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The Collation

Women Patrons as Playmakers

In the summer of 1602, Alice Egerton, Countess of Derby, did something rather extraordinary. When Queen Elizabeth I visited her house, she brought to the forefront the female patrons who usually remained behind the scenes.

As part of several days of pageantry and feasting, Alice hired the writer John Davies to devise a pageant—a mock “lottery”—celebrating the influential women who gathered at Harefield estate for the event.1 This game playfully reimagined the state lottery, in which people bought tickets in the hopes of winning a valuable “lot” of cash and goods.

Proclamation for the first Elizabethan lottery: A very rich lotterie generall (1567). LUNA: Folger Digital Image Collection.

A manuscript in the Folger Shakespeare Library (X.d.172) records the Harefield lottery. Titled “The severall Lottes,” the text features the names of nearly thirty women, including close intimates of the queen and members of Alice’s extended family. Beside each woman’s name is her “lot”: a gift (such as a fan or purse) and two rhyming lines of poetry. These women held immense power in subtle ways: they allowed and denied access to political figures, money, and favor. And by participating in this lottery, they helped make theater too.

The device to entertain Her Majesty at Harefield the house of Sir Thomas Egerton, 1602, folio 5r. LUNA: Digital Image Collection.

I’ve written about this pageant before, but I still have so many questions.2 Were any lots selected at random, or was the entire game prearranged? Did the women read aloud their poems or receive gifts silently? Should I call them “performers” or “patrons”?

My attempts to understand this performance led me to think more deeply about that murky concept called patronage. How did women sponsor drama, and what did their sponsorship mean? Julie Crawford’s Mediatrix made me see non-dramatic literary patronage as a kind of authorship and activism.3 Thanks to the generous patronage of a Folger fellowship (see what I did there?), I have been investigating how theatrical patrons were also “makers,” a word used in the period to describe someone who produces, writes, or builds something.

What exactly did a theatrical patron do? She might pay a playwright or actor, be called a patron by a writer, arrange a masque or private performance, pay to see a play, commission a text or play, lend her name to a professional playing company, have a playbook dedicated to her, or use her influence to help make theater happen. In today’s terms, we might call her a “producer.” And once I started looking for women who did these things, I found them everywhere: letters, literary texts, household accounts, court documents, and other records.

Digital resources like the Database of Early English Playbooks (DEEP) and the Records of Early English Drama (REED) Patrons and Performances website have made this kind of research easier. In his pioneering work on women patrons of drama, first published in 1981, David Bergeron identified fourteen women who had English printed playbooks dedicated to them before 1642.4 By using DEEP to search dedications and extending the timeframe to 1660, I was able to expand Bergeron’s list to twenty-six women dedicatees. By browsing patrons’ names at REED Patrons and Performances, I identified four additional female patrons, all with professional playing companies named after them: Katherine Brandon, Duchess of Suffolk; Lettice Knollys, Countess of Essex; Lady Mountjoy; and the woman behind the Harefield entertainment, Alice, Countess of Derby.

An engraving of a portrait of a woman circle by words in Latin. Below the portrait there are names above clasped hands, a griffin, and a shield with a crown on top.

Engraving of Alice Egerton, Countess of Derby (1559-1637) by an unknown artist. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Alice took over her husband’s players (the important Elizabethan company known as the Lord Strange’s Men) when he died in 1594. Shortly thereafter, members of the Countess of Derby’s Men formed a new company under the patronage of the Lord Chamberlain, the father-in-law of Alice’s sister. Because this transfer happened quickly and to someone in her kinship network, Leeds Barroll has speculated that Alice was instrumental in the move, and I think he’s right.5 In other words, it is very likely that Alice helped arrange the formation of Shakespeare’s company.

Let’s return to the women Alice helped celebrate at Harefield. I could write blog posts for days about their accomplishments and connections, but for now, I’d like to consider how their support of the arts invites a more expansive definition of theatrical “patron.” Alice’s middle daughter Frances, given a ring in the lottery, later owned many playbooks.6 Should she count as a theatrical patron? Anne Dudley, Countess of Warwick, and Susan de Vere were the dedicatees of multiple books of poetry and prose by authors who also wrote plays and entertainments, including Robert Greene, Anthony Munday, Mary Wroth, and John Ford. Is it possible that either patron also supported or influenced these writers’ dramatic works? These questions are worth investigating.

Also present at Harefield was Susan’s sister, Elizabeth Stanley (the current Countess of Derby), who involved herself in the business of her husband’s playing company. She petitioned her uncle, Robert Cecil, to provide financial assistance to the actors who have spent all their money. She asks her uncle to help support them “for that my Lord taking delite in them it will kepe him from moer prodigall courses.” By wishing to avoid “prodigal courses,” Elizabeth might be saying that her husband would bankrupt them to support his Derby’s Men if she didn’t intervene, or perhaps the theater is her husband’s least offensive vice. Either way, she hopes to protect her husband from himself—a fascinating motive for patronage. Her letter makes me wonder how many women supported companies without leaving a trace.

Alice’s youngest daughter, Elizabeth, wasn’t featured in the Harefield lottery, perhaps because Alice had already secured her an excellent marriage to Henry Hastings, the next Earl of Huntingdon. Elizabeth became a formidable theatrical patron in her own right. John Fletcher wrote her a poem that reveals a close playwright-patron relationship based on shared politics and humor. Elizabeth commissioned John Marston to write a Harefield-like entertainment for her mother, and members of their family would later commission John Milton to do the same. Also patrons of Edmund Spenser and John Donne, Elizabeth and her mother Alice helped construct the English literary canon.

An engraving of a portrait of man with two cherubs hovering over his head with a crown. The portrait is surrounded by latin words and heraldry.

Elizabeth Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, after John Payne, published by William Richardson, 1802. © National Portrait Gallery, London.


See how many patrons I can find using just one manuscript? Alice’s Harefield lottery was a gift to future scholars of patronage, but it isn’t entirely unique in representing female patrons. Many other pageants, commendatory poems, miscellanies, letters, and dedications can serve as starting points for finding the women behind the plays.

In fact, what I’ve learned through my research is that early modern drama—on both professional and private stages—depended on the patronage of women as much as men. At the very top of the social ladder, gender mattered less than rank did. The women who gathered at Harefield were amazing, but they weren’t feminist rebels who wanted to tear down an oppressive system. Instead, they were skilled at exploiting their immense privilege as members of the white English nobility. (If you’re wondering why I say “white,” look at the frequency with which texts like the lottery emphasize light skin as a crucial marker of beauty and goodness, and readMira Kafantaris’s post on whiteness and foreign queens.) Plays patronized by Alice and her daughter Elizabeth embrace feminine authority without challenging social convention. Like the queen they entertained at Harefield, these elite women patrons weren’t out to change the system because they were the system. Scholars simply haven’t paid enough attention to them.

  1. For a brilliantly edited version of the Harefield pageantry, see Gabriel Heaton’s edition in Elizabeth Goldring, et al., eds., John Nichols’s The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth I: A New Edition of the Early Modern Sources (Oxford University Press, 2014), 4:174-95.
  2. See especially my “Performing Patronage, Crafting Alliances: Ladies’ Lotteries in English Pageantry” in The Politics of Female Alliance in Early Modern England, ed. Christina Luckyj and Niamh J. O’Leary (University of Nebraska Press, 2017), 107-25.
  3. Julie Crawford, Mediatrix: Women, Politics, and Literary Production in Early Modern England (Oxford University Press, 2014).
  4. David Bergeron, “Women as Patrons of English Renaissance Drama” in Patronage in the English Renaissance, eds. Guy Fitch Lytle and Stephen Orgel (Princeton University Press, 1981), He published a revised version in Textual Patronage in English Drama, 1570-1640 (Ashgate, 2006), 73-91.
  5. Leeds Barroll, “Shakespeare, Noble Patrons, and the Pleasures of ‘Common’ Playing” in Shakespeare and Theatrical Patronage in Early Modern England, eds. Paul Whitefield White and Suzanne R. Westfall (Cambridge University Press, 2002), 90-121. I found the whole volume to be incredibly useful.
  6. See Heidi Brayman Hackel, Reading Material in Early Modern England: Print, Gender, and Literacy (Cambridge University Press, 2005), 258-81.


Wonderfully interesting field of research. I look forward to the findings. In the interests of accuracy might it not be preferable to refer to Alice Spencer Stanley Egerton as the Dowager Countess of Derby? Has anyone extended this research to Althorp in the UK?

Jane Nelson — June 19, 2022