Devonshire Characters and Strange Events/George Peele
PEELE, a poet and dramatist, was a Devonshire man by birth, but of no family of consequence in the county, as the name does not once occur in the Heralds' Visitations, either as a family entitled to bear arms or in the alliances of such. He became a student of Christ Church, Oxford, about the year 1573, where he studied to good effect and took his Master's degree in 1579. Although he unquestionably studied, yet he also spent his spare time in revelry. He was always hard up for money, and was quite unscrupulous how he procured it. On one occasion, but later, when in middle life, he was riding to Oxford on a borrowed horse, and stayed the night at Wycombe, where the landlady of the inn was a great woman for herbs and nostrums of all sorts for the cure of every kind of disease. George Peele fell in with her humour, admired her prescriptions, and said:
"I am a doctor and surgeon myself, and am on my way to visit a gentleman of large estate in Warwickshire, who is fallen into a consumption."
"Why—bless my heart," exclaimed the hostess, "our squire here is very bad, and supposed to be in a consumption. The surgeons have given him up."
Next morning at daybreak away runs the good-natured woman to the Hall, rouses the squire's wife, and tells her that a notable London doctor is staying at her inn. The lady at once penned a note, entreating the learned leech to visit her husband; and the hostess carried this to Peele and urged him to visit the patient.
George was taken aback, he had not meant his words to be taken au grand sérieux, and he tried to get out of the visit, but a servant from the great house arrived to conduct him to it, and Peele went with him. On his arrival he was gratefully received by the squire's wife, who conducted him to her husband's room. George felt his pulse and temples, and shook his head: "He is far spent," said he, "but under Heaven, I will do him some good, if nature be not quite extinct." He then asked to be shown into the garden, where he cut a handful of every flower and herb and shrub the garden contained, brought them into the house in the lappet of his cloak, boiled them in ale, strained them, boiled them again; and when he had all the juice out of them, made a hot draught and bade the patient drink a cupful, and ordered the wife to administer the same to the squire morning, noon, and night, and to keep the sick man warm. Then when he took his leave the lady pressed into his hand a couple of brace of angels, or about forty shillings. Away went Le Médecin malgré lui to Oxford, where he roystered so long as the money lasted. Then he had to return to London and by the same way, and was not a little shy of showing in Wycombe, for he did not know but that some of the herbs he had boiled and administered might be poisonous, and have killed the gentleman. So, as he approached the place, he inquired of a country bumpkin how the gentleman was. The fellow told him, that his good landlord, Heaven be praised, had been cured by a wonderful doctor who had come that way by chance.
"Art thou sure of this?" quoth George, "Yes, believe me," answered the man; "I saw him in fields this morning."
George Peele now set spurs to his horse, and rode to the inn, where he was cordially received: the hostess clapped her hands; the ostler laughed; the tapster leaped; the chamberlain ran to the gentleman's house, and told him of the arrival of the doctor. The squire sent for Peele at once, and forced him to accept twenty pounds for having cured him of his consumption. But whether the cure was the result of some herbs that chanced to go into the pot, or was due to the confidence the sick man had in the science of George Peele, none can say.
George Peele took up his residence in London, on the Bank side, over against Black Friars, and picked up a livelihood by writing interludes, and the ordering of pageants. Anthony a Wood says that his plays were not only often acted with great applause in his lifetime, but also did endure reading, with due commendation, after his death. He was a voluminous writer, and would turn his hand to any kind of literary work. On one occasion a gentleman from the West Country engaged him to translate some Greek author into English for him. During the process of the work, Peele applied repeatedly to his patron for advances; but the more Peele was supplied with coin, the slacker he became in his work, and at last the gentleman lost all patience with him. Next time Peele called with the usual request for an advance, he was invited to stay for dinner. During the meal, George incautiously let out that he had not done a line of translation for two months. The gentleman, very incensed, ordered his servants to bind the author hand and foot into a chair. This done a barber was sent for, and by order of the gentleman shaved Peele's chin, lip, cheeks, and head, and left him as bare of hair as he was of money.
"George," said the gentleman, "I have always used you as a friend; my purse hath been open to you; you know that I highly value the book I committed to you to translate, and I want it done. I have used you in this fashion so as to force you to stay at home till the translation is completed; for I know you will be ashamed to show in the streets the ridiculous figure you now are. By the time the book is done, your beard will have grown again." Then he put in his hand forty shillings, detained him till nightfall, and sent him home.
Next morning there was a hubbub in the street, crying and shouting, and a mob collected. The gentleman looked out of his window, and saw a girl with dishevelled hair, wringing her hands and screaming, "Oh! my father! my good—my dear father!" and the people around were clamouring to know what was the matter. Then the girl burst forth into "Woe to this place, that my dear father ever saw it! I am now an orphan, a castaway, and my mother a widow." The servants of the gentleman came upstairs to him in concern, saying that George Peele's daughter was on the doorstep calling down imprecations on the house and all within. The gentleman in a mighty quaking sent for the girl, who came in sobbing and crying. When she saw him she screamed, "Out on thee! thou cruel man! Thou hast made my father—my good father—drown himself." Then she fainted. The gentleman was in serious alarm. He sent his servants at once to buy a new and smart suit of clothes for the girl, as the best way to console her, and gave her five pounds; then, as she recovered, he bade her return home, and tell her mother that he would visit her in the evening.
The gentleman was so crossed in mind, and disturbed in thought at having involuntarily caused a man to commit suicide, that his soul could not be quiet till he had seen the woeful widow. So towards evening he hired a boat and was rowed from the Old Bailey, where he lived, to Black Friars, and went directly to Peele's house, where he found the wife plucking larks, the orphaned daughter turning the spit, and George, pinned up in a blanket, hard at work at the translation. The gentleman, more relieved at the sight of Peele alive and well than grieved at being cheated out of his money, accepted George's invitation, and gull and gulled had a merry supper together off roast larks and canary.
One day Peele invited half a score of his friends to a great supper, where all was passing merry; no cheer was lacking; there was wine flowing and music playing. As the night was passing a reckoning was called for. The guests, being well-to-do citizens, insisted that Peele should not treat them all. He, as they were well aware, was not well off, so they threw down their contributions to the feast—some two shillings, some five, some more. "Well," said George, "as you seem so determined I will submit," and he gathered the money into his cloak. "But," said he, "before we part, let us drink a couple of bottles of hippocras and have a caper." Whilst all were taking the final draught and dancing about the room, George Peele decamped with the contributions, and left his guests to pay the reckoning.
Peele and four of his companions supping together found that they had spent all their cash, save five pounds between them. Holiday time was come, Whitsuntide, and it must be enjoyed, but how was enjoyment to be had for five mates, for four or five days, on five pounds? "I have it," said Peele. "Trust your money to me, and I will go to the Jew clothes dealer, get a handsome black satin suit and good boots, and you must all be put in livery and pass as my servants."
Thus costumed, and taking a pair of oars with them, the party ascended the Thames to Brentford, where they entered the inn of the "Three Pigeons." George called for the host, said he was a big squire in Kent, and that he had come up the river to make merry at Brentford. And he thereupon ordered supper and wine, and paid down out of the money he had in hand.
At dinner, Peele asked the host about the tide. When he heard that the tide did not set out till evening, "Confound it," said he, "I intended to stay here a few days, but I have not money enough with me to pay. I want to send a lackey to London for a bag of ten pounds that have not seen the sun and begun to melt. Have you a horse?" "Certainly I have," answered the taverner, "and I can lend it your man."
Accordingly, one of the good comrades was mounted and sent off to London. Presently in came the hostess with a petition. One of Mr. Peele's lackeys had been at her to beg his master to allow him to go as far as Kingston to visit a sweetheart he had there. If Mr. Peele would allow him to go he would promise to be back by nightfall.
"How can he?" asked George: "the distance is too great—if he runs, he cannot do it."
"For the matter of that," replied the landlady, "I have a mare, and will lend it him."
"Very well, let the rogue go."
So away went the fellow with the mare, but not to Kingston—he rode to London, where he met his fellow on the landlord's other horse. George Peele now sent for the barber to do his hair, and he was to mind and bring his lute with him. In Queen Elizabeth's time a lute was one of the necessary bits of furniture of a barber's shop.
The man arrived, and Peele entreated him of his courtesy to leave the lute with him, that he might amuse himself with it in the evening. The barber consented, and departed. George was now left alone with two of his comrades, and he bade them clear out of the house speedily. Then going down into the court he looked at the clouds, and complained of the weather. He was inclined for a stroll. Thereupon the hostess fetched her husband's best holiday cloak. George thanked her for the loan, called for a cup of sack, tossed it off to success to the "Three Pigeons," and walked away—to the river where his comrades were awaiting him, and they rowed down to London, where they all met, and sold the horse and the mare, the gown and the lute.
Anthony Nit, the barber, was not satisfied to lose his lute, made inquiries, and found out who had cheated him of it; and pursued George Peele to Town and lighted on him in an alehouse in Seacoal Lane. Peele was shabbily dressed in a worn green jerkin, and had on his head a Spanish platter-fashioned hat, and was then engaged on a peck of oysters. George was not a little abashed at the sight of the barber, but showed no signs of being disconcerted. On the contrary he at once said, "My honest barber, welcome to London. I partly know your business; you come for your lute, do you not?" "Indeed, sir," quoth Anthony Nit, "that is the purpose of my coming."
"And believe me," said Peele, "you shall not lose your labour; I pray you fall to and eat an oyster, and I will go with you presently; for a gentleman in the city, a man of great worship, borrowed it of me for the use of his daughter. But, sir, if you will go along with me to the gentleman's house you shall have your lute. Had you not come to reclaim it I assure you I would have sent it to you; for you must understand that all that was done at Brentford among us mad gentlemen was but a jest."
Then Peele said to Barber Anthony, "I really am not in a fit costume to appear in a gentleman's house. I pray you let me have your cloak and hat, and you put on my green jerkin and the Spanish hat. I doubt, accoutred as I am, that I would be allowed admittance." The barber agreed, and changed garments with Peele, who led him to an alderman's house, and knocked at the door, and asked to see the master. Peele was well known there as master of the revels and overseer of the pageants, and was readily admitted.
"Porter," said he, "let my friend remain with you till I have done my business with the master."
"Certainly," said the porter, "and he shall take a small dinner with me."
Peele was shown into the alderman's room, and he said to him, "I want you to do me a favour. There is a bum-bailiff in your hall, who has me under arrest for a little sum. Allow me to slip out at your garden door unperceived." The alderman laughed and consented. So Peele evaded in the cloak and hat of the barber, who failed to get them as well as his lute.
Here is a specimen of manners in the reign of Elizabeth. Peele was invited to supper at the White House in Friday Street, London, by some of his friends. On his way he met an old comrade who was "down on his luck" and had not a shilling wherewith to get his supper.
"I wish that I could take you with me, but I cannot," said George. "I am an invited guest, and besides, you are in rags. However, I will get you a supper if you will do what I bid."
Whilst seated at the entertainment, his needy friend pushed into the room and made up to Peele.
"You scoundrel," shouted the latter, "what are you doing here?"
"I pray you, sir, hear my errand," pleaded the man.
"Not I, you slave; get you gone!" and snatching a roasted rabbit from the dish, he threw it at him.
"You use me very rudely," said the man.
"You dunghole—will you outface me!" roared Peele, and snatching up a second rabbit threw it at his head, and then a loaf. After that he drew his dagger and made as though he would stab the man, but his friends interposed. The fellow picked up the rabbits and the bread and ran away with them. So, by this shift, Peele helped his friend to a supper, and was not suspected by the company.
Peele's Merry Conceited Jests was first published in 1607. Other editions appeared in 1626, 1627, 1657, and 1671. There is also an undated edition. The latest reprint is in Bullen's Works of George Peele, London, J. C. Nimmo, 1878.
His Merry Conceited Jests shows him to have been a great rogue. That he was a clever man and well educated is undoubted. He wrote several plays, but only some have been preserved, such as The Arraignment of Paris, 1584; The Old Wives' Tale|, 1595; Edward I, 1593; David and Bathsheba, 1599; The Turkish Mahomet and Hiren the Fair Greek, not published at the time. The Battle of Alcazar has been already mentioned. He also composed pageants that were performed at the inauguration of the chief magistrates of the city of London. One composed for Sir Wolstone Dixie, Lord Mayor of London, 29 October, 1595, is curious, as it describes the flourishing condition of the metropolis in the days of Queen Elizabeth. About 1593 Peele seems to have been taken into the patronage of the Earl of Northumberland, to whom he dedicated in that year The Honour of the Garter. In The Puritan, a play attributed but erroneously to Shakespeare, and acted by the children of S. Paul's, printed in 1607, is a character, George Pieboard, that was meant to be George Peele. Peele died before the year 1598, and left behind him a widow and a daughter.
In 1591 Queen Elizabeth visited Theobalds. Lord Burleigh had lost his mother in 1587, and his wife, to whom he was deeply attached, in 1589; and his daughter, Lady Oxford, had also expired, and depressed by his misfortunes, he retired in 1591 to Theobalds. Queen Elizabeth, to revive his spirits, visited him there; and Peele was commissioned to write the speeches delivered by Robert Cecil, dressed as a hermit, and others, to be addressed to the Queen. Besides the hermit, another performer was the gardener, and a third the molecatcher. The latter begins, "Good Lady, and the best that ever I saw, or any shall, give me leave to tell a plain tale in which there is no device, but desert enough," and it ends, "Now, for that the Gardiner twitteth me with my vocation, I could prove it a mystery not mechanical, and tell a tale of the Giant's daughter which was turned to a mole because she would eat fairer bread than is made of wheat, wear finer clothes than is made of wool, drink sweeter wine than is made of grapes; why she was blind, and yet light of hearing; how good clerks told me that moles in fields are like ill subjects in commonwealths, which are always turning up the place in which they are bred. But I will not trouble your Majesty, but every day pray on my knees that those that be heavers at your state may come to a mole's blessing—a knock on the pate and a swing on a tree."