Gorboduc, or the Tragedy of Ferrex and Porrox

by Clare Rider, IT Archivist 1998-2009

In February 2002, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the first recorded performance of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night in the Middle Temple Hall, the Globe Theatre players staged an authentic version of the play in its original location, using an all-male cast. For those fortunate to be present at one of the few Middle Temple performances, it was a memorable occasion. However, readers of the Yearbook may not be aware of a first performance which took place forty years earlier, in the Inner Temple Hall, of a play which was more significant in the development of English drama. Gorboduc, otherwise known as The Tragedy of Ferrex and Porrox, was performed at the Inner Temple as part of the Christmas and New Year festivities of 1561-62, in which Queen Elizabeth I's favourite, Lord Robert Dudley, presided as Lord Governor of the Christmas revels.1 The play was subsequently performed before the Queen at Westminster, on 18th January 1562, by 'the gentlemen of the Inner Temple' and was subsequently printed in two editions, an unofficial version in 1565 and an authorised version in 1571. Its authors, the Queen's cousin, Thomas Sackville, and the Protestant Parliamentarian, Thomas Norton, were both members of the Inner Temple, and its significance as the first known English tragedy and the first English drama composed in blank verse should not be underestimated.

Gorboduc recounts the legend of Gorboduc, King of Britain, who divided his realm during his lifetime between his two sons, Ferrex and Porrox, against the advice of his principal advisors. The elder son, Ferrex, aggrieved at being denied half his inheritance and suspicious of his younger brother's ambitions, set about raising soldiers to defend himself against Porrox. On hearing of Ferrex's military preparations, Porrox sent his own troops against his elder brother and had him killed. Queen Videna, to avenge the death of her favourite elder son, brought about the murder of Porrox. The people, moved by these cruel and unnatural deeds, rose in rebellion and slew both King and Queen. In the vacuum of power, the nobility united to destroy the rebels. However, since the succession remained uncertain, the nobles soon divided and fell into civil war, in which both they and most of their offspring were destroyed, leaving the throne open to foreign claimants. At the end of the tragedy, Eubulus, wise counsellor and former secretary to King Gorboduc, predicted 'the woeful wrack and utter ruin of this noble realm' for want of an established heir. Having drawn a bleak picture of murder, rape and pillage, Eubulus brings the drama to an end on a more optimistic note:

Of justice, yet must God restore This noble crown unto the lawful heir: For right will always live, and rise at length, But wrong can never take deep root to last. After all that has occurred, his optimism is unconvincing.

The text of Gorboduc has been studied by scholars of early English drama and of Tudor political history. Dramatists have emphasised its importance as the first tragedy in English which was not a translation of a Greek or Latin text, and as the first English drama composed in blank verse rather than the rhyming quatrains of ten and fourteen syllables used by translators such as Jasper Heywood.3 Other points of interest are the 'dumb shows' or mimes performed to music at the beginning of each of the five acts and the use of a Greek-style chorus, in this case composed of 'four ancient and sage men of Britain', to illuminate the meaning of the drama. Another classical device employed by Sackville and Norton was the 'nuntius' or messenger used to narrate events. Indeed, the play seems unnecessarily static to the modern reader, with the principal action taking place off-stage, following the tradition of Greek tragedy. Perhaps the innovative use of mimes in Gorboduc was designed to counteract the lack of movement during the acts that followed.

To Tudor historians, it is the context of the play and its political message which are of prime importance.4 Since the beginning of Elizabeth I's reign, pressure had been mounting for the Queen to marry or, at least to settle the succession on a named candidate. Opinion at court and in the country was divided as to whether the Queen should opt for a foreign suitor, as her sister Mary had done in marrying Philip II of Spain, or should select a suitable marriage partner from amongst the English nobility. In the interim, opposing factions at court supported different candidates for the succession, the chief contenders being the Protestant Lady Catherine Grey, who had been named in Henry VIII's will, and the Roman Catholic Mary Queen of Scots.

In the winter of 1561-62, two marriage suits were ascendant: those of Eric XIV, the King of Sweden, and Lord Robert Dudley, the Queen's favourite and Master of Her Majesty's Horse. Dudley was now free to marry, his wife having died under mysterious circumstances in September 1560, and Elizabeth I made no secret of her infatuation for him. However, Lord Robert had powerful enemies at court, a number of whom supported the Swedish marriage project. In characteristic manner, the Queen kept everyone guessing, refusing to commit herself on the subject of the royal marriage or the succession issue or to discuss such matters before Parliament. It was against this backdrop that Norton and Sackville penned their striking tragedy, warning of the dangers of a divided kingdom with an uncertain heir and emphasising the right of a legitimate Parliament to establish the succession. The political message was unambiguous:

No, no: then parliament should have been holden, And certain heirs appointed to the crown, To stay the title of established right, And in the people plant obedience, While yet the prince did live, whose name and power By lawful summons and authority Might make the parliament be of force, And might have set the state in quiet stay

The play also promoted the claim of the native line over that of the foreigner:

Such one (my lordes) let be your chosen king, Such one so borne within your native land, Such one preferred, and in no wise admitte The heavie yoke of forreine governaunce

This message was not lost on a contemporary observer of the tragedy:

The shadows [mimes] were declared by the Chor[us] first to signify unity; the 2[second] how that men refused the certain and took the uncertain, whereby was meant that it was better for the Queen to marry with the L[ord] R[obert] known than with the K[ing] of Sweden. The third to declare that civil dissension breadeth mourning.

Although Gorboduc has also been interpreted as propaganda in favour of the succession claims of the English Lady Catherine Grey over the foreign born and French educated Mary Queen of Scots, it seems certain that its primary purpose was to support the marriage suit of Lord Robert Dudley. Seen as 'chief patron and defender' of the Inner Temple after his intervention with the Queen had prevented the loss of Lyon's Inn to the Middle Temple,7 Lord Robert Dudley's cause would have been foremost in the mind of the dramatists Sackville and Norton, both members of the Inner Temple. The fact that the tragedy was accompanied by a masque featuring the story of Beauty and Desire, which culminated in a marriage within the fictional Temple of Pallas reinforces this interpretation. By juxtaposing the chaos and waste of political division and civil war with the harmony and fruitfulness of marriage, the Inner Temple Christmas revels made a clear political point; one that was repeated before the Queen herself at Whitehall. 8 Moreover, in the Inner Temple revels, to reinforce his suitability as a royal consort, Dudley, as Prince Pallaphilos, was portrayed as a strong and loyal subject and worthy suitor of Queen Pallas (an allegory for Elizabeth I).

James and Walker, in their article 'The Politics of Gorboduc', suggest a further purpose for the drama: to convince the legal fraternity of the merits of a Parliamentary settlement of the royal succession. Arguing that a number of the lawyers amongst the Inner Temple audience would have disputed the right of the nation to alter the natural line of the succession, James and Walker claim that 'Sackville and Norton's play was seeking to persuade an at least partially sceptical audience of the merits of its case'.9 Be this as it may, there is no doubt that prime recipient of this political message was Elizabeth I herself.

Unfortunately there is very little evidence about the staging of the first performance at the Inner Temple. A contemporary observer, whose narrative account is held among the papers of the Elizabethan courtier Robert Beale, describes the mimes before the first three acts but not the play itself.10 Nor is it certain at what point in the Christmas and New Year festivities the tragedy was performed although it is generally assumed that it was on Twelfth Night. Another participant in the 1561-62 revels, Gerard Legh, mentions the masque of Beauty and Desire, the feast provided by Prince Pallaphilos, the installation and arming of the knights of the Order of the Pegasus, the procession to the Temple and the return to the hall for dancing and military displays.11 However, he makes no reference to the performance of Gorboduc. Since the festivities were spread over a number of days, Legh was presumably not present at all them.

The 1571 edition of the tragedy indicates that it was first performed at the Inner Temple and then in front of the Queen by 'the gentlemen of the Inner Temple', but were these students, barristers or associates? Whilst Legh names the principal performers taking part in the 1561 Christmas revels12, it is not certain whether these distinguished members acted out the tragedy as well. The performance of a subsequent play, The Tragedy of Tancred and Gismund, offers a clue. It was apparently 'compiled by the gentlemen of the Inner Temple and by them presented before Her Majesty' in 1592.12a The joint authors of Tancred and Gismund included Robert Wilmot, Christopher Hatton and Henry Noel, all members of the inn. The implication is that they themselves took part in the performance. If this correct, does this mean that Norton and Sackville would have participated in Gorboduc?

Thomas Norton, who according to the title page of the first edition was solely responsible for writing acts one, two and three of Gorboduc, was born in London in 1532, the eldest son of a wealthy citizen and member of the Grocers' Company. He was admitted to the Inner Temple on 28 January 1556, with Thomas Sackville acting as one of his pledges. However, within a year Norton had been expelled by the Masters of the Bench and committed to the Fleet prison with several fellows, including Richard Onslow, for their 'wilful demeanour and disobedience to the said benchers'.12b Unfortunately the Inner Temple records do not reveal the nature of their offence, but it was probably in connection with their Protestant beliefs. However, on 1 November 1556, on the 'humble suit and submissions' of four of the eight, Norton, Onslow, Copley and Lucas, were readmitted to the Inner Temple. Norton then resumed his legal studies, subsequently becoming standing counsel for the Stationers' Company and Remembrancer of the City of London. Although from his legal career it appears that he must have been called to the bar, no reference to his call has been found in the Inner Temple archives.

Norton was elected to Parliament in 1558 for the constituency of Gatton, Surrey, and was to devote much of his time and energy to politics. As a Member of Parliament for Berwick in 1562, he was a member, and probably chairman, of the Commons committee appointed to discuss the succession issue and in January 1563 read to the House the committee's report recommending the Queen to marry. Norton subsequently became MP for the City of London and an ardent anti-Catholic campaigner and activist. Indeed, his propensity to torture Roman Catholic prisoners earned him the nick-name 'Rackmaster-General'. His extreme Calvinist views, in particular his disrespectful comments on the Anglican bishops, led to his house confinement in the London Guildhall in 1582 and finally to his imprisonment in the Tower of London in 1584. His health broken, he died at liberty in his house in Bedfordshire, on 10 March 1584. Besides Gorboduc, Norton left behind a number of other printed works, mainly of a religious or political nature, and he contributed information to Foxe's Actes and Monuments.

Thomas Sackville, the only son of Sir Richard Sackville, was born in Buckhurst, Sussex, in 1536. He joined the Inner Temple on 4 March 1555 but seems to have devoted much of his time to literature. About 1557, he commenced a poem that was to trace the descent of the poet into Hades where he was to encounter famous Englishmen who had come to untimely deaths as well as the heroes of antiquity. Sackville wrote the introduction or 'Induction' to this work, but then handed over the idea to Richard Baldwin and George Ferrers, who completed it under the title, A Mirror for Magistrates. Sackville's 'Induction' has been described as the greatest English poem between Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Spencer's Fairie Queene. He wrote a number of other poems, and contributed the fourth and fifth acts to Gorboduc. Like Norton, he became a Member of Parliament in 1558, initially representing Westmoreland. He served for East Grinstead and Aylesbury in subsequent Parliaments. Like Norton, he was imprisoned for expressing Protestant beliefs, although in Sackville's case it was only a brief imprisonment in Rome for ill advised remarks made during a foreign tour. He was elevated to the peerage, as Lord Buckhurst, in 1567, and entered the House of Lords. He served abroad as a diplomat on a number of occasions and became a member of the Queen's Privy Council and subsequently Lord Treasurer, in 1599. In this capacity he served the Queen's successor, James I, who created him first Earl of Dorset, in March 1604. He died in the King's service at the council-table at Whitehall on 19 April 1608.

In the absence of financial accounts for the sixteenth century, it is not known whether Norton and Sackville were paid for composing the tragedy. They may have donated the script as their contribution to the festivities instead of the one pound subscription demanded of all members of the Inner Temple. The minutes of the inn's parliament are silent on the matter, although it is interesting that they record the reward offered to fellow dramatist, Arthur Broke, for his literary contribution to the revels, namely free admission to the Inner Temple, with Norton and Sackville as his pledges.13

Although contemporary poet, Sir Philip Sidney, praised Gorboduc as 'full of stately speeches and well sounding phrases, climbing to the height of Seneca in his style'14, Norton and Sackville's tragedy is not remembered for its literary merit. For this reason, it is unlikely to receive a repeat performance in the twenty-first century. However, its first enactment in the Inner Temple Hall remains an important milestone in the development of English drama and a colourful interlude in the rich history of the Inn.

Published in The Inner Temple Yearbook 2002/2003

Researchers wishing to consult the archives should apply in writing to:

Celia Pilkington


Celia Pilkington


Celia Pilkington