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What's good for the goose... ?

Written by Judith Curthoys, posted on Thursday, August 1, 2019

Document of the Month August 2019

Account of the cost of the plays staged for Charles I in 1636
Christ Church Archives DP ii.c.1, f.36

1636 was a busy year in the University and at Christ Church. William Laud, the Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury, promulgated a new set of statutes for the University in June. The document formalised the relationship between the University and the colleges, extended the privileges of the University in the city, confirmed the authority of the chancellor, and established the Hebdomadal Council - weekly meetings of the heads of houses.  The Code also set down all sorts of rules including some concerning the general deportment of students.

Account of the cost of the plays staged for Charles I in 1636 - Christ Church Archives DP ii.c.1, f.36Dean Brian Duppa had already made alterations in the cathedral to ensure that it met with Laud’s approval and then, on 2 August 1636, Duppa and the Chapter issued decrees to ensure that Christ Church was firmly in line with the new statutes. The numbers and behaviour of college servants and servitors was carefully monitored; mulcts, or punishments, were put in place for Students missing disputations, and Students who had livings alongside their Studentships were given strict instructions about their attendance at meetings in college. They were also restricted in the income they could receive from their livings which could be no further than thirty miles from college. Regular contact with and commitment to their college was very important. Old decrees concerning the choir were revived and new ones added requiring certain anthems, such as the Te Deum, the Venite Exultemus, and the Benedictus to be sung every Sunday and holiday. A regular meeting was to be held so that the Chapter could check on the choir to encourage or correct the boys. Even the Westminster supper, an annual shindig to welcome the new boys arriving from Westminster School, was abolished.

When Charles I visited towards the end of August that year, he was greeted by serried ranks of silent members in gowns, showing their outward adherence to - but probably their inward dislike of - the new regulations. But, even if the students were monitored and controlled, King Charles was certainly not to be restricted to sombre dress and sober entertainment. The University – largely at Christ Church’s expense - threw caution to the winds and arranged sumptuous entertainment for their King and his Court.

The costs were astronomical. Inigo Jones was principal designer, and spent £260 on the scenery and staging alone. The stage stretched from the upper end of the Hall, almost to the hearth in the centre of the room, and the scenery was sumptuous. Many of the staging effects were pioneered for the occasion, and the “variety bred very great admiration”, said Anthony Wood, diarist and chronicler of seventeenth century Oxford. Props men were paid over £300 for the costumes, and the musicians received £122 12s 8d. Costumiers, or tire-women, made wigs and outfits; upholsterers produced the stage curtains; the dressing rooms were supplied with wood and coal to keep the actors and musicians comfortable; twenty-three dozen candles and thirty-four torches were purchased to light the stage.

The plays were in English, and all comedies - nothing too heavy for Charles. The total bill – just for the plays – came £843 15s 6d, perhaps as much as £2 million today.