Henry Medwall Biography


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Henry Medwall’s London origins are reflected in his works’ occasional references to the unsavory haunts of his native Southwark. He probably came from a family involved in the cloth trade. From 1475 to 1480, he attended Eton as a king’s scholar and proceeded to King’s College, Cambridge, where he studied for three years. His precipitate departure, without his taking a fellowship, may have been a result of the shift in political power on the accession of Richard III. He continued to dine occasionally at King’s and more than once was present at theatrical performances there on feast days. In London, he entered legal service, either with John Morton, bishop of Ely, later archbishop of Canterbury and chancellor of England, or with Oliver Kyng, both of whom were prominent in government after Henry VII’s accession in 1485. He was definitely in Morton’s employ by 1490, when he was ordained to minor orders of acolyte and dean. In 1491, Cambridge granted him the degree of master of civil law. In 1492, he received a benefice, the living of Balinghem near Calais, which he held in absentia. A grant of another living, in Norfolk, was never ratified.

Morton, who became a cardinal in 1493, died in 1500, after which Medwall’s career seems to have ended. After he resigned his living in 1501, nothing further is known of him. There is no indication on the title page of Fulgens and Lucres as to whether he was still alive; the description of him as “late chaplayne to. . . John Morton” may merely refer to the ending of his appointment.

Because he never took full orders, the extent of Medwall’s ecclesiastical employment is uncertain. His chief legal occupation was as notary public, and he seems to have reached a position with Morton of considerable power and trust, for he was the keeper of important records after Morton’s death. His attachment to Morton’s household, where Thomas More was in youthful service, and the printing of his two plays by John and William Rastell, suggest that he was associated with the circle of John Rastell and John Heywood.