[Blackfriars' Journal]




The Fencing School in Blackfriars
by Linda Carlyle McCollum

      There is the common notion that Rocco Bonetti, Jeronimo, and Vincentio Saviolo had fencing schools in Blackfriars and were the fencers that Shakespeare would have come into direct contact with when Lord Chamberlain's Men occupied the theatre in Blackfriars. Recent publications continue to perpetuate this notion. A close look at the documented evidence raises some serious questions if this was true at all.

      Legal records show William Joyner, a member of the Masters of the Noble Science of Defence, having the only fencing school in Blackfriars in 1570's . Joyner occupied the blind parlor and later the paved hall beneath the Parliament Chamber The way Joyner's lease changed hands, eventually becoming the Second Blackfriars Theatre which was occupied by Shakespeare's company, is an intriguing story in itself.

      In 1576 the First Blackfriars Playhouse, which housed a children's company, opened in the north end of the building occupied by Joyner's fencing school. When Richard Farrant the owner of the lease on the First Blackfriars Theatre died, Henry Evans took over the lease and continued to run the theatre. When Evans got into legal hassles with the landlord Sir William More, he sold his sub-lease to the Earl of Oxford. Oxford made a gift of it to his secretary and protege, John Lyly along with the unexpired term of Joyner's lease which Oxford had acquired at some unknown date.

      To avoid the continuing legal suits over the property Lyly decided to sell part of the unexpired term of his lease to Rocco Bonetti in 1584. Bonetti also purchased other rooms and yards and spend a fortune in repairing and improving them. He got himself into legal problems with the landlord over these unauthorized improvements.

      The lease situation was resolved in March of 1585 when More extended Bonetti's lease for seven years, but this extant legal document does not include the rooms occupied by Joyner's old fencing school. Since Parish records show Bonetti being dead in 1587 he could have only occupied the property in Blackfriars for three years from July of 1584 until sometime in 1587 when he died.

      When James Burbage purchased the property in February of 1596 for the Second Blackfriars Theatre, the indenture shows a Thomas Bruskett occupying the space. There is no mention of Jeronimo nor Saviolo.

      Jeronimo may have acquired the use of the premises of Blackfriars until Bonetti's lease expired in 1592/93. George Silver mentions Jeronimo having "taught gentlemen in the Blackfriars as Usher for his master instead of a man." The question arises as to whether Jeronimo taught gentlemen during Rocco's three year occupation of the premises or whether he had his own fencing school after Rocco's death.

      And what about Thomas Bruskett? Bruskett turns out to be Thomas Brushetti who was the younger brother of Lodowick Brushetti the poet, translator and Irish official. Thomas as in his late 30's, a resident of London who is said to have a quarrelsome disposition and a nasty tongue.

      And where does Vincentio Saviolo fit into the picture?

      Saviolo's name never appears in any documents concerning the Blackfriars. He is said to have arrived in England in 1590. George Silver mentions Jeronimo and Vincentio teaching at Court and for seven or eight years in the country giving lessons. Saviolo is dead by the time Silver publishes his book the Paradoxes of Defence in 1599 and Jeronimo's altercation with Cheese allegedly took place before 1594.

      In 1591 John Florio described Saviolo's fencing school being "in the little street where the well is...at the sign of the red Lyon." When George and Toby Silver challenged Jeronimo and Vincentio Saviolo to a contest at the Bell Savage a deputation was sent to get the foreigners at their school which was "within a bow shot" of the Bell Savage. Silver does not identify their school as being in Blackfriars although later historians make the assumption that it was.

      And what about Shakespeare's company residing in Blackfriars at the same time the Italian Masters were teaching there?

After purchasing the Blackfriars in 1596, James Burbage began transforming the Parliament Chamber into a theatre "with great charge and trouble." The lower story beneath the Parliament Chamber which had once been Joyner's school of fence was used for traps. James Burbage died in 1597 leaving the costly and profitless investment of Blackfriars to his son Richard and The Theatre in Shoreditch with its ground lease about to expire to his son Cuthbert. Richard leased the theatre in Blackfriars to Nathaniel Giles and Henry Evans who had formed a children's troupe. Burbage's company did not actually occupy the Blackfriars Theatre until after 1608 when Evans lost the lease.

      While it is still possible that the Italians may have taught in Blackfriars in the mid 1580's up until the early part of the 1590's, Shakespeare' company would not have been occupying the Blackfriars Theatre until the beginning of the 17th century.

      But all of this does not negate Shakespeare and his actors coming into contact with the Italian Masters in some way, some place, even over a few ales in a tavern.

SOME SIGNIFICANT DATES

  • 1569 Rocco arrives in England
  • 1572 Rocco marries Eleanor St. John
  • 1575 Rocco has been absent from England and his goods were when his wife died.
  • 1576 Rocco marries Ellen Cuttle
  • 1578 Rocco complains that common fencers molest him
  • 1579 Rocco complains about Francis who teaches in Blackfriars
  • 1583 February: Rocco in Scotland
    • April: Rocco in London, claiming he is threatened by the Earl of Oxford
    • May: Sick in bed and as poor as Job
  • 1584 July: Lyly leases Joyner's fencing school to Bonetti
  • 1585 March: Only extant lease document for Rocco in Blackfriars
    • November: Rocco in prison for disobeying an order of chancery
  • 1587 Rocco dead
  • 1590 Saviolo arrives--teaches at Court and in the country 7-8 years
  • 1591 John Florio's Second Frutes published--Saviolo school at Red Lyon
  • 1593 Rocco's Blackfriars lease expires(?)
  • 1594 Jeronimo/Cheese encounter (?)
  • 1595 Saviolo's His Practice published
  • 1596 February: Bruskett in William Joyner's school when acquired by Burbage
    • November: Petition outlawing common playhouse in Blackfriars precinct
  • 1597 February: James Burbage dead
  • 1598 Theatre in Shoreditch dismantled and moved to Southwark and becomes the Globe Theatre
  • 1598/9 Saviolo dead
  • 1600 Burbage rents Blackfriars to Henry Evans for a boys' company
  • 1608 Burbage recovers lease from Henry Evans
  • 1609/10 First performances by Shakespeare's company in Blackfriars

-Linda Carlyle McCollum works with the Theatre Department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and is the current editor of "The Fightmaster", the Society of American Fight Directors Journal. She can be reached at mccollum@ccmail.nevada.edu.

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