Mary McElroy
Kansas State University
Manhattan, Kansas
On July 27th as many as three thousand people witnessed a spectacular
sporting event. Some of the spectators, after paying a small entrance fee, anxiously
gathered around a crowded platform. Others, willing t o pay up t o three times the
price of admission, watched the entire affair from box seats. The contestants, bound
by legal contracts, and often travelling many miles to competition sites, competed
before large audiences at the open air London playhouses strategically located
outside the city away from the jurisdiction of an often hostile city government. The
matches culminated in a public ceremony honoring the winners as official record
books preserved the results for generations to come. These athletic contests, while
hardly remarkable in today's organized world of sport, to$k place in the summer of
1587. The performers, professional fencers, competed in mock combats" carefully
organized by the Masters o f the Noble Science o f Defence, the sports governing
body first authorized by Henry Vlll in 1540, and supported under the reigns of
Elizabeth and James.1
During the early-sixteenth century, sports and ames dominated feast and
in wrestling matches during
holida celebrations. Townspeople frequently en
holidays, and Shrove Tuesday cele%rations rarely ended without a
hearty game of football. But "festival sports" never captivated audiences quite like
the organized contests of physical combat which became firmly rooted within
London's popular theatrical enterprise. Large crowds of spectators witnessed
elaborate one-on-one fencing, wrestling, and animal competitions first at the
venues within the city limits, and after 1576, at the suburban playhouses. The
Bankside arenas, situated adjacent t o the bear-baiting rings, and close t o the martial
training grounds at Finsbury Field, made sporting contests readily accessible t o the
majority of London citizens.
Prior t o 1576, and the birth of England's first professional theater, the English
approach t o public entertainments considerably differed from our more
sophisticated, contemporary practices. Elizabethan audiences stood in the exposed
courtyards of inns, in open fields, and just about anywhere an elevated platform
could be erected. A march through town with drums and trumpets, exciting the
curiosity of the populace and drawing Londoners away from work, substituted for
highly publicized notice of upcoming sporting events. Even the legal status of the
Elizabethan athletic performer differed since the occupation of "professional
player" was never quite legally recognized until after the English Civil War?
But after 1576, the date marked by the opening of the first permanent
playhouse, London endorsed a new approach t o public entertainments. London's
theatrical enterprise, producer of more than twenty professional acting companies,
one-thousand paid performers, and over a dozen permanent playhouses became
home t o the creative enius of the likes of William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and
Christopher ~ a r l o w e ?It will be argued that an organized approach t o sport
emerged as part of sixteenth-century London's rapidly growing professional theater.
As theater entrepreneurs recognized sport's potential for wide spectator appeal, the
ancient and traditional displays of martial prowess and skill long associated with
medieval Europe gave way t o less-violent, regulated sporting contests and reflected
lits sun
the Elizabethan entrepreneur's ability t o organize sport into a profit-making
Concept of the Elizabethan ProfessionalAthlete
Prior t o the development of England's first professional theater, athletes were
not distinguishable from other "stage entertainers." All performers accomplished
themselves in athletic skills. Feats of activity--acrobatics, juggling and rope dancing-were prominent in the repertoire of the strolling companies as "player-athletes"
travelled throughout the English provinces and market towns.4 Physical skills came
i n handy as small, acting troupes took t o the countryside during the winter months,
during outbreaks of the plague, or when fear of contagion forced the banning of all
public gatherings in the city. English dramatists often inserted "feats of activities"
within their plays. Battle scenes, in part~cular,demanded physical feats of high
degree, and forced many actors such as Richard Tarlton, a popular stage performer
with the Queens Men, t o study martial skills at a nearby fencin school. Augustine
Phillips, a member of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, one of Lon on's most successful
acting companies, made the opportunistic turn from dramatic elocution t o dazzling
physical displays.
But by the 15803, the multi-skilled player soon gave way t o the sport specialist.
In one instance, the Earl o f Essex Men travelled with a celebrated acrobat, known as
the Turk. Professional rope dancers accompanied the Queens' Players on road tours.
But perhaps the most enterprising effort t o organize sport specialists was concocted
by John Dutton and John Laneham. Their company, organized for the purpose of
displaying physical feats-acrobatic, juggling, and fencing skills, regularly toured the
provinces, and in 1589, profitably entertained large crowds in Coventry, Ludlow,
Nottingham, Bridgeworth and Faversham.5
A growing number of performers displayed their physical feats in one-on-one
contests of combat. A small number of them supplemented their incomes by
teaching sport skills, but by and large, the new Elizabethan "professional athlete '
earned a living by competin in organized sporting contests. Fencing masters such
as John Blagrove and RicharjMusgrave routinely earned as much as ten shillings for
their participation in head-to-head competitions. From Henslowe's records of the
Rose playhouse, we find James Crandyge also well compensated for his efforts.
James Crand ge. the 4th of November 1598 played his challenge in my
house and Istould have had for my part 40 shillings.6
By the close of the sixteenth centur , athletes regularly competed in front of
large audiences, and in return, collectedl handsome fees for their services. When
Orlando. in Shakespeare's As You Like If, consented t o wrestle against the Duke's
champion, the Elizabethan audience understood fully that he did so not because it
was a fitting exercise for a knight's son, but because the financial rewards of
winning convinced him t o do so.
Payment t o professional athletes certainly did not o unnoticed. Many viewed
ublic performing as 'idleness' and not as full-time wo#. One wch dissenting voice
gelonged t o John Northbrooke:
Honest games and pastimes are allowable, but we ought t o use them as
we doe sleepe...and to be taken after such time as we have labored
enough in weightie matters and serious affairs.7
Critics objected t o athletes making money while making merriment. Some
religious doctrines encouraged participation in certain plays, tragedies and sporting
activities. Stephen Gosson, for example:, author of one of the most vicious attacks of
the English popular theater, admitted
ood art may instruct virtuous examples."8
But sporting contests were usually he12on Sundays, at a time easier t o gather
audiences however, at a time which interfered with prayer and divine services.
The Transition from Sport Spectacle t o Sport Contest
The organized "sports" of Elizabeth's time reflected a significant change from
the sports and games associated with earlier medieval pageantry, and particularly,
the military tournament. Medieval sport organizers' emphasis on military training,
as pointed out by Allen Guttmann, meant "spectator interests remained secondary
t o the mimic of warlike battles."g The elaborate sporting spectacles associated with
jousts and tournaments frequently ended at the whims of the organizers, or, as in
the following example described by Joseph Strutt, when the host was ready.
Come forth knights and esquires come forth and when the t w o
barons had taken their places in the lists, each of them facing
his own parade, the champions on both parties shall arrange
themselves, every one by the side of his banner and remain in
that position until it shall please the speakers t o command the
commencement of the sports. The combatants shall each of
them be armed with a pointless sword having the edges
rebated, and with a bastion or truncheon, hanging from their
saddles, and they may use either the one or the other so long
as the speakers shall give them permission by repeating the
sentence, Let them go on. After they had sufficiently
performed their exercises, the speakers are t o call t o the
heralds, and order them t o fold up the banner which is the
signal for the conclusion of the tournament.10
The city sport venues, mostly located in the courtyards of inns and taverns,
were not ideally suited for professional performances. Fearful of discouraging
lodgers the early "inn-yard theaters" did not charge fees of admission. Athletes
often resorted t o passing a hat between matches which often resulted in little or no
financial reimbursement. When a London speculator, James Burbage, decided t o
build a playhouse exclusively for the presentation of public entertainments, he
considered the location carefully.
The site had t o be situated outside the jurisdiction of the City Council. Burbage
mulled over two possibilities. The Bankside to the south of the city had a long
association with sports and pastimes. Finsbury Field, located just north of the city
wall, was situated near enough t o the sit t o attract London audiences. Burbage
chose Finsbury Field, and in 1575, built tKe Theatre, En land's first, permanent
playhouse. A second playhouse, the Curtain, opened the
year only a few
undred yards south of the Theatre.11
The construction of Burbage's playhouse at Shoreditch marked the beginning
of a new era for popular entertainments. The new wooden and unroofed
amphitheaters, complete with removable stages, made facilities suitable for both
dramatic and sporting events. Some of the new permanent "stages" measured 40
feet across; newly constructed stairways eased entrance into the upper galleries;
and a protective 'grate," (rail) separating the audjfnce from the animals, became
standard fare at the baiting rings or "beargardens. 12 By 1599, the playhouses had
even adopted a complex system of admission. According t o Thomas Platter, a visitor
t o England
The layhouses are so constructed that they play on a raised
plat orm, so that everyone has a good view. There are
different alteries and places, however, where the seating is
better a n 1 more comfortable and therefore more expensive.
For whoever cares to stand below only pays one English penny,
but if he wishes t o sit he enters by another door, and pays
another penny, while if he desires t o sit in the thing well, but
can also be seen, then he pays yet another English penny at
another door.13
By 1600, playhouses had also opened on the Bankside south o f the city. Among
them were the Rose, built by Philip Henslowe, and the Swan, constructed by Frances
Langley. The Swan, held over three thousand spectators, and although home t o an
acting company, the Lord Pembroke's Men from 1595-1597, the playhouse primarily
catered t o sportin ventures after 1598. Fencing competitions were the feature at
the Rose during t4e 1590's. and the Preface on the Sports onto Sport suggests
sporting contests kept the Red Bull Inn in business:
these small things were as profitable and as great get pennies t o the
Actors, as any of our late famed playes.14
Spectator appeal was central t o the survival of the new professional approach
t o sport. Unlike its medieval predecessor, the Elizabethan sporting contest, while
s mbolizing the struggle for supremacy between two opposing sides, clearly
2stinguished between winners and losers.15 The medieval combatant relied on
strength and stamina, and typically fought until his opponent conceded. But as seen
i n Richard Carew's first-hand description of the new Enqlish style of wrestling,
participants concentrated on throwing one' s opponent so either his backe, or one
shoulder, and contrary heele touched the ground."l6 Each throw constituted a fall,
and three such throws constituted the match. Wrestling contests, with such clearly
prescribed conditions for success, allowed spectatorst o closely follow the "progress '
o f the match.17 Likewise, the fencing association set specific standards for achieving
victory. Fencers competed for public "prizes" at one of three ranks; the first level,
the free scholler, the second level, provost, and the most coveted rank. master of
fence. Success at each rank required proficiency at several weapons, and accordin
t o the ruler of the association, a group of four masters collectively njudged* whic:
contestants "passed" and which ones "failed". The spectators shouted
encouragement and frequently showered the stage with coins of approval, a
practice scorned by writers of the day, but one, certainly encouraged by the fencers
as Alyward's description suggests:
.. . (the) prizor and answerers addressed the crowd from the four corners
of the scaffold. Conventionally, they did this in terms lacking undue
modesty, and they kept up their warlike orato as long as their hearers
showered small coins upon the platforms. W en the fount of public
generosity dried up, t o be replaced by growls of impatience, they picked
up their donations with what dignity they could muster, and then
prepared for the fray.18
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covered with flock and leather the bignesse of a tennis ball." Additionally, Swetnam
warned his pupils against practicing with improperly prepared equipment "lest
someone should lose an eye."24Some fencing weapons weighed over three pounds,
but as Overbury noted in a 1615 description of a fencing prize, the "wounds are
seldome above skin deepe."25
Elizabethan wrestling contests also discouraged physical harm and injury.
Holds below the waist, kicking, and tripping were strictly forbidden. Richard Carew s
popular advocation of wrestling was based on the sport's "manliness... and more
delightful and less dangerous" than other physical activities.26 The legendary
Leontiskos, the winner of the 5th B.C. Olympiad, frequently gained advantage by
"breaking his opponents fingers," but his Elizabethan counterpart participated
within a more prescribed set of "ground rules" and concentrated on winning the
contest by "throwing his opponent". Serious injuries were rare at the organized
sporting contests. Publicized accidents, such as the one involving John Turner, a
master of fence at Whitefriar's school, were likely exaggerated by those looking for
reasons to complain about popular entertainments27
Elizabethan London, however, was not without i t s brutal sports. During the
last two decades of the sixteenth century spectators witnessed fierce, bloody,
sporting competitions. The contests matched bulls and bears against mastiff dogs
and reflected another significant transition occurring in Elizabethan London, that of
a shift away from human gladiator fights to those contested among animal
participants. Travelers' accounts of life in sixteenth-century London are incomplete
without reference to a visit to a beargarden. One such traveler, Paul Hentzner,
the animals are tied back and then wounded b large English
bull dogs, but not without dan er to the dogs t o m the horns
of the former and the teeth of t t e latter.28
Prior to the middle of the sixteenth century, animal baiting was not considered
a spectator sport, but rather, served a more utilitarian function of making beef
palatable for human consumption. Early city ordinances required baiting of beef for
reasons such as the one described by Thomas Muffett in his seventeenth century
medical treatise:
Bull beef, unless it be very young, is utterly unwholesome and
hard of digestion...baiting might attenuate their blood,
resolve their hardness, and make their flesh softer i n
Baiting rings were commonly set up outside of butcher shops in most market
towns. Preparingthe bull for human consumption may have attracted a small crowd,
but could hardly be considered a spectator attraction.
In fact, animal baiting did not achieve "spectator appeal" until the last two
decades of the sixteenth century. Between 1581 and 1603 animal contests appeared
weekly at the public baiting rin s and, according to some Renaissance historians,
evolved into Elizabethan EnglanBs national pastime.30
While bear baits entertained those at court, bull baits were particularly popular
among plebeian audiences gathered at the public baiting places. A rope was tied to
the horns of the bull and fastened at the other end to an iron ring fixed to a stake
driven into the ground. The contest began as one or more dogs charged the bull
doing their best t o seize him with his eye-teeth as the dog would sooner die than
leave his hold. Once the dog got a firm hold no matter how much the bull raged,
roared and bound, it was nearly impossible t o shake the dog's relentless hold. The
bull, on the other hand, set his posture of defense, beat the ground with his feet
preparing for the on rush of the dogs, and often behaved in a very unpredictable
manner. The chief aim of the bull was not to gore the dog with the point of his
horns, but t o slide them under the dog's belly and to throw him high into the air.
Dogs were commonly tossed as much as forty feet into the air and occasionall into
the upper galleries or nheavens." Frederick, Duke of Wurtemberg, visited London in
1598, and reported the dogs did not give up without a fight:
at such times you can perceive the breed and mettle of the
dogs, for althou h they are caught by the horns of the bull,
and tossed into #e air so frequently to fall down again upon
the horns, the do not give in, so that one is obliged t o pull
them back by tteir tails and force open their jawr.31
Although animals were mutilated and even frequently killed, their ultimate
destruction was not the primary goal of the competitions.32 Spectators wagered on
how man dogs the bear could hold off or how long the antagonistic animals
continueb;o fight. John Houghton, a frequent visitor t o the beargardens, rug ests
money exchanged hands when the dogs successfully held the bull or bear "ti I he
roars which a courageous bull (or bear) scorns t o do."33
Spectators often did more than just vocalize approval. On occasions they
attempted t o break a dog's fall by catching him before hitting the ground. Other
methods included usin slanted poles, aprons--'ust about anything t o cushion the
falls so as t o continue t e contest. Buzino describes one contest in which spectators
got into the act:
[spectators]. who showed partiality either by setting on or
taking off the dogs, which are detached from the bear, by
inserting between the teeth certain iron spattles w i t h a
wooden handle ....with certain iron hooks, which they apply t o
the thighsor even t o the neck of [their] dogs.34
Overzealous supporters sometimes ran into the ring, and according t o the following
observer, behaved in a fashion similar t o the animals.
There you may see the same men, at one moment engaged in
battle, beating, thumping, and almost killing one another,
without any positive cause; and at the next, drinking t o ether,
and embracing each other in the most friendly manner35
Such behaviors, indeed appalling by today's standards, however, must be
viewed within their own historical context, not ours. Sixteenth-century London was
still emerging from conditions of filth, disease and crime which during the middle
ages had run rampant in the city. London had no police force, citizens witnessed
public hangings, and fights and affrays left many dead. Public gatherings created
constant concerns for cit magistrates and the danger of rebellion and sedition, in
addition t o the spread o the dreaded plague, posed constant reminders that death
was a central part of Elizabethan life. A closer examination of these animal contests
reveals a changing attitude toward violent sports. Animal contestants became the
new symbol of the sixteenth-century gladiator. Bears were frequently given human
names, (Tom Hunks was perhaps the most legendary) fought in an upright position,
and often attracted a large following. In Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Slendor
laments a bear named Sackerson "lived t o lose more than twenty times."36
Spectators cheered their favorite "gladiators" in a evolving society, one s t i l l
accustomed t o violence and death, but one that no longer endorsed such risk t o
human performers.
By the 1580's the bear had fully replaced the human contestant in violent
sporting contests. Promoters gladly responded to the growing spectator appetite
for animal and other sporting activities and concentrated on the promoting of
sporting activities.
The Marketing of Sporting Contests
The opening o f the multi-purpose, suburban playhouses offered t h e
professional sporting enterprise major advantages over the earlier inn-yards: the
ability t o schedule more activity, to accommoddte a larger number of spectators, and
t o offer an enclosed structure enabling easier collection of fees, essential for a
profitable financial return.
The wove outside the city, did not, however, resolve the more serious problem
of informing the public of upcoming events. In fact, advanced notice became more
important as spectators needed more time t o plan the long northerly trek across
Finsbury Fields t o reach the Theatre and Curtain, or in the other direction, the
southerly walk across London Bridge t o the playhouses and baiting rings on the
Bankside. Advanced notice also became critical as Elizabethans began t o organize
their time differently. City activities required a regular and ordered frame of life, as
people made greater efforts t o use their time more efficiently37
Promoters also assumed a more aggressive strategy for advertising the
upcoming sporting events. For example, after the scheduling of a "fenan prize,"
qualified challengers living within a fifty-mile radius of London receive2written
invitations, the free scholler was given two weeks notice, provosts, four weeks and
masters u p t o eight weeks.38 Posted bills were set around the city and arrangements
t o use a local theater were made, usually on contingency that the money collected
from the audience was divided among the athletes and the "housekeeper."39 A
ceremonial march through town still preceded some sporting contests, but by the
1570's. the practice of postin bills more likely informed the public of when and
where sporting events would%e held. As described in this passage from Humorous
Lover, both advertising forms were common:
I'll set up my bills, that the gamesters of London may come in
and bait him before the ladies; but first boy go fetch me a
bagpipe; we will walk the streets in triumph, and give the
people notice of our sport.40
Ironically, advanced notice also gave city magistrates ample time t o criticize the
upcoming sportin events. For example, city officials condemned the fencing
masters*practice o f ndispensing bills" and "inviting persons t o be spectators at these
inhuman si hts " In 1576, the Lord Mayor of London complained t o the justice of
Middlesex t f a t %her are certain fencers that have set up biller and meane t o play a
prise at the Theatre on Tuesday next." The city council and Lord Mayor also criticized
the sport contests and complained such events kept apprentices away from work
and encouraged drunkenness, frays, bloodshed, and general disorder.41 According
t o the council'sdescription of spectators, issued in 1574, only the most despicable of
people attended the events:
sondrye robberies by pycking and Cuttinge of purses, utteringe
of popular busy sedicious matters, and man other corruptions
of youth and other enormyties, besydes tLat allso soundrye
slaughters and mayhemmin es of the Quenes Subjectes have
happened by ruiner of Skaf?olds, frames, and Stagier, and by
engymes, weapons, and powder used...42
Although there were some reported cases of violence and lawlessness, there is
little evidence t o support more than the occasional consequences of lar e crowds
gathered together for a length of time. Ann Jennalie Cook, in her care ul scrutiny of
English popular entertainments, concluded the number of disturbances were
remarkably small.
If the playhouses filled up each day with common citizens ever
ready t o break out in violence, as the Cit Fathers claimed,
then the civil records should have reflecteJthe fact. Instead
the records noted an occasional ruffian who broke up the
performance with noise and fists.43
Nevertheless, sport performances were banned in 1572, and two years later, all
public erformances were controlled by the Lord Mayor and Alderman who forbade
them 8uring outbreaks of the plague, or during periods of public disorders.44 The
suburban playhouses gave athletic performers temporary sanctuary from the
growing hostility toward performing during divine services and holy days.
Growing Opposition to Sunday Sporting Contests
Prior t o the middle of the sixteenth century, public entertainments were almost
exclusively held on Sundays and holidays, a time easier t o assemble audiences.
Opposition t o professional performers moved into full gear during the 15701s, at a
time coinciding with the building of the f~rstplayhouses in Shoreditch and an
increase in Sunday "playing activity." A move t o weekday performances would
certainly lessen the growing hostility directed at the popular entertainments and
would give promoters a chance to establish regular audiences, and dependable
revenues. The dramatic companies made the transition from Sunday t o weekday
performances. By 1561, the six major playing arenas in the city and t w o in the
suburbs had completely ceased activity on Sundays. Stockwood's estimates, put
weekday performances at three times per week and Steven Gosson reported
performances "dayly t o be seene upon the stages."45
Promoters of animal contests, however, were reluctant t o abandon Sunday
activity. They recognized that the audiences in attendance at the beargardens
represented that segment of society least able t o attend weekday performances.46
Despite continued pressure t o enforce Sunday prohibitions, Elizabeth supported
Sunday baitin activities. Several formal complaints by the Lord Mayor went
unheeded by We Queen's Privy Council. The dramatic companies' renouncement of
Sunday playing meant baiting promoters did not have t o compete for Sunday
audiences. Animal promoters never directly rivaled the emerging powerful dramatic
enterprise, and as a result, animal baiting persisted into the seventeenth century.
On the surface the refusal t o abandon Sunday seemed beneficial t o the
sporting enterprise, but the decision actually signalled the beginning of the
separation of sport from the more dramatic enterprise. Elizabeth's support for the
1597 Privy Council rulitg for the destruction of the London playhouses further
fuelled t h e growing legal distinction between the ."organized sporting
endeavors" and other theatrical entertainments.47 Unlike previous attempts t o ban
popular entertainments, this time the Privy Council agreed t o immediately ban all
performances and asked the Lord Mayor and the Justice of Middlesex t o arrange for
the destruction o f all theatres in and around London. Eventually, the city and court
officials moderated their harsh positions and agreed t o licence t w o acting
companies: the Lord Chamberlain's Men at the Globe, and the Lord Admirals' Men
at the Fortune. In return for this concession, which protected the "Queens
recreations," the city could now rely on the court for support in suppressing the
numerous attempts t o bypass city [email protected] The granting of legal status t o the
t w o acting companiescertainly added strength t o them, but proved costly t o the less
stable acting troupes and particularly t o professional athletes. The power of the
dramatic companies following the Privy Council Ruling marked a new professional
stage, a new approach t o theatrical endeavors, one which no longer endorsed the
organized sporting practices.
The Growth of the Private Playhouse
The development of the private playhouse during the early part o f the
seventeenth century perhaps best exemplifies the changing taste i n London's
theater. Private theaters, although open t o the general public, inevitably restricted
their clientele by charging a higher admission than found at the public playhouses.
Blackfriars was the most fashionable and most profitable of these new London
play houses.
When the owner of the Theatre, Gyles Allen, proposed t o increase the rent at
the Theatre and limit the new lease t o only five years, he gave James Burbage cause
t o relocate his enterprise elsewhere. Burbage carefully considered the nonoperational playhouse within the city district, in the Blackfriars precinct. Blackfriars
was eminently suitable: it was ideally situated near the center of the city, near St.
Pauls cathedral, a location certainly considered distinctly fashionable, and thus
attractive t o genteel clientele.49
Burbage's decision t o move t o Blackfriars initially included a plan t o move
fencing contests back t o the city. His decision t o promote prize-playing seemed
logical; after all, the fencing contests proved popular at the Bankside theaters.
Moreover, fencing had a long tradition in the Blackfriars precinct. In fact, one of
England's most popular and well-respected fencing schools was located in the
basement of the Blackfriars theater for over 25 years. William Joyner purchased a
lease from John Lyly and first opened the school in 1563. While the move t o
Blackfriars seemed in the best interest of the fencing contests, in actuality it dealt
organized sport a nasty blow. Sporting contests never appeared on these indoor
stages. The private theaters roofed and artificially lighted with exceptionally smaller
stages may have been more conducive t o acting than athletic contests. But, more
important than structural differences, the new private theaters represented the
latest literary fads, once the hallmark of the boys' companies. The new audiences
preferred the beauty and ingenuity of words over physical and lively action. The
records of the repertor at Blackfriars are incomplete but, James Shirley's
btroducthn to A ~ o u b & l Heir leaves little doubt that "feats of activity" were
never conducted on the Blackfriars stage:
No shows, no dance, and, what you most delight in, upon the
stage, all work for cutlers (fencers) barr'd.50
The growing separation of professionalsport from other public entertainments
is also exemplified in the unsuccessful attempt t o build a 12,000 seat amphitheater,
probably in Lincoln Fields, intended t o showcase the exercise of Heroicgue and
maistigue sport."51 The structure, four times larger than any previously
contemplated in England, evoked bitter opposition from the London acting
companies unhappy over the proposed cessation of all London shows for one day
per week. Fearful that their livel~hoodsmight be in jeopardy, or perhaps out of
anger that the monarch attempted t o mingle in theatrical practices, the acting
companies united in 1620 to oppose the amphitheater. Such displeasure is found In
the following excerpt from Sharkerley Marmlon's Holland's Leaguer
My plots of architecture, and erecting
new amphitheatres t o draw custom
From playhouses once a week, and so pull
A curse upon my head from the poor scoundrels.52
Acting troupes, such as the Company o f the Revels, gained increasing influence
over their theatrical affairs. Once warm and receptive t o the athletes, places such as
the Red Bulllnn no longer welcomed athletic contests. The Company o f the Revels,
for example, newly arrived at the Red Bull in 1619, publicly criticized the fencers in
an antagonistic prologue t o the comedy, Two Merry Milkmaids:
Thisday we entreat All that are hither come,
To expect no noyse of Guns, Trumpets, or Drums,
Nor sword and Targuet; but t o heare sence and Words
Fitting the Matter that the Scene affords
So that the Stage being reform'd, and free
From the lowd clamors it was wont t o bee,
Turmoyl'd with Battailes; you I hope will cease
Your dayle Tumults, and with us with Peace.53
The actors monopolized the coveted places t o play: the suburban playhousesi n
the summer and the London private theaters in the winter. Athletes gained access
t o the Globe a n d Fortune during the winter months, at a time when these
playhouses were empty and impassable roads likely limited the audience t o only the
hardiest of souls.
By the 16209s,only a few venues availed their arenas t o sport performers.
Playhouses which once were popular fencing venues were in little use; the Theatre
and the Curtain closed; and the Rose was eventually condemned. Occasional
fencing contests were performed at the Swan, but the playhouse stood steep in
financial troubles until its closing in 1622. Entertainments which were largely
accessible t o all during Elizabeth's reign were performed more often t o privileged
audiences durlng the seventeenth century. Organized wrestling, fencing and animal
contests which played t o large audiences during Elizabeth's reign all b u t
disappeared from the seventeenth-centuryvenues.54
The decline of London's organized sport brings us to the final question of what
role, if any, Elizabethan sport pla ed In the ultimate transition from medieval t o
modern sporting practices. Sport tistorians traditionally date the emergence of
organized, professional sport with the growth of industr~alization
of ei hteenth and
nineteenth century and dismiss the importance of Elizabethan sport.5 Sandiford's
account of British cricket crowds and Vamplew's discussion of sport crowd disorders
of the late nineteenth century represent only two examples which reaffirm the postindustrial "commercialization of leisure."56 But these inquiries largely ignore the
commercialization developing in London prior t o the English Civil War. By the time
of Elizabeth's accession t o the throne, the medieval feudal system based on guild
and manors had slowly eroded and been replaced by seeds of industrialization: the
rise of agricultural and commercial ventures, and the emergence of a new class of
merchants.57 England's growing prosperity affected Elizabethans at all social ranks.
Even the peasantry benefited from new material possessionsand a new standard of
wealth. The rise of organized sport during the last decades of the sixteenth century
coincided with the rapid expansion of London's first professionaltheater, and within
England's urban center of London meant increased attendance at commercialized
sport entertainments. Sport became organized with profit-making motives in mind,
athletes pursued sport as a full-time occupation, and sport regulating bodies began
t o standardize rules and regulations.
But unlike contemporary sportin practices, Elizabethan organized sport was
constantly subjected t o the whims of t4e political and social forces swelling in premodern London. City and church officials regularly disrupted the sporting activities
forcing performers t o seek refuge in the less accessible suburban playhouses outside
the city limits. Even the legal status of the sixteenth century "professional athlete"
remained ambiguous until James recognized the profession in 1605. During
outbreaks of the plague or during the holiday season, promoters found difficulty in
scheduling athletic contests for months at a time.
Fortunately for the athletes, sport specialists found a welcome place at
Elizabeth's court. John Simon, for example, frequently performed acrobatics before
the Queen, and as noted in the records of the Privy Council, Elizabeth often hired
"certein Italian plaien t o make shewe of an instrument of strainge motions."58
Fencing masters occasionally contested prizes at one of the royal residences and
from Machyn's accounts, we find professional wrestlers also competed there.59
Elizabeth's support of public entertainment was crucial t o the development of
organized sporting contests. Elizabeth's vagrant law required sport performers t o
hold "respectable occupations t o satisfy the law." But her "1579 ruling," allowing
the athletes t o obtain licenses, gave them the legal status necessary t o perform in
and around London.60 The court licensed all entertainments and at times when the
5ity issued temporary bans on performances the office of Master of Revels,
dispensed patents" and granted permission t o unlawful games and activities.61
Elizabeth also used the animal contests t o entertain foreign dignitaries. A
French ambassador, in one instance, dined with the Queen and after dinner "stod in
the gallere lokying of the pastyme t I1vJ(6) at night."62 According t o her records of
payments, the Queen sanctioned over 50 bear baits for her entertainment
purposes.63 Elizabeth hired Sir Saunders Duncombe in 1561 for the "sole practice
and profit of the fighting and combating of wild domestic bears." By 1573, Ralph
Bowes occupied the position of "Master of the Bears" an official office now
responsible for the baiting of royal bears.
Theater owners arranged with the Master of Bears, public baits when the bears
were not in use at one of the royal residences. The beargarden in Southwark, known
as Paris Garden, emerged asthe most successful public baiting facility in London. The
relationship between theatrical entrepreneurs and the Queen's baiting office
proved mutually beneficial. The bears, mostly imported, were very expensive t o
keep and t o replace. In return for the fees collected b y the "master bearward,"
which provided a continued source of income t o the office, the public could count
on regular animal baiting at Paris Garden or at a number of the other baiting
Thus, the relationship between the court and theater officials gave
professional performers necessary sanction; many of the city prohibitions against
sport entertainments were either withdrawn or never carried out, and despite
repeated attempts t o discourage them, organized sporting contests prospered
during most of Elizabeth's reign.65
But while reliance on the court aided the development of the sporting
endeavors, dependency on the court for legal protection ultimately placed the
sporting enterprise in a precarious position. Entrance into the seventeenth century
brought a new monarch to the throne who, unfortunately for the athletes, did not
share Elizabeth's passion for sporting contests. While James understood the
importance of martial activity and other physical exercises, he rarely entertained
dignitaries with sporting contests.66 According t o his court records, only t w o
fencing contests were performed at court during his reign. Instead, James
encouraged elaborate pageantry and expensive masques performed at private
residences and elite playhouses.67 The changing composition and taste of the
London audience, led by James' disinterest, sealed the fate of the professional
sporting enterprise.
Theater promoters were quick t o respond t o the new audiences. Only a few
years earlier, promoters had recognized the potential financial returns of sporting
contests and counted on audiences' familiarity with the elaborate sporting displays
in dramatic productions to bring large crowds back on another day.68 But now, as
seventeenth-century London's leisure tastes changed, theater promoters catered t o
a new sophisticated elite, paving a redefinition of performing standards while
excluding professional sporting events.69
Dramatic acting became a year-round enterprise--the Bankside playhouses in
the summer and the private London theaters in the winter--and athletes found it
increasingly more difficult to secure places to perform. When Philip Burbage and
Jacobe Meade took over the beargarden (Hope) in 1613 they agreed t o limit bear
baiting t o once every two weeks and present "those [dramatic activities] requiring a
stage. 70
Sporting contests were occasionally scheduled during Lent at a time when
actors were strictly forbidden t o perform plays.71 The records of Sir Henry Herbert,
James', Master of Revels, reveals one such example of a fencing contest performed
during the period prior t o Easter:
1622. 21 Martii For a prise at the Red Bull,
for the house, the fencers would give nothings. 105.72
The wording of Herbert's entry also suggests the waning popularity of the
sporting contests. By 1622, the "penny admission" charge had become re ular
theatrical practice. If the fencers gave ' nothing t o the house" spectators d i not
likely pay an admission fee. The athletes' access t o the "closed" theaters sug ests
that occasional sporting contests did not draw large crowds, and thereby, d i 8 n o t
anger city officials, nor bother the more powerful dramatic enterprise. The
professional athletes did not effectively organize t o protect their own rights. Sport
associations, such as the Masters of the Noble Science of Defence, focused on the
conduct of sporting events but held little sway concerning the power factions
developing within London's theatrical enterprise. By the middle of the seventeenth
century, the English "professional athlete" fell out of favor, with royalty, the new
audiences, and eventually, other professional performers. Theatrical promoters
turned t o the more dramatic entertainments; athletes, in the meantime, powerless
t o do anything t o regain the popularity once enjoyed during the latter part of the
sixteenth century, disappeared from the London public view long before parliament
closed all the London theaters in 1642.73
1The survivin records of the Masters of the Noble Science of Defence are
found in the Britis Library (Sloane Manuscript, "A Note of All Maister's Prizes,"
#SL2530. The records of the fencing association are also partially reprinted in Alfred
Hutton, The Sword and the Centuries (London: Grant Richards, 1901). Subsequent
references t o the association's records are from Hutton.
2Thomas Rymer, Foedera (20 vols.repr., Farmborough, 1967), VII, pt.ii, 140-141.
3For a discussion of the growth of the professional theater, see Gerald Bentley,
The Profession o f Player in Shakespeare's England (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1984) 3-1 1; Andrew Gurr, The Shakespearean Stage. 6574-1642 (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1980).
4Bentley. "Profession of player," ix-x. Bentley notes terms such as actor and
performer were not used in any of the documents of the period. The term "playerathlete" is used t o encompass all those who performed physical skills on the public
sE. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923). 11:
128. The major documents of the period coinciding with the growth of the
Elizabethan popular theater are printed in Chambers' comprehensive four volume
history of the Elizabethan theater. Subsequent citations of many of these documents
will be from Chambers.
6W.W. Greg, ed. Henslowe Papers (London: A.H. Bullen, 1907). 98. Philip
Henslowe is one o f the few theatrical entrepreneurs t o keep such written
7John Northbrooke, A Treatise Wherein Dicing. Dancing. Vaine Plaves, o r
Enterludes with other Idle Pastimes Commonly Used o n the Sabbath Day Are
Re roved b v the Authorities o f the Word o f God and Auntient Writers (1577) (Ann
Artor, Michigan: University Microfilms, 1969).
8Stephen Gosson, The Schoole o f Abuse, Containing a Pleasant Invective
Against Poets, Pipers, Players, Jesters, a n d Such Live Caterpillars o f a
Commonwealth (July 22, 1579): summary and extracts found i n Chambers
"Elizabethan stage," IV: 203-20.
9Allen Guttmann.. S.~ o r S~ectators
(New York: Columbia Universitv Press,
1986), 23.
loJoseph Strutt, Sport and Pastimes o f the People o f England (London:
Metheun and Company, 1903). 120.
11For an extensive discussion,,of the building of the first permanent playhouses
see Gurr, "Shakespearean stages, 113-156.
12For the best discussion of animal baiting see; Oscar Brownstein, Stake and
Stage: The Baiting Ring and the Public Playhouse in Elizabethan England, Doctoral
dissertation, University of Iowa, 1963.
13Thomas Platter, "Travel Account o f Thomas Platter," Reprinted i n
Brownstein, "Stake and stage," 318-319. Lambarde also acknowledges different
rates of admission. "None who 'goe t o Paris Garden, the Bell Savage---to beholde
bear baiting, enterludes, or fence play, can account of any pleasant spectacle unlesse
they first pay one pennie at the gate, another at the entry of the scaffold and the
third for a quiet standing. William Lambarde, A Perambulation o f Kent (London:
Baldwin, Cradock and Joy, 1826,) 233. This passage is not in the first edition of 1576.
14Anonymous. Preface on the Sports o f Sport, 1660.
lsFor a good discussion of characteristics of modern sport see, Norbert Elias
and Eric Dunnin ,Quest For Excitement: Sport and Leisure in the Civilizing Process
(London: ~ x f o r B ~ r e s1986).
-45IsRichard Carew, Survey o f Cornwall, London: Printed by 5.5. for John laggard,
1602, n.p. According t o Carew wrestlers "stripped totheir dubletsand hose... so they
be in better command o f their limbs." wore belts or "girdles" which made throwing
17Michael Poliakoff, Combat Sports in the Ancient World (New Haven, Conn:
Yale University Press, 1986). 7.
181.D. Alyward, "Playing a prize," Notesand Queries 196 (1951). 200.
lglbid, 270,277.
2oHutton, "Sword and the centuries," 283.
21Strutt, "Sports and pastimes," 210.
22James Gardner and R.H. Brodie, Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic o f
the Reign o f Henry Vlll(20 vols.) London: 15,477.
23Hutton. "Sword and the centuries," 279.
24oseph Swetnam, Schoole o f the Noble and Worthie Science o f Defence 1617,
np. (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University Microforms).
2sThomas Overbury, The Conceited News of Sir Thomas Overbury a n d his
Friends (1617) (Gainsville, Fla: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1968). 167.
Warew, "Survey of Cornwall," n.p. He compared wrestling t o English football,
Hurling was commonly played particularly at feasts and
also known as hurlin
holidays. However, tfiere is no evidence that the sport appeared as part of the
English professional theatre.
27J.D. Alyward, The English Master ofArms: From The Twelfth Century t o the
Twentieth Century. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1956). 36-37. Robert
Chrichton lost an eye and perhaps his life while playing with John Turner at the
Swan theatre. John Gill, a felt-maker's apprentice was wounded on the sta e of the
Red Bull inn by Richard Baxter, March 20. 1622. But it is not clear whetherRe war a
professional fencer or an excited spectator since it was not unusual for audience
members t o actually sit on the stages.
2BPaul Hentzner, ltinerarium (Walpole's translation), 1597. Repr. Brownstein's
"Stake and Stage," 316.
29Thomas Muffett, Health's lmprovement o r Ryles Comprizing a n d
Discovering the Nature ofFood (1655). cited in Brownstein, Stake and Sta e, 182.
3OFor a d~scussionof baiting as England's national pastime see fosepft Adams,
Shakespearean Playhouses (New York: Houghton, 1917) Edwin Chancellor, The
Pleasure Haunts o f London (New York: Houghton, 1925); Ashley Thorndike.
Shakespeare's Theatre (New York: Macmillan, 1928).
31Frederick. Duke of Wurtemberg, Extract from the True and Faithful Narrative
of the Baiting Excursion o f Frederick, Duke of Wurtemberg, (Jacob Rathgeb, 1602).
Repr. in Brownstein, "Stake and stage," 318,319.
32The massacre of animals was not the primary goal of the competitions. In
some instances, the horns of the bulls were either cut off or covered with leather t o
protect the onrushing dogs. Richard Brome, noted one owner of competing dogs
received "50 and 10 pound supper for the dogs," a compensation which surely
implies that the canines survived t o fight another day. Richard Brome's The
Antipodes(1638) Act II Scene i. Repr. in Brownstein "Stake and stage," 353.
33John Houghton, "Extract from A Collection for the lmprovement o f
Husbandry and Trade. (1596). Repr. in Brownstein, "Stake and stage. ' 360.
340razio Buzino, "Extract of July 10, 1618. Repr. in Brownstein, "Stake and
stage," 346.
35Houghton, "A Collection for the lmprovement of Husbandry and Trade",
repr. in Brownstein, "Stake and stage," 360.
36William Shakespeare, Merry Wives of Windsor, Act I., Scene I.
37For more information concerning the changing urban scene see A.L. Rowse
The England o f Elizabeth: The Structure of Society Madison, Wi.: University of
Wisconsin Press, 1978); Keith Thomas, "Work and Leisure in Pre-Industrial Society,"
Past and Present (1964): 29; Keith Wrightson, English Society 1580-1680 (New
Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1982)
38Hutton, "Sword and the centuries," 264,267,276.
W e e Bentlet "Profession of Player," 6.
4OAuthor un nown, Humorous Lover, 1617.
41For $xamples, see" Minute of Privy Council" (July 22, 1574); repr. i n
Chambers, Elizabethan stages," 273, Chambers, IV:260-345 provides numerous
accounts of formal city attempts t o ban popular entertainments.
42"Act of Common Council of London During the Mayoralty of Sir James
Hawes,"(Dec. 6, 1574) repr. in Chambers, "Elizabethan stages," 1V:273-274.
43Ann Jennalie Cook, The Privileged Playgoers o f Shakespeare's London 15761642. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 198!), 259.
44Precept from Lord Mayor t o Alderman, Abstract of Several Orders Relating
t o the Plague," repr. in Chambers, "Elizabethan stages," 266,
45Extracts of s~eechesare collected in Chambers, Elizabethan stages,"
46The baiting promoters were correct. James I issued a proclamation in 1603
reforming the "great neglect in this kingdome of keep[,ng the Sabbath day: "Extract
from proclamation" (May 7, 1603) Chambers, Elizabethan stages, IV. 335.
This prohibition of animal baitings on Sundays resulted in a serious financial blow t o
the beargardens which did not recover for decades.
47"The Lord Mayor and Alderman t o the Privy Council," (July 28,1597) repr. in
Chambers, "Elizabethan stages," 321-322. For further discussion of the Privy Council
ruling see, "The Privy Council Order of 1597 For the Destruction of London's
Playhouses," in Glyn Wickham, Early English Stages (London: Routledge 81 Kegan
Paul, 1969) Vol. II Pt. 2,9-29.
4aFor example Sir Francis Walsingham, wrote t o the Lord Mayor on Dec. 1,1583
and noted "without frequent exercises of such [pastimes] as are t o be p~esented
before hir maiestie, her servants cannot conveniently satisfie hir recreatton, repr. In
Chambers, "Elizabethan stages," IV: 296-297.
49Malone Society Col!xtions, "The Petition o f 1619," Cited in Adams,
"Shakespearean playhouses, 183.
SoJames Shirley, The Dramatic Works and Poems in ed. Alexander Dyre
(London: John Murray, 1833), 16.
5lReprinted in A.G.E.P. "Proposals for Building an Amphitheatre in London
Notes and Queries, 11 (December) 1914, 481,502. For a further discussion of the
amphitheater project see Leslie Hotson, "The Projected Amphitheatre",
Shakespeare Survey (1949), 24-35.
52Sharkerly Marmion, Holland's Leaguer 1632 edition. ii.3.
53Anonymous, Two Merry Milk Maids, 1619.
54According t o Wickham, John Bradshaw and Thomas Jones, Masters o f
Defence, were paid durin the early part of the seventeenth c$ntury for providing
fencers for the annual Lor! Mayor's Show. (Early English stages, 1:240.
55For examples, see Norbert Elias and Eric Dunning, Quest for Excitement:
Sport and Leisure in the Civilizing Process (London: Oxford Press, 1986) Robert
Malcolmson, Popular Recreations in English Society 1700- 1850 (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1973)
56For examples, see Keith Sandiford. "The Victorians at Play: Problems i n
Historiographical Methodology." journal o f Short History, 15 (Winter, 1981), 271288; Wray Vamplew. "Sports Crowd Disorder in Britain, 1870-1914: Causes and
Controls, ' Journal o f Sport History, 7 (Spring, 1980), 5-20; Dennis Brailsford.
"Sporting Days in Eighteenth-Century England." journal o f Sport History, 9 (Winter,
1982). 41-54.
57For further discussion see Christopher Hill. Chanoe a n d Continuitv in
Seventeenth-Century England (London: ~eidenfeld-and~ecolson,1974; ~awrence
Stone. The Rise o f the Aristocracv (Oxford : Clarendon Press. 1986.)
iachambers, "English stage," 142-183.
59Wrestlers competed in front of Elizabeth on Feb. 17, 1561. Henry Machyn,
o f Henry Machyn, Citizen and Merchant Taylor o f London, 1550-1568,
(London: Camden Society Publications, 1948.) Vol 13.180.
6o"Acte for the Punishmente of vagabonds and Sturdy Beggars," (Feb. 9, 1598) Chambers, "Elizabethan stages," IV: 324declared the following: ...all fencers,
bearwards, common players in enterludes not belonging t o any baron of this
Realme...and have not license of two justices of the peace...shall be deemed Rogues
Vagabonds and Sturdy Beggars.
6lThese exceptions however did not come without a price. Henslowe paid up t o
10s a week for licensing fees at the Rose ?!ayhouse and after 1600 3 a week t o
sanction performancesat the Fortune. Greg, Henslowe'sdiary," 112.
62Machyn, "Diary of Machyn,"l91. Thedinnertook place on May 25,1559.
63For a complete record of Elizabeth's baiting activities at court see, "A court
calendar" in Chambers, "Elizabethan stages," Appendix A, IV: 75-130.
@Brownstein, "Stake and stage," 53.
65For example, the Queen's Privy Council expressed concerns for "the great
hurt and destruction of the game of bear baiting and like pastimes, which are
maintained for her Majesty's pleasure." "Minute of Privy Council," (July 25, 1591)
repr. in Chambers, "Elizabethan stages," IV: 307.
66 In Baslikon Doron, written t o guide his eldest son, James I discussed the
manly exercises befittin a prince and recommended "honest games or pastimes, as
may further abilitie ant! maintaine health'' Charles H. MclLwain, ed., The Political
Works o f James 1. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1928), 13. For a thorough
discussion of James' and Elizabeth's contrasting attitudes toward sports and
recreations see N. Struna, "The Declaration of Sports Reconsidered," Canadian
Journal of History o f Sport, 14 (1983). 44-68.
67 For a comprehensive discussion of Stuart theatrical practices see, Gerald
Bentley, The Jacobean and Caroline stage, 7 vols.,( Oxford: Clarendon Press, 19411968).
- --,.
68For a comprehensive description of sport in plays, particularly stage duelling,
see Louis Wright, "Stage Duelling in the Elizabethan Theater," Modern Language
Review, 22 (1927): 265-275; Susan Snyder, "Ourselves Alone. The Challenge t o Single
Combat in Shakespeare," Studies in English Literature 20 (1980): 201-2 16.
69The changing taste of English audiences may have also been responsible for
the eventual downfall of the English public theatrical enterprise in the years
precedin~the English Civil War. According t o GI n Wickham the professional
theater lost the support of those classes in ~ n g l i ssociety
lying between these
extremes (educated nobility and agricultural and industrial laborers) ... and the
theater had come t o be regarded either as a wasteful extravagance exclusive t o
royalty, or as an equally wasteful distraction, leading simple minds away from both
the benefits o i common toil and the profits of true religion." Wickham, "Early
english stages, 11:149.
70"Contract between Philip Henslowe and Jacobe Meade," repr. in Greg,
"Henslowe's papers," 19.
71"Minute of Privy Council," (March 13, 1579) repr. in Chambers, "Elizabethan
stages," IV: 278. For further discussion of Lenten performances see; Gerald Bentley,
Lenten Performances in the Jacobean and Caroline Theaters" in Essavs o n
Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama in Honor o f Hardin Craig,in ed. R. ~ % s l e ~ ,
(Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1962).
72John Adams. The Dramatic Records o f Sir Henry Herbert, Master of Revels
1622-1673,(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1917), 48.
73A resolution originating in the House of Commons called for the closing of
the playing places...and whereas publicke sports...too commonly expressing laciuous
Mirth and Levitie...shall cease, and bee forborne.(September 2, 1642. repr. in Leslie
Hotson, The Commonwealth and Restoration Stage (New York: Russell & Russell,
1962), 5,6.