margaret marshal

The first British actresses

During the Interregnum period (1649-1660), following the execution of King Charles I, the theatres of Britain were closed by Oliver Cromwell. However, upon the restoration of Charles II as king in 1660, they were re-opened and theatre managers, Thomas Killigrew and William Davenant, specifically, were issued a royal charter to set up a theatre company. Subsequently, the King’s Company and the Duke of York’s Company became the major duopoly of the Restoration theatre scene.

This was also the first time that women were allowed on the stage. Previously, female parts had been played by young boys or men but the King had experienced the phenomenon of the actress during his exile on the Continent and was highly impressed. The King’s Company was one of the first theatre companies to feature actresses in the plays it staged and they were a sensation. There is some debate as to who the very first British actress, as we would define it today, was, although many say that the first female role to be played by a woman was that of Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello on 8th December 1660. Male members of the audience, especially, flocked to see these talented, charismatic ladies perform in a way that had never been seen before.

Pictured are the Restoration era actresses Nell Gwyn (who later went on to become the most famous mistress of King Charles II), Mary Saunderson, Anne Marshall and Margaret “Peg” Hughes. Other female actresses of the era included Elizabeth Barry, Mary Knepp, Elizabeth Boutell, Katherine Corey, Rebecca “Beck” Marshall (sister of Anne Marshall: occasionally, the two performed as a pair), Hester Davenport and Mary “Moll” Davis. These women were among the first ever celebrities and professional career girls.

It wasn’t all glitter and glamour for these girls, however. Beck Marshall, especially, on several occasions, had to petition the king to make sure she was protected against boisterous male audience members.

On this day in history, December 8, 1660 – A woman (either Margaret Hughes or Anne Marshall) appears on an English public stage for the first time, in the role of Desdemona in a production of Shakespeare’s play Othello.

From our stacks: ‘Desdemona. Othello, Act 1, Sc. 3. Designed by J. Hayter, Engraved by H. Robinson’ from The Stratford Gallery; or the Shakspeare Sisterhood: Comprising Forty-Five Ideal Portraits, Described by Henrietta Lee Palmer. Illustrated with fine engravings on steel, from designs by eminent hands.  New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1859.

Coat of Arms of the Duke of Norfolk, the Earl Marshal

The Duke of Norfolk is the premier duke in the peerage of England, and also, as Earl of Arundel, the premier earl. The Duke of Norfolk is, moreover, the Earl Marshal and hereditary Marshal of England. The dukes have historically all been Catholic, a state of affairs known as recusancy in England. 

All past and present dukes have been descended from Edward I, King of England. The first being the elderly widowed granddaughter of Edward I, Margaret Marshal, who was created Duchess of Norfolk for life on 29 September 1397. She died eighteen months later, 24 March 1399, and was buried in the choir of Grey Friars in the City of London.


I know I’ve made a ridiculous number of posts about this, but here’s the slightly more compact one that sums up a lot of this week.

I’ve absolutely loved my four years at NYU. I’m immensely proud of what I’ve done and thankful for who I’ve met. It’s impossible to sum up the entire experience in one post.

A bit of explanation: NYU is really big, so while All-University Commencement is held at Yankee Stadium (this year, May 18th at 11am), there are also individual school Baccalaureate ceremonies (mine, for the College of Arts and Science, was at Radio City Music Hall on May 19th at 3pm). The President speaks at both, but my name is called at the bacc and I get to actually walk.

Photo explanations beneath the cut! (Also lots of bragging. Sorry, not sorry.)

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