Edmund Tilney, Queen Elizabeth I’s Master of the Revels
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and the early years of James I, the buildings on the north side of the square of the Priory of St John, London were the Headquarters of the Master of the Revels.
The Master of the Revels was an official of the royal household whose duties involved supplying entertainment to the royal court. His name was Edmund Tilney. His major innovation was to replace the elaborate and expensive Masques favoured by King Henry’s court.
Tilney’s role expanded from the arrangement of entertainment for the royal court to the regulation of playing companies and the censorship of plays.
Tilney is often depicted in modern popular culture as corrupt. Indeed, he was very powerful and did keep the fees he charged the theatre companies, but this wasn’t because he was corrupt, but because it was the way Queen Elizabeth I ran her government. Instead of paying her officials she gave them the right to collect certain fees and taxes. Just like she gave the taxes of sweet wines to one of her favourites, the Earl of Essex.
Is it too fanciful to think that perhaps Shakespeare went to the dissolved St John’s Priory to get his plays approved by Tilney? It’s quite exciting that plays Shakespeare went in with wouldn’t have been the versions he left and what we know today.