Edward Alleyn

ALLEYN, Edward 1566-1626. Early modern actor and playhouse owner. Born on 1 September 1566, the middle child of the Innkeeper of ‘The Pye’ at Bishopsgate, also called Edward, and his wife Margaret. Alleyn senior died in 1571, and his widow (née Townley) remarried, to one John Browne. Perhaps at his instigation both Edward and his older brother John entered the acting profession.

It seems probable that Alleyn served his apprenticeship touring the provinces, as a musician and playing female roles as was then the custom. At eighteen his name was recorded in the list of the Earl of Worcester’s Players, and later of Lord Strange’s Men.

By 1588, aged 22, following a sensational debut in Christopher Marlowe’s play Tamburlaine, Alleyn was acclaimed as the leading actor of the time. In late 1590 or early 1591 he formed a joint company combining Lord Strange’s Men with the Lord Admiral’s Men, which after 1603 became the Prince Henry’s Men. Alleyn created the leading role in three other of Marlowe’s great plays, Edward II, The Jew of Malta and Dr Faustus, until his partnership with Marlowe ended with the latter’s murder in May 1593.

In late 1591 Alleyn quarrelled so seriously with James Burbage, the proprietor of The Theatre in Shoreditch, (and father of Alleyn’s later rival Richard Burbage) that he stormed off the premises with his men, crossed the river and entered into partnership with Philip Henslowe, sole proprietor of The Rose Theatre, the first to be built on Bankside. In October 1592, Alleyn married Henslowe’s stepdaughter, Joan Woodward.

The Bear Pit, which Henslowe also owned, flourished and The Rose Theatre was extremely successful. In 1599, however, Henslowe’s old rival James Burbage opened The Globe Theatre on Bankside, its opening production being Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Not to be outdone, Alleyn, with Henslowe’s backing, built The Fortune Theatre in Cripplegate, which opened in May 1601.

On 14 March 1604, Alleyn retired from the professional stage, although on the following day, at the splendid city pageant staged to honour the entrance into London of the new king, James I, Alleyn played the ‘Genius of the Citie’, delivering congratulatory addresses to His Majesty with ‘a well tun’d, audible voice’ at the beginning and the close of the proceedings, a fitting end to a great career.

In 1605 Alleyn purchased the manor of Dulwich from Sir Francis Calton. The title and the manorial lands cost him £5,000, but in addition, over the next six or seven years, he was obliged to negotiate with the owners of other small pockets of freehold land within the manor, and with the owners of manorial copyhold land who had property rights which in effect gave them the same status as freeholders. However, by 1613 he had acquired, at a total cost of over £9,000, the manor and almost all the land within it.

Quite when Alleyn conceived the idea for his foundation we do not know, or even why. Clearly he was a pious and charitable man, and he may have realised early on that he and his wife would have no direct heirs. Whatever the reason, Alleyn gave instructions for his College, to be known as Alleyn’s College of God’s Gift, to be erected at the south end of Dulwich High Street. Work started in 1613 and took three years to complete. The chapel and also the burial ground at the north end of the Village were consecrated on 1 September 1616, Edward Alleyn’s 50th birthday. The original constitution of his College provided for a Master and a Warden (both of whom should have the name of Alleyn), four Fellows - Preacher, Usher, Schoolmaster and Organist - twelve almspeople, namely six poor brethren and six poor sisters, and twelve poor scholars. The foundation received its letters patent from James I in 1619.

Joan Alleyn died in June 1623. On 3 December that year, Alleyn married the 19-year-old Constance, daughter of Dr John Donne, celebrated poet and Dean of St Paul’s. Three years later Edward Alleyn died and was buried in the chapel of his College on 27 November, 1626. He had no children - his descendants and beneficiaries are the scholars and pupils of the foundation and the inhabitants of Dulwich.

Arthur Chandler and Patrick Darby