Sir John Oldcastle
Sir John Oldcastle is an Elizabethan play about John Oldcastle
John Oldcastle
Sir John Oldcastle , English Lollard leader, was son of Sir Richard Oldcastle of Almeley in northwest Herefordshire and grandson of another Sir John Oldcastle....

, a controversial 14th-15th century rebel and Lollard who was seen by some of Shakespeare's contemporaries as a proto-Protestant martyr
A martyr is somebody who suffers persecution and death for refusing to renounce, or accept, a belief or cause, usually religious.-Meaning:...



The play was originally published anonymously in 1600 (Q1), printed by Valentine Simmes
Valentine Simmes
Valentine Simmes was an Elizabethan era and Jacobean era printer; he did business in London, "on Adling Hill near Bainard's Castle at the sign of the White Swan." Simmes has a reputation as one of the better printers of his generation, and was responsible for several quartos of Shakespeare's plays...

 for the bookseller Thomas Pavier
Thomas Pavier
Thomas Pavier was a London publisher and bookseller of the early seventeenth century. His complex involvement in the publication of early editions of some of Shakespeare's plays, as well as plays of the Shakespeare Apocrypha, has left him with a "dubious reputation."-Life and work:Pavier came to...

. In 1619, a new edition (Q2) carried an attribution to William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England's national poet and the "Bard of Avon"...

. The Diary of Philip Henslowe
Philip Henslowe
Philip Henslowe was an Elizabethan theatrical entrepreneur and impresario. Henslowe's modern reputation rests on the survival of his diary, a primary source for information about the theatrical world of Renaissance London...

 records that the play was written by Anthony Munday
Anthony Munday
Anthony Munday was an English dramatist and miscellaneous writer. The chief interest in Munday for the modern reader lies in his collaboration with Shakespeare and others on the play Sir Thomas More and his writings on Robin Hood.-Biography:He was once thought to have been born in 1553, because...

, Michael Drayton
Michael Drayton
Michael Drayton was an English poet who came to prominence in the Elizabethan era.-Early life:He was born at Hartshill, near Nuneaton, Warwickshire, England. Almost nothing is known about his early life, beyond the fact that in 1580 he was in the service of Thomas Goodere of Collingham,...

, Richard Hathwaye
Richard Hathwaye
Richard Hathwaye , was an English dramatist. Little is known about Hathwaye's life. There is no evidence that he was related to his namesake Richard Hathaway, the father of Shakespeare's wife, Anne Hathaway. Hathwaye is not heard of after 1603....

 and Robert Wilson
Robert Wilson (dramatist)
Robert Wilson , was an Elizabethan dramatist who worked primarily in the 1580s and 1590s. He is also believed to have been an actor who specialized in clown roles....

. (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
Folios and Quartos (Shakespeare)
The earliest texts of William Shakespeare's works were published during the 16th and 17th centuries in quarto or folio format. Folios are large, tall volumes; quartos are smaller, roughly half the size...

 by publisher Philip Chetwinde
Philip Chetwinde
Philip Chetwinde was a seventeenth-century London bookseller and publisher, noted for his publication of the Third Folio of Shakespeare's plays.-A rough start:Chetwinde was originally a clothworker...


Historical figure

Like other subjects of Elizabethan history plays, Sir John Oldcastle was an actual person, a soldier and Lollard dissenter who was hanged and burned for heresy
Heresy is a controversial or novel change to a system of beliefs, especially a religion, that conflicts with established dogma. It is distinct from apostasy, which is the formal denunciation of one's religion, principles or cause, and blasphemy, which is irreverence toward religion...

 and treason
In law, treason is the crime that covers some of the more extreme acts against one's sovereign or nation. Historically, treason also covered the murder of specific social superiors, such as the murder of a husband by his wife. Treason against the king was known as high treason and treason against a...

 in 1417 — thus earning himself a place in the seminal text of the Protestant Reformation in Tudor England, John Foxe
John Foxe
John Foxe was an English historian and martyrologist, the author of what is popularly known as Foxe's Book of Martyrs, , an account of Christian martyrs throughout Western history but emphasizing the sufferings of English Protestants and proto-Protestants from the fourteenth century through the...

's Book of Martyrs
Foxe's Book of Martyrs
The Book of Martyrs, by John Foxe, more accurately Acts and Monuments, is an account from a Protestant point of view of Christian church history and martyrology...

. 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
Henry IV of England
Henry IV was King of England and Lord of Ireland . He was the ninth King of England of the House of Plantagenet and also asserted his grandfather's claim to the title King of France. He was born at Bolingbroke Castle in Lincolnshire, hence his other name, Henry Bolingbroke...

 and Henry V
Henry V of England
Henry V was King of England from 1413 until his death at the age of 35 in 1422. He was the second monarch belonging to the House of Lancaster....


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
Thomas Fuller
Thomas Fuller was an English churchman and historian. He is now remembered for his writings, particularly his Worthies of England, published after his death...

 (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
Henry IV, Part 2
Henry IV, Part 2 is a history play by William Shakespeare, believed written between 1596 and 1599. It is the third part of a tetralogy, preceded by Richard II and Henry IV, Part 1 and succeeded by Henry V.-Sources:...

(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
Henry IV, Part 1
Henry IV, Part 1 is a history play by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written no later than 1597. It is the second play in Shakespeare's tetralogy dealing with the successive reigns of Richard II, Henry IV , and Henry V...

, I,ii,42, Prince Hal calls Falstaff "my old lad of the castle." Iambic pentameter
Iambic pentameter
Iambic pentameter is a commonly used metrical line in traditional verse and verse drama. The term describes the particular rhythm that the words establish in that line. That rhythm is measured in small groups of syllables; these small groups of syllables are called "feet"...

 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
The Merry Wives of Windsor
The Merry Wives of Windsor is a comedy by William Shakespeare, first published in 1602, though believed to have been written prior to 1597. It features the fat knight Sir John Falstaff, and is Shakespeare's only play to deal exclusively with contemporary Elizabethan era English middle class life...

too. When the First Folio
First Folio
Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. is the 1623 published collection of William Shakespeare's plays. Modern scholars commonly refer to it as 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. The name Falstaff was derived from Sir John Fastolf
John Fastolf
Sir John Fastolf KG was an English knight during the Hundred Years War, who has enjoyed a more lasting reputation as in some part being the prototype of Shakespeare's Sir John Falstaff...

, who was also a historical person—allegedly a greedy and grasping individual, who had a (probably undeserved) reputation for cowardice at the Battle of Patay
Battle of Patay
The Battle of Patay was the culminating engagement of the Loire Campaign of the Hundred Years' War between the French and English in north-central France. It was a decisive victory for the French and turned the tide of the war. This victory was to the French what Agincourt was to the English...

. Fastolf, however, died without descendants, making him safe for a playwright's use. He had already appeared as a cowardly knight in Henry VI, part 1
Henry VI, part 1
Henry VI, Part 1 or The First Part of Henry the Sixt is a history play by William Shakespeare, and possibly Thomas Nashe, believed to have been written in 1591, and set during the lifetime of King Henry VI of England...


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
William Brooke, 10th Baron Cobham
William Brooke, 10th Baron Cobham was Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, and a Member of Parliament for Hythe. Although he was viewed by some as a religious radical during the Somerset protectorate, he entertained Elizabeth at Cobham Hall in 1559, signalling his acceptance of the moderate regime.His...

 (died 6 March 1597), was Warden of the Cinque Ports (1558–97), Knight of the Order of the Garter
Order of the Garter
The Most Noble Order of the Garter, founded in 1348, is the highest order of chivalry, or knighthood, existing in England. The order is dedicated to the image and arms of St...

 (1584), and member of the Privy Council (1586–97); his son Henry Brooke, 11th Baron Cobham
Henry Brooke, 11th Baron Cobham
Henry Brooke, 11th Baron Cobham was an English peer who was implicated in the Main Plot against the rule of James I of England.- Life :...

, was granted the paternal post of Warden of the Cinque Ports upon his father's death, and made a Knight
A knight was a member of a class of lower nobility in the High Middle Ages.By the Late Middle Ages, the rank had become associated with the ideals of chivalry, a code of conduct for the perfect courtly Christian warrior....

 of the Order of the Garter
Order of the Garter
The Most Noble Order of the Garter, founded in 1348, is the highest order of chivalry, or knighthood, existing in England. The order is dedicated to the image and arms of St...

 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
Richard Burbage
Richard Burbage was an English actor and theatre owner. He was the younger brother of Cuthbert Burbage. They were both actors in drama....

, Will Kempe
William Kempe
William Kempe , also spelt Kemp, was an English actor and dancer specializing in comic roles and best known for having been one of the original players in early dramas by William Shakespeare...

 and the others in 1594 enjoyed the patronage of Henry Carey, first Lord Hunsdon, then serving as Lord Chamberlain
Lord Chamberlain
The Lord Chamberlain or Lord Chamberlain of the Household is one of the chief officers of the Royal Household in the United Kingdom and is to be distinguished from the Lord Great Chamberlain, one of the Great Officers of State....

; they were, famously, the Lord Chamberlain's Men
Lord Chamberlain's Men
The Lord Chamberlain's Men was a playing company for whom Shakespeare worked for most of his career. Formed at the end of a period of flux in the theatrical world of London, it had become, by 1603, one of the two leading companies of the city and was subsequently patronised by James I.It was...

. 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
Thomas Nashe
Thomas Nashe was an English Elizabethan pamphleteer, playwright, poet and satirist. He was the son of the minister William Nashe and his wife Margaret .-Early life:...

, 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.

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
Admiral's Men
The Admiral's Men was a playing company or troupe of actors in the Elizabethan and Stuart eras...

, 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.


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.

External links

  • Sir John Oldcastle eText at Project Gutenberg
    Project Gutenberg
    Project Gutenberg is a volunteer effort to digitize and archive cultural works, to "encourage the creation and distribution of eBooks". Founded in 1971 by Michael S. Hart, it is the oldest digital library. Most of the items in its collection are the full texts of public domain books...

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