Did Leigh People see Shakespeare? (ca 1600)

Did Leigh People See Shakespeare Acting in Tonbridge?

Around 1600 Tonbridge had its own playhouse.  This was surprising because Tonbridge only had around 600 inhabitants – Canterbury had 7,000 – but it was probably because of Tonbridge’s Lord of the Manor, Henry Carey, 1st Lord Hunsdon.  Henry Carey was Queen Elizabeth’s Lord Chamberlain from 1585 until his death in 1596.  He had been an enthusiastic supporter of players and musicians from the 1560s.  In 1594 he started sponsoring what became the best known group of actors in the country, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  Shakespeare was not only the principal writer of their plays but one of their actors.  The Lord Chamberlain’s Men trundled all over England and there is a long list of where they performed.  Although Tonbridge does not feature, it seems extremely unlikely that Shakespeare and his colleagues did not come to the town of their main patron.

So it is completely possible that people in Leigh COULD have walked the two miles to Tonbridge and watched Shakespeare himself acting in one of his plays.

However, the lack of facts about the whole of this story is striking.  No site of the playhouse has been proposed and there is only one mention of a playhouse in the documents of the time – or to be exact in 1610, fourteen years after Henry Carey’s death and seven years after the death of his son, George Carey, 2nd Lord Hunsdon and Lord Chamberlain until his death in 1603, in which year the Lord Chamberlain’s Men had become the King’s Men.

On 26 June 1610 Edward Calverley received a fatal stab wound during a fray in “a certain house called a playhouse” in Tonbridge.  All through the court cases and there were several, there is only this one mention of a playhouse in Tonbridge.  The details of the court cases have been researched in huge detail by Dr James Gibson.  The article including the original Latin court reports – with translations – and a large amount of background on the four assailants and their families is in the Historical Society Archive.  Ask Joan Montgomery if you want to see it (or any of the other interesting material we have there.  See the website for the index).

P.S. Edward Calverley’s main assailant, Edward Oxley, was eventually found guilty of murder.  He was branded on his right hand with an ‘M’ for murderer and committed to ‘the bishop’s custody’ – a form of imprisonment which shows that he was not hanged as a normal working man would have been because he could read Latin.  (So there has been at least one advantage in learning the Classics!)

Parish Magazine Article: May 2013: by Chris Rowley

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