1902 Encyclopedia > Edward Alleyne

Edward Alleyne
English actor
(1566-1626)




EDWARD ALLEYN, eminent as a stage-player in the reigns of Elizabeth and James I., but better remembered in after-times as the founder of Dulwich college, was born in London, in the parish of St Botolph, Bishopsgate, on the 1st of September 1566. When he was only four years old, his father, an innkeeper, died, and his mother soon afterwards married an actor named Browne. This change in his domestic surroundings brought young Alleyn into early and close association with the stage, for which he possessed great natural aptitude. Thus it chanced that "he was bred a stage-player," as stated by Fuller ( Worthies). A tenacious memory, a polished elocution, a stateliness of figure and countenance, and a genial temperament were among the natural and acquired accomplishments that ho brought to bear on his chosen pursuit. He gained distinction in his calling while yet quite a young man, and by common consent was eventually rated as the foremost actor of his time. Several prominent dramatists and other writers of the period have left forcible testimony to his rare excellence in the histrionic art. Ben Jonson, a critic nowise prone to exalt the merits of men of mark among his contemporaries, but addicted rather to disparagement, and even, as Drummond of Hawthornden tells, to bitterest detraction, bestowed, nevertheless, unstinted praise on Alleyn's acting (see Jonson's Epigrams, No. 89). Nash, in Pierce Pennyless, his Supplication to the Devil, exjjresses in prose the same eulogy that Jonson renders in verse. Hey-wood calls Alleyn "inimitable," "the best of actors," and "Proteus for shapes and Koscius for a tongue." —(Prologue to Marlowe's Jew of Malta.)

Peele's letter to Marlowe, quoted by several of Alleyn's biographers, telling of a merry meeting at which Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and Alleyn figure in the front rank of a group of choice spirits, has long been numbered among literary forgeries. (See the Life prefixed to Dyce's Peele's Works, 1829.)

But ample and clear evidence remains to show his great celebrity as an actor. His professional earnings as a player formed, however, one only, and not the chief, among several sources from which he drew the wealth that afterwards sustained his great foundation; and his fame as an actor must long since have faded into a dim tradition, of little or no concern to present times, but for the association of his name with an institution around which cluster interesting historic reminiscences, and whose future is fraught with high promise. He inherited house property in Bishops-gate from his father. His marriage, in 1592, with Joan Woodward, stepdaughter to Henslowe, a successful specu-lator in theatrical and kindred enterprises, brought him eventually much wealth. He became successively part owner in Henslowe's ventures, and in the end sole pro-prietor of sundry play-houses and other resorts for the diversion of pleasure-seekers. Among these were the Rose Theatre at Bankside, in close contiguity to Shakespeare's Globe Theatre; the Paris Garden, in the same vicinage, where were enacted such pastimes as bear-baiting, bull-baiting, and other sports of the period; and the Fortune Theatre in St Luke's. He filled, too, in conjunction with Henslowe, the post of " master of the king's games of bears, bulls, and dogs." He continued to discharge the duties of this office long after he had relinquished his other profes-sional work.





Alleyn's ownership in Dulwich lands began in 1606, and further acquisitions, made in the course of the next five years, during which he was gradually breaking away from the actual practice of the histrionic art, though not from theatrical speculations or kindred enterprises, increased his holding to more than 1300 acres. His residential connection with Dulwich began in 1607. He occupied the manor-house, a mansion even then very ancient, but which is still tenanted, after many additions and alterations. The priors and abbots of Bermondsey owned and occupied it through the four centuries preceding their expulsion in 1537, when Henry VIII. assigned their house and adjacent church lands to Thomas Calton, grandfather to the Calton who sold his heritage to Alleyn. Some details respecting this and other purchases of neighbouring estates are set forth in Alleyn's own writing, in a small thick memorandum-book which, with other Alleyn papers preserved at Dulwich, has been carefully scrutinised by the writer of this notice.

The landed property stretches from the crest of that range of Surrey hills on whose summit rests the Crystal Palace, to the crest of the parallel ridge, three miles nearer London, known in its several portions as Heme Hill, Denmark Hill, and Champion Hill. Alleyn acquired this large suburban property for little more than £10,000, which may be estimated as equivalent to £50,000 in the present day. But the present value of the lands which he bought for such a price is hardly under a million and a-half sterling, so enormous has been the rise in the value of land in and near London. Alleyn had barely got full possession of this property before the question how to dispose of it began to press upon him. He was still childless, after twenty years of wedded life. Then it was that the prosperous player—the man "so acting to the life that he made any part to become him" (Fuller, Worthies)—began " playing the last act of his life so well" (Bacon's Letter to the Marquis of Buckingham, dated 18th August 1618), as to gain the general applause of his own age, and a large measure of admiration in after times. He built and endowed in his own lifetime the College of God's Gift at Dulwich. All was completed in 1617, except the charter or deed of incorporation for setting his lands in mortmain. Tedious delays occurred in the Star Chamber, where Lord Chancellor Bacon was scheming to bring the pressure of kingly authority to bear on Alleyn with the aim of securing a large portion of the proposed endow-ment for the maintenance of lectureships at Oxford and Cambridge. Alleyn finally carried his point, and the College of God's Gift at Dulwich was founded, and endowed under letters piatent of James I. dated 21st of June 1619. The college, as thus incorporated, consisted of twelve " poor scholars" and as many pensioners, the latter comprising equal numbers of men and women— "poor brethren" and "poor sisters,"—together with a teaching and governing staff of six higher officials. These latter included a master and a warden, who were always to be of the founder's surname, and four fellows, all " graduates and divines," among whom were apportioned the ministerial work of the chapel, the instruction of the boys, and the supervision of the almspeople or pensioners. The scholars and pensioners were to be drawn in equal numbers from the four London parishes out of which the founder drew his wealth. A curious legend, dating from the time of the founder, and always current afterwards among the pensioners on his bounty, tells that he was scared into his generous and charitable scheme by an apparition of the devil, in propria persona, among some theatrical demons in a drama in which he was acting. In the fright thus occasioned he was said to have made a vow, which he redeemed in the founding of Dulwich College.





Alleyn was never a member of his own foundation, as stated by Heywood, and copied by succeeding writers. The college records clearly set this point at rest. But he continued to the close of his life to guide and control the affairs of his foundation, under powers reserved to himself in the letters patent. His diary shows that he mixed much and intimately in the daily life of the college. Many of the jottings in that curious record of daily doings and incidents favour the inference that he was genial, kind, amiable, and withal a religious man. His fondness for his old professional work is indicated by the fact that he engaged the boys in occasional theatrical performances. At a festive gathering on the 6th of January 1622 "the boyes play'd a playe."

Shakespeare's name is interwoven with local traditions bearing on Alleyn's life at Dulwich, and the links of association between these famous contemporaries afford strong antecedent probability that the tradition sprang from something more solid than " such stuff as dreams are made of." Each began and closed his professional career as a stage-player in nearly the self-same period and in neighbouring theatres. During several years they were near neighbours in their homes at Bankside, then the headquarters of players and play-houses. Leading actors then, as afterwards, came much in contact with the living authors whose creations they personated. Alleyn per-formed in "Leir," the "Moore of Venis," "Borneo,"

"Pericles," and "Henry VIII.," as appears from his inventory of his own theatrical wardrobe. Among the intimate friends of both were Ben Jonson, Michael Dray-ton, and other members of the goodly company of poets and dramatists whose genius shed a lustre on their day. Shakespeare had not finally betaken himself to the retirement of Stratford-on-Avon until seven years after Alleyn took up his abode at Dulwich. In the face of all these facts, it can hardly be said the local tradition is groundless, though no direct proof has yet been brought to bear on the point.

Alleyn's first wife died in the summer of 1623. In December of the same year he married Constance Donne, who survived him. This lady was a daughter of Dr Donne, dean of St Paul's. Her maiden name was mis-quoted by an early biographer. This mistake gave rise to the further error which attributes to Alleyn a third wife. He died in November 1626, in the sixty-first year of his age. His gravestone at Dulwich fixes the date of his death on 21st November, but there are grounds for the belief that the true date is the 25th of the same month.

Besides dispensing bounties within the bounds of his college, Alleyn provided, by an after-thought, some years later than his deed of foundation, for certain extensions of the benefits of his endowment. But successive actions at law, carried on at various periods, resulted in the ruling that it was not within the competence of the founder to divert any portion of the revenues of his foundation to the use of others than the members thereof, as specified in the letters patent. Chief among the good intents on the part of the founder that were thus frustrated was his scheme for embracing in _ the school work within the college as many outsiders as would bring the total number to eighty boys, inclusive of the twelve foundationers. But as this was not within the bond, his successors in the administration of the trust, for more than two centuries after his death, declined the work. In the latter part of that period, decay, and not development, fixed on the time-honoured memorial of Alleyn's high but thwarted purposes the stigma of a public scandal. Then came, in 1842, a grudging and partial, rather than a full and loyal, concession towards the realisation of the founder's aims. Finally, however, an Act of Parliament, in 1857, extinguished the stagnant ' and unprogressive corporation. Alleyn's College of God's Gift at Dulwich entered thenceforward on that prosperous career which already links its name with the front rank of institutions doing good service in the educational work of the day. (J. GO.)




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