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A scene from R. Thad Taylor’s production of Sir John Oldcastle.

Sir John Oldcastle is an Elizabethan play about John Oldcastle, a controversial 14th-15th century rebel and Lollard who was seen by some of Shakespeare's contemporaries as a proto-Protestant martyr.



The play was originally published anonymously in 1600 (Q1), printed by Valentine Simmes for the bookseller Thomas Pavier. In 1619, a new edition (Q2) carried an attribution to William Shakespeare.[1] The Diary of Philip Henslowe records that the play was written by Anthony Munday, Michael Drayton, Richard Hathwaye and Robert Wilson. (An entry in Henslowe's Diary records a later payment to Drayton for a second part to the play,which has not survived; because of this fact, the extant play has sometimes been called Sir John Oldcastle, Part I or 1 Sir John Oldcastle.)

In 1664, the play was one of the seven dramas added to the second impression of the Shakespeare Third Folio by publisher Philip Chetwinde.

Historical figure

Like other subjects of Elizabethan history plays, Sir John Oldcastle [2] was an actual person, a soldier and Lollard dissenter who was hanged and burned for heresy and treason in 1417 — thus earning himself a place in the seminal text of the Protestant Reformation in Tudor England, John Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Oldcastle was also a minor character in the early Elizabethan history play The Famous Victories of Henry V (c. 1586?), which is generally thought to have been one of Shakespeare's sources for his plays on Henry IV and Henry V.

Shakespeare's Oldcastle

The genesis of Sir John Oldcastle is crucially linked to the fact that when Shakespeare's Henry IV plays premiered on stage in 1597–98, the character Sir John Falstaff was called Sir John Oldcastle. This is indicated by abundant external and internal evidence. The change of names, from "Oldcastle" to "Falstaff," is mentioned in seventeenth-century works by Richard James (Epistle to Sir Harry Bourchier, c. 1625) and Thomas Fuller (Worthies of England, 1662). It is also indicated in details in the early texts of Shakespeare's plays. In the quarto text of Henry IV, Part 2 (1600), one of Falstaff's speech prefixes in Act I, Scene ii is mistakenly left uncorrected, "Old." instead of "Falst." In III,ii,25-6 of the same play, Falstaff is said to have been a "page to Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk" — which was true of the historical Oldcastle. In Henry IV, Part 1, I,ii,42, Prince Hal calls Falstaff "my old lad of the castle." Iambic pentameter verse lines in both parts are irregular when using the name "Falstaff," but correct with "Oldcastle." Finally, there is the blatant disclaimer at the close of Henry IV, Part 2 that disassociates the two figures: "for Oldcastle died [a] martyr, and this is not the man" (Epilogue, 29-32).

(There is even a hint that Falstaff was originally Oldcastle in The Merry Wives of Windsor too. When the First Folio and quarto texts of that play are compared, it appears that the joke in V,v,85-90 is that Oldcastle/Falstaff incriminates himself by calling out the first letter of his name, "O, O, O!," when his fingertips are singed with candles — which of course works for "Oldcastle" but not "Falstaff." There is also the "castle" reference in IV,v,6 of the same play.[3] (Falstaff, or Sir John Fastolf, was also a historical person—allegedly a greedy and grasping individual but a brave soldier, whose reputation for cowardice at the Battle of Patay was undeserved. Fastolf, however, died without descendants, making him safe for a playwright's use.)

The Lords Cobham

The name change and the Epilogue disclaimer were required, it is generally thought, because of political pressure: the historical Oldcastle was not only a Protestant martyr, but a nobleman with powerful living descendents in Elizabethan England. These were the Lords Cobham: William Brooke, 10th Baron Cobham (died 6 March 1597), was Warden of the Cinque Ports (1558–97), Knight of the Order of the Garter (1584), and member of the Privy Council (1586–97); his son Henry Brooke, 11th Baron Cobham, was granted the paternal post of Warden of the Cinque Ports upon his father's death, and made a Knight of the Order of the Garter in 1599. Even more so, Frances Brooke, the 10th Baron's wife and 11th Baron's mother, was a close personal favorite of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth I (an Elizabethan could not have been more or better connected than the Cobhams).

The elder Lord Cobham even had a strong negative impact upon the lives of Shakespeare and his contemporaries in the theater. The company of actors formed by Shakespeare, Richard Burbage, Will Kempe and the others in 1594 enjoyed the patronage of Henry Carey, first Lord Hunsdon, then serving as Lord Chamberlain; they were, famously, the Lord Chamberlain's Men. When Carey died on 22 July 1596, the post of Lord Chamberlain was given to William Brooke, Lord Cobham, who definitely was not a friend to the players, and who withdrew what official protection they had enjoyed. The players were left to the mercies of the local officials of the City of London, who had long wanted to drive the companies of actors out of the City. Thomas Nashe, in a contemporary letter, complained that the actors were "piteously persecuted by the Lord Mayor and the aldermen" during this period. Fortunately, for the players and for English literature, this interval did not last; when Cobham died less than a year later, the post of Lord Chamberlain went to Henry Carey's son George, second Lord Hunsdon, and the actors regained their previous patronage.[4]

Soon after the premier of Shakespeare's Oldcastle/Falstaff in 1597–98, literary and dramatic works began to appear that defended the reputation of the historical Oldcastle; scholars argue that the muse that inspired these works was Henry Brooke, 11th Baron Cobham. In 1601 a narrative poem, The Mirror of Martyrs, by one John Weever, was published; it praises Oldcastle has a "valiant captain and most godly martyr." And two years earlier, in 1599, the play Sir John Oldcastle was performed by the Admiral's Men, the main theatrical rivals of Shakespeare's company. Curiously, this effort to redeem the Oldcastle name was at best only partially successful; allusions to the Falstaff character under the name of Oldcastle continued to appear in succeeding years — in Nathan Field's play Amends for Ladies (1618) and in the anonymous pamphlets The Meeting of Gallants at an Ordinary (1604) and The Wandering Jew (c. 1628), among other works.[5]


Sir John Oldcastle treats its subject matter in ways acceptable to the values and biases of its audience, and the interests of Elzabethan officialdom (inevitably; if it did anything else it would never have escaped censorship). Oldcastle is a religious but not a political dissenter; his quarrel is with the Roman Catholic Church, and he remains loyal to the Crown and to Henry V personally (II,iii). The villain of the piece is the Bishop of Rochester, aided by his summoner Clun. The same cast of rebels and conspirators is active in this play (II,ii, III,ii, etc.) as in Henry V, but Oldcastle keeps scrupulously separate from them. The play offers a comic character, Sir John of Wrotham, a pale imitation of Falstaff, who interacts with a disguised Henry V (III,iv) much as in Shakespeare's plays. The later scenes are devoted to Rochester's pursuit of Oldcastle and his wife, and their escapes; the play ends on a temporary positive note, with the Oldcastles evading imprisonment. (Presumably, the lost second half of the play would have had the inevitable grimmer ending of Oldcastle's grisly death.)

For a defense of the Shakespearean attribution, see: Mark Dominik, A Shakespearean Anomaly.


  1. ^ The 1619 edition of the play was part of William Jaggard's so-called False Folio.
  2. ^ Richardson, Ruth Elizabeth, 2007 'Mistress Blanche, Queen Elizabeth I's Confidante', Logaston, p 87-89, see also
  3. ^ Scoufos, Shakespeare's Typological Satire, p. 191.
  4. ^ Halliday, Shakespeare Companion, p. 107; Scoufos, p.99.
  5. ^ Scoufos, pp. 36-40.


  • Dominik, Mark. A Shakespearean Anomaly: Shakespeare's Hand in "Sir John Oldcastle." Beaverton, OR, Alioth Press, 1991.
  • Halliday, F. E. A Shakespeare Companion 1564–1964. Baltimore, Penguin, 1964.
  • Scoufos, Alice-Lyle. Shakespeare's Typological Satire: A Study of the Falstaff/Oldcastle Problem. Athens, OH, Ohio University Press, 1979.

External links


1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

SIR JOHN OLDCASTLE (d. 1417), English Lollard leader, was son of Sir Richard Oldcastle of Almeley in Herefordshire. He is first mentioned as serving in the expedition to Scotland in 1400, when he was probably quite a young man. Next year he was in charge of Builth castle in Brecon, and serving all through the Welsh campaigns won the friendship and esteem of Henry, the prince of Wales. Oldcastle represented Herefordshire in the parliament of 1404. Four years later he married Joan, the heiress of Cobham, and was thereon summoned to parliament as Lord Cobham in her right. As a trusted supporter of the prince, Oldcastle held a high command in the expedition which the young Henry sent to France in 1411. Lollardy had many supporters in Herefordshire, and Oldcastle himself had adopted Lollard opinions before 1410, when the churches on his wife's estates in Kent were laid under interdict for unlicensed preaching. In the convocation which met in March 1413, shortly before the death of Henry IV., Oldcastle was at once accused of heresy. But his friendship with the new king prevented any decisive action till convincing evidence was found in a book belonging to Oldcastle, which was discovered in a shop in Paternoster Row. The matter was brought before the king, who desired that nothing should be done till he had tried his personal influence. Oldcastle declared his readiness to submit to the king "all his fortune in this world," but was firm in his religious beliefs. When he fled from Windsor to his own castle at Cowling, Henry at last consented to a prosecution. Oldcastle refused to obey the archbishop's repeated citations, and it was only under a royal writ that he at last appeared before the ecclesiastical court on the 23rd of September. In a confession of his Lfaith he declared his belief in the sacraments and the necessity of penance and true confession; but to put hope, faith or trust in images was the great sin of idolatry. But he would not assent to the orthodox doctrine of the sacrament as stated by the bishops, nor admit the necessity of confession to a priest. So on the 25th of September he was convicted as a heretic. Henry was still anxious to find a way of escape for his old comrade, and granted a respite of forty days. Before that time had expired Oldcastle escaped from the Tower by the help of one William Fisher, a parchmentmaker of Smithfield (Riley, Memorials of London, 641). Oldcastle now put himself at the head of a wide-spread Lollard conspiracy, which assumed a definitely political character. The design was to seize the king and his brothers during a Twelfth-night mumming at Eltham, and perhaps, as was alleged, to establish some sort of commonwealth. Henry, forewarned of their intention, removed to London, and when the Lollards assembled in force in St Giles's Fields on the 10th of January they were easily dispersed. Oldcastle himself escaped into Herefordshire, and for nearly four years avoided capture. Apparently he was privy to the Scrope and Cambridge plot in July 1415, when he stirred some movement in the Welsh Marches. On the failure of the scheme he went again into hiding. Oldcastle was no doubt the instigator of the abortive Lollard plots of 1416, and appears to have intrigued with the Scots. But at last his hiding-place was discovered and in November 1417 he was captured by the Lord Charlton of Powis. Oldcastle who was "sore wounded ere he would be taken," was brought to London in a horse-litter. On the 14th of December he was formally condemned, on the record of his previous conviction, and that same day was hung in St Giles's Fields, and burnt "gallows and all." It is not clear that he was burnt alive.

Oldcastle died a martyr. He was no doubt a man of fine quality, but circumstances made him a traitor, and it is impossible altogether to condemn his execution. His unpopular opinions and early friendship with Henry V. created a traditional scandal which long continued. In the old play The Famous Victories of Henry V., written before 1588, Oldcastle figures as the prince's boon companion. When Shakespeare adapted that play in Henry IV., Oldcastle still appeared; but when the play was printed in 1598 Falstaff's name was substituted, in deference, as it is said, to the then Lord Cobham. Though the fat knight still remains "my old lad of the Castle," the stage character has nothing to do with the Lollard leader.

BIBLIOGRAPHY. - The record of Oldcastle's trial is printed in Fasciculi Zizaniorum (Rolls series) and in Wilkins's Concilia, iii. 35 1 -357. The chief contemporary notices of his later career are given in Gesta Henrici Quinti (Eng. Hist. Soc.) and in Walsingham's Historia Anglicana. There have been many lives of Oldcastle, mainly based on The Actes and Monuments of John Foxe, who in his turn followed the Briefe Chronycle of John Bale, first published in 1544. For notes on Oldcastle's early career, consult J. H. Wylie, History of England under Henry IV. For literary history see the Introductions to Richard James's Iter Lancastrense (Chetham Soc., 1845) and to Grosart's edition of the Poems of Richard James (1880). See also W. Barske, Oldcastle-Falstaff in der englischen Literatur bis zu Shakespeare (Palaestra, 1. Berlin, 1905). For a recent Life, see W. T. Waugh in the English Historical Review, vol. xx. (C. L. K.)

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