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Ales Atkins née Heminges - A Quiet Life?

by Meryl Faiers, 12 January 2022


King’s Man John Heminges was the father of many daughters, the best known of whom was Thomasine who, as a young widow, famously sued her father for the value of the shares in the ownership of the Globe and Blackfriars that was due to her late husband. But Thomasine was the third surviving daughter of the family and her eldest sister Ales (Alice) was the Heminges’ first born. Her life was outwardly much more tranquil than Thomasine’s and, unlike that of her sister, is documented solely through the rites of passage recorded in parish registers; nevertheless, she may still stand as an exemplar of the young City woman of the middling sort.


Ales was baptised at St Mary Aldermanbury on 1 November 1590, the first child of Rebecca and John Heminges and, thanks to the parish register, we know who probably delivered her: Margaret Clark, ‘widow and midwife’. When Ales was born, John Heminges was not quite twenty-four years of age, but was already a Citizen of London, having been freed three years previously by the Worshipful Company of Grocers following a nine-year apprenticeship. Nothing is known of Heminges’ professional life in the years between finishing his apprenticeship in 1587, and 1593, when he first appears in the record as an actor, a sharer in Strange’s Men. By the time of Ales’ birth, he may already have been established in the dual careers of actor and grocer, but he certainly wasn’t the publicly successful actor and businessman he became in the next century.


Rebecca had married her first husband, an actor called William Knell, at fourteen and was widowed at fifteen when Knell was killed in a fight on tour with a fellow actor in the Queen’s Men. She married John Heminges just nine months later at the age of sixteen and was still only eighteen at Ales’ birth. The relative speed of their marriage after Knell’s death makes it possible that Heminges was also a member of the Queen’s Men and that this was the company in which he began as an actor. Until the establishment of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in 1594, John Heminges was probably mostly away from London whenever he was working as an actor, and when he was at home he may well have had a fledgling grocery business to develop so that, until he achieved financial stability as a co-owner of the Globe (and later the Blackfriars), he was perhaps not dissimilar to many young actors today, juggling several non-acting jobs alongside a developing performing career, simply to stay afloat.


Ales had seventeen months as an only child before her sister, Mary, was born into this young household. But Mary was the first of the Heminges babies to die in infancy, so Ales then enjoyed solo status until the birth of Judith in August 1593. Thereafter the babies were born at regular intervals, so that Ales would have found herself in the role of big sister to a growing brood, as well as a nursemaid helping her mother during most of her own girlhood. Ales’ level of literacy is unknown, but it would have been usual for a young woman of the middling sort to at least read. Scholars from the Grocers’ Company have suggested that it may have been Rebecca who was the de facto grocer whilst her husband was running theatre finances. If Rebecca was, indeed, the active grocer she may have taught Ales initially to read and probably later to write and cast her numbers. Reading would, of course, have been an invaluable skill for any actor’s child helping with lines. As an aside, we know that at least one of Ales’ own children was a reader: nine-year-old Richard was the sole named grandchild in John Heminges’ will of 1630 and received £5 ‘to buy him books’ when his unnamed cousins received only ‘fifty shillings apiece’.


Whether he was personally an active grocer or not, John Heminges used his status as a freeman of the Grocers’ Company to bind apprentices to be trained not in the grocery business but within the acting company. These were generally not children but young men in their late teens and early twenties, so that from the time that Ales was five, the Heminges house on Addle Street would always have had at least one older teenage apprentice in residence. Perhaps surprisingly, not one Heminges daughter married a former apprentice of her father’s. When Ales married in 1613, aged twenty-two, her choice of husband was John Atkins, a scrivener.


A scrivener drew up legal documents including wills and contracts, but was also something akin to a modern financial adviser, acting as a broker between those in need of funds and investors. Atkins was an incomer to London who completed his training and was freed in 1612; by the end of his career he had achieved the highest position in the Company of Scriveners as Upper Warden. We don’t know how he and Ales met but, four months after their marriage, he was working with his father-in-law producing contracts for the craftsmen working on rebuilding the Globe after the fire of 1613. This was the start of a long working relationship for him with the Chamberlain’s/King’s Men. Although his work must have taken him almost daily to Southwark during the rebuilding, the Atkins family remained based in the City, where their first child, James, was christened at St Margaret Lothbury in 1615. Four more children followed at two-yearly intervals, all baptised at St Bartholomew by the Exchange - an adjacent parish only a minute away. Two of these children died, John at three and Rebecca sometime before she was seven. While Ales had her hands full with her young family, Atkins became intricately involved with both the King’s Men and his father-in-law’s non-theatrical ventures and it may have been a mixture of work and family that took John and the pregnant Ales to stay in Southwark at some point after Easter 1624.


John Heminges himself had moved there permanently following the death of his wife Rebecca in 1619 and Ales gave birth there (perhaps in her father’s house in Black Boy Alley) to a second daughter, also named Rebecca. The infant was baptised on 17 June 1624 in St Saviour’s, the parish church of the Globe, as the daughter of ‘John a Scrivener, stranger’, that is, not a resident of the parish. Four days later, on 21 June, is baldly recorded the event that must have shocked the world of the two Johns, Heminges and Atkins, to its core: the burial of ‘Alyse Atkins a woman in childbed’. Ales was thirty-three and left behind her widower John, her three sons - James, Richard and Thomas - and her tiny baby daughter. Hers was perhaps a quiet life as daughter, wife and mother, especially in comparison to that of her determined and tough-minded sister Thomasine, but it is still possible to reconstruct a little of that life from the available records.


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