This is a longer version of the article published in Community Voice June 2023
On 2nd February – Candlemas – 1618 Sir Thomas Beaumont and his wife Lady Elizabeth hosted a “Masque” at Coleorton Hall in celebration of the recent marriage of their friend Sir William Seymour to Lady Frances Devereux, sister of another great friend The Earl of Essex who lived just 20 miles away in Staffordshire.
A Masque was a popular entertainment form consisting of a mixture of poems, songs, dances, sketches and comedy often with a “current affairs”, political or satirical theme. In London masques tended to be formal affairs, but when performed at country houses they were more personal with parts frequently performed by hosts and guests with all the attendant fun. The Masque usually ended with the players and audience dancing and with much drinking and feasting.
On this occasion as well the newly-wed couple, the guests included the Earl of Essex (Robert Devereux), his brother Sir Walter Devereux, Lord Willoughby, Lady Elizabeth Beaumont and family members, Henry Hastings, fifth Earl of Huntingdon, from nearby Ashby Castle, and Sir John Beaumont the poet of nearby Gracedieu.
It’s very likely that the writer of the Masque was Thomas Pestell, rector of Coleorton and a poet. He was also chaplain to the Earl of Essex. With his intimate knowledge of the audience and host Thomas Pestell wrote a masque which touched and entertained the listeners and players.
James I was on the throne after the long reign of Elizabeth I. He wasn’t altogether popular and parts of the masque mocked the court. Essex was the son of Elizabeth’s one-time favourite who she had executed, and in 1613 King James had forced Essex to make an annulment of his marriage to Lady Frances Howard so the King’s then favourite the Earl of Somerset could marry her. (Famous masque-writer Ben Jonson wrote a Masque for lady Frances Howard on the occasion of her first marriage in 1606.). Sir William Seymour whose marriage was being celebrated at Coleorton Hall had also been treated badly by King James regarding a previous marriage which resulted in imprisonment and death of his wife.
So the general court scene was tense and the Coleorton group perhaps found some mutual solace and support in Leicestershire away from the politics and machinations of London.
This was an era of great popular theatre; Shakespeare had died less than 2 years before. The Coleorton Masque featured “Puck” - Robin Goodfellow of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. "Bob the buttery spirit" (the buttery was the wine cellar and food store) jokes with Puck sarcastically about the increasingly puritan spirit in the land with ale being drunk rather than wine: "All good fellowship called feasting is turned to a dish of Bibles" and "Ale - a drink devised by Puritans and pettifoggers".
Bob is pleased to be the guest of good fellows including "a brace of my bully Beaumonts".
Bob: Where have all the fairies gone?
"Gone - where's the money, Bob? Gone boy. There's not nine shillings left in Little Britain."
Puck introduces a troupe of unfamiliar faeries.
“Who are they Puck?”
“Why, the “black faeries”, boy, the dancing spirits of the Pittes…. Such as help them hole and drive sharp theire picks and moindrils. Keepe away the dampe and keeps their Candles, drains the Slough and hold them out of the hollows”.
With a nod to Sir Thomas Beaumont’s coal-mining enterprises the faeries were named Gudger, Turnstake, Jagging-tree, Toptree, Tugman and Flotes - local dialect terms for mining activities (any suggestions as to what these meant?). The mines were located quite close to Coleorton Hall. (The Hall was destroyed some half-century later during the English Civil War).
Another theme of the Coleorton Masque was female strength and feminism. A scene with Jupiter set to display “Six brave virtues masculine” opens with:
“What have we here? Men transformed to women!” and the six female maskers representing feminine, “wifely” qualities. The ladies in the audience are admonished to: “Be not blind, but know your strength & your Vertues….Gives women right to have prioritie.”
The host of the Masque Sir Thomas Beaumont was later given the title of Viscount Beaumont of Swords and was the grandfather of the 3rd Viscount Beaumont who endowed the Coleorton Free School and Almshouse.