Little Bits of History

September 22

Posted in History by patriciahysell on September 22, 2017

1598: Gabriel Spenser dies. Born some time around 1578, he was an Elizabethan actor who worked with some of the major theater companies in London. He worked with both Lord Chamberlain’s Men (Shakespeare’s company) and the Earl of Pembroke’s Men. He seems to have been a rather volatile young man and in December 1596 got into an argument with James Feake. They were at the house of a Shoreditch barber when they got physical. According to Spencer, Feake, the son of a goldsmith, went on the attack. He grabbed a copper candelabrum and threw it at Spencer, missing him. Spencer attacked Feake, without unsheathing his sword, but poked Feake in the eye and the sword penetrated his brain. Feake died three days later. There is no record of a punishment for this, so Spencer may have successfully argued self-defense.

Spencer was part of the cast for the new play, The Isle of the Dogs, written by Ben Jonson and Thomas Nashe. The play was considered scandalous, perhaps for satirizing both the Queen and Parliament. The play was banned, all copies destroyed and Jonson, Spencer, and one more actor, Robert Shaw, were imprisoned. Nashe escaped as did all other cast members. Records remain seeking the arrests of the rest of the cast, but nothing ever came of it. The three were released after eight weeks. In November 1597 Spencer joined a new crew, the Admiral’s Men, as a shareholder, giving him a percentage but this caused the Earl of Pembroke’s Men to file suit for breach of contract.

On this day, for reasons lost to history, Spenser and Jonson met on Hoxton fields to engage in a duel. Although Jonson wrote about it later, his only comment was that Spenser had an unfair advantage because he had a longer sword. The 26-year old playwright/actor Jonson faced the 20-year-old incensed actor Spencer who initialed the duel. Spenser was able to wound Jonson, cutting his arm. But Jonson was able to create what would later be determined to be a six inch gash along Spenser’s right flank. Spenser died of his wounds.

Jonson was arrested and confessed to the killing. He was held briefly in Newgate Prison, but was eventually released by benefit of clergy. This legal wrangling came when he read a brief bible verse, Psalm 51 – which came to be known as the “neck verse” because you could keep from being hanged by invoking it. Jonson gave up his “good and chattels” and his left thumb was branded. He was released. He went on to create many plays and  poems. He even gained royal patronage. He died in 1637 at the age of 65.

To speak and to speak well, are two things. A fool may talk, but a wise man speaks.

True happiness consists not in the multitude of friends, but in the worth and choice.

He threatens many that hath injured one. – all from Ben Jonson

O God, have mercy upon me, according to thine heartfelt mercifulness. – from Psalm 51