The Adventure of the Single Rapier


ONE may as well confess that, in the hands of a cunning literary craftsman, the theme of Murder as one of the Fine Arts attracts us more than we care to think about. Of even the best morbidity, a little goes a long way. With zest, therefore, a healthy mind turns to Detection of Crime, where obscure and imaginative killings are purely by the way, and the chief fascination grows from the enthralling processes of the detective mind. The sovereign power of this interest makes itself felt in the Mousetrap play-within-the-play of Hamlet. Here the murderer, pouring the liquid poison into the Sleeper’s ear, pours a shudder into us; but from this we are lifted at once to the crest of excitement by the detective glance with which the prone Hamlet pierces the heart of Claudius.

Now, although I listen like a three years’ child to tales of the amazing achievements of those geniuses Sherlock Holmes and Philo Vance, I cannot down a grudging sense of their good fortune. Lucky fellows, I say, to be furnished with a supply of selected crimes, carefully committed for them to solve! For a literary detective is denied the advantages of a detective in literature. No omniscient author predigests his problem, carries the answer up his sleeve, and provides the puzzle with fascinating varieties of circumstance. True, the Case of Christopher Marlowe came pretty well within the regulations. One knew that the poet had been killed, and the puzzle was to find the slayer and throwlight on the crime. But there are cases in which we must begin with far less hope of success — cases in which we are completely in the dark.

For if the lost crime was committed upwards of three hundred years ago, and no one has heard of it from that day to this, your detective faces a sporting proposition. He must begin sans newspaper, sans confidential informant, sans everything but his curiosity. In two words, he must start from scratch; and it is to the story of such a novel hare-and-hounds that I now invite you.

Henry Porter, you must know, is an arresting presence in the stormy procession of Elizabethan dramatists — no less arresting because he vanishes so suddenly and strangely from our sight. First mentioned in Henslowe’s Diary, in December 1596, as one of the leading and popular playwrights for the Admiral’s company, he runs for two years and a half thereafter a lively career — writing three plays himself and collaborating in two others. In one of these he worked with Ben Jonson: a significant association, for the two must have had much in common. Like Jonson vigorous and downright, he further shares with Ben the distinction of introducing the amusing ‘humor’ or type character to the English stage. And more than this can be said for Porter on the authority of his Two Angry Women of Abingdon, the only play of his that has come down to us. Unlike Jonson’s, Porter’s genius was pure English, uncomplicated by Renaissance influence and borrowing. His people are drawn from nowhere but the life of the English countryside; their shrewdly observed characters are richly developed in a hearty humor and a plain and flowing English. Francis Meres placed Porter in a group with Shakespeare as ‘ the best for Comedy amongst us.’ The Angry Women may stand shoulder-high to the Merry Wives. Here is no space for an adequate appreciation of Porter’s genius. There is keen regret for his lost plays. Havelock Ellis well says, ‘Many golden galleons of our drama lie sunken at the bottom of the sea; few that we would more gladly recover than the stout oak-built ships of Harry Porter.'

Natural enough, we may say, to expect the loss of many an Elizabethan playhouse manuscript. Plays in any age are mostly fugitive productions. But the unexplained disappearance of a leading playwright is another matter — one which sets the curiosity ablaze and the questing hounds of the imagination a-straining in the slips to be off on the trail of the lost Harry Porter.


Now the most insatiable of clue hunters would find food for his hunger in Chancery Lane. Here in the Record Office are thousands and tens of thousands of parchment rolls and files of documents from Elizabeth’s England. In such a matto grosso the great question is, of course, which way to turn first, which of the countless jungle tracks to follow .

For a hint, let us look to the last known trace of the missing man, found in Henslowe’s Diary — an acknowledgment written in his own hand: ‘Be it knowne vnto all men that J henry Porter do owe vnto phillip Hinchlowe the some of xs of lawfull money of England wch J did borrowe of hym the 26 of maye a° dom 1599. Henr [sic] Porter.’

Now Henslowe, as everyone knows, lived in Southwark — Southwark, that turbulent transpontine appendage of London which harbored the Bear Garden and Henslowe’s Rose Theatre. In Southwark, too, were brothels — the notorious ‘stews’ of the Bankside, near the elegant town house or palace of their landlord, the Bishop of Winchester; prisons — the King’s Bench, the Clink, Marshalsea, and the White Lion; alehouses — three hundred of them; courts of justice — Southwark Assizes and the High Court of Admiralty, both held in St. Margaret’s, a disused church which also housed the jail called the Southwark Compter. A grim enough catalogue, exhibiting a very Elizabethan mixture of religion and crime.

This whole congeries has long disappeared from the face of Southwark. But in t he Record Office documents are to be found which bring it. to life for us. If we dip into the criminal files of the High Court of Admiralty, for instance, we find the sea thieves and murderers haled before their judges in St. Margaret’s Church. Pirates on trial for their lives a bowshot from the Bankside stage w here Shakespeare is acting with his fellows! The temptation to digress is too seductive, and I am absorbed to find interesting proof that the Admiralty had cognizance of crimes committed not only on the high seas but on the London Thames as well. Here we find a specimen — the murder of a waterman, one of the fraternity of Taylor the Water Poet, by a dangerous religious maniac: —

John Lawson, late of London, yeoman, came running along the street in Redrith and called for a pair of oars; and the said John Staples, now dead, and William Aide took him at Redrith Stairs into their wherry; and as they rowed him from the Stairs towards London, the said John Lawson began to read on a Bible which he had in his hand, and said the devils and witches had bewitched him and brought him that day out of his chamber; and being warned by the water men to call upon God, he read on his Bible again; and, looking up again, he said he thanked God he had, and [He had] saved him from them. And then he, the said John Lawson, of a sudden, in the said wherry in the river of Thames over against St. Saviour’s Mill, within the jurisdiction of the Admiralty, the said fourth day of April aforesaid, being devilishly minded, drew his rapier and thrust the said John Staples through the neck on the right side, and also into the thigh ten inches deep up towards his body, and hurt him also in the left hand in two places; of which wounds so given . . . the same Staples languished about the space of half an hour, and then died.

With stories like this coming before my eyes, it is difficult to put aside the Admiralty records, though, to be sure, they are hardly likely to contain a clue to the vanished Henry Porter.

But a better source suggests itself — the Southwark Assizes. Southwark was in Surrey in those days, and Surrey came under the Southeastern Circuit. Here luck is with me, for of all the records of the Clerks of Assize preserved in the Record Office the only ones which extend back into the sixteenth century are those of the Southeastern Circuit. I promptly send for a bundle, and, on opening it, select the Surrey file.

Here before me on the old brown slips of parchment are lists of the justices of jail delivery, panels of jurors, and quantities of original indictments — indictments for petty larceny, for non-attendance at church, for witchcraft, for assault, for seditious speeches, for highway robbery, for manslaughter, for murder. Is the lost playwright to be found among them? Hunting fever is growing on me as I grope my way along through that grim wood where on every second tree a felon hangs.


I reach the file for 1599, the year of Porter’s disappearance. Is my quarry here? The leaves of parchment fall swiftly . . . strange names flit past . . . and now, Porter. Henry Porter. Killed. Is this my man? The date — June 6. Eleven days after he disappeared from Henslowe’s book. The missing playwright is found; and his tragic death is told in a legal Latin which may be Englished as follows: —

SURREY: — The Jurors for the Lady the Queen present that John Daye, late of Southwark, yeoman, on the sixth day of June in the forty-first year of our Lady Elizabeth by God’s grace Queen of England. France, and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, &c., with force and arms, at Southwark aforesaid in the said county, not having God before his eyes, but moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil, of his malice aforethought feloniously made an assault upon a certain Henry Porter, and when the said Henry then and there was in God’s peace and the peace of the said Lady the Queen, with a certain sword, Anglice a rapier, of the value of two shillings, which the same John Daye had and held in his right hand, feloniously struck, then and there giving to the same Henry Porter a mortal wound on the left breast of his body of the length of one inch and of the width of one inch, of which mortal wound the said Henry Porter languished at Southwark aforesaid in the said county, from the said sixth day of June in the fortyfirst year aforesaid until the seventh day of June then next ensuing; on which seventh day of June in the year aforesaid, at Southwark in the said county, the said Henry Porter died of the said mortal wound. And thus at Southwark in the said county the said John Daye, in the form and manner aforesaid, of his said malice aforethought feloniously killed and murdered the said Henry Porter, against the peace of the said Lady the Queen, her crown and dignity.

The first thing to note here is that the inquest jury brought a charge of murder against the slayer. But the passages I print in italic were subsequently struck out; and on turning the parchment over I find the endorsement of the grand jury; ‘Not found for murder. True bill for manslaughter.’ Furthermore, over the name of John Day at the head of the indictment the clerk has entered a memorandum of the trial and verdict: ‘Puts himself guilty; no goods; self-defense, and he fled to a certain wall beyond which, etc.’

While this is formal language, the meaning of it is clear enough. Day confesses that he killed Porter. ‘No goods’ means that he has no property to be forfeit to the Crown for his felony, He urges self-defense in extenuation of his crime, offering evidence that he retreated as far as possible from Porter — or, in the old phrase, he ‘fled to a certain wall, beyond which he could in no wise go without peril of his life’ — before defending himself effectively with his rapier. On referring to the docket of prisoners at the bottom of the file, I find Day’s name, with the note ‘gave bail for next, etc.’ — which is to say that he found sureties for his appearance ‘at the next gaol-delivery in his proper person to plead his pardon or yield his body to the order of the Court.’ Day, then, was released on bail, and, since his name does not appear in the record of the following jail delivery, we must conclude that, like Ingram Frizer, he was granted a royal pardon for homicide in self-defense.

With this account we may contrast Ben Jonson’s trial at Middlesex Sessions in the preceding year for killing the actor Gabriel Spencer in a duel. Unlike Day, Jonson is presented, not for murder, but for manslaughter. At his trial he has no evidence of self-defense to offer, and to escape the gallows which awaits the convicted felon he pleads clergy: ‘He asks for the book, reads like a clerk, is marked in the hand with a T, and is delivered according to the form of the statute.’

In spite of the expense involved in securing a pardon, Day got off better than Ben Jonson. For not only is it painful and ignominious to be branded in the hand, but such a mark is a distinct disadvantage. If you should happen to kill another adversary, no amount of clerkly scholarship would save you from the tree. Benefit of clergy could be claimed once, and no more.


But we have got ahead of our story. Who was this John Day, at whose hands Harry Porter had his last quietus? The question answers itself. Who should he be but the rival playwright for Henslowe’s company, John Day, who collaborated with Chettle in The Blind Beggar of Bethnall Green? What more natural than a heated quarrel between two men employed by one manager, especially between two playwrights, who, according to the Diary, never collaborated with each other? Further evidence is given by Ben Jonson himself, who, a month before he killed Gabriel Spencer, had collaborated with Porter in the play, Hot Anger Soon Cold. A fellow worker with Harry Porter, Ben was no friend of Day’s, and in conversation with Drummond he calls Day ‘rogue’ and ‘base fellow.’

These are hard words for admirers of Day’s work to swallow; and we have no other testimony than Ben’s as to his character. What can be said of his writings? Of his plays, perhaps the most characteristic is Humour out ofBreath. Here, though to be sure in a less delicate form, we find the ‘polish and politeness,’ the wit and Arcadian grace, of Love’s Labours Lost and As You Like It. Further, The Blind Beggar of Bethnall Green shows that on demand Day could collaborate in producing boisterous and bustling scenes of realism and crude humor with some indifferent success. But, left to its own pleasure, Day’s talent found its most grateful path to expression in the poetry of his delightful masque, The Parliament of Bees. Of this sweet fancy Charles Lamb wrote: —

The doings, The births, the wars, the wooings

of these pretty little winged creatures are with continued liveliness portrayed throughout the whole of this curious old drama, in words which bees would talk with, could they talk; the very air seems replete with humming and buzzing melodies while we read them. Surely bees were never so berhymed before.

But we must leave the measuring of poets’ fame to Time’s yardstick, and return to the dark business with which we began. Who can say with any confidence what provoked the quarrel, and how the playwrights fought? Except for the certainty that Day thrust Porter into the breast with a rapier, we are in ignorance. No further light comes to us from either combatant, whether from Porter’s twenty-four hours of languishing life or Day’s remaining years.

A fancy strikes me that perhaps Porter lacked Day’s skill with the rapier. To many an untraveled Englishman it was still a fairly new weapon, and Porter’s play shows its author English to the core. Is there a trace of Porter’s own feelings in the words he puts into the mouth of the humorous serving man Dick Coomes? Nay, mistress, I had a sword, ay, the flower of Smithfield for a sword, a right fox, i’ faith . . . ’t is gone, and there are few good ones made now. I see by this dearth of good swords that dearth of sword-and-buckler fight begins to grow on’t; I am sorry for it; I shall never see good manhood again if it be once gone; this poking fight of rapier and dagger will come up then; then a man, a tall man, and a good sword-andbuckler man, will be spitted like a cat or a coney; then a boy will be as good as a man, unless the Lord show mercy unto us; well, I had as lief be hanged as live to see that day.’

If an angry man merely wanted to settle a sudden quarrel with a good gory hand-to-hand, but not carry it to the length of killing, he was ill advised to use a rapier. Giacomo di Grassi, in his True Arte of Defence (Englished 1594), well observes that ‘the Rapier is generally allowed as a weapon because most perilous, therefore most feared, and thereupon private quarrels and common frayes soonest shunned.’

Can we trace in Day’s subsequent writings any reflection of that fatal fight with Porter? It may not be the mere accident of popular demand that in the autumn after he had put a bloody period to the life of a dramatist — one of ‘the best for Comedy amongst us’ — we find him collaborating with Haughton in writing two tragedies which deal with recent murders: The Tragedy of Cox of Collumpton and Thomas Merry, or, Beech’s Tragedy. It was not until the following spring that he made an effort toward comedy in some of the scenes of The Blind, Beggar. Yet here, if we give a loose to our imaginations under the stimulus of the grim fact just disclosed to us, we may fancy some echo of that tragedy acted to the life in the June of 1599: —

(Enter Captain Westford and Officers)
Cap. W. Lay hold on him; and, Mr. Strowd, once more,
Confesse thy guilt.
Old Strowd. Why, Sir, I not deny Sir Robert Westford, doing me much wrong, is by me slain.
Cap. W. And you for this offence
Shall be conducted safely unto Prison
Till matters may be better thought upon:
Mean time your own confession is my warrant.
O. Sir. Well, Gentlemen, I do obey the Law,
And will yield my body Prisoner to the King.
Son, work what means ye can for my repreiue
Till we may sue for pardon. So adue my Son;
Heaven give thee grace such desprate bralls to shun.

And, finally, think of Day, a few months after he had slain Porter with his rapier, penning the lines in Act V, where Captain Westford and Young Playnsey, demanding trial by combat before the King, are making choice of weapons: —

Y. Playn. Come, Captain Westford, you have been in Spain,
And are well practis’d in the desperate fight
Of Single Rapier.
Cap. W. Playnsey, I am pleas’d.
King. So are not we.
The single Rapier is too desperate;
And therefore choose some other weapon,
Or we will have no Combat fought this day.