He was born in Bishopsgate, London, a younger son of Edward Alleyn, an innkeeper and porter to the queen, and Margaret Townley. His mother’s link to the Lancashire Townley family is somewhat of a mystery. Alleyn himself stated she was the daughter of John Townley of Townley, however this does not easily fit with the available information on the Townley family tree. Regardless the present-day road that passes his school was named after her in 1884. He was baptised at St Botolph-without-Bishopsgate. He was known to contemporaries as “Ned”; his surname is variously spelled Allen or Alleyne. It is not known at what date he began to act, but in 1583 his name was on the list of the Earl of Worcester’s players. He was eventually rated by common consent as the foremost actor of his time; his only close rival was Richard Burbage.
He played the title roles in three of Christopher Marlowe’s major plays: Faustus, Tamburlaine, and Barabas in The Jew of Malta. He created the parts, which were probably written especially for him. The evidence for his stage career is otherwise fragmentary. Other parts thought to be associated with Alleyn are Orlando in Robert Greene’s Orlando Furioso, and perhaps Hieronymo in The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd. Some further and lost works are thought to have had Alleyn in leading roles, including plays by George Peele such as The Battle of Alcazar. In a private letter, he mocked himself as a ‘fustian king’. In 1593, while the bubonic plague was affecting London, he joined forces with some of Lord Strange’s Men in a provincial tour, combining them with players from the Admiral’s Men with which he was then associated. It extended as far as Bristol, Shrewsbury, Chester, and York.
He retired at the height of his fame around 1598, and it is said that Queen Elizabeth herself requested his return to the stage, which he did, but not until 1604, the year after her death. Ben Jonson bestowed praise on Alleyn’s acting. Thomas Nashe expressed in Pierce Penniless (1593) his admiration for him, in a quartet of English actors including also John Bentley, William Knell and the clown Richard Tarlton; while Thomas Heywood calls him “inimitable”, “the best of actors,” “Proteus for shapes and Roscius for a tongue.” Thomas Fuller in his Worthies later wrote of Alleyn’s reputation of “so acting to the life that he made any part to become him”.
He went into business with Philip Henslowe, his father-in-law, and eventually became wealthy. He became part owner in Henslowe’s ventures, and in the end sole proprietor of several profitable playhouses, bear-pits and brothels. Among these were the Rose Theatre at Bankside, the Paris Garden and the Fortune Theatre on Finsbury Fields. The Fortune was built for Alleyn and Henslowe in 1600, the year after the rival Globe Theatre was completed south of the river, by the same contractor Peter Street, but was square rather than round; it was occupied by the Admiral’s Men, of which Alleyn was the head. He filled, too, in conjunction with Henslowe, the post of “master of the king’s games of bears, bulls and dogs.” On some occasions he directed the sport in person, and John Stow in his Chronicles gives an account of how Alleyn baited a lion before James I at the Tower of London.
Alleyn’s connection with Dulwich began in 1605, when he bought the manor of Dulwich from Sir Francis Calton. The landed property, of which the entire estate had not passed into Alleyn’s hands earlier than 1614, stretched from Sydenham Hill on whose summit now stands the Crystal Palace television transmission tower, to the crest of the parallel ridge, three miles nearer London, known in its several portions as Herne Hill, Denmark Hill and Champion Hill. Alleyn acquired this large property for little more than £35,000. He began the task of building and endowing the College of God’s Gift at Dulwich.
All was completed in 1617 except the charter or deed of incorporation for setting his lands in mortmain. Delays occurred in the Star Chamber, where Lord Chancellor Bacon brought pressure to bear on Alleyn, with the aim of securing a portion of the proposed endowment for the maintenance of lectureships at Oxford and Cambridge. This approach was in line with scepticism on Bacon’s part about the impact of charitable foundations, compared to a scheme put forward by Sir Henry Savile and Sir Edwin Sandys that lacked funds. Alleyn finally carried his point and the College of God’s Gift at Dulwich was founded, and endowed under letters patent of James I, dated 21 June 1619. Building had already been begun in 1613.
Alleyn was not a member of his own foundation, but he guided and controlled its affairs under powers reserved to himself in the letters patent. His diary shows that he mixed much and intimately in the life of the college. He engaged the boys in occasional theatrical performances: at a festive gathering on 6 January 1622 “the boyes play’d a playe.”
Alleyn inherited property in Bishopsgate from his father. He married on 22 October 1592 Joan Woodward, stepdaughter of Philip Henslowe. She died on 28 June 1623. On 3 December that same year he married Constance, daughter of John Donne, the poet and dean of St Paul’s. He had no children. Constance remarried in 1630, to a Samuel Harvey.
Alleyn died in November 1626 and was buried in the chapel of the college which he had founded. His gravestone fixes the day of his death as the 21st, but there are grounds for the belief that it was the 25th. In 1610 Alleyn was a member of the corporation of wardens of St Saviour’s, Southwark in which parish he founded a set of almshouses in the ‘Soap Yard’ next to an older foundation of Thomas Cure; he also made contributions to the parish grammar school and both institutions still receive distributions from his Dulwich foundation. There is a memorial window to him in the cathedral, which in his time was the parish church for both the borough and the Clink Liberty in which most of his business activities were based. A portrait of the actor is on display at Dulwich Picture Gallery.
Alleyn is unusual among figures in 16th-century drama because a large selection of his private papers have survived. They were published in 1843 as The Alleyn Papers, edited by scholar-forger John Payne Collier.
- September, 01, 1566
- Bishopsgate, London, United Kingdom
- November, 25, 1626
- London, United Kingdom
- Dulwich College
- England, United Kingdom