have taken a different direction at several crucial points if key people in the drama, especially the King, had made other decisions. Simon Court explains.


Charles succeeded the throne from James I in 1625 and his early years of reign were hampered by numerous conflicts with Parliament over the raising of taxation. He was uncommunicative, uncompromising and, as we saw in my piece Killing the King: The Trial and Execution of Charles I, he was also devious and untrustworthy. When in 1629 Parliament objected to Charles’ collection of ‘tonnage and poundage’ taxes without their authorisation he took the arrogant step of dissolving Parliament and decided to rule without it. He did this because he believed that he was God’s representative on earth and demanded that his word simply be taken as law. For him the authority of a king was ordained by God and he was accountable only to God, not to his people, for “it is not the place of the subject to question the royal prerogative”. Unsurprisingly this absolutist approach to government met with increasing opposition from those who sought to limit Charles’ powers by requiring him to obtain the consent of Parliament as the elected representatives of the people.

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Killing the King: The Trial and Execution of Charles I

On the afternoon of 20 January 1649 a slightly-built 48-year-old man with long greying hair stood before a court in London, charged with treason. But this was no ordinary court of law; it was the High Court of Justice sitting in Westminster Hall. And this was no ordinary charge of treason against the Sovereign; it was treason against the people by the Sovereign. For the man who stood trial was the King himself.

The trial and execution of Charles I was a microcosm of the English Civil War which had preceded it, in that both trial and war hinged on whether the King should be accountable for his actions to his people. The war had been bitterly fought since 1642 between the Royalist supporters of Charles I and the Parliamentarians led by Oliver Cromwell and had claimed an estimated 185,000 lives.

The Royalists defended the ‘divine right’ of the King to rule unfettered by Parliament, and to account for his actions ‘but to God alone’. By contrast, the Parliamentarians sought to limit the King’s powers by requiring him to obtain the consent of the House of Commons: what we now recognise to be a constitutional monarchy. Many of them, including Cromwell, were devout Protestants who believed that God was on their side.

The Immovable Object

By 1647 the Parliamentarians had won the military battle, scattering the Royalist armies and holding Charles in custody at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight. Their leaders, Cromwell and General Henry Ireton, made a number of attempts to negotiate a new constitutional settlement with Charles but he refused to co-operate with any of them. Indeed Charles, who was by turns awkward, aloof and devious, had no compunction about lying or breaking agreements.

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Robert Catesby – the real brains behind the Gunpowder Plot

Unlike the notorious Guy Fawkes, the name Robert Catesby is not one familiar to many. This is rather surprising when one considers that it was in fact he, and not Fawkes, who was the principal architect of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

Born in 1573 to a wealthy Catholic landowning family from Warwickshire, Robert Catesby (also known as Robin) was the only surviving son of Sir William Catesby and Anne Throckmorton. The Catesby family were highly respected and well-established. However, their Catholic faith meant that they were in constant conflict with England’s Protestant establishment. Robert’s father was subjected to crippling fines and frequent imprisonments for his recusant ways. It is not surprising, then, that the young Catesby adopted an anti-Protestant stance from a relatively young age.

It is believed that Robert studied for a time at a Jesuit seminary in Douai, where he was taught theology and classical languages. He also attended Oxford University but his refusal to take the Oath of Supremacy (which declared Elizabeth I to be Supreme Head of the Church in England) meant that he left without gaining a degree.

Mrs Catesby

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