Child-catchers stalked the streets of Elizabethan England seeking out boys they could force on to the stage, an Oxford academic has claimed in a new book.
Dr Bruce van Es, who studied original Elizabethan documents, writes that Elizabeth I signed warrants which allowed theatres to kidnap children and force them to perform under the threat of whipping. Using the commissions, playhouse owners boasted that they had “authority sufficient so to take any nobleman’s son in the land”.
Thomas Clifton, a boy of 13, was on his way to school when he was snatched. A group of men “did haul, pull, drag and carry away” the child, according to later court depositions.
“Technically these warrants were designed to allow the Master of the Children to ‘take up’ boys for service in the Chapel Royal,” said Dr van Es. “But the reality was very different. It was well known that the Children of the Chapel Royal was really an acting company and the Queen did nothing to intervene.”
Dr van Es also uncovered a seedier side to the practice. Not only were young boys apparently kidnapped and forced into the theatre, they were also made to perform overtly sexual material, often in seedy backstreet theatres for all-male audiences.
However, Professor Michael Dobson, the director of the Shakespeare Institute, rebutted Dr van Es’s theory, saying that there was not enough documentary evidence to support his claims.
“We have got one very well documented court case, the Clifton case, but that’s it,” he said, adding that children were increasingly co-opted to do more artistic duties while they were still at school.