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The History of the Revels Office

Museum of the Order of St John Sarah Wilkinson, Museum and Events Assistant

In Tudor England, the Revels Office was one of many administrative departments attached to the Royal Household, which included offices such as the Great Wardrobe, the Armoury, the Ordnance, the Mint, the Works, the Toils, and the Tents.

The term ‘Revel’ did not have a precise definition during this period of English court history. It was used to describe a variety of different kinds of entertainments, either given as a single performance or several performances to celebrate a particular occasion. These occasions included banquets, masks, plays, songs, dance, acrobatics, balls, indoor martial exhibitions, and even bear-baiting. Revels could last for a few hours, or they could go on for days or weeks. The famous and wealthy households of England were expected to regularly design and host Revels. When noble families and households held Revels this demonstrated their hospitality and generosity, both considered at the time to be displays of magnificence, which was an important virtue for the nobility to cultivate. Revels strengthened the bonds between families, the aristocracy, and the tenants of their lands, while also reasserting the entrenched social hierarchy of the Tudor period.

Revels at the Royal Court had a similar purpose to those given by noble households. Court revels were primarily festive events hosted by the monarch for their own entertainment and for the entertainment of courtiers, guests and servants. These public performances allowed the monarch to present a very specific image of themselves and their court. Revels could also be used to imply diplomatic or political positions, and all Tudor monarchs turned to Revels at one time or another for these purposes. The reports that were sent back to the native countries of ambassadors present in the Tudor court paid careful attention to the messages embedded within ceremonies, spectacles, and revels.

Sketch of a rehearsal at The Swan theatre, Aernout van Buchel 1596

From 1510 onwards the supervisor of the Revels Office and these court entertainments was given the title of Master of the Revels. Prior to 1572 most of the entertainments presented at court were developed by the Masters of the Revels, although some were presented as gifts. Some of these gifts were performed by players who had the support of members of great households. These performers were regularly referred to as ‘servants’ in household records, which was an indicator their status and basic function of entertaining patrons and their guests on important occasions. When not required by the household, these performer servants were sometimes allowed to travel around the country and give public performances. These performances helped spread the good will and influence of their patrons and to earn an income for themselves. As the theatre scene in the Tudor period developed, some of these household performers formed their own companies and toured commercial venues in London and further afield to make a living. However, patronage was still vital, as travelling with a patron’s license protected players from being prosecuted under vagrancy laws, as well as serving as a recommendation letter when the performers sought to give shows in town halls, marketplaces, and at the houses of other members of the nobility. This practice continued long after the theatre became a commercial industry. Plays and other performances were also presented to Queen Elizabeth I as gifts by companies of schoolboys and choir-boys, as well as occasionally by the Gentlemen of the Inns of Court. While the intention of these gift performances was to earn rewards and continuing favour from the Queen, occasionally they were also used as a way to provide ‘good counsel’. This counsel was the type of advice that inferiors owed, and were in some instances obligated, to give to their superiors, as Shakespeare illustrates in ‘King Lear’.

After 1572, and as the commercial theatre industry grew in size and skill, gift performances by playing companies supported by high-ranking courtiers began to represent an increasing number of the entertainments in the Revels of Queen Elizabeth I. These performances eventually replaced the shows that were previously devised by the Masters of the Revels. Later in the queen’s reign, when the production of plays began to be outsourced to playing companies who had obtained the queen’s favour, the Master of the Revels was made responsible for working with these companies and for selecting, editing, producing, and assisting with their performances at court. Ideas of proprietorship, intellectual property rights, and artists having creative control over their work were not present during the Tudor period. Everything that came under the definition of ‘revels’ was produced through collaboration, as one anonymous author of a 1573 memorandum emphasises while recommending reforms for the Revels Office – personal egos must be suppressed and teamwork between artists and artisans was key. Revels officers were notoriously underpaid, so having passion for their work was a vital part of the job description.

The Revels Office relocated to the Priory of St John of Jerusalem of Clerkenwell (the site of the current Priory Church and Cloister Garden) in approximately 1578. A survey of the buildings taken in 1586 describes how the spaces of the Priory were used at that time. The main space at the Priory was given over to a great hall where plays were vetted for the revels. The Clerk-Comptroller had “certeyne Roomes and lodgings” on the north side and west end of the great hall and great kitchen, including a parlour, hall, kitchen, stable, and others, together with a “convenient garden”. The Clerk had rooms and lodgings on the west side of the great court, and the Yeoman had rooms and lodgings on the south side of the great hall and over the porch of the hall door. Which rooms the Master of the Revels would have used is not clear from this survey, as the Master’s quarters were being used for storage in 1586.

The Revels Office is often associated with regulating and censoring performances in Elizabethan England, and this is a result of a royal commission granted in 1581. This commission gave the new Master of the Revels, Edmund Tilney, who had assumed the role in 1578, extensive regulatory powers over the developing theatre industry. The commission had two major aspects: the first authorised the use of the royal right of purveyance to take up goods and labour at fair prices in producing the queen’s revels; the second authorised the Master of the Revels to license plays, playing companies, and theatres. As per this commission, the scripts for performances were given first to the Master of the Revels, who would review and, where appropriate, edit them. This was a vital part of the role, as any material performed at court had to be in-keeping with the fashions and interests of the time.

Portrait of William Shakespeare, John Taylor (alleged)

Every court performance had to be subjected to this level of scrutiny before being seen by the Queen, and no playwright, no matter how famous, was exempt. Even William Shakespeare had 30 of his plays licensed by Master of the Revels Edmund Tilney, after performing them for him in the great hall of the Priory of St John. The review conducted by the Master of the Revels was much more in-depth than the usual assumption of the Master’s role as a censor, as only a small part of his work was in removing objectionable content from performances ahead of time. Scripts reviewed and edited by the Master of the Revels would be learned by the company before performing at court, and adapted into prompt books. The 1623 folio text of William Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ is almost certainly taken from a prompt book prepared for a court performance, probably between 1616 and 1623.

As Master of the Revels, Edmund Tilney conducted two different kinds of rehearsals while based in the Priory buildings. The 1581 commission authorised him to require playing companies “to appeare before him” to “presente and recite” any plays they intended to stage. The sheer number of plays written in the 1590s would have made personal recitals impractical, however when the Master of the Revels selected plays for production at court, he had to do so based on performances. There are several accounts dating from this period which describe players “reciting” or “showing” their “matter” before the Master, and on other occasions the Master would “hear” their play. The term most often used is “rehearse”. These rehearsals involved full dress performances “in the greate chamber” in the old Priory buildings at St John’s.

The companies brought their costumes and all of their furniture, and the Revels officers prepared the hall with rushes, lighting, staging and props. From this we can infer that the term ‘rehearse’ in the Revels accounts most often means ‘perform’, not simply ‘recite’. Details such as costuming, choreography and music were left to the Revels Office to work out, especially as costume design and tailoring were the oldest and most basic functions of the Revels Office. Carpentry, however, was not a main concern of the Revels Office. Large-scale carpentry projects, such as the structures for banqueting houses, as well as the audience standing and seating areas and stages for productions, were constructed by the Office of the Works. Smaller projects, such as the construction of scenery and props, were subcontracted by the Revels Office to property-makers. For court performances at night, lighting arrangements were important. The Revels Office ordinarily brought candles to illuminate auditions at St John’s and performances in the main royal palaces.

Since these rehearsals were conducted in full costume with props and lighting, the Master of the Revels was assessing more than just the text: every part of the production had to be deemed appropriate for performance. In Tilney’s notes these performances are often described as ‘histories’, ‘comedies’ or ‘stories’, but these may not have related to the genres we use to distinguish plays in the twenty-first century. The Treasurer of the Chamber, a member of the Royal Court who was responsible for giving rewards to the players who performed before the monarch, described the same performances as ‘interlude’s and ‘play’s.

In 1608 the Revels Office moved once more, as the buildings in the Priory of St John had been given by the new King James I to his cousin Esme Stuart, Seigneur d’Aubigny. The period of time spent by the Revels Office in Clerkenwell spanned some of the most eventful years in the history of English drama. Numerous playwrights rose to prominence during this time, including Ben Jonson, Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, and William Shakespeare, all of which would have visited the Priory of St John to show their plays before the Master of the Revels.

 

Bibliography:

Cunningham, Peter. Extracts from the Accounts of the Revels at Court, in the Reigns of Queen Elizabeth and King James I. AMS Press, 1972.

Dutton, Richard Mastering the Revels: The Regulation and Censorship of English Renaissance Drama. Springer, 2016.

Lytle, Guy Fitch. Patronage in the Renaissance. Princeton University Press, 2016.

Streitberger, William R. The Masters of the Revels and Elizabeth I’s Court Theatre. Oxford University Press, 2016.

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