Emulating Royalty: Cambridge, Oxford, and the Inns of Court

By Nelson, Alan H. | Shakespeare Studies, Annual 2009 | Go to article overview

Emulating Royalty: Cambridge, Oxford, and the Inns of Court


Nelson, Alan H., Shakespeare Studies


As EDITOR OR COEDITOR of three collections for Records of Early English Drama (REED), I have surveyed entertainment records to 1642 from Cambridge, Oxford, and the Inns of Court. (1) Both Oxford (University and Colleges) and Inns of Court I inherited from my very good friend John R. Elliott, Jr., following his incapacitating stroke in 2002 and subsequent death. From conversations over many years I know that both Professor Elliott and I initially assumed that entertainment at all three institutions would have been much of a muchness. Sir George Buc's oft-quoted characterization of London and its Inns of Court as "The Third Universitie of England" (2) doubtless contributed to our assumptions.

Having worked over all three institutions, I now realize (and I think Professor Elliott realized, though I cannot in fairness speak for him) that in respect to entertainment, the Inns of Court were more the odd man out than a third university. While Cambridge and Oxford reflected a tradition of academic drama shared with England's grammar schools, the Inns of Court tended to emulate entertainment at the royal court.

From 1587-88, and perhaps earlier, the Inns of Court tended to concentrate on revels and masques rather than on plays. Plays continued to be performed at the Inns, but by professional companies rather than gentlemen members. Lincoln's Inn, for example, played host to the Children of the Chapel, led by Richard Edwards in 1564-65 and 1565-66, and by Richard Farrant in 1579-80. Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors was famously acted at Gray's Inn in 1594-95, his Twelfth Night at Middle Temple in 1601-2, both presumably by Shakespeare's company, (3) For most of the seventeenth century, indeed, the Inner Temple and the Middle Temple paid for two professionally performed plays each per year, on All Souls Day (November 1) and Candlemas (February 2). (4)

Of the two universities, Oxford more than Cambridge shared the Inns of Court emulation of royalty. Geography clearly played its part. The Inns of Court owed their very existence to their proximity to the royal courts of justice in Westminster. Oxford, which lies near Woodstock, a royal palace, naturally enjoyed both formal and casual connections with the royal court. As an example, royal trumpeters passed through Oxford so frequently that the city fathers declared as a matter of record that they would not be awarding a gratuity on the trumpeters' every transit through the town. (5) While Cambridge lay not far from two locales dear to the heart of James I--Royston, site of a royal hunting lodge, and Newmarket, a horse-racing venue--it was not on the direct route from London to either place.

Neither Cambridge nor Oxford was of course totally independent from royalty. The chancellorship of each university lay in the gift of the English monarch, who sometimes interfered in the annual appointment of the vice-chancellor. Several colleges in each university were royal foundations, whose heads were directly appointed by the monarch: at Cambridge, King's, Queens', and Trinity colleges; at Oxford, Oriel College, Queen's College, and Christ Church.

Both Cambridge and Oxford were the sites of important royal visits. Though monarchs visited more or less informally throughout the history of the universities, theater historians trace the tradition of formal visits to 1564 at Cambridge and 1566 at Oxford. Subsequent visits were both rare and fairly distributed between the universities. Elizabeth came to Saffron Walden in 1578, where she was entertained by members of Cambridge University; she paid a formal visit to Oxford in 1592. James I visited Oxford in 1605, Cambridge in 1614/15. Charles I visited Cambridge in 1627-28 and 1631-32, Oxford in 1635-36. In other years the two universities were invaded by visiting ambassadors and noblemen in approximately equal numbers.

The relatively equal distribution of formal royal favors between the two universities belies the advantage enjoyed by Oxford, where Christ Church was treated, especially by James and Charles, as a virtual extension of the royal court. …

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