ALLEYN, EDWARD (1566–1626), English actor and founder of Dulwich College, was born in London on the 1st of September 1566, the son of an innkeeper. It is not known at what date he began to act, but he certainly gained distinction in his calling while a young man, for in 1586 his name was on the list of the earl of Worcester’s players, and he was eventually rated by common consent as the foremost actor of his time. Ben Jonson, a critic little prone to exalt the merits of men of mark among his contemporaries, bestowed unstinted praise on Alleyn’s acting (Epigrams, No. 89). Nash expresses in prose, in Pierce Penniless, his admiration of him, while Heywood calls him “inimitable,” “the best of actors,” “Proteus for shapes and Roscius for a tongue.” Alleyn inherited house property in Bishops gate from his father. His marriage on the 22nd of October 1592 with Joan Woodward, stepdaughter of Philip Henslowe, brought him eventually more wealth. He became part owner in Henslowe’s ventures, and in the end sole proprietor of several play-houses and other profitable pleasure resorts. Among these were the Rose Theatre at Bankside, the Paris Garden and the Fortune Theatre in St Luke’s—the latter occupied by the earl of Nottingham’s company, of which Alleyn was the head. He filled, too, in conjunction with Henslowe, the post of “master of the king’s games of bears, bulls and dogs.” On some occasions he directed the sport in person, and Stow in his Chronicles gives an account of how Alleyn baited a lion before James I. at the Tower.
Alleyn’s connexion with Dulwich began in 1605, when he bought the manor of Dulwich from Sir Francis Calton. The landed property, of which the entire estate had not passed into Alleyn’s hands earlier than 1614, stretched from the crest of that range of Surrey hills on whose summit now stands the Crystal Palace, to the crest of the parallel ridge, three miles nearer London, known in its several portions as Herne Hill, Denmark Hill and Champion Hill. Alleyn acquired this large property for little more than £10,000. He had barely got full possession, however, before the question how to dispose of it began to occupy 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 the task of building and endowing 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 endowment 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 patent of James I., dated the 21st of June 1619. The building had been already begun in 1613 (see Dulwich). Alleyn was never a member of his own foundation, but he continued to the close of his life to guide and control its affairs under powers reserved to himself in the letters patent. His diary shows that he mixed much and intimately in the life of the college. Many of the jottings in that curious record of daily doings and incidents favour the inference that he was a genial, kind, amiable and religious man. His fondness for his old profession 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.”
Alleyn’s first wife died in 1623. The same year he married Constance, daughter of John Donne, the poet and dean of St Paul’s. Alleyn died in November 1626 and was buried in the chapel of the college which he had founded. His gravestone fixes the day of his death as the 21st, but there are grounds for the belief that it was the 25th. A portrait of the actor is preserved at Dulwich. Alleyn was a member of the corporation of wardens of St Saviour’s, Southward, in 1610, and there is a memorial window to him in the cathedral.