St John’s Gate and Shakespearean Censorship

Museum of the Order of St John Hannah Agass, Learning and Access Officer

When Henry VIII became head of the Church of England in 1534, he began to close religious houses throughout England and Wales. The buildings, lands and wealth of religious communities, like the Order of St John, were transferred to the crown and in 1540, Henry took the Order of St John’s property, including the Priory in Clerkenwell. The Order of St John was the last remaining religious order to be disbanded by the king.

Henry first used the Priory buildings to store supplies such as the tents he used for hunting and military campaigns. He then gave the Priory to his daughter Mary who, as Queen, briefly restored the Order in 1557. When her Protestant sister Elizabeth came to the throne, the Order in England was finally dissolved.

The Priory depicted in a engraving by Hollar, 1661
The Priory of St John in Clerkenwell, taken from Wenceslaus Hollar’s 1656 engraving.

Elizabeth (and later James I) used the Priory buildings to house the offices of the Master of Revels from 1578 – 1607. The Master of Revels was deputy to the lord Chamberlain, and therefore held one of the most influential posts in Elizabethan England. Responsible for theatrical censorship, the Master of Revels controlled all Elizabethan entertainment, from auditioning the acting troupes and selecting the plays they performed through to approving the scenery and costumes used in each production.

Considering the tumultuous nature of Elizabeth’s early reign and the pressures to stabilise a kingdom whose official religion had changed three times in just twenty years, it is unsurprising that the Queen wanted some control over these plays. Theatrical performances could gather huge crowds and therefore provided an excellent opportunity to influence the thoughts and opinions of those watching. It is estimated that in the late sixteenth century, a theatrical performance in a London playhouse could attract an audience of 3000, one and a half percent of the city’s population (estimated to be 200,0000), certainly enough to begin a riot.

To protect against such threats, the Elizabethan authorities imposed laws to ensure that they were in control of every word spoken on stage. All scripts had to be submitted to the Revels Office before they were performed where, they were checked to ensure that they were both politically and morally safe. The Master of the Revels could force the writer to make alterations to the script as well as issuing punishments to those whose works he felt to be subversive. Whilst the potential punishments were extreme, imprisonment, torture, and mutilation, evidence suggests that the Elizabethan censors were reasonably lenient during this period.

William Shakespeare attributed to John Taylor circa 1610 © National Portrait Gallery, London
William Shakespeare attributed to John Taylor circa 1610 © National Portrait Gallery, London

For most of Shakespeare’s working life, the Master of the Revels was a man called Edmund Tilney who was based here in St John’s Gate. Consequently, a Comedy of Errors, Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, and Macbeth were just some of Shakespeare’s plays that were licensed here for performance. In 1608, Tilney wrote that the Office ‘consisteth of a wardrobe and other several rooms for artificers to work in (viz. tailors, embroiderers, property makers, painters, wire-drawers and carpenters), together with a convenient place for the rehearsals and setting forth of plays and other shows…’

One of the major incidents of suppression during the Elizabethan period involved a performance of Shakespeare’s play Richard II. The performance was commissioned by followers of the Earl of Essex who, had lost the Queen’s favour. Unknown to the Players, on the day following their performance, the Earl and his supporters were planning to rally support in London for a rebellion against Elizabeth. The play was chosen as it portrayed the decline and fall of Richard II, a weak King who was closely connected to corrupt favourites, and was ultimately overthrown by a rebellion. When the play had initially come before the Master of the Revels, Edmund Tilney in 1595, he had deemed the scene depicting Richard II’s abdication as too subversive and it was therefore heavily censored. Consequently, throughout Elizabeth’s reign, the scene failed to appear in print and it was not published until well into the reign of James I. It is thought however that this scene was included in the performance of Richard II that the supporters of the Earl of Essex commissioned.

Despite their attempted propaganda, the Earl of Essex and his followers were not supported by the London populace, and the rebellion failed. Elizabeth was extremely upset about the attempt to overthrow her, especially the implied comparison between her and the successfully overthrown Richard II of the play, “I am Richard II, know you not that?” she told Francis Bacon. Following the failed rebellion, Augustine Phillips, one of the leading actors of Shakespeare’s Company, was interrogated about the actors’ role in the affair, but he maintained that they had known nothing about the planned rebellion and no punishment seems to have been forthcoming.

I hope this blog has given you a good introduction to one of the many fascinating uses of St John’s Gate after the dissolution. It is certainly one London building which Shakespeare would be very familiar with if he returned today!

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