New Shakespeare discovery reveals fee for royal favour

Image of Signet Office's docquet book of licence to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and fee charged

Signet Office’s docquet book of licence to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and fee charged (catalogue reference: SO 3/2)

Archivists at The National Archives have discovered a 400-year-old document which reveals a new insight into how Shakespeare’s acting company rose to become royal favourites, known as the King’s Men.

It has long been known that Shakespeare and his colleagues acted as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men under Elizabeth I, and that King James I and VI made them the King’s Men after he came to the English throne in 1603.

What was not known until now was how much Shakespeare paid to receive this privilege.

A recently discovered clerk’s docquet book from the Signet Office records (SO 3/2) reveals Shakespeare’s company paid an initial six shillings and eight pence to begin the process of their promotion to be the top acting company in the land. Although difficult to make an accurate comparison, it is thought this figure would equate to around £70 in today’s money. In 1603 a London actor would normally be paid less than a shilling a day.

This fee may have been trebled by the time the drafting and authorisation process had been completed, as the application would have also gone through the Privy Seal Office and the Chancery before receiving the great seal of the realm.

The discovery was made by Early Modern Records Specialist Dr Adrian Ailes and Shakespeare researcher Dr Hannah Crummé, who traced the paper trail back to the clerk’s docquet book from the final letters patent – the legal document issued in May 1603 under the great seal, allowing Shakespeare’s company to perform as the King’s Men.

One reason why this document had not come to light before is because it is indexed under the name ‘Lawrence Fletcher’. Fletcher was a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and had previously acted for King James in Scotland, but he disappears from the acting company’s records after their promotion. Shakespeare’s name is second in the list but was not included in the search index.

Read more in Dr Adrian Ailes’ blog.

Shakespeare’s will is currently on display at ‘By me William Shakespeare: A life in writing‘, a unique collaboration between The National Archives and King’s College London, at the Inigo Rooms, Somerset House East Wing.

Tags: by me william shakespeare, william shakespeare