Children of the Chapel

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The Children of the Chapel were the boys with unbroken voices, choristers, who formed part of the Chapel Royal, the body of singers and priests serving the spiritual needs of their sovereign wherever they were called upon to do so.

The Children of the Chapel Royal[edit]

Arthur Sullivan aged 13 when he was a chorister of the Chapel Royal, wearing the State Dress

Sometime in the 12th century or earlier, a distinct establishment known as the Chapels Royal[1] was created within the English Royal Court and its musical establishment now claims to be the oldest continuous musical organization in the world. Children sang in church because their high voices were considered closest to the angels.

The Choir's, now just ten, boys are traditionally known as the Children of the Chapel Royal, and wear the distinctive State uniform introduced at the Restoration. Their special school within St James's Palace no longer operates; the boys all attend the City of London School and receive a choral scholarship from The Queen. In former times when educated within the court they were very much a part of court life and by ancient tradition were entitled to many small special privileges.

The Choir's duties remain to sing the regular services in the chapel of the Monarch's home and to otherwise attend as commanded. It is based in the two chapels of St James's Palace and services are also sung in the chapels of Kensington and Buckingham Palaces. The Choir also takes part in many State and National ceremonies and at private events within the Royal Household. It consists of six Gentlemen in Ordinary and ten choristers and a Sub-Organist.[2]

The troupes of child actors[edit]

The Children of the Chapel (if from the establishment of the Chapels Royal also known as the Children of Her Majesty's Chapel Royal, the Children of the Chapel Royal, the Children of the Queen's Revels, the Children of the Revels) and the Children of the Blackfriars Theatre or Children of the Blackfriars, and finally the Children of the Whitefriars Theatre or Children of the Whitefriars were troupes of child actors in Elizabethan and Jacobean England.

By the accession of James I in 1603, the Chapels Royal was staffed by a dean, a sub-dean, and 32 gentlemen (both priests and laymen); it also had a choir of 12 boys. William Cornysh, who was Master of the Children from 1509 to 1523, first began the practice of having the boys' choir perform dramatic interludes at Court. William Hunnis was Master of the Children of the Chapel from 1566 to 1597; under his stewardship the boys played repeatedly at Court until 1584.

In 1576 (the same year James Burbage built The Theatre and began the era of popular Elizabethan drama), Hunnis's deputy Richard Farrant rented space in the old Blackfriars priory, and began public performances by the boys. For unknown reasons, the troupe did not act at Court after 1584 (though they did give some performances outside of London). When the Children of Paul's were suppressed in 1590, due to their playwright John Lyly's role in the Marprelate controversy, the fashion for troupes of child actors went into abeyance for the next decade – inevitably affecting the Children of the Chapel.

(When Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage was published in 1594, it was described as "Played by the Children of Her Majesty's Chapel."[3] The uncertainty of that play's date clouds the question of when those performances occurred.)

In 1600 the Children of the Chapel returned to the public stage with regular performances. Nathaniel Giles, their Master from 1597 to 1634, became one of the lessees (with Henry Evans) of the Blackfriars Theatre that James Burbage built in 1596, and brought the Children to play there. The boys performed at Court on 6 January and 22 February 1601. They had a big hit that year with Ben Jonson's The Poetaster. Nathan Field, John Underwood, and William Ostler, all of whom would later join the King's Men, were in the cast.

Even in the early years of this period, the Children of the Chapel were mired in controversy: Giles drafted, and sometimes nearly kidnapped, boys that he wanted in his troupe. (Incredibly enough, he had a legal right to use such techniques – but only for the boys' choir, not for acting.) Solomon Pavy, the young actor eulogized by Ben Jonson upon his premature death in 1603, was one boy "pressed" into service in this high-handed way. So, reportedly, was Nathan Field. In one notorious instance, a man named Henry Clifton brought a complaint before the Star Chamber in December 1601, maintaining that Giles had in fact kidnapped Clifton's young son Thomas while the boy was walking home from grammar school. (Giles was censured; Clifton got his son back.)

The Children of the Chapel performed plays by Jonson, George Chapman, John Marston, Thomas Middleton, and others during the next several years; they specialized in the satirical comedy that appealed to Court wits and a "Gentle" audience, in contrast to the more popularly-oriented drama of William Shakespeare, Thomas Heywood, Thomas Dekker, and similar writers. The company experienced popularity and success in the first years of the century; when the House of Stuart inherited the monarchy, the Children of the Chapel, like other troupes of actors, received royal favor – they became the Children of the Queen's Revels (1603–5).

Yet they also experienced the downside of this brand of drama: when the play Eastward Hoe (1605) won official censure and landed two of its authors, Jonson and Chapman, in jail, the actors earned a share of the disapproval. They lost their Royal patent, and became simply the Children of the Revels (1605–6). After another scandal, this one involving The Isle of Gulls by John Day (1606), they were known as the Children of the Blackfriars. They managed to offend the King a third time, in 1608, in regard to their production of George Chapman's two-part play The Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles, Duke of Byron. The double play offended the French Ambassador, who got it banned from the stage. (The Ambassador was particularly bothered by a scene in which the French Queen slaps the face of the King's mistress – a scene that was omitted from the printed texts of the plays.) When the Court was not in London, however, the Children of the Blackfriars performed the plays again, in their original offensive form. The angry James swore that the boys "should never play more but should first beg their bread."[4] Yet the King liked plays too much to maintain this resolve over the long term, and the Children were eventually able to continue. They even performed at Court the following Christmas season.

Also in 1608, the King's Men took over the lease of the Blackfriars Theatre, effectively evicting the previous tenants. The children's company moved to the new Whitefriars Theatre, and became, perforce, the Children of the Whitefriars (1609). In 1610, however, they regained royal favour, due to the influence of Philip Rosseter, lutenist to the Royal household and their new manager; they were the Children of the Queen's Revels once again.

The company performed Jonson's Epicene in 1609; in 1611 they acted Nathan Field's A Woman is a Weathercock, both at Whitefriars and at Court. Field was in the cast of both productions. They played at Court four times in 1612–13, performing plays by Beaumont and Fletcher. For a time around 1613, the boys' troupe was linked with the Lady Elizabeth's Men. After losing their Whitefriars lease at the end of 1614, they moved to Rosseter's short-lived Porter's Hall theatre (1615). The last play they are known to have acted was Beaumont and Fletcher's The Scornful Lady. The company apparently collapsed around 1616.

A warrant, granted in 1626 to Dr. Nathaniel Giles to take up singing boys for the service of the Chapel Royal, contained a proviso that the children so to be taken should not be employed as comedians or stage-players, or act in stage plays, interludes, comedies, or tragedies, "for that it is not fitt or decent that such as sing the praises of God Almighty should be trained or imployed on such lascivious and prophane exercises."

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ The Chapels Royal [1]
  2. ^ The choir of the Chapels Royal [2]
  3. ^ Chambers, Vol. 3, p. 426.
  4. ^ Ioppolo, p. 129.

References[edit]

  • Chambers, E. K. The Elizabethan Stage. 4 Volumes, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1923.
  • Halliday, F. E. A Shakespeare Companion 1564–1964. Baltimore, Penguin, 1964.
  • Ioppolo, Grace. Dramatists and Their Manuscripts in the Age of Shakespeare, Jonson, Middleton, and Heywood. London, Routledge, 2006.
  • Munro, Lucy. Children of the Queen's Revels: A Jacobean Theatre Repertory. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005.