Master of the Revels

Master of the Revels

The Master of the Revels was a position within the English, and later the British, royal household heading the "Revels Office" or "Office of the Revels" that originally had responsibilities for overseeing royal festivities, known as revels, and later also became responsible for stage censorship, until this function was transferred to the Lord Chamberlain in 1624. However it seems the Master of the Revels, who normally reported to the Lord Chamberlain in any case, continued to perform the function on behalf of his superior until the Civil War closed the London theatres in 1642. The office continued until nearly the end of the 18th century, though with rather reduced status.



The history of the Revels Office has an interesting place in the history of the English stage. Among the expenses of the royal Wardrobe we find provision made for tunicae and viseres (shirts and hats) in 1347 for the Christmas ludi (plays) of Edward III; during the reign of King Henry VII, payments are also recorded for various forms of court revels; and it became regular, apparently, to appoint a special functionary, called Master of the Revels, to superintend the royal festivities, quite distinct from the Lord of Misrule.

In Henry VII's time the Master of the Revels seems to have been a minor official of the household. In Henry VIII's court, however, the post became more important, and an officer of the Wardrobe was permanently employed to act under the Master of the Revels. With the patent given to John Farlyon in 1534 as Yeoman of the Revels, what may be considered as an independent office of the Revels (within the general sphere of the Lord Chamberlain) came into being; and in 1544 Sir Thomas Cawarden received a patent as Master of the Revels, he being the first to become head of an independent office. Soon after his appointment, the office and its stores were transferred to a dissolved Dominican monastery at Blackfriars, having previously been housed at Warwick Inn in the city, the London Charterhouse, and then at the priory of St. John of Jerusalem in Clerkenwell, to which a return was made after Cawarden's death. Cawarden lived at Loseley Park, near Guildford, where his official papers were preserved.

Sir Thomas Benger succeeded Cawarden, and Edmund Tylney followed him (1579–1610); it was the appointment of the latter's nephew, Sir George Buck, as deputy-master, with the reversion to the mastership, which led to so much repining on the part of the dramatist, John Lyly, who was himself a candidate. Under Tylney, the functions of Master of the Revels gradually became extended to a general censorship of the stage, which in 1624 was put directly in the hands of the Lord Chamberlain, thus leading to the licensing act of 1737.

For the study of English Renaissance theatre, the accounts of the Revels Office provide one of the two crucial sources of reliable and specific information from the Tudor and Stuart eras (the other being the Register of the Stationers Company). Within the revels accounts scholars find facts, dates, and other data available nowhere else. A catalogue of the Folger Shakespeare Library collection based on the majority of surviving papers of Thomas Cawarden is available on-line. Other papers are available to study at the Public Record Office at Kew, or the Surrey Record Office.

The Revels Office

In 1608, Edmund Tilney wrote a memorandum on the Office that offers a vivid picture of its operation. He wrote that the Office

"...consisteth of a wardrobe and other several [i.e. separate] rooms for artificers to work in (viz. tailors, embroiderers, property makers, painters, wire-drawers and carpenters), together with a convenient place for the rehearsals and setting forth of plays and other shows...."[1]

Tilney went on the note that the Office also provided a house for the Master and his family, and other residences for some of the office's personnel, if specified in the "patents" of their positions.

In the year of the Tilney document, the Revels Office had moved to the Whitefriars district outside the western city wall of London, though throughout its history it was located in several other places about the city, including the Blackfriars district.

According to Thomas Blount in his 1656 dictionary "Glossographia", the origin of the word "Revels" is the French word "reveiller", to wake from sleep. He goes on to define "Revels" as:

'Sports of Dancing, Masking, Comedies, and such like, used formerly in the Kings House, the Inns of Court, or in the Houses of other great personages; And are so called, because they are most used by night, when otherwise men commonly sleep' [2]

List of Masters of the Revels

  • Walter Hallyday (1461–83)
  • Sir Thomas Cawarden (1544–59)
  • Sir Thomas Benger (1560–72)
  • Sir Thomas Blagrave (1573-79)
  • Edmund Tilney (1579–1610)
  • George Buck (1610–22)
  • John Astley (1622–40)
  • Sir Henry Herbert (1640–73, de facto from 1623)
  • Thomas Killigrew (1673–77)
  • Charles Killigrew (1677–1725)
  • Charles Henry Lee (1725–44)
  • Solomon Dayrolles (1744–86)

See also


  1. ^ Halliday, p. 409; spellings modernized.
  2. ^ Dance in Early Dictionaries


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