When Salomon Pavey, a chorister of the aging Queen Elizabeth's Chapel Royal, died in 1602, the Chapel Children were nearing the end of a remarkable twenty-five years of their history. Along with the boys of St. Paul's Singing School, they had first created and then dominated the "Private Theatre" of London.
The Chapel Royal was not a place as such; it was an organisation, an institution, and the "Children of The Chapel Royal" were a select group of young choristers whose sole duty it was to sing at divine service exclusively for the monarch. As they grew older, and if their voices were still of merit, they would be elevated to join "The Gentlemen" of the Chapel. So select a group was this that the Master of The Chapel was empowered by Royal Warrant to "take up" - impress - any boy in the land for the choral service of the monarch and it was a warrant that could not, normally, be denied.
The rising popularity of dramatic entertainments during the Tudor period had seen the formation of several new, often travelling, companies of actors. Noble patronage followed. However, in performing within the City of London, (in taverns and ale houses) it brought players into conflict with the City Fathers who, apart from any concern they may have had over the possible spread of disease (plague) where large crowds gathered, tried to raise revenue from them on the back of their successes.
In 1576, the conflict led to the construction of the first venue specifically designed to house public audiences for plays - "The Theatre" - and so began the history of the London stage. Ground was leased in Holywell (St. Leonards in Shoreditch) by James Burbage of The Earl of Leicester's Men and because it was built outside the City walls it was wholly beyond the jurusdiction of the City Fathers. Noble patronage not only remained but increased and play-going became an accepted and important avenue of popular entertainment for all classes.
The demand for entertainment did not go unnoticed by one William Hunnis, the Master of the Chapel of the time, who was more than aware of the successes being achieved by Sebastian Westcott at St. Paul's. Hunnis recognised a growing market and took the opportunity to found his own theatre and have his choristers mount plays and perform entertainments there. Thus, also in 1576, with a partner, Richard Farrant, formerly Master of the Windsor Chapel children, he leased buildings from the Burbage family and set up a playhouse at Blackfriars to be used by the Chapel Children. Whilst they were not ostensibly supposed to put on public performances there, rehearsals could be viewed and those rehearsals were soon at performance pitch - and charged for! So, in their refurbished and comfortable, candle-lit theatre at Blackfriars, the Children of the Chapel Royal prepared and presented entertainments which delighted Queen Elizabeth, her nobles and a privileged, affluent middle class - and all within the city walls which was forbidden to the "common players".
At the height of their success, they excited the jealousies of those common players. It was no less a common player than William Shakespeare who was moved to write of them in fury ...
" There is, Sir," says Rosencrantz, "an eyrie of children, little eyases that cry out on the top of question, and are most tyrannically clapped for it. They are now the fashion, and so berattle the common stages - so they call them - that many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose-quills and dare scarce come thither." Hamlet later asks whether the boys are successful. When Rosencrantz replies that they are, Hamlet comments, "'Sblood! There is something in this more than natural, if philosophy could find it out." (Hamlet II.ii)
Indeed, there was something "more than natural" in this. The child actors enjoyed unparalleled acclaim and commanded the impressive, goose-quill bearing talents of such as Middleton, Fletcher, Marston, Chapman, Lyly and, of course, Jonson, all of whom wrote for them but each, no doubt, with an eye to the politics of Queen and Court.
Whilst it would have been true that the children were, by comparison, privileged and clearly enjoyed many of their performances, they were unquestionably exploited. Their masters, men like Hunnis, Giles and, later, Henry Evans, were to use them cruelly. Creditable choirmasters they may have been but they were only too aware of the potential commercial value of their charges and, with all the money of the Court to beckon them, they did not hesitate to trade.
Eventually, the success of the Chapel Children as performers took more and more choristers away from their prime duty - to sing at divine service for the monarch. The need to augment the Chapel became apparent. History records the kidnapping of a boy named Thomas Clifton who was taken from the London streets. It was only the noble standing and political power of his family that circumvented the intrinsic power of the Chapel's Royal Warrant - to impress any child and under any circumstances.
The use of the Chapel Children as performers brought about religious and political conflict with the Puritans who maintained that the choristers were being subborned - God's work was being defiled. It was an argument that took a strong hold towards the end of the century and one which eventually proved uppermost in the demise of the acting tradition of the Chapel Royal.