Edward Alleyn

Edward Alleyn

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Edward Alleyn (ˈ; 1566–1626) was an English
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

An actor is a person who acts in a dramatic production and who works in film, television, theatre, or radio in that capacity...

 who was a major figure of the Elizabethan theatre and founder of Dulwich College
Dulwich College
Dulwich College is an independent school for boys in Dulwich, southeast London, England. The college was founded in 1619 by Edward Alleyn, a successful Elizabethan actor, with the original purpose of educating 12 poor scholars as the foundation of "God's Gift". It currently has about 1,600 boys,...

 and Alleyn's School
Alleyn's School
Alleyn's School is an independent, fee-paying co-educational day school situated in Dulwich, south London, England. It is a registered charity and was originally part of the historic Alleyn's College of God's Gift charitable foundation, which also included James Allen's Girls' School , Dulwich...


Early life

He was born in Bishopsgate
Bishopsgate is a road and ward in the northeast part of the City of London, extending north from Gracechurch Street to Norton Folgate. It is named after one of the original seven gates in London Wall...

, London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...

, a younger son of Edward Alleyn, an innkeeper and porter to the queen, and Margaret Townley. His mother's link to the Lancashire Townley family
Towneley (family)
The Towneley or Townley family are an English recusant family whose ancestry can be traced back to Norman England. They take their name from Towneley Hall in Burnley, Lancashire, which was the family seat until its sale in 1901.-The Towneleys of Towneley Hall:...

 is somewhat of a mystery. Alleyn himself stated she was the daughter of John Townley of Townley, however this does not easily fit with the available information on the Townley family tree. Regardless the present-day road that passes his school was named after her in 1884. He was baptised at St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate
St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate
St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate is a Church of England church in the City of London, first mentioned in 1212 and dedicated to St Botolph.The nearest London Underground station is Liverpool Street.-History:...

. He was known to contemporaries as "Ned"; his surname is variously spelled Allen or Alleyne.

Career on the boards

It is not known at what date he began to act, but in 1583 his name was on the list of the Earl of Worcester
William Somerset, 3rd Earl of Worcester
William Somerset, 3rd Earl of Worcester, KG was born before 1526 to Henry Somerset, 2nd Earl of Worcester and his second wife Elizabeth Browne....

's players. He was eventually rated by common consent as the foremost actor of his time; his only close rival was Richard Burbage
Richard Burbage
Richard Burbage was an English actor and theatre owner. He was the younger brother of Cuthbert Burbage. They were both actors in drama....


He played the title roles in three of Christopher Marlowe
Christopher Marlowe
Christopher Marlowe was an English dramatist, poet and translator of the Elizabethan era. As the foremost Elizabethan tragedian, next to William Shakespeare, he is known for his blank verse, his overreaching protagonists, and his mysterious death.A warrant was issued for Marlowe's arrest on 18 May...

's major plays: Faustus
The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus
The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, commonly referred to simply as Doctor Faustus, is a play by Christopher Marlowe, based on the Faust story, in which a man sells his soul to the devil for power and knowledge...

, Tamburlaine
Tamburlaine (play)
Tamburlaine the Great is the name of a play in two parts by Christopher Marlowe. It is loosely based on the life of the Central Asian emperor, Timur 'the lame'...

, and Barabas in The Jew of Malta
The Jew of Malta
The Jew of Malta is a play by Christopher Marlowe, probably written in 1589 or 1590. Its plot is an original story of religious conflict, intrigue, and revenge, set against a backdrop of the struggle for supremacy between Spain and the Ottoman Empire in the Mediterranean that takes place on the...

. He created the parts, which were probably written especially for him. The evidence for his stage career is otherwise fragmentary. Other parts thought to be associated with Alleyn are Orlando in Robert Greene's Orlando Furioso, and perhaps Hieronymo in The Spanish Tragedy
The Spanish Tragedy
The Spanish Tragedy, or Hieronimo is Mad Again is an Elizabethan tragedy written by Thomas Kyd between 1582 and 1592. Highly popular and influential in its time, The Spanish Tragedy established a new genre in English theatre, the revenge play or revenge tragedy. Its plot contains several violent...

by Thomas Kyd
Thomas Kyd
Thomas Kyd was an English dramatist, the author of The Spanish Tragedy, and one of the most important figures in the development of Elizabethan drama....

. Some further and lost works are thought to have had Alleyn in leading roles, including plays by George Peele
George Peele
George Peele , was an English dramatist.-Life:Peele was christened on 25 July 1556. His father, who appears to have belonged to a Devonshire family, was clerk of Christ's Hospital, and wrote two treatises on bookkeeping...

 such as The Battle of Alcazar. In a private letter, he mocked himself as a 'fustian
Fustian is a term for a variety of heavy woven, mostly cotton fabrics, chiefly prepared for menswear. It is also used to refer to pompous, inflated or pretentious writing or speech, from at least the time of Shakespeare...


In 1593, while the bubonic plague
Bubonic plague
Plague is a deadly infectious disease that is caused by the enterobacteria Yersinia pestis, named after the French-Swiss bacteriologist Alexandre Yersin. Primarily carried by rodents and spread to humans via fleas, the disease is notorious throughout history, due to the unrivaled scale of death...

 was affecting London, he joined forces with some of Lord Strange's Men
Lord Strange's Men
Lord Strange's Men was an Elizabethan playing company, comprising retainers of the household of Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange . They are best known in their final phase of activity in the late 1580s and early 1590s...

 in a provincial tour, combining them with players from the Admiral's Men
Admiral's Men
The Admiral's Men was a playing company or troupe of actors in the Elizabethan and Stuart eras...

 with which he was then associated. It extended as far as Bristol
Bristol is a city, unitary authority area and ceremonial county in South West England, with an estimated population of 433,100 for the unitary authority in 2009, and a surrounding Larger Urban Zone with an estimated 1,070,000 residents in 2007...

, Shrewsbury
Shrewsbury is the county town of Shropshire, in the West Midlands region of England. Lying on the River Severn, it is a civil parish home to some 70,000 inhabitants, and is the primary settlement and headquarters of Shropshire Council...

, Chester
Chester is a city in Cheshire, England. Lying on the River Dee, close to the border with Wales, it is home to 77,040 inhabitants, and is the largest and most populous settlement of the wider unitary authority area of Cheshire West and Chester, which had a population of 328,100 according to the...

, and York
York is a walled city, situated at the confluence of the Rivers Ouse and Foss in North Yorkshire, England. The city has a rich heritage and has provided the backdrop to major political events throughout much of its two millennia of existence...


He retired at the height of his fame around 1598, and it is said that Queen Elizabeth
Elizabeth I of England
Elizabeth I was queen regnant of England and Ireland from 17 November 1558 until her death. Sometimes called The Virgin Queen, Gloriana, or Good Queen Bess, Elizabeth was the fifth and last monarch of the Tudor dynasty...

 herself requested his return to the stage, which he did until 1604. Ben Jonson
Ben Jonson
Benjamin Jonson was an English Renaissance dramatist, poet and actor. A contemporary of William Shakespeare, he is best known for his satirical plays, particularly Volpone, The Alchemist, and Bartholomew Fair, which are considered his best, and his lyric poems...

 bestowed praise on Alleyn's acting. Thomas Nashe
Thomas Nashe
Thomas Nashe was an English Elizabethan pamphleteer, playwright, poet and satirist. He was the son of the minister William Nashe and his wife Margaret .-Early life:...

 expressed in Pierce Penniless (1593) his admiration for him, in a quartet of English actors including also John Bentley, William Knell and the clown Richard Tarlton
Richard Tarlton
Richard Tarlton , an English actor, was the most famous clown of his era.His birthplace is unknown, but reports of over a century later give it as Condover in Shropshire, with a later move to Ilford in Essex...

; while Thomas Heywood
Thomas Heywood
Thomas Heywood was a prominent English playwright, actor, and author whose peak period of activity falls between late Elizabethan and early Jacobean theatre.-Early years:...

 calls him "inimitable", "the best of actors," "Proteus
In Greek mythology, Proteus is an early sea-god, one of several deities whom Homer calls the "Old Man of the Sea", whose name suggests the "first" , as protogonos is the "primordial" or the "firstborn". He became the son of Poseidon in the Olympian theogony In Greek mythology, Proteus (Πρωτεύς)...

 for shapes and Roscius
Quintus Roscius Gallus
-Life:Endowed with a handsome face and manly figure, he studied the delivery and gestures of the most distinguished advocates in the Forum, especially Q Hortensius, and won universal praise for his grace and elegance on the stage. He especially excelled in comedy. Cicero took lessons from him...

 for a tongue." Thomas Fuller
Thomas Fuller
Thomas Fuller was an English churchman and historian. He is now remembered for his writings, particularly his Worthies of England, published after his death...

 in his Worthies later wrote of Alleyn's reputation of "so acting to the life that he made any part to become him".

In business

He went into business with Philip Henslowe
Philip Henslowe
Philip Henslowe was an Elizabethan theatrical entrepreneur and impresario. Henslowe's modern reputation rests on the survival of his diary, a primary source for information about the theatrical world of Renaissance London...

, his father-in-law, and eventually became wealthy. He became part owner in Henslowe's ventures, and in the end sole proprietor of several profitable playhouses, bear-pits and brothels. Among these were the Rose Theatre
The Rose (theatre)
The Rose was an Elizabethan theatre. It was the fourth of the public theatres to be built, after The Theatre , the Curtain , and the theatre at Newington Butts The Rose was an Elizabethan theatre. It was the fourth of the public theatres to be built, after The Theatre (1576), the Curtain (1577),...

 at Bankside, the Paris Garden
The Beargarden was the facility for bear-baiting, bull-baiting, and other "animal sports" in the London area during the 16th and 17th centuries, from the Elizabethan era to the English Restoration period.-History:...

 and the Fortune Theatre
Fortune Playhouse
The Fortune Playhouse was an historic theatre in London. It was located between Whitecross Street and the modern Golden Lane, just outside the City of London...

 on Finsbury Fields. The Fortune was built for Alleyn and Henslowe in 1600, the year after the rival Globe Theatre
Globe Theatre
The Globe Theatre was a theatre in London associated with William Shakespeare. It was built in 1599 by Shakespeare's playing company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, and was destroyed by fire on 29 June 1613...

 was completed south of the river, by the same contractor Peter Street, but was square rather than round; it was occupied by the Admiral's Men
Admiral's Men
The Admiral's Men was a playing company or troupe of actors in the Elizabethan and Stuart eras...

, of which Alleyn was the head.

He filled, too, in conjunction with Henslowe, the post of "master of the king's games of bears, bulls and dogs." On some occasions he directed the sport in person, and John Stow
John Stow
John Stow was an English historian and antiquarian.-Early life:The son of Thomas Stow, a tallow-chandler, he was born about 1525 in London, in the parish of St Michael, Cornhill. His father's whole rent for his house and garden was only 6s. 6d. a year, and Stow in his youth fetched milk every...

 in his Chronicles gives an account of how Alleyn baited a lion
Lion-baiting is a blood sport involving the baiting of lions.-Antiquity:Antiquity has examples of the eternal dream of man's faithful companion, the dog, which defeats even the 'King of Beasts', the lion. Greek legend reflects Achilles shield with a depiction of the victory of his dog over two lions...

 before James I
James I of England
James VI and I was King of Scots as James VI from 24 July 1567 and King of England and Ireland as James I from the union of the English and Scottish crowns on 24 March 1603...

 at the Tower of London
Tower of London
Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress, more commonly known as the Tower of London, is a historic castle on the north bank of the River Thames in central London, England. It lies within the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, separated from the eastern edge of the City of London by the open space...


College founder

Alleyn's connection with Dulwich
Dulwich is an area of South London, England. The settlement is mostly in the London Borough of Southwark with parts in the London Borough of Lambeth...

 began in 1605, when he bought the manor of Dulwich from Sir Francis Calton. The landed property, of which the entire estate had not passed into Alleyn's hands earlier than 1614, stretched from Sydenham Hill
Sydenham Hill
For other uses of 'Sydenham', see Sydenham .Sydenham Hill is a hill or ridge and a locality in South-East London and the name of a road which runs along the northern eastern part of the ridge and forms the boundary between the London Borough of Southwark and the London Borough of Lewisham. The...

 on whose summit now stands the Crystal Palace television transmission tower, to the crest of the parallel ridge, three miles nearer London, known in its several portions as Herne Hill
Herne Hill
Herne Hill is located in the London Borough of Lambeth and the London Borough of Southwark in Greater London. There is a road of the same name which continues the A215 north of Norwood Road and was called Herne Hill Road.-History:...

, Denmark Hill
Denmark Hill
Denmark Hill is an area and road in the London Borough of Southwark. The road forms part of the A215; north of Camberwell Green it becomes Camberwell Road; south of Red Post Hill it becomes Herne Hill. Its postcode is SE5. Nearby streets whose names refer to different aspects of the same...

 and Champion Hill
Champion Hill
Champion Hill is a football stadium on the cusp of East Dulwich and Camberwell in South London, in the London Borough of Southwark.It is the home ground of Dulwich Hamlet, and Fisher FC currently share the ground. 'The Hill' was formerly one of the largest amateur grounds in England, with...

. Alleyn acquired this large property for little more than £35,000. He began the task of building and endowing the College of God's Gift
Dulwich College
Dulwich College is an independent school for boys in Dulwich, southeast London, England. The college was founded in 1619 by Edward Alleyn, a successful Elizabethan actor, with the original purpose of educating 12 poor scholars as the foundation of "God's Gift". It currently has about 1,600 boys,...

 at Dulwich.

All was completed in 1617 except the charter or deed of incorporation for setting his lands in mortmain
Mortmain is a legal term that means ownership of real estate by a corporation or legal institution that can be transferred or sold in perpetuity; the term is usually used in the context of its prohibition...

. Delays occurred in the Star Chamber
Star Chamber
The Star Chamber was an English court of law that sat at the royal Palace of Westminster until 1641. It was made up of Privy Counsellors, as well as common-law judges and supplemented the activities of the common-law and equity courts in both civil and criminal matters...

, where Lord Chancellor Bacon
Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount St Albans, KC was an English philosopher, statesman, scientist, lawyer, jurist, author and pioneer of the scientific method. He served both as Attorney General and Lord Chancellor of England...

 brought pressure to bear on Alleyn, with the aim of securing a portion of the proposed endowment for the maintenance of lectureships at Oxford and Cambridge. This approach was in line with scepticism on Bacon's part about the impact of charitable foundations, compared to a scheme put forward by Sir Henry Savile
Sir Henry Savile
Sir Henry Savile was an English scholar, Warden of Merton College, Oxford, and Provost of Eton.-Life:He was the son of Henry Savile of Bradley, near Halifax in Yorkshire, England, a member of an old county family, the Saviles of Methley, and of his wife Elizabeth, daughter of Robert Ramsden.He was...

 and Sir Edwin Sandys that lacked funds. Alleyn finally carried his point and the College of God's Gift at Dulwich was founded, and endowed under letters patent
Letters patent
Letters patent are a type of legal instrument in the form of a published written order issued by a monarch or president, generally granting an office, right, monopoly, title, or status to a person or corporation...

 of James I, dated 21 June 1619. Building had already been begun in 1613.

Alleyn was not a member of his own foundation, but he guided and controlled its affairs under powers reserved to himself in the letters patent
Letters patent
Letters patent are a type of legal instrument in the form of a published written order issued by a monarch or president, generally granting an office, right, monopoly, title, or status to a person or corporation...

. His diary shows that he mixed much and intimately in the life of the college. He engaged the boys in occasional theatrical performances: at a festive gathering on 6 January 1622 "the boyes play'd a playe."


Alleyn inherited property in Bishopsgate from his father. He married on 22 October 1592 Joan Woodward, stepdaughter of Philip Henslowe. She died on 28 June 1623. On December 3 of that same year he married Constance, daughter of John Donne
John Donne
John Donne 31 March 1631), English poet, satirist, lawyer, and priest, is now considered the preeminent representative of the metaphysical poets. His works are notable for their strong and sensual style and include sonnets, love poetry, religious poems, Latin translations, epigrams, elegies, songs,...

, the poet and dean of St Paul's
Dean of St Paul's
The Dean of St Paul's is the head of the Chapter of St Paul's Cathedral in London, England in the Church of England. The most recent Dean, Graeme Knowles, formerly Bishop of Sodor and Man, was installed on 1 October 2007 and resigned on 31 October 2011...

. He had no children. Constance remarried in 1630, to a Samuel Harvey.

Death and memorial

Alleyn died in November 1626 and was buried in the chapel of the college which he had founded. His gravestone fixes the day of his death as the 21st, but there are grounds for the belief that it was the 25th. In 1610 Alleyn was a member of the corporation of wardens of St Saviour's, Southwark
Southwark Cathedral
Southwark Cathedral or The Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St Saviour and St Mary Overie, Southwark, London, lies on the south bank of the River Thames close to London Bridge....

 and there is a memorial window to him in the cathedral. A portrait of the actor is on display at Dulwich Picture Gallery
Dulwich Picture Gallery
Dulwich Picture Gallery is an art gallery in Dulwich, South London. England's first purpose-built public art gallery, it was designed by Regency architect Sir John Soane and opened to the public in 1817. Soane arranged the exhibition spaces as a series of interlinked rooms illuminated naturally...


Alleyn is unusual among figures in 16th-century drama because a large selection of his private papers have survived. They were published in 1843 as The Alleyn Papers, edited by scholar-forger John Payne Collier
John Payne Collier
John Payne Collier , English Shakespearian critic and forger, was born in London.-Reporter and solicitor:...


Portrayals in popular culture

Alleyn appears as a character in the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love
Shakespeare in Love
Shakespeare in Love is a 1998 British-American comedy film directed by John Madden and written by Marc Norman and playwright Tom Stoppard....

played by Ben Affleck
Ben Affleck
Benjamin Géza Affleck-Boldt , better known as Ben Affleck, is an American actor, film director, writer, and producer. He became known with his performances in Kevin Smith's films such as Mallrats and Chasing Amy...

. He is portrayed as a self-absorbed but well-admired actor who agrees to originate the role of Mercutio
Mercutio a fictional character in William Shakespeare's 1597 tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. He is a close friend of Romeo, and Romeo's cousin Benvolio, and also a blood relative to Prince Escalus and Count Paris. As such, being neither a Montague nor a Capulet, Mercutio is one of the few in Verona...

 in Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet
Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy written early in the career of playwright William Shakespeare about two young star-crossed lovers whose deaths ultimately unite their feuding families. It was among Shakespeare's most popular archetypal stories of young, teenage lovers.Romeo and Juliet belongs to a...

after being told that the play's title is "Mercutio" (an obvious parody of a stereotypical Hollywood star
Movie star
A movie star is a celebrity who is well-known, or famous, for his or her starring, or leading, roles in motion pictures. The term may also apply to an actor or actress who is recognized as a marketable commodity and whose name is used to promote a movie in trailers and posters...

). Alleyn's provincial tour with the Admiral's Men, and his known roles in Marlowe's plays (as well as his playing Henry VI by Shakespeare) are mentioned in the dialogue of the film. He is depicted as advising Shakespeare
William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England's national poet and the "Bard of Avon"...

 to change the name to "Romeo & Juliet" to suit the focus of the play.

Further reading

  • S. P. Cerasano, Edward Alleyn's 'Retirement' 1597–1600, Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England, 10 (1998), pp. 98–112.
  • S. P. Cerasano, Edward Alleyn, the new model actor, and the rise of the celebrity in the 1590s, Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England (2005), pp. 47–58.
  • David Mateer, Edward Alleyn, Richard Perkins and the Rivalry Between the Swan and the Rose Playhouses, The Review of English Studies 2009 60(243): pp. 61–77.

External links