Richard Vennar

John Payne Collier, "An Apology written by Richard Vennar" in Bibliographical and Critical Account of the Rarest Books (1866) 4:193-96.

This is an early and remarkable piece of autobiography, and we believe that the volume is entirely unique. Richard Vennar was the author of a dramatic entertainment chiefly consisting, as far as we can judge, of dumb show and exhibition of scenery, which was brought out at the Swan Theatre on the Bankside, in 1603, under the title of Englands Joy: an outline of it is extant, and it appears that it was a sort of apotheosis of Queen Elizabeth. This piece procured for its author, Vennar, the nickname of "Englands Joy," as he states on his title-page; but he is not to be confounded with a person of the name of William Fenner, or Fennor, who was a rhyming antagonist of John Taylor the water-poet.

Richard Vennar was, as he informs us, a younger son of John Vennar of Salisbury, a Justice of the Peace, and was baptized by Bishop Jewell, so that he must have been born before 1571. After travelling he became a member of Lincoln's Inn, but met with many misadventures, one of which was the loss of his patrimony by the production of a forged will in favor of his brother-in-law. It was in his distress for money that he composed Englands Joy, of which he speaks with regret, as follows:—

"By this I may seeme, like a cunning Oratour, to have produced the weakest imputations first, that this cleering might set the better glosse upon more knowne defects: for who can excuse my publique default of the Swan, where not a collier but cals his deere 12 pence to witness the disaster of the day? How should I, without blushing, deny the name of Englands Joy, who had so many gossips at my Christening? Surely this divill must be cast out at leasure: you must use some patience to heare, and I rob you of a little more time to deliver the circumstance, which, with indifferency heard, I assure my selfe will prove but a Chimura, and either appeare but a winde, or Ixions monster at most, part man, part beast."

However, he does not "deliver the circumstance" attending the performance, but goes back to his journey to Scotland in 1600, and gives us more than a hint that he was in some way concerned in the Globe Theatre on the Bankside, then carrying on most successful performances. At this period Shakspeare was in his zenith, and his plays in a course of nightly representation. Vennar, however, speaks somewhat obscurely, and there are various other parts of his memoir that require explanation. He had been imprisoned in the Counter, and obtaining his enlargement he knew not what course to pursue:—

"My minde became diversly distracted with plurallity of purposes, some times carried one way, some times another: the last, that I stood not least upon in resolution, was a second intendment for Scotland; but to this purpose there wanted armes, or rather the sinewes of armes, money. I saw daily offring to the God of pleasure, resident at the Globe on the Bankside, of much more then would have supplyed my then want: I noted every man's hand ready to feede the luxury of his eye, that puld downe his hat to stop the sight of his charity: wherefore I concluded to make a friend of Mammon, and to give them sound for words, both being but aire, for which they should give double payment."

The meaning of which we take to be, that Vennar for a time became a player at the Globe Theatre, but in some inferior capacity; perhaps as a hired man, because we never find his name in any list of the Company. He also seems to have got up some species of public performance, which was not successful; and here it is that we meet with a very curious passage relating to the comedy of The Knight of the Burning Pestle, which shows, what we already know, that it was condemned, and what we do not know, that it was only by one "writer," for only one is spoken of. Vennar's words are, "For suppose the play was hist, was I the first poet made my clients penitents? Let the Burning Pestle bee heard in my cause, which rang so dismally in your eares, and yet the Writer in state of grace."

So that whether Beaumont or Fletcher wrote it, it had done the author no harm in public estimation. However, poor Vennar's performance, whatever it may have been, was condemned, and he was arrested by bailiffs before it was well concluded.

We cannot follow the writer in all his rambling adventures, as ramblingly narrated; but the later portion of his Apology is rather too self-eulogistic on the benefits he had conferred upon poor prisoners, having especially interested in their behalf the Countesses of Warwick and Cumberland, as well as sundry Lord Mayors and Aldermen of London. He tells us, moreover, that he had composed "a brief treatise" on the Gunpowder Plot, which has survived (see the next page); that he was the author of a known broadside on "A Papist Dormant, a Papist Couchant, a Papist Leavant, a Papist Passant, a Papist Rampant, and a Papist Pendant"; and under woodcuts of the King and Queen, on another broadside, he placed the following lines:—

The God of all eternity
Preserve this Royall Unity,
That they may breath
An everlasting breath,
And those may pine in hell
That seeks their death.
Their States of blisse
Be Brittaines blessed story,
And give their soules
A Crowne of endlesse glory.

Vennar concludes his autobiography, rather arrogantly, by challenging any man "justly to taxe him of sclander, deceipt, fraud or cousenage"; and then leaves "this defence of his life to the able and generous protections" of the impartial. He subscribes his book,

The wel-wisher and servant
of all vertuous mindes,

We have only to add that from a passage in William Fenner's Counter's Commonwealth, 4to. 1617, p. 64, it appears that the author of Englands Joy (there named Vennard, as indeed he sometimes himself spelt it) had died in the utmost poverty, in what was called "the Hole" of Wood-Street prison.