Academic journal article Early Theatre

The Magistrate-And Humorous Magistrates-In Early Seventeenth-Century England

Academic journal article Early Theatre

The Magistrate-And Humorous Magistrates-In Early Seventeenth-Century England

Article excerpt

As we have seen, The Humorous Magistrate features--in the representation of Justice Thrifty and his professional activities--a characterization of the legal system and its officials during the personal rule of Charles I. Among the play's themes are some generally held concerns about legal process: judicial corruption and the failure of the central state to govern rural localities according to customary traditions. These issues engage what historians have called the contest between 'court and country', the reforming zeal that evangelical Anglicans and Puritans brought to the reform of the law, and the enmity that Charles I and his privy council had engendered in their (by the standards of the reformers) arbitrary rule during the 1630s.

It has been established that the play was written by John Newdigate III (1600-42), (1) a prominent gentleman and lawyer of the West Midlands. Newdigate was the eldest son of Sir John and Anne Newdigate (nee Fitton), a prominent Warwickshire family allied with several quasi-Puritan or reform-minded gentry families such as the Burdetts, Egertons, Holcrofts, Leighs, Greasleys, and Hastings, whose members included prominent lawyers and JPS who were allied in sentiment to the law reformers of the age. While John Newdigate attended Gray's Inn and the Inner Temple, and was later involved in considerable litigation, there is no evidence that he studied for the bar. He was elected sheriff of Warwickshire in 1625, as member of parliament in 1628, and was on the commission of the peace from 1630, though there is no evidence that he was an active magistrate. His greatest interests seem to have been in mixed farming and coal-mining, accompanied by a keen eye for poetry and the theatre. The extended family's legal inheritance stemmed from Sir John Newdigate II, who sought to serve as a godly magistrate, and his second son Richard (1602-78)--who became a bencher of Gray's Inn, JP, and assize judge who defended reform members of parliament imprisoned by the crown, assisted in Laud's impeachment, and was later appointed to the high court by Oliver Cromwell. He was highly praised by the duke of Bridgewater, who sponsored the marriage of his father's granddaughter, Juliana Leigh, to Richard in 1632. The Bridgewaters were very careful in their marriage arrangements, promoting daughters who were well educated, with a keen interest in the arts, literature, and music; women who supported their husbands' zeal for reform in politics, religion and society. (2) These political circles clearly were often also literary circles. While Richard Newdigate may not have been a poet, his connections through marriage brought the Newdigates into closer contact with the drama-loving Egerton circle.

The purpose of this article is to describe and assess the evidence regarding the legal elements in the play that were of import within the lifetime of the author and to explain what he may have envisioned about the reception of his representation of the law by his implied audiences. I will also place Master Thrifty in relation to debates about the office of JP in the early seventeenth century as well as to the public attack on lawyers and magistrates during the 1630s and the confrontation between the crown and the inns of court and legal profession in the years 1634-42. The thesis of this article is that Newdigate's The Humourous Magistrate was written for his west midland audience and written to flesh out, poke fun at, and amuse this audience, through his view of the current troubles in the country regarding the law as it affected the gentry of these rural communities.

Master Thrifty, the 'Old Order', and Legal Literature

There are approximately 103 contemporary tracts and pamphlets in the first four decades of the seventeenth century that discuss magistrates in one form or another. (3) An examination of a few of the major pamphlets will enable us to assess and place Master Thrifty into a literary canon, beginning with the professional writing on JPS. …

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