CHILDREN'S ACTING COMPANIES 1559-1605

The children's acting companies were usually an activity of an educational or religious institution, often as part of the repertory of its boys choir. These companies were highly popular, especially at court, where they performed plays, sometimes in Latin, with moral themes and often in the traditional Senecan manner. Even in those early days, however, there were presentations of pure diversion: Nicholas Udall's Ralph Roister Doister or Plautus broad satire Plautus Miles Gloriosus at Westminster Grammar School (College of St. Peter), while the Grammar School at Hitchen specialized in reenactments of Biblical stories.

These companies were highly favored by Queen Elizabeth. At list of children's Revels performances shows that the Children of St. Paul's, the Children of the Chapel Royal, the Westminster Choristers, and the Children of the Windsor Chapel were favored. During the period 1583-85 a new company under the patronage of the Earl of Oxford was prominent, featuring the sophisticated and witty comedies of Oxford's secretary and protege John Lyly. In the early 1580's the patronage of Oxford and dramatic talent of Lyly were joined to the managerial vision of Henry Evans to effect a union of the Children of Paul's and the Chapel Children, obtaining a lease of the Blackfriars Theater. The lease was lost in 1584 and the two children's companies went their separate ways. The Chapel Children relapsed back into relative obscurity at that time, but the Children of Paul's, under the leadership of Thomas Gyles and assisted by John Heywood and John Lyly, established a virtual monopoly of court performances. Their popularity was so strong that Gyles had been granted the power to impress boys for the Cathedral choir.

After the season of 1589-90 the Paul's Children were excluded from London appearances for more than ten years, almost certainly because they had been involved publicly in a skit involving the Martinist religious/political controversy, presumably a skit that showed Martin Marprelate as an ape, later described in A Whippe for an Ape, an anonymous poem that bears characteristics of John Lyly (note vocabulary pairings in the glossary, below). Paul's Children continued to perform outside of London, perhaps at a private showing of Thomas Nashe's Summers Last Will and Testament (1592 at Croyden).

A letter from Rowland White to Sir Robert Sidney links the revival of Paul's Children (1597?) to the interest of Lord Derby, son-in-law of the Earl of Oxford. "My Lord Derby hath put up the plays of the children in Paul's to his great pains and charge."<1> There is no further evidence connecting Paul's to Lord Derby, who was very involved with his own acting company. The noticeable resemblance between characteristics of Henry Evans and the Welch Sir Hugh Evans (The Merry Wives of Windsor) may indicate a return to favor at that period (or perhaps a subtle plea for forgiveness); although the fairies who tormented Falstaff were portrayed by the Children of Windsor. The revival of Paul's also may be traced to the appointment of Richard Mulcaster as headmaster of the grammar school; but it undoubtedly owed the largest debt to Thomas Gyles the choirmaster and his successor Edward Pierce, appointed in mid-1600.

From the early 1600's established authors once again furnished the children's troops with accomplished material: Marston, Dekker, Middleton and Chapman writing for Paul's; Jonson, Chapman, Marston and Middleton for the Children of the Chapel Royal, now Children of the Queen's Revels with a venue at Blackfriars. The opening years of the reign of James I, with the enthusiastic patronage of the new royal family, were to see an upsurge of royal favor toward the dramatic arts, to the great benefit of the once struggling Children's companies.


1. Michael Shapiro. Children of the Revels. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977, p. 21.


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