The figure of Falstaff – fat, jolly, dissolute – has a secure place in the pantheon of great Shakespearean characters. Queen Elizabeth herself was a fan, according to the historian Nicholas Rowe in 1707:
“She was so well pleas’d with the admirable Character of Falstaff, in the two Parts of Henry the fourth, that she commanded him to continue it for one Play more and to shew him in love. This is said to be the occasion of his writing The Merry Wives of Windsor.”
Yet, were it not for the sensitivities of William Brooke, the tenth Baron Cobham, and his son Henry, we would probably know the character by the name of Oldcastle.
A Rogue By Any Other Name
The character first appeared in Henry IV, Part 1. When the play was first performed in 1596, the character bore the name of Sir John Oldcastle. Yet when the first printed quarto of the play appeared in February 1598, the character’s name had changed to Falstaff. Also, the name Brooke changed to Broome in The Merry Wives of Windsor.
The plays had clearly ruffled someone’s feathers.
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Who Was Sir John Oldcastle?
William Brooke, the tenth Baron Cobham, was Lord Chamberlain from August 1596 to March 1597. He claimed a tenuous descent from Sir John Oldcastle, as he was descended from Joan Braybroke and her first husband Sir Thomas Brooke, the fifth Baron Cobham. Sir John Oldcastle was Joan’s third husband. In any case, William and his son Henry evidently did not appreciate their illustrious ancestor being portrayed as a fat, boastful knight, intent on leading young Prince Hal into trouble.
But was Oldcastle so illustrious?
The historic Oldcastle was a courtier of Henry V who had served the crown during the Owain Glyndwr rebellion and on campaign in France. He was also a member of a group known as the Lollards who denied certain Catholic doctrines on similar grounds to those professed by Protestants a century later. The word Lollard became synonymous with ‘heretic.’
The King did his best to protect his old friend from charges of heresy, but it would appear Oldcastle was less than grateful. He even plotted to kidnap the King while he was on a visit to Eltham Palace. When the plot came to light, Oldcastle went into open rebellion, plotting to kill the King on the eve of the expedition to France so famously dramatised by Shakespeare in Henry V.
Oldcastle was eventually captured and hanged for treason and heresy in 1417.
Sir John Oldcastle and the Rewriting of History
Oldcastle’s story is a classic example of the re-writing of history as, over the years, time transformed him from a traitor to a proto-Protestant hero. His treason against the King was wiped from the record, and polemicists such as William Tyndale and John Bale represented him as a victim of Catholic tyranny in their works.
Catholic chronicles mocked Oldcastle for his lack of Latin, so Bale saluted the fact that he wrote in that good, patriotic, Protestant language – English.
Oldcastle was, in other words, a prime candidate for satire by Shakespeare’s day. He also, and perhaps more crucially, offered a means to express a certain unease with the extremes of late Elizabethan puritanism.
Intrigues at Court
Shakespeare had inherited the name of Oldcastle from his main source, the anonymous play The Famous Victories of Henry V, in which Oldcastle is one of a band of hell-raising companions of the young Prince Hal. That use of the name had passed without comment, so the chances were that the name would pass unnoticed in Shakespeare’s version too, were it not for the fact that the character proved to be such a success. The timing was also unfortunate.
Shakespeare’s company had operated under the protection of the Lord Chamberlain, Henry Carey, the Baron Hunsdon, since 1594. The son of Mary Boleyn, and cousin to Queen Elizabeth I, Hunsdon was a powerful and experienced figure. With such a protector, a comic take on this so-called ‘Protestant hero’ would not have seemed such a risk in the early part of 1596.
Unfortunately, Hunsdon died in July that year, to be replaced by William Brooke, Lord Cobham – the descendant of Sir John Oldcastle.
William and his son Henry, who succeeded to the Cobham title the following year, enjoyed an alliance with the hugely influential Robert Cecil through marriage. They were often at odds with the other main faction at court which centred on the charismatic figure of the Earl of Essex. The Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s former patron, was part of Essex’s circle, linking the Chamberlain’s Men, however tenuously, to the intrigues at court.
Discretion as the Better Part of Valour
Upsetting the powerful could have serious repercussions, as playwrights such as Thomas Kyd and Ben Jonson could attest. Kyd, the author of The Spanish Tragedy, underwent torture when heretical pamphlets were found among his papers in 1593, while Jonson spent time in Marshalsea Prison for co-writing the scandalous play The Isle of Dogs with Thomas Nashe in 1597. The play was thoroughly suppressed, and no copy survives, but speculation abounded in the years to follow suggesting that it contained criticism of the Cobhams.
A judicious name change must have seemed a small price to pay to avoid potential unpleasantness.
Yet, something of the original name survives in the second act of Henry IV, Part I, when Prince Hal refers to the rotund knight as “My old lad of the castle.”
A sly wink at the audience, or a genuine oversight? We’ll probably never know.
The Enduring Appeal of Falstaff
As a riposte to Shakespeare’s portrayal of Henry V’s boon companion, rival company The Admiral’s Men launched their own play Sir John Oldcastle at the Rose Theatre in 1599. This play offered a character in keeping with Protestant propaganda, declaring in the Prologue:
“It is no pampered glutton we present
Nor aged counsellor to youthful sin.”
And yet it isn’t the politically correct Oldcastle we remember, but the tavern-dwelling Falstaff. In sailing rather closer to the wind than he normally did, Shakespeare created one of the most enduring characters in theatre.