Remembering Elizabeth Condell
by Jodie Smith, 29 December 2022
On this day, a winter Wednesday, 29 December 1627, was buried Henry Condell. Condell was one of the most prolific theatrical figures of pre-civil war England; an integral member of the Lord Chamberlain’s, later the King’s, Men from at least 1597 until his death in 1627, and co-compiler, with John Heminges, of Mr William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (1623), now known to us as Shakespeare’s First Folio.
And here is the familiar image of the list containing ‘The Names of the Principall Actors’ in Shakespeare’s plays.
These are the men who first brought Shakespeare’s plays to life on-stage - and not only Shakespeare’s but many of Ben Jonson’s, John Fletcher’s and Phillip Massinger’s too, amongst other playwrights, of course. But what of the women behind this Folio list of actors? What of the off-stage players?
Extant documents relating to many of the men, including wills, lawsuits, and entries in parish registers, reveal the importance of the women in their lives and hint towards not only an extended theatrical network but one of socio-familial camaraderie. We might, then, view this list of the Principal Actors in Shakespeare’s plays as a quasi-palimpsest, beneath the surface of which we might get a glimpse of the women, if only we look closely enough.
Even this mock palimpsest does not do the women justice: just as we need to read between the lines of the men’s histories to piece together the lives of the women, we still need to squint a bit to read the peripheral names here.
So… let’s just do away with the men.
There we go. That’s better.
This list names fewer than half of the wives, mothers, sisters, aunts, nieces, and daughters our King’s Women team has been exploring, but we are delighted to be able to introduce you to some of them in this and the ensuing blog posts. So, without further ado, whereas we know much about the Norfolk boy, Henry Condell, who relocated to London, what of his wife?
Writing a biography on Condell in 1908, Sir Sidney Lee stated: ‘Nothing is known of his wife except that her name was Elizabeth, and that she was buried at St Mary Aldermanbury, on 30 Oct 1635’. Elizabeth was indeed buried at St Mary, not on 30 but 3 October 1635. This was the parish in which the Condells had lived since at least 1599 - when the baptism of their first child was recorded in the register - until around 1625, when they moved out of the City.
Fortunately, we now know much more about Henry Condell’s wife than her name and the date of her burial. The daughter of Henry Smart, Elizabeth was baptised on 5 October 1579 at St Mary le Strand. Her parents owned substantial property in the Strand, specifically an inn known as Helmet Court which was frequented by gentlemen travelling to London from counties as far and wide as York and Cornwall. The inn was large enough for some guests to enjoy their own private chamber under lock and key, and would later be converted from an inn into twelve separate messuages. The Smarts came under scrutiny in 1590 when one of their gentlemen guests had £307 (the equivalent to £56,500 today) stolen out of his chamber. Here we get a sense of just how wealthy some of their guests were.
Regrettably, the next we hear of the Smarts is decidedly less exciting. The year is 1593, and plague is raging through London. Burials are recorded at St Mary le Strand for ‘Mrs Smarte’ (25 June), ‘Mr Smarts wyef and his youngest daughter’ (8 July), and ‘Mr Smarts man’ (16 July).
At first, I wondered whether the burial entry for Mistress Smart pertained to a sister of Elizabeth’s or to her mother, but just short of two weeks later we see a poignant entry in the same register for, ‘[Master] Smarts wyef and his youngest daughter’.The entry, therefore, likely identifies Henry Smart’s mother, Elizabeth’s grandmother. We often see widowed mothers moving into the homes of their sons or daughters to help with household duties and childcare. At the risk of sounding like Sir Sidney Lee, we know nothing more of Elizabeth’s mother other than that she was concerned for a gentleman who had money stolen under her roof in 1590 and that she was buried with her youngest daughter on 8 July 1593. They are not even recorded by name.
Henry Smart himself was buried on 4 December of that year. That plague hit the parish of St Mary le Strand, wiping out whole households, is evident from the family names that recur in the burial records, but it is also explicitly identified as a cause of death in the parish register. The Company of Parish Clerks started publishing records of plague mortality in December 1592 and government letters indicated that the plague was ‘very hot’ in London by June 1593. The London theatres were closed and would not resume normal activity until around June 1594, by which time Henry Condell was very likely a member of the newly formed Lord Chamberlain’s Men.
Given that the plague took at least five members of her household, it is a miracle that Elizabeth survived at all. She would have been aged thirteen or fourteen in 1593 and it is possible she may have been living elsewhere. Formal records of apprenticeships within livery companies such as the Grocers’, the Goldsmiths’, the Stationer’s and so on, tell us that boys aged on average between fourteen and sixteen were bound to Masters in their respective trades for around seven or eight years, sometimes longer. Some females do appear in these records, but there are no formal records for girls who were sent to families to learn skills that would benefit them in their adult lives. As the eldest child, and with no brothers, Elizabeth was first in line to inherit the family property and business, and it is likely that her parents would have prepared her for such responsibilities from a young age by sending her to live with a family who could teach her to read and write, and perhaps to educate her in the ways of ordering the affairs of a household and a business; skillsets which would afterwards be extremely advantageous to Elizabeth and her husband.
The Condells were married on 24 October 1596 at St Lawrence, Pountney. Elizabeth was seventeen, Henry twenty. Shortly afterwards, the newlyweds filed a lawsuit against the two overseers of the will of Henry Smart to force them to render an account of their administration of Elizabeth’s father’s estate. As expected, Elizabeth had inherited the property in the Strand but it was to be looked after by her father’s overseers until she reached the age of twenty-one or upon her marriage, whichever came first. In the lawsuit, the Condells accused Smart’s overseers of selling three houses and goods of great value. Whether business acumen was a skill of Elizabeth’s or Henry’s or one that they both possessed we do not know but, with the support of his wife, Henry spent the next few years buying out his cousins’ shares in a property once owned by his late uncle. By 1609, the Condells owned both the Helmet Inn in the Strand and the Queen’s Head Tavern located near Fleet Street in the parish of St Bride’s. These properties were additional assets to the property in which the Condells resided in the parish of St Mary Aldermanbury, and by 1624 they owned two houses in Aldermanbury and had purchased, or would shortly after purchase, their retirement home in Fulham, a large house which boasted at least thirteen rooms.
With her husband acting regularly, as well as fulfilling his numerous parish responsibilities, Elizabeth would have had a lot to do with the management of these properties and she was certainly efficient enough to manage them along with the playhouse shares and other valuable assets she had inherited during the eight years of her widowhood.
Sick in body but of perfect mind and memory, Henry Condell wrote his will on 13 December 1627 and was buried on the 29th of that month. What an awful Christmas it must have been for the family. Of the ten Condell children we know Elizabeth gave birth to, only three outlived their father: Elizabeth (bapt. 26 October 1606), now a Finch by marriage; Henry (bapt. 6 May 1610), a scholarly youth; and William (bapt. 26 May 1611), a haberdasher’s apprentice.
The terms of Condell’s will specify that his eldest son, Henry, is to inherit the property in the Strand after the death of his mother. If Henry does not survive his mother, the property is to pass to William, and if both Henry and William die before their mother, the property is to pass to the only surviving daughter, Elizabeth. The same terms apply to the property in St Bride’s, only this one is to pass to William upon the condition that he completes his apprenticeship. Condell also mentions his late friend and fellow actor, John Underwood, of whose will he was executor. ‘I haue’, he says, ‘from tyme to tyme disbursed divers sommes of money in the educacion and bringing vpp of the Children of the said Vnderwood deceased’, and he charges his sole executrix - his wife Elizabeth - with ensuring that the surviving Underwood children receive the portions and goods bequeathed to them by their father when they reach their respective ages of twenty-one or, for the girls, upon their day of marriage.
This brief overview of her husband’s will hints towards four important events that would transpire during the course of Elizabeth’s widowhood: the death of her eldest son, Henry, in 1630; the wayward behaviour of her now only surviving son, William; the guardianship of the Underwood children, which will be the subject of a future blog post; and the dangerous prodigality of her son-in-law, which would lead to her imprisonment, deteriorating health and, eventually, perhaps even her death.
Henry Condell the younger was buried near to his father and siblings at Aldermanbury on 4 March 1630. He was nineteen years old. It is not known whether he fulfilled his father’s desire to attend university. His cause of death has not yet transpired in our search through the archives, but it must have been a huge blow to the family. The death of his older brother meant that William was now due to inherit both the property at St Bride’s, originally bequeathed to him by his father, and the property in the Strand, originally bequeathed to his older brother. In a lawsuit of 1633, it is revealed that William did not complete his apprenticeship and his former master states that, ‘after the death of his father and older brother’, William ‘importuned him for his freedom’. Despite Pate’s (his master’s) reluctance, William worried that ‘one Master Finch … who married his sister and one John Underwood and his sister, went about to conceal and defraud him of his estate, which he being in service could not look after’. William assured Pate that he had visited his mother at Fulham and received her blessing to default on his apprenticeship. This could not have been further from the truth: Elizabeth was furious and it was she who raised the suit in the Chancery Court, accusing Pate of letting ‘loose’ William ‘to do what he listed and to be ruined, without any conscience of the duty of a master’.
By the time Elizabeth wrote her will in 1635, she referred to ‘certain causes’ which she had ‘made known’ to her executors ‘touching’ her son, William, and her son-in-law, Herbert. She leaves only 20 shillings to William and ‘my reason is’, she states, ‘for that I would haue noe parte of my estate neither prodigally spent, nor lewdly wasted by him’. She trusts her executors to judge whether or not William should receive more than 20 shillings, but instructs that if they ‘find’ that William ‘shall not amend his Courses, but spend that estate and means which hee now hath, then my will is that he shall onely haue the said Twenty shillings vnlesse his extreame poverty and need shall cause my said Executors … to afford him what charity they shall thinke fitt’.
These instructions abound with clues to the personality of the mother who found herself in the heart-wrenching position of having to all but cut her only surviving son from her will. As there is no mention in the will of the St Bride’s property, it may be fair to assume that Elizabeth may have initially believed the story William had spun about his apprentice master neglecting him and encouraging him to default on the apprenticeship, and therefore already granted him the said property before her death. The reference to the ‘estate and means which he now hath’ suggests that Elizabeth carried out her husband’s wishes and gave the Queen’s Head Tavern in St Bride’s to William when he reached his majority at the age of twenty-one. Described by his ex-master as a ‘frequenter of taverns’, there is some twisted irony here about his mother only coming to this realisation after signing over the tavern she and her husband had owned since at least 1609.
Nevertheless, William is not the only male relative under scrutiny in Elizabeth’s will. Herbert Finch, the man who was thought worthy enough to marry Elizabeth and Henry’s daughter in September 1626 and trusted to oversee his father-in-law’s will in 1627, had fallen out of favour during Elizabeth’s widowhood. What had happened?
In thus far unpublished documents, it emerges that in 1632 Elizabeth Condell and her son-in-law, Herbert Finch, found themselves in need of a substantial sum of money. Herbert, on behalf of them both, procured a loan of £420 from Sir William Acton. The Chancery Case which describes the details of this agreement, a case raised by Elizabeth herself, does not reveal the reason for the loan, but it is clear that Elizabeth needed to use her property in the Strand as a bargaining chip.
By early 1635, Acton became impatient and was no longer confident that Elizabeth would be able to settle her debt with him. As a consequence, Elizabeth was imprisoned in one of the London Compters. There were two Compters or Counters in London in the 1630s. These were debtors’ prisons where offenders were sent until they could settle with their creditors. The prison system was a corrupt one and keepers would charge fees if detainees desired their own cell or to receive a good meal. Considering many of these prisoners were sent to the Counters for debt in the first place, they could not afford to pay these rates and thus endured terrible conditions. According to Salgado in his study of The Elizabethan Underworld, the lowest level of the Counters was literally known as ‘The Hole’, a dark, damp and crowded space with poor sanitation where prisoners often died of starvation and cold.
It is unclear for how long Elizabeth was imprisoned but, in the lawsuit she brought against Acton, she refers to a very frightening experience during which time she became weak and was ‘exceedinge likely to die’. She died just seven months after this imprisonment. It is only in several lawsuits raised after Elizabeth’s death that the potential reason for her debt comes to light: she was, her executor suggests, trying to bail out her dicing and gaming son-in-law, doubtless for the sake of her daughter and grandchildren.
In the disputes following Elizabeth’s death, Herbert and Elizabeth Finch were accused of pawning the household goods from the Condell house at Fulham. A previously unpublished inventory postdating Elizabeth’s death reveals what some of these pawned items might have been: ‘one weddinge ringe’; ‘one bird cage’; ‘one strikeinge clock’; ‘one hower glasse’. I look forward to discussing these inventory items in greater detail in future blog posts, but - for now - I have focussed on giving a sense of the life of the woman rather than her ‘afterlife’, so to speak.
An only child and an orphan who, in 1596, brought wealth and extensive property to her marriage, Elizabeth judiciously managed playhouse shares and extensive properties across counties all while dealing with familial conflict and navigating the complex legal system. A literate, independent and headstrong woman, her stringent will was still being contested a quarter of a century after her death. No longer relegated to a historical footnote, Elizabeth’s is a story that deserves to be told.