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Annys Woodward Henslowe née Higgins (?)

by Meryl Faiers, 14 February 2024


Today, to celebrate her 445th wedding anniversary, the blog looks at the life of a theatrical woman associated not with the King’s Men but with their ‘rivals’, the Admiral’s Men.


On 14 February 1579, Phyllippe Hinshele married Annys Woodward in the parish church of St Saviour’s, now Southwark cathedral. ‘Phyllippe Hinshele’ was Philip Henslowe, later to become a playhouse owner and operator, and compiler of the volume known as Henslowe’s Diary; his bride, Annys (or Agnes, as she will be called from now on – the names were interchangeable at this period), was the widow of Harry Woodward, probably one of the many dyers based in Southwark, and quite probably also Henslowe’s former apprentice master. To date, the only marriage record discovered for a Henry/Harry Woodward with an Annys/Agnes is that of Harry Woodward and Agnes Hygins of Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, in the bride’s parish on 26 January 1571. This may or may not be the Southwark couple, but testimony from a lawsuit brought by suspicious relatives after Henslowe’s death does confirm that Agnes was, indeed, the widow of Harry: Joan Horton, who had worked in the Henslowe household for five years testified that ‘Philip Henslowe was sometime servant unto the defendant Agnes Henslowe and unto one Mr. Woodward, former husband of the said Agnes, before the said Philip married her.’[1] ‘Sometime servant’ may imply that the young Henslowe was either an apprentice or that he may have been working as Woodward’s assistant in whatever business his employer followed. He may also have been a former apprentice, retained as a junior business associate. Harry Woodward was buried on 8 December 1578 in St Saviour’s church and Philip and Agnes married speedily, within nine weeks of her husband’s death. They weren’t married by licence and must therefore have posted their banns at the latest by 25 January 1579 (three Sundays before their wedding day). The marriage of a former apprentice to his widowed mistress was a common enough practice at the time, a way of safeguarding the business and providing a stepfather for a family. In some cases no doubt it additionally afforded respectability for an existing relationship and the speed of this marriage might suggest that such was the case here.

 

Agnes had two daughters living at the time, Joan (aged six, born in August 1572) and Elizabeth (aged four, born in January 1575). She may also have had earlier children who had not survived but the Woodward name is not uncommon in the Southwark records, making it impossible to know for certain. Indeed, only the younger child, Elizabeth, is recorded as ‘daughter of Harry Woodward’. Agnes is often referred to as being significantly older than her second husband - he was around the age of 24 when they married - and at the time of his final illness, in January 1616, she may also have been unwell (although she lived a further sixteen months). This does not necessarily mean that there was a substantial age difference between the two, despite the rather fanciful testimony of her nephew by marriage, John, that she was 100 years old at Henslowe’s death.[2] (There appears to have been a tendency to overestimate the ages of elderly residents in Southwark vastly: one extraordinary four-week period in 1603/4 sees the burial of three parishioners recorded as being 112, 115 and 126 years of age respectively).[3] On the assumption that Agnes married for the first time around 1570/1 (whether in Winchcombe or elsewhere) at the average age at marriage of 27, she may have been closer to ten years older than Philip - only a little more than the age difference between William and Anne Shakespeare. Agnes’ elder daughter, Joan, married her stepfather’s colleague, Edward Alleyn, on 22 October 1592; her younger daughter, Elizabeth, died of plague aged eighteen, ‘a maid’, and was buried at St Saviour’s on 5 October 1593. Her death brought to a close the series of concerned and affectionate letters between the Henslowe/Woodward family in London, and Edward Alleyn, then playing on tour: ‘Sister Bess’, as she was known, is poignantly absent from Joan’s letter to her husband later in the month.[4] 

 

Agnes figures only rarely in the Diary, in 1598 and 1601 making loans on her husband’s behalf to members of the current playing company, recorded later in his hand. (She may not have been literate but was probably responsible for the distinctive large ‘A’ at the foot of a letter from Philip, Joan and herself to Edward Alleyn in August 1593). In 1596 she made three loans to Philip’s orphaned (and slightly troublesome) nephew John and in 1598 and 1599 loans to friends and tenants. She may be the person described as ‘my cousin Woodward’s wife’ in the will of Philip’s brother, John Henslowe/Hensley, in 1591, when he refers to ‘bonds, sum or sums of money, leases, goods that I have at London within her house’.[5] John notably leaves no bequest to his brother Philip (although Philip ended up with the volume that was to become the Diary) but it is perfectly possible that John kept a London base with his brother and sister-in-law after his final appearance in the Southwark token books in 1588. If Agnes is ‘cousin Woodward’s wife’, leaving such important documents and cash with her, even the very fact that the house is called ‘her’ house, suggests that she was at least Philip’s match in financial competence. This competence is implicitly acknowledged in Henslowe’s will where she is sole executrix and heir to the majority of his substantial estate and, as a result, was cited in the month of her husband’s death by the Sewer Commissioners as the appropriate landowner to ‘set a grate of Iron in Mosse Alley’ to keep the drainage ditch free from obstruction.[6] The following month, Agnes made her own will but lived on for more than a year, until April 1617, when she was buried, not with her husband in St Saviour’s, but in the chapel of the College of God’s Gift at Dulwich, founded by her son-in-law and newly consecrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury: a suitable final resting place for a woman of undoubted substance.


[1] Quoted by William Rendle,  ‘Philip Henslowe’, The Genealogist, 4 (New series) (1887), 154.

[2] TNA STAC 8/168/18.

[3] LMA P92/SAV/3001.

[4]  ‘MSS 1 | Henslowe-Alleyn’ <https://henslowe-alleyn.org.uk/catalogue/mss-1/>

[5] TNA PROB 11/79/262.

[6] TNA PROB/11/127/14; quoted in S. P. Cerasano, ‘Going down the Drain in 1616: Widow Henslowe and the Sewers Commission’, Shakespeare Studies (Columbia), 32 (2004), 83–98.

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