Master of the Revels

United Kingdom
Master of the Revels

Revels Office
Style The Right Honourable
Appointer The British Monarch
Term length No fixed term
Inaugural holder Walter Halliday
Formation 1347

The Master of the Revels was the holder of a position within the English, and later the British, royal household, heading the "Revels Office" or "Office of the Revels". Originally he was responsible for overseeing royal festivities, known as revels, and he later also became responsible for stage censorship, until this function was transferred to the Lord Chamberlain in 1624. However, Henry Herbert, the deputy Master of the Revels and later the Master, continued to perform the function on behalf of the Lord Chamberlain until the English Civil War in 1642, when stage plays were prohibited. The office continued almost until the end of the 18th century, although 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.[1]

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.[1] Cawarden lived at Loseley Park, near Guildford, where his official papers were preserved.[2]

Sir Thomas Benger succeeded Cawarden, and Edmund Tylney followed him (15791610). Under Tylney, the functions of Master of the Revels gradually became extended to a general censorship of the stage,[3][4] which in 1624 was put directly in the hands of the Lord Chamberlain, thus leading to the Licensing Act 1737, when the role was taken over by the Examiner of the Stage, an official of the Lord Chamberlain. The function was abolished only in 1968. In addition, by the end of Tylney's tenure, the authority of the Revels Office (rather than the City of London) to license plays for performance within the City was clearly established.[3] Tylney was succeeded by his relation by marriage, Sir George Buck.[5] Buck was granted the reversion of the mastership in 1597,[3] which led to much repining on the part of the dramatist John Lyly, who had expected to be appointed to the post.[6] Sir John Astley followed Buck in the office, but he soon sold his right to license plays to his deputy, Henry Herbert, who became Master in 1641.

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.

With the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642, stage plays were prohibited.[7] Stage plays did not return to England until the Restoration in 1660.[8]

An additional duty of the Master of the Revels was to furnish Royal masques and balls with sweetmeats. During the reign of James I this was developed into an elaborate parlour game in which different foodstuffs would be in cased in chocolate and presented to courtiers, who would have to eat the confection without knowing its contents. George Gifford relates that the King took great pleasure in watching the contorted faces of his attendants as they chewed on the "potentiallie unappettisyng morsells". The practice continued, in increasingly ritualised form, into modern times, inspiring the creation of the Revels (confectionery) by Mars, Incorporated in 1967. The Mars product has never been officially endorsed and no mention of its Royal connections can be included on the packaging or promotional material by Letters Patent.

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...."[9]

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' [10]

Masters of the Revels

Master of the Revels (Ireland)

See also


  1. 1 2 Chisholm (1911).
  2. Chambers (1906), passim.
  3. 1 2 3 Kincaid, Arthur. "Buck (Buc), Sir George (bap. 1560, d. 1622)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. Online edn., May 2008, accessed 23 January 2012 (subscription required)
  4. Eccles, pp. 418–19
  5. Tilney's cousin was the husband of Buck’s aunt. See Eccles, Mark (1933). "Sir George Buc, Master of the Revels", in Sisson, Charles Jasper. Thomas Lodge and Other Elizabethans, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 416
  6. Letters from Lyly to Robert Cecil, 22 December 1597 and 27 February 1601, and letter from Lyly to Queen Elizabeth I, probably in 1598, quoted in Chambers (1923), pp. 96–98 and Chambers (1906), pp. 57–58
  7. "September 1642: Order for Stage-plays to cease", British History Online, accessed 6 November 2014
  8. Baker, p. 85
  9. Halliday, p. 409; spellings modernized.
  10. Dance in Early Dictionaries


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