Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Alleyn, Edward
ALLEYN, EDWARD (1566–1626), actor, and founder of Dulwich College, was born 1 Sept. 1566, in the parish of St. Botolph without Bishopsgate, London (according to Fuller, ‘near Devonshire House, where now is the sign of the Pie’), being a younger son of Edward Alleyn, or Allen, an innholder and porter to the queen. In a pedigree signed by himself, his mother, Margaret Alleyn, is said to have been a daughter of John Townley, of Townley; but, although her name is no doubt correctly given, her connection with the Lancashire Townleys is not satisfactorily made out. The elder Alleyn, who owned several houses in Bishopsgate, died in September 1570, and his widow subsequently married John Browne, a haberdasher. Mr. Collier's statement that this Browne was also an actor is grounded on a mistaken identity, and the assumption that it was by his stepfather that Alleyn, as Fuller tells us, was ‘bred a stage player,’ has nothing to warrant it. At what age he began to act is unknown. His name first occurs in a list of the Earl of Worcester's players in 1586, and he appears with his elder brother, John Alleyn, as a joint owner of play-books and other theatrical properties in a document dated 3 Jan. 1588–9. That he speedily gained celebrity is evident from a notice of him in Thomas Nash's ‘Pierce Penilesse,’ 1592, where Alleyn, Tarlton, Knell, and Bentley are said to be the four greatest English actors:—‘Not Roscius nor Esope, those tragedians admyred before Christ was borne, could ever performe more in action than famous Ned Allen.’ His very name even, as we learn from the same author's ‘Strange Newes,’ 1592, was ‘able to make an ill matter good.’
On 22 Oct. 1592, he married Joan Woodward, daughter by a former husband of Agnes, then wife of Philip Henslowe. There is a tradition that he was already a widower; but the only evidence of this among his own papers is the mention of ‘Mistris’ Alleyn in a letter probably written in Feb. 1591–2. Henslowe was not only proprietor of the Rose, but interested in more than one other London theatre; and after Alleyn's marriage, if not before, the two were united in a partnership which lasted until Henslowe's death. The company to which Alleyn was now permanently attached was that known as the Earl of Nottingham's or the Lord Admiral’s. In 1593, however, while the plague was in London, he is found joined with Lord Strange's actors in a provincial tour, which extended as far as Bristol, Shrewsbury, Chester, and York. It is to this tour that we owe an interesting correspondence with his wife and her stepfather, preserved at Dulwich. Henslowe's invaluable theatrical diary shows that he was again acting in London in 1594 and following years; but he ‘left playing,’ apparently for a time only, towards the end of 1597. In 1600 he built, in conjunction with Henslowe, the Fortune Theatre in Golden Lane, Cripplegate, having acquired a lease of the site in his own name only on 22 Dec. 1599. The contract for the house, dated 8 Jan. 1600, together with warrants in its favour, is still extant. It was probably completed by the end of the year, and was occupied by the Lord Admiral's company with Alleyn himself at their head.
Before this, however, Alleyn had begun to provide the public with coarser amusement. As early as 1594 he had acquired an interest in the baiting house at Paris Garden in Southwark, and on a vacancy in 1598 he and Henslowe, now groom of the chamber to the queen, endeavoured to secure the office of the master of Royal Game of bears, bulls, and mastiff dogs. Although they failed at the time, they ultimately obtained it by purchase from the then holder in 1604, a new patent in their favour as joint masters being issued on 24 Nov. This was held by Alleyn as the survivor until his death, and it was no doubt a source of considerable profit. On special occasions he seems to have directed the sport in person, and a graphic but revolting account of his baiting a lion before James I at the Tower is given in Stow's ‘Chronicle,’ ed. 1631. p. 835.
Whether Alleyn still continued to act after he became bear-master is uncertain. On the accession of James I the Lord Admiral's company was taken over by Prince Henry, and Alleyn is formally styled ‘servant to the prince’ as late as 1612. His name, however, is not in the list of the prince's players in 1607, nor in another list probably of a still earlier date; and from the way in which Thomas Heywood speaks of him in 1612 (Apology for Actors, ed. 1841, p. 43), his retirement could hardly then have been recent:—‘Among so many [actors] dead let me not forget one yet alive, in his time the most worthy, famous Maister Edward Allen.’ His last recorded appearance was on 15 March, 1603–4, when, as Genius, he delivered, ‘with excellent action and a well-tun'de, audible voyce,’ an address to James I at his reception in the city (T. Dekker, Magnificent Entertainment, 1604). Of his eminence as an actor there can be no question. The opinions of Nash and Heywood have already been quoted, and a still more competent critic, Ben Jonson, in his ‘Epigram,’ addressed to Alleyn himself, is equally emphatic. Although Fuller (b. 1608) could not himself have seen him on the stage, he no doubt expresses the general verdict of his older contemporaries, and his testimony is not the less valuable that he shows himself prejudiced against Alleyn's profession: ‘He was the Roscius of our age, so acting to the life that he made any part (especially a majestick one) to become him.’ Very few, however, of the characters he sustained have been recorded. From allusions by Heywood and others he is known to have played the hero in Marlowe's ‘Jew of Malta,’ ‘Tamburlaine,’ and ‘Faustus,’ as well as in the anonymous play ‘Cutlack,’ of which only the title survives. It has also been inferred from the existence at Dulwich of an actor's copy of the part, that he played Orlando in Robert Greene's ‘Orlando Furioso;’ and no doubt he took the leading character in many of the pieces mentioned in Henslowe's diary. There is no evidence, however, that he acted in any of Shakespeare's dramas; and among all his extant papers (spurious documents excepted) Shakespeare's name is only once mentioned. This is in a note of the purchase by Alleyn of his ‘Sonnets’ in 1609.
Besides the Fortune and the Bear Garden, Alleyn's growing wealth had already enabled him to make leasehold investments in Kennington and Southwark, and at Firle in Sussex; and finally, on 25 Oct. 1605, he purchased from Sir Francis Calton the manor of Dulwich. An allusion to this has been found in a sarcastic passage on rich actors in the ‘Return from Parnassus,’ 1606:
With mouthing words, that better wits have framed,
They purchase lands, and now esquires are made.
The sum paid to Calton was 5,000l., of which, however, 3,000l. remained at interest for six years. The bargain was completed on 8 May 1606; but as other holdings had to be bought up, it was not until 1614 that the whole estate passed into Alleyn's hands, at a total cost of nearly 10,000l. Having meanwhile himself removed to Dulwich from Southwark, he began the building of the college, which perpetuates his name, in 1613, the contract for the chapel, schoolhouse, and twelve almshouses, being dated 17 May. The story told by Aubrey (Nat. Hist. and Antiq. of Surrey, 1719, i. p. 190), that this praiseworthy disposal of his gains was due to remorse, quickened by the apparition of the devil when he was acting a demon in one of Shakespeare's plays, is hardly worth notice. As Mr. Collier suggests, it perhaps originated in a distorted account of an alarm at the Rose during a performance of ‘Faustus,’ recorded in Middleton's ‘Black Book,’ 1604. The conjecture that the idea of his college was taken from Sutton's Charterhouse, founded in 1611, only two years before, is more reasonable; and there are references also in his papers to Winchester, Eton, and a similar institution at Amsterdam. Before the building was finished Alleyn lost his father-in-law, Henslowe, who died on or about 9 Jan. 1616. Henslowe's will was in favour of his widow, and it was at once disputed by his nephew and heir-at-law. The result is not recorded, nor does it appear how much of the estate came to Alleyn in right of his wife at her mother's death in April 1617. Meanwhile, on 1 Sept. 1616, the chapel of the college was consecrated by Archbishop Abbot, but a year still elapsed before the full number of inmates were admitted. A diary of Alleyn, extending from 29 Sept. 1617 to 1 Oct. 1622, makes this the best known period of his life. Among other interesting details it shows that the necessary royal patent for the incorporation and endowment of the charity was not obtained without difficulty. It was opposed by Lord Chancellor Bacon for reasons expressed, on 18 Aug. 1618, in a letter to Buckingham, whose interest Alleyn had wisely secured. Bacon's objections were not personal to Alleyn, but were only consistent with what he had before urged to the king against the Charterhouse and all similar charitable foundations (Spedding, Life, iv. p. 247, vi. p. 324). On 21 June 1619, the patent at length passed the great seal, and on 13 Sept. Alleyn read and signed the deed of foundation in the chapel, afterwards entertaining the company, among whom was Bacon himself, at a sumptuous banquet. The ‘College of God's Gift’ thus incorporated consisted of a master, warden (both of whom were to be of the name of Alleyn), four fellows, six poor brothers, six poor sisters, and twelve poor scholars, its endowment, besides the Dulwich estate, comprising property in Lambeth and Bishopsgate, together with the Fortune Theatre, the freehold of which Alleyn had secured in 1610. During the five years covered by his diary, and possibly until his death, Alleyn personally managed the affairs of the college, his average yearly expenditure on all accounts amounting to 1,700l. The position to which he had now attained was one of some consequence. He was on visiting terms with members of the nobility, bishops, ambassadors, and other persons of note, and among his friends were the Earl of Arundel and Sir William Alexander, the poet, the latter of whom, like Ben Jonson, made him the subject of laudatory verse. He appears, too, as the patron of Thomas Dekker, John Taylor, the water poet, and other writers; and members of his own former profession were his constant guests. Of the London theatres he seems to have had an interest in the Rose, the Hope, and the Red Bull, as well as in the Fortune; but the evidence adduced by Mr. Collier to show that he also possessed a share in the Blackfriars Theatre, purchased from Shakespeare, is of modern fabrication. On 31 Oct. 1618 he let the Fortune on lease for 31 years, and on 9 Dec. 1622 he dryly records in his diary its destruction by fire. A new house, however, was in course of erection before 16 April 1622, leases of some of the shares being signed on 20 May.
On 28 June 1623, Alleyn lost his wife Joan, with whom he had evidently lived on most affectionate terms. She was buried in the college chapel on 1 July, her epitaph stating that she was 52 years of age, and died without issue. Only five months later, on 3 Dec. 1623, Alleyn married Constance, daughter of Dr. John Donne, Dean of St. Paul's. As he must have been nearly forty years her senior, the match was a strange one. Its history is given by Alleyn himself in a curious letter addressed to Dr. Donne, with whom he had causes of difference, early in 1625, and from it we learn that it was arranged as early as 31 Oct. by Alleyn's friend and neighbour, Sir Thomas Grymes, whose wife was Constance Donne's maternal aunt. Very little is known of Alleyn's life in the three years he survived this marriage. From a letter dated 23 July 1624, he seems to have been anxious at that time to obtain ‘sum further dignetie,’ by which perhaps knighthood is meant; but whatever it was, it was never conferred. In 1626 he bought a property in Simondstone in Aysgarth, and a journey, which he apparently made into Yorkshire to visit it in July, may have brought on his fatal illness. On the authority of his executor and first warden of the college he died on 25 Nov. 1626, and he was buried in the chapel two days later. So far as appears, he never had any children, and the nearest relative named in his will, dated 13 Nov. 1626, was a cousin. To his ‘dear and loving wife’ (who, on 24 June, 1630, married Samuel Harvey, of Abury Hatch) he left 100l. and her jewels, besides 1,500l. under settlement. In completion of a scheme, which he had begun in 1620 by building ten almshouses in Cripplegate, his executors were ordered to build ten others in each of the parishes of St. Botolph, Bishopsgate, and St. Saviour, Southwark; and among other charitable bequests the college also received two leases in Southwark as an addition to its settled estates. The statutes of the college, prepared no doubt long before, were signed by Alleyn on 29 Sept., and his last recorded act was to add two clauses on 20 Nov. A curious feature in these statutes is the extent to which they modified the original constitution of the charity, a process which, in our own time, has been more than once repeated under authority of parliament, with the uniform result of enlarging its sphere of usefulness.
As depicted in the large collection of his own and Henslowe's papers at Dulwich, Alleyn's character was one of singular amiability, combined with great shrewdness and aptitude in business affairs; and his piety and benevolence are no less conspicuous in his early correspondence and in his diary than in his last will and in the noble foundation by which he is best remembered. That a man of so kindly a nature should have made profit from the cruelties of the Bear Garden is repugnant to modern ideas; but it was quite in character with the manners of his own time. Of literary ability and tastes he gives no sign, nor is there reason to suppose that he had a hand in any of the plays in which he performed on the stage, except perhaps in a piece styled by Henslowe ‘Tambercam.’ He evidently possessed a knowledge of music, and he is once, in 1595, formally described as a ‘musicion.’ A full-length portrait at Dulwich represents him as a man of dignity and presence, outwardly well qualified to sustain the tragic characters in which he is said to have most excelled.