Flower of the Month: a New Year’s Day play in the East Riding of Yorkshire

Among the usual records of fornication, adultery, playing cards during service times, marrying without having the banns read properly and similar infringements, the Archbishop of York’s Visitation Book for 1615 has a most intriguing entry1

From the Archiepiscopal Visitation Book V. 1615, f. 235.
Reproduced from an original in the Borthwick institute, University of York.

This is kind of entry REED editors trawl Visitation books in the hope of finding, but what can we make of it? All sorts of questions arise: who was John Truslove? Why, if he himself lived in Wawne, some miles away from Skipsea, was he in Skipsea church at all that New Year’s Day, far less performing a play with six anonymous actors? Why exactly was he presented – simply for performing in the church itself, even without actually disrupting evening prayer? Or was the content of the play held to be offensive?

Some of these questions may remain unanswered: I have not (yet) succeeded in identifying John Truslove, although Yorkshire wills provide several examples of Trusloves in and near Wawne in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which suggests a settled local family. None provides details of occupation or status except for that of a John Truslove (d. 1675 in nearby Stoneferry), described in his will as a gentleman; he is almost certainly too late to be this one, but may have been his son or grandson. The will itself deals strictly with bequests of money to his wife, children and sons in law, so no exciting hints about a family collection of play books can be gleaned from it. Disappointingly, he is not found in the indexes of the Cause Papers held in the Borthwick Insitute either. 

Skipsea (to give it its normal modern spelling) lies to the east of the East Riding of Yorkshire, close to the sea (closer now than it once was, as the map shows). Its most striking feature is its ruined Norman castle; the village itself seems always to have been mainly agricultural, although it did have a guildhall. 2 

All Saints’ Church, Skipsea, East Riding. Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Wawne, the village from which John Truslove came, is a few miles south-west of Skipsea, on the east bank of the River Hull about six miles north of Hull itself. (Wawne township was part of a parish which included Meaux, by 1615 already only the site of the dissolved and demolished Cisterian Abbey of Meaux.)3

The basic facts about both Skipsea and Wawne tell us very little about why a resident of one of those villages should take a troupe of actors to perform in the church of the other (Wawne had its own church, after all). Not knowing anything about the play’s content makes it impossible to know whether it was subversively Catholic in flavour – or indeed Puritan: the VCH reports little evidence for non-confirmity in either direction or in either of those parishes in the years around 1615, though Wawne may have shown slightly more religious conservatism.4  

Map showing the coast of Holderness, East Riding,
in Neil Punnett (2002), ‘Costal Erosion: Back to Nature’, Geofile

The Visitation Books of the period show plenty of reported examples of ‘playing’ – at cards or dice – as well as of inappropriate music, dancing and drunkenness. J. S. Purvis reports on those for the late sixteenth century, as well as quoting some particularly REED-relevant causes of disapprobation from Archbishop Grindal’s Injunctions for the Laity

  • 19. Item that the minister and churchewardens shall not suffer any lordes of misrule or somer lordes, or ladyes, or any disguised persone or others in Christmasse or at Maye games or anye minstrels morice dauncers or others at Rishebearinges or at anye other tymes to come unreverently into anye churche or chappell or churcheyeard and there daunce or playe anye unseemelye partes with scoffes ieastes wanton gestures or rybaulde talke namelye in the tyme of divine service or of anye sermon.5 

With the caveat that Grindal died in 1583, and that, as Purvis remarks, after years of repeated Visitations much of the ‘unseemly’ behaviour seems to have died down, it would be no surprise to find that old traditions died hard and that in 1615 some were still being maintained in defiance of the years of suppression. Interestingly, plays as such are never mentioned by Grindal or in, for instance, any of the Questions listed for the conduct of Visitations, for reasons that are hard to discern. It might be argued that a play with a formal script can’t break out spontaneously under the influence of drink as music and dancing might – but then, presumably summer games and rushbearings took some organising too.  

We can’t tell from the record, of course, whether Truslove and his troupe were performing a formally scripted play or not, but it is certainly possible; nor can we tell whether it was on a seasonally appropriate topic, nor whether there was anything religiously suspect or overtly subversive about it. That the content is not mentioned in the record suggests not: the fact of acting a play in the church was evidently enough.

That brings us back to the question of why John Truslove from Wawne apparently assembled an acting troupe to perform in a church several miles from his own parish. Was it a ‘scratch’ troupe or an established one? The latter is a possibility: the surviving records of Beverley, roughly (though not directly) between Wawne and Skipsea, show repeated visits over many years of players from other parts of Yorkshire and even further afield: in the 1560s and 1570s troupes from Whitby, Barwick in Elmet, Richmond, ‘Lincolnshire’, and several others from unspecified locations (‘certen players’; ‘v players’) were paid by the Governors of Beverley. Unfortunately, partly because of the poor survival rate of accounts from Beverley in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, there are no such records for the years closer to 1615. But clearly there was nothing unusual about local playing companies touring to other parts of the county or further. In the early seventeenth century we also have clear records of the recusant Simpson players from Egton near Whitby, whose activities and repertoire were recorded when they were implicated in the Star Chamber libel case of Sir John Yorke of Gouthwaite Hall in North Yorkshire in 1611. 

Identifying Truslove may prove impossible, but at least he is named: was he already known in Skipsea? That his six fellow-actors cannot be named in the record reminds us that seven months elapsed between the event on New Year’s Day and the entry in the Visitation Book. The others may have slipped back to Wawne to lie low … or perhaps they were masked – another intriguing, but for the moment only speculative, suggestion. 

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Borthwick Institute of Archives, University of York. V. 1615, f. 235r (Skipsea, Holderness, 1 August 1615). I am very grateful to my REED N-E colleague Dr Gasper Jakovac for not only drawing it to my attention but sending me his transcription and a photograph. 

See the Victoria County History (VCH) account (Yorkshire East Riding vol. 7): https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/yorks/east/vol7/pp374-405#h3-0003 [accessed 24 January 2019]. 

VCH Yorkshire East Riding vol. 7: https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/yorks/east/vol7/pp181-204 [accessed 24 January 2019]. Meaux Abbey owned Wyke-upon-Hull, the port which, once sold to King Edward I in 1293, soon grew into its new status as Kingston-upon-Hull. 

VCH Yorkshire East Riding vol. 7: https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/yorks/east/vol7/pp181-204#h3-0005 [accessed 24 January 2019]. 

J. S. Purvis, Tudor Parish Documents of the Diocese of York: a selection with introduction and notes (Cambridge University Press, 1948), p. 160. 

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*This month’s Flower is very kindly provided by the REED: East Riding editor Diana Wyatt, with assistance from Gasper Jakovac.

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