Beggars Bush: A Perambulation through the Disciplines of History, Geography, Archaeology, Literature, Philology, Natural History, Botany, Biography & Beggary

John Clavell A Lost Prologue to The Beggars Bush ?1637

A Begger haunts, where he good Dole receives

The Nigard stoppes, for he, his prayers, deceaves,

Your Liberall Charrity from open Palmes

Makes us this confident to Aske your Almes

The Beggers have their Motives: Soe have wee

They crye their loss of Limbes, Age, Insanitiee

Theise our Infant days w’yee, yet: our Playes

(Though wee act none but such as got the Bayes)

Are Old: our habites too are meane: the same

Our action maimed, decrepit, feeble, Lame,

All movers of compassion: Let that fall

(as usuill) & your Charity mends all

For as A generall Rule wee ever make it

Not what? Or how we Act? But how you take it.

This prologue to Fletcher & Massinger’s play The Beggars Bush (1622) survives in one manuscript copy in the notebook of John Clavell, with notes, copy letters, epigrams and remedies.  They were probably written by Clavell in 1637 when he was in Ireland.‘Bayes’ refers to a garland of bay leaves or laurel. However,  Randle Cotgrave, in A Dictionary of the French and English Tongues (1611) also gives for Baye’, ”A lye, fib, foist, gull, rapper; a cosening tricke, or tale” so a pun may also have been understood by some of the audience. OED has the first meaning but not the second; LEME has both.

In an age of characters John Clavell (1601-1643) stands out as one of the most remarkable, by turns, student, burglar, pardoned, gentleman about town, highwayman, pardoned, author, lawyer, physician and, throughout, a debtor.

John Clavell the Author

While in King’s Bench prison for a series of highway robberies (and also debt) between 1625 and 1627 Clavell wrote his Recantation of an Ill Led Life which was published in 1628 & 1634.

Unlike later gallows pamphlets of convicted felons Clavell’s Recantation was not a sensational work, although it did refer dreadful oaths of allegiance and crimes at traditional scenes, Gads Hill and Shooters Hill, when Clavell’s crimes were at other places. It contained numerous verses of thanks to all and sundry. It appears to live up to the claim that it contained “many cautelous Administions and full Instructions, how to know, shunne and apprehend a Theife, most necessary for all honest Travellers to peruse, observe and practice”. Some of the advice seems counter-intuitive: use minor roads and ride at night because highwayman don’t, don’t travel in groups but spread out, and do stand but don’t deliver. Clavell, although convicted with several others, makes no use of cant, which he might if seeking to add “authenticity”.

After his pardon in 1627 and release from prison in 1628 Clavell seems to have moved into the literary life of London. He claims to have been one of the ‘Sons’ of Ben Jonson, and was certainly associated with Philip Massinger. They were both from the same part of the country, and Clavell wrote a commendatory poem published with one of Massinger’s plays.

More remarkably Clavell was the author of a play, The Sodder’d [soldered/mended] Citizen which was performed by The King’s Men around 1630, probably because of his notoriety. David Kasten in his Companion to Shakespeare (1999, p.428) says the surviving manuscript copy shows the work of an amateur, being laid out like a printed play, not a performing text, with excessive stage directions and annotations by five hands, presumably members of the acting company. Clavell seems to have retained this working copy of the play when he went to Ireland in 1631-1633 and again 1634-1637 ostensibly to assist his uncle William Clavell, of Smedmore, Dorset with court cases over property in Ireland. Clavell seems not to have enjoyed at least one stay, writing on the manuscript that if he ever got back to England he would never set foot in Dublin again.

The Beggars Bush in Dublin ?

We do not know if the prologue to The Beggars Bush was written by Clavell, though he seems the most likely author. It appears with two other prologues, one to Greene’s Tu Quoque, or the Citie Gallant written before 1614 by John Cooke, and the other a Prologue at the New House, which says the plays are not new but “seen, lik’d & then Transmitted” with an epilogue referring to plantations. They appear to have been written to introduce performances in Ireland, although Clavell had left Dublin by the date usually accepted for the first performances at the New Theatre in St Werburgh Street in the late summer of 1637. There is a letter Viscount Wentworth dated June 1636 which refers to “a Playhouse lately sett up and allowed by me.” A later description of the interior says that there was only one box, reserved for the Lord Deputy. It seems to have been close to Dublin Castle and Lord Chancellor Loftus lived in St Werburgh Street, so it would have been close to the centres of influence on whom Clavell claimed to be working.

If Clavell took a copy of his own play he may have been entrusted with copies of others. He would have moved in the same circles in London as James Shirley the playwright who was in Dublin in 1636-40. Even before the first theatre opened there was theatrical activity in Dublin, supported by the Earl of Cork, Lord Chancellor Loftus and Viscount Wentworth, the Lord Deputy. Clavell courted all three on behalf of his uncle. Loftus appears to have made him a barrister in Ireland despite his having no formal training. Before leaving for Ireland the second time Clavell had associated or lived at Gray’s Inn with a nephew of the Earl of Cork who was studying there, and on his return from Ireland in 1637 he was carrying letter from the Earl. A John Ogilvy of Gray’s Inn Lane was brought over to Dublin c.1633-1636 to organise dramatic entertainments at Castle, so the prologues may have referred to productions there.

Clavell is likely to have used his theatrical connections to get introductions to the most powerful men in Ireland.  He wrote to his uncle before leaving London in 1634 that he had “appeared at Court & kissed the King’s hand . . . I have bin publicke at Court, frequent in the Citty” and had £150 worth of “jewells, watches, rich swords & other good commodities, bought with my ready money to give away & to sell again in Ireland”. He reported on arrival in Dublin that he was “as well accountred as any young Lord in the Kingdom”. Clavell’s lawsuits seeking to recover his uncle’s estates in Ireland, which he would have expected to inherit, were not successful. He seems to have abandoned a law suit in London in favour of petitions to the authorities in Ireland.

The Beggars Bush might well have been one of the plays performed in this period; it was popular at the time, did not require a large cast or much scenery, or make many demands on the dramatic skills of the players. It isn’t the source of the phrase in place names in Ireland, one of which pre-dates the play by nearly half a century.

The Career of John Clavell (1603-1641)

Clavell was born at Wootton Glanville in Dorset to parents who separated before was 15, when his sister married Robert Freke. His father appears to have been dissolute. Clavell probably went to school at Sherborne with John Jesopp, before being admitted to Brasenose College, Oxford in 1619. He left after about two year without a degree but with some of the college plate, for the theft of which he was convicted and pardoned in 1621.

After the death of his father in 1623 Clavell administered his estate, which may not have amounted to much. His father had not paid all of his daughter’s wedding portion, had mortgaged parts of the estate and it seems to have been entailed to protect it. Clavell started to borrow money in London from Jesopp, Freke and others. He got involved in complicated transactions with a London goldsmith and moneylender William Banks. He later ended up in litigation with Banks and Jesopp, amongst others. Exactly what happened is unclear – I think Clavell’s biographer John Pafford is too kind to him in accepting Clavell’s claims that Banks tricked him, had some mysterious hold over him, and obtained his signature to the family estate on a conveyance Clavell did not even read. Banks was unlikely to have been entirely trustworthy, but Clavell seems to have been living off the credit obtainable on the expectation he would inherit property from his father, and his uncle.

During 1624-25 Clavell was outlawed for debt and turned to highway robbery, being convicted of robberies around London. Clavell was not the first to argue that robbery, being an open and audacious demand for money, was more honourable that begging from one’s social inferiors. The phrase ‘gentleman thief’ was coined in 1552. In 1516 Sir Thomas More in Utopia attributed the increase in robberies to the tendency to reckless expenditure. It was a creditable alternative to Beggars Bush. Even Thomas Harman wrote of soldiers who turned to robbery “as manfully and valiantly [as] they vent[u]red themselves in the Prynces quarrel”.

Some writers also suggested that the sons of the nobility & gentry turned to such bold crimes because they had greater confidence in the ability of their families to obtain pardons for their crimes. The exact circumstances of Clavell’s second pardon in 1627 are vague. Clavell suggests he appealed to the Queen directly. His uncle William, a great supporter of unsuccessful industrial schemes, was probably not a great help as he was also imprisoned at the same time for infringing the monopoly on glass-making.

On his release Clavell does seem to have reformed to some degree – at least he wasn’t convicted of any further thefts. It is optimistic to accept the rest of his life was blameless. During his career as a highwayman he married a wife in London, who disappears shortly after from his writings. He became involved in litigation with his creditors, and sold his father’s manor to several people, including one of the victims of his exploits as a highwayman, in part as reparation. It was eventually sold, with the cooperation of Clavell’s mother, to a John Churchill (not, as adverts for the holiday cottage there, claim, the John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough)

While in Ireland the second time Clavell claims to have married Alice Markham, the heiress to a Dublin vintner, no more than 10 years old, but she also disappears from view.  Beyond the record of his admission as a barrister in Dublin the only evidence we have of his activities there is from Clavell’s own records. His notebook contains copies of letters from prominent people to his uncle saying remarkably complimentary things about him, some so effusive as to raise the suspicion that these are what Clavell would have liked them to have said. A Memorandum also survives recording remarkable cures effected by him as a physician is written in the first person as by patients, with names appended, but all in Clavell’s own handwriting. It ends with the claim – “I fail in none I undertake”.

Clavell’s acceptance back into society after being a highwayman is not unique. The Verney family were much more accepting of a wayward male who was convicted of highway robbery and had abandoned his wife than they were of a female who married a Catholic of otherwise unimpeachable character.

John Clavell seems to fit that pattern of charming eloquent optimists who have been able to fool some of the people some of the time, and perhaps themselves as much as others. It may have been a family characteristic; his uncle was said to have lost £20,000 on failed industrial schemes, and the last record of his father’s life is of him digging “for treasure conceived to his in a hill called Crockbarrow”.

Further Reading

John Pafford, John Clavell 1601-1643; Highwayman, Author, Lawyer, Doctor, Oxford, 1993, which includes the text of The Recantation

John Pafford, John Clavell 1601-1643, Burglar, Highwayman, Poet, Dramatist, Doctor, Lawyer, in Somerset & Dorset Notes & Queries, September 1986, p.549-63

John Clavell, The Sodder’d Citizen, ed. John Pafford and Sir Walter Greg, Malone Society, London, 1936

Morash,C.,  A History of Irish Theatre, 1601-2000, CUP, 2002

Gillian Spraggs, Outlaws and highwaymen: the cult of the robber in England from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth century, Pimlico, 2001


Prof. Chris Morash, School of English, Media and Theatre Studies, National University of Ireland, Maynooth

Posted: May 24th, 2012 | Filed under: Writers, Speculations, The Play | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

One Comment on “John Clavell A Lost Prologue to The Beggars Bush ?1637”

  1. 1: Of Highwaymen, the Newgate Calendar, John Clavell and the 55th Gene Key | Nights of the Road said at 2:49 am on March 7th, 2015:

    […] From a deeper exploration of his profile, it does not surprise me that John Clavell became one of those rare highwaymen of the 17th century who succeeded in remaking his life after a death sentence. I resonate with a more measured view than that of Pafford, his enthusiastic biographer. This suggests that, “On his release Clavell does seem to have reformed to some degree – at least he wasn’t convicted of any further thefts. It is optimistic to accept the rest of his life was blameless.” The perspective is buttressed by observing Clavell’s ongoing record of litigation with creditors, his marriage at age 34 to a nine-year-old, and several concurrent promises of the sale of his father’s manor to different people. […]

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