William Ingram in his 1978 biography of Francis Langley, A London Life in the Brazen Age, described the builder of the Swan theatre, together with William Gardiner, Justice of the Peace for Bankside, as: “two unscrupulous men at odds with one another, one of them having the advantage of civil authority”. Decades earlier, Leslie Hotson wrote of Gardiner: “his life [was]… a tissue of greed, usury, fraud, cruelty, and perjury: of crime in short enough to make him a marked man even in the Elizabethan age…”. In the world of literary scholarship it is rare to find unequivocal criticism of historical figures. The academic goal of portraying both sides of any situation, the balanced approach, nearly always wins through. So how bad must Langley and Gardiner have been to merit such descriptions? William Shakespeare became embroiled in their quarrels in 1596.
The criminal antics of Gardiner and Langley have filled biographies and left a wealth of legal documentation. As you wade through these materials it is impossible not first to be amused at their effrontery and then horrified at just how brutal white collar crime could be in the sixteenth century. But if not for Gardiner and Langley’s skulduggery, the early modern theatre would have looked very different.
In May 1589 the young and naïve Thomas Cure was trapped by a shady deal engineered by Langley, who finagled the manor of Paris Garden from him. The character of Richard Easy in Middleton’s Michaelmas Term of 1604 is almost a doppelgänger of the real life Thomas Cure. But in the play Richard Easy triumphs, unlike his real life equivalent, Cure. The manor was a hundred acre site on the south side of the Thames abutting both the Rose Playhouse and the “stews” (brothels) that lined the southern riverbank. Paris Garden was, from a legal standpoint, under the authority of the Surrey Sheriff and Justices of the Peace. A theatre in Paris Garden was therefore outside the City’s jurisdiction.
Langley began to develop the site as an integrated commercial and entertainment complex, building rental property, landing stages to bring in the customers and, in 1594–5 as its centrepiece, the Swan theatre.
His uncle, a prosperous London goldsmith, raised the orphaned Langley. The nephew was apprenticed to a draper, but after he was caught taking “inappropriate liberties” his master dismissed him. Again his uncle came to his aid and obtained the freedom of the Company of Drapers for him. Subsequently to this, his benefactor also bought a “reversion” for him as an Alnager, a certifier of cloth. Langley had to wait till 1585 for a position as he was passed over for the first available openings. From the start he treated this official City office as an opportunity for extortion and bribe taking.
The Shakespeares were illegal wool brokers, or broggers. Nicholas Rowe, in 1709, in William’s first biography described his father John as “…a considerable dealer in wool” and materials showing him to be a truly national level dealer have been uncovered. Changes in the regulation of the wool brokerage market, combined with an earlier shift from the export of raw wool to the manufacture and export of whole cloth, profoundly changed the family business. To succeed, indeed just to stay in the large trade end of the business, a brogger needed London representation from the mid 1580s.
Francis Langley became an Alnager in 1585. An Alnager, with his ability to certify the quality and length of adulterated cloth, was the most useful of contacts to a brogger. Of course, this is only true if the Alnager was a crook.
If Langley the Alnager was important to Shakespeare, it appears that Shakespeare was equally important to Langley. Otherwise why would Gardiner have his stepson name Shakespeare first in the suit? Shakespeare’s value was twofold: in the theatre and in the wool and cloth trade.
It is easy to see how Langley, who built his playing company by luring players away from other companies such as Henslowe’s Admiral’s Men, would have wanted the versatile young playwright and performer from the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (whom Shakespeare had joined in 1594) working for him. Langley was the first of the impresarios to have his players sign performance contracts using similar techniques to those used in his shady financial dealings – in the event of non-performance a huge fee became payable.
A theatrical relationship would have complimented any on-going wool or cloth brokerage business that was already established between Langley and the Shakespeares.
The Isle of Dogs controversy eventually cost Langley his theatre but it also lost him Shakespeare. For, with the Swan defunct, William Shakespeare stayed with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. By 1599 he was a part owner (housekeeper) of the Globe and was set as a lifetime member of that Company.
So William knew at least two “authentic” villains in his lifetime. He wrote in King Lear:
Change places and, handy-dandy,
which is the justice, which is the thief? (Act 4 scene 6)
Had Langley’s Swan prospered perhaps he would have, in time, successfully lured Shakespeare away from the Lord Chamberlain’s men.
Perhaps it’s just as well he didn’t.