Between the children’s companies and the grammar school scholars, the first thirty years of the “Golden Age” of Elizabethan theatre was entirely dominated by boy actors.
“Harken, I do hear sweet music: I never heard the like” and “we shall hear [in the choir of Saint Paul’s] the fairest voices of all the cathedrals in England … and to tell the truth, I never heard better singing.”
— Claude Desainliens, a French visitor to London in 1573
“Mom, I was just in Westminster Abbey, and there was music falling from the ceiling—the most beautiful singing I’ve ever heard. I thought it was angels, but then the choir door opened and out walked a whole lot of little boys!”
—My 18-year-old daughter, calling from a phone booth on her first day in London, 1995, having just heard the Westminster Boys Choir in rehearsal
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A Bit of Little-Known History From My Book:
“In England, the training of boys’ voices for royal entertainment goes far back in history, deep into the Middle Ages. Sometime in the 12th century, probably earlier, an ecclesiastical body of musicians and singers was organized to meet the spiritual needs of the England’s reigning sovereign. It still exists. Called the Chapel Royal, it is today considered the oldest continuous musical organization in the world. Traditionally it has been comprised of from twenty-four to thirty-eight men and from eight to twelve boys. Besides the Chapel Royal and the Westminster Boys’ Choir there are dozens of boys’ choirs throughout Britain, the Chapel Royal only being the oldest.
“No one knows when boy singers were added to the Chapel Royal or other church choirs, but they were probably present from the very beginning, their treble voices being thought to be the closest to the voices of angels. There was a religious pursuit of this purity of tone. Churches, abbeys and cathedrals were designed acoustically to capture it: massive sound boxes that amplified these “fairest voices.” Choir schools, attached to churches and training children for church choirs, played a role in the pre-reformation history of British education. They offered free education to able students. Their purpose was to assure a sufficient number of well-trained voices to supply the needs of the church. As we shall see, Erasmus himself attended a song school in Utrecht, perhaps because it was an opportunity for a free education. The earliest choirmasters were usually almoners, the men who distributed alms to the needy.
“In England, the best of the young voices trained in these schools were pressed into service for the crown, and the Chapel Royal consistently had a small number of singers to complement the adult musicians. Their voices were, and are to this day, a thing of transcendent beauty. Boys’ voices broke later five hundred years ago than they do today, evidently because there was less protein in the diet. A boy who began his service in the Chapel at the age of seven or eight could continue to sing sweetly until the age of sixteen or seventeen, during which time he received an education overseen by the choirmaster.
“The issue of impressment, which was essentially enforced servitude, must be seen in the context of the time. It was an accepted custom of the state, and frequently welcomed as an honor. The crown gave writs authorizing impressment in all trades in which it had need, and grown men who were expert silversmiths, ironmongers, weavers, wigmakers or printers could be impressed along with singing children.
“That said, it must be admitted that it was poor children who filled the ranks of the Chapel choir, not the sons of the gentlemen. Parents whose children were impressed into the Chapel Royal may have mourned the loss of daily interaction with their small child, but they may have also welcomed the benefits. There was usually a financial arrangement made with the family, and along with a free grammar school education, capable students were often sent to university after their voices broke, so a seven-year stint in the Chapel Royal was a means of advancement in the world. In addition, of course, while they served, their housing, nutrition, and clothing were all provided. One could say that they literally sang for their supper.
“This strange form of servitude did not survive much past the 16th century. The impressment of children eventually led to abuses and charges of kidnapping. The writs were automatically renewed each year and not closely scrutinized, and, curiously, it was the abuse of entrepreneurs who used their royal writs to impress boys as actors rather than singers that contributed its demise. But that’s the end of a long story, and we are only at the beginning.
“In the 15th and 16th centuries the boy singers of the Chapel Royal, with their exquisitely trained voices, experienced a brief flaring of history and became a small troupe of boy actors. They were immensely popular, performing constantly at court and eventually in the public arena. Several other rival boys’ companies came and went over the years, both in London and in the provinces, the most enduring of which was formed from students at St. Paul’s School. The Children of the Chapel and the Boys of St. Paul’s even competed successfully with the great men’s companies of the Shakespearean era and were eventually disparaged by Hamlet as the “aery of children, little eyases, that cry out on the top of question, and are most tyrannically clapped for’t,” e.g. squawking eaglets, who were robbing adult troupes of their city audiences.
“The boys’ companies were small, usually comprised of no more than twelve actors, and for most of their history they were only seen in the halls of the aristocracy. They were a far cry from the legions of schoolboys spouting Terrence and Ovid and performing comical skits in Latin. But there are two reasons to devote space in this book to them. One is that their remarkable story will reveal the vibrant thread in the weave of theatre history, leading directly to the golden age of Elizabethan drama. They spanned the century of the Reformation, and there are records of hundreds of their performances. Although we know little about the content of their plays beyond their titles, the bit we do know reveals a perceptive and witty adolescent view of the political turmoil of the time. In itself it is a fascinating and little known history that is worth the telling, but, because it is a digression here, the telling will be referred to a later chapter.
“The other reason is more germane to our topic. Boys who made up those companies came from the same society and the same education as their schoolboy peers, and their abilities were noticed first by a headmaster teaching singing and hearing their recitations in their earliest years of schooling. At court they often competed with boy players from some of the prestigious grammar schools in London and other large municipalities. Eton, Westminster, St. Paul’s, and Merchant Taylors’ were only a few of many schools invited to perform at court, and their schoolmasters were frequently dramatists of some fame. Indeed, we have the names of several boy actors who entered the companies directly out of grammar school. It seems fair to think that the training received in school prepared them well, and there were certainly parallels in subject matter. Furthermore, the culture of playacting went far beyond the classroom. Anyone who has read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall will remember that any leisure time enjoyed in the evenings by Thomas Cromwell’s young nephews and clerks was filled with play-making. The boys’ companies were only the tip of a cultural iceberg that was deep and profound. In fact, for most of the 16th century, theatre throughout England was almost entirely dominated by schoolboys. This book will closely examine their education, starting one of the most famous play-making schoolmasters of the Tudor age and then going back to the man who created the model for the humanist curriculum for the age of the Reformation: Erasmus of Rotterdam.”
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This history is a bit of a digression from the main thrust of my book. The few dozen boys in the small number of professional boys companies were worlds apart from the day to day training in music and performance skills in the Latin grammar schools all over England, but their role in the history of English theatre is so fascinating I just couldn’t leave it untold. Part 2 of this blog will continue the fascinating story of the immensely popular boys companies, right up until the Golden Age of Elizabeth.