The Child Actors
by David Drew-Smythe

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Whilst major school foundations such as Eton, Westminster and Merchant Taylors involved themselves in presenting plays, masques and interludes and the Chapel Royal was steeped in pageantry and music tradition, the extraordinary popularity of the child acting companies of the sixteenth century had its beginning in the centres of choral and ecclesiastic service.

Windsor, St. Paul's and The Chapel Royal set themselves up as performance companies and specifically furnished players and singers to present entertainments for royal and noble households. The "founding father" of these was Sebastian Westcott, a west country man, who died in 1582 having guided the "Paul's Pigeons" through a period of some thirty years of successful presentations. He became known simply as 'Mister Sebastian' and was held in high regard by the young Queen Elizabeth when she came to the throne in 1558.

Records show that Westcott first appeared at Court in 1545 and that by 1547 he was a vicar choral when the children of St. Paul's were under the tutelage of John Redford and John Heywood. The former died soon after and Westcott took over as Almoner and Master of the Choristers. However, during the reigns of Edward and Mary, few entertainments were mounted and those few that were presented in front of the young King Edward were by other groups, amongst them, the Chapel Royal.

The struggle between Catholicism and the new religion of the Reformation made for difficult times for a man in Westcott's position. His leaning was to the old faith which, in latter years, under Queen Elizabeth, was to land him in trouble with church authorities. Nevertheless, Wescott is known to have taken groups of Paul's Boys to put on entertainments for the young Princess Elizabeth at Hatfield House in 1551/2 when Edward was alive and possibly also in 1554 or in 1557, during Mary's reign despite the fact that she had enforced a special licensing system on all plays in order to monitor religious content. In fact, her espousal of the Catholic faith saw all her choristers, in the main, returning to the choir stalls in pursuit of their divine duty as opposed to providing earthbound entertainments for mere mortals!

Under Queen Elizabeth however, with the changing religious climate, it would seem that groups of choristers such as those of St. Paul's and the Chapel Royal had more freedom to pursue "the drama" once more. Their ecclesiatical duties were considerably reduced and by 1560 Westcott was well set for a long and illustrious career as Master of St. Paul's.

For many years, Elizabeth gave her preference to Wescott as a provider of entertainments at court and soon the Paul's Boys were unrivalled in their list of performances. Hampton Court, Whitehall, Richmond and Greenwich were frequently on their arduous itinerary. They were renowned for their sumptuous costumes, their props and the quality of the entertainments provided for them by a long succession of writers. It brought them wealthy patronage into the bargain. By 1575, Sebastian Westcott was running a well-established, small private theatre within the precinct of St. Paul's. It was well attended and financially successful.

The rise and rise of the Paul's Boys was made easier by a drop in standards experienced by The Chapel Royal group over a period of some twelve or so years. Then, in the following year, 1576, Richard Farrant, who had been Master at St. George's Chapel, in Windsor, went into partnership with William Hunnis of the Chapel Royal and they set up their own theatre at Blackfriars. Four years later, in 1580, Farrant died and Hunnis continued to build on the strengths of his enterprise. The aging Wescott died in 1582. St. Paul's became unsettled and Hunnis was left with a clear field. He courted patronage, hired (and poached) well-known writers and mounted extravagant entertainments. In 1583 the Chapel Royal and St. Paul's performed a joint entertainment on the occasion of Queen Elizabeth's birthday.The rivalry between St. Paul's and the Chapel Royal was keen and lasted throughout the remainder of the century.

Elizabeth loved the entertainments provided by the chorister groups. But, more than that, she adored the children themselves. As Queen she became regarded as capricious and temperamental but she was also known to admire quick wit, intelligence and style. She loved youth and youthful zest. Religion, politics, diplomacy, celibacy and sovereignty had soon crowded out her own youth - but the japes and fun of those days were deeply etched in her memory.

The child actors who entertained her were highly trained (by fair means or foul) and provided for her exactly the kind of qualities and quality she craved. As a politician she was an experienced practitioner and as an interpreter of the social condition, she was adept. Whilst the words may have been written and put into the mouths of the children by adult machination, the delivery of those words, the "flair" of performance, the songs, the music and acrobatics were all of their own talent. Elizabeth respected that and she would have been more than aware (and dismissive if necessary) of any political or verbal acrobatics in sub-text.

Cares of state, in a dangerous and plotting world, would have been dissipated for a brief moment as she and her court came alive through their performances. After their entertainments (and often during them) she would hand them coins and candies. Above all, although she may have been married to England and to no man, these were her children; the only children who could approach her so nearly and with such irrepressible, pardonable cheek and fun.