On the 8th March 1600, a noisy and excited crowd of spectators gathered to witness the final stage of a remarkable event, (which later became known as the “9 Day Wonder”) an event that had long been anticipated and had captured the imagination of a city. The spectators came from far and wide and from all walks of life and the city of Norwich was filled with music, singing and dancing as they waited impatiently for the entrance of a man who was heralded as the most famous clown of the Elizabethan theatre.
One Elizabethan reporter on the scene described the event as follows:
Suddenly a figure was seen jumping and skipping its way through the heaving crowds from the direction of St Stephen’s Gate towards Thomas Gilbert. Gilbert had been selected to make the initial welcome on behalf of Norwich and to read his poem in honour of this man and the occasion. Once the initial greeting was over, the man continued on his way, dancing through the marketplace towards the Mayor’s House followed by his excited audience and a fanfare of music. His progress was hampered by the sheer number of well-wishers who unthinkingly blocked his way resulting in him accidentally stepping on a girl’s petticoat causing it to fall down leaving her red faced. Unable to continue on his original course he suddenly and to everyone’s amazement jumped the wall of St John Maddermarket Church reaching in a few short leaps the Mayor of Norwich’s house, the official welcome committee and the end of his dancing marathon.
So who was the man behind the clown?
Will Kempe, was a comedic actor who was not only beloved by his public but was also held in the highest esteem by his peers. Kempe was acclaimed as the worthy successor to Richard Tarleton, some say the greatest clown of the era and instrumental in turning the theatre into a form of mass entertainment. A dedication in Thomas Nashe’s “An Almond for a Parrot” (1590) praises Kempe calling him “that most comical and conceited cavalier, Monsieur du Kempe, jest-monger and vicegerent general to the ghost of Dick Tarleton”. High praise indeed, for what was often considered a lowly profession consisting of debauchery and wrongdoing.
Kempe’s origins are uncertain. Guesses at his date of birth range from the 1540s to the 1560s. Some researchers have speculated that he had strong links to Norwich, others claim that he was related to the Kempes of Olantigh in Kent. It is possible however that before turning to the stage he worked as a servant for the Earl of Leicester, since in May 1585 he is mentioned as part of the Earl’s own acting troupe, travelling with them to the Netherlands and Denmark. He played with a number of other troupes including the Lord Strange’s Men and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. He was even requested to perform for Frederick II of Denmark at Elsinore. Kempe had also for a time been the clown of choice for the very popular playwright William Shakespeare, performing in a number of his plays at the Rose theatre. Kempe’s name appears as one of 26 actors listed as performers in the first folio of Shakespeare’s plays and it is believed that Shakespeare created the characters Dogberry in Much ado about nothing and Peter in Romeo and Juliet specifically for Kempe
The Elizabethan’s were an old lot and an unusual wager was not uncommon.
Attempting bizarre tasks for public promotion was nothing new in the 16thCentury. The eccentric self-styled ‘water-poet’, John Taylor was famous for his crazy stunts. On one occasion he tried to sail in a brown paper boat from London to Kent with dried fish stuck to his makeshift oars. (He failed). Kempe’s wager was a simple one compared to paper boats and fishes for oars, there was no time limit and he was allowed to rest and recover for any number of days but he had to dance the entire way to Norwich. George Spratt was engaged as an overseer to ensure that Kempe did not cheat. It turned out to be one of the cleverest and most successful acts of self-promotion to ever be attempted and for one month, his name was on the tip of everyone’s tongue and his star which was beginning to fade, now shone brightly once again.
Kempe’s started his dance in London, leaving from the Lord Mayor’s house on the 11th February 1600 in Whitechapel surrounded by onlookers who gave him “bowed sixpences, groats and hearty prayers”. A woodcut on the front of Kempe’s published account of his journey depicts him as wearing an elaborate costume possibly similar to that worn by clowns and fools of the period. As well as Spratt, Kempe was accompanied by Thomas Slye, a Taberer, (A Taberer was born on a mission station and was a fluent speaker of the languages used by the local population: he claimed to speak them more fluently than he did English) and William Bee, a servant. From Whitechapel, Kempe danced his way to Mile End and from there to Stratford and then on to Ilford. From Ilford his route to Norwich passed through Romford, Burntwood, Chelmsford, Braintree, Sudbury, Melford, Bury, Thetford, Rockland and Hingham. His journey was punctuated with many stops, some intended, others unexpected. Sometimes it was due to weather conditions such as heavy snow in Bury, at other times due to physical exhaustion and on occasion simply because he was enjoying the attention he was receiving. He jigged through all types of landscapes including woods, bogs and heaths. As he danced his jig crowds appeared to cheer him on. Some people offered him hospitality whilst a few other enthusiastic souls decided to join Kempe in his dance with differing degrees of success. Kempe talks in his pamphlet about the many people he met along the way, these included a 14 year old girl who danced for an hour in his room in one of the pubs in which he was staying; his host in Rockland whose nervous and rather odd welcome speech left Kempe slightly bemused “thou art even as welcome as the Queen’s best greyhound”; two youths who tried to dance with him but misjudged a broad stretch of water and fell into a muddy pothole; a butcher who despite being described as a “lusty tall fellow” gave up after only ½ mile; and the fool of Master Colt’s who accompanied him for one mile before they “parted faire in a foule way” Kempe’s most successful dancing companion was a “comely lass” who took up the challenge after calling the butcher “faint hearted”. Kempe fitted her out in bells and she danced alongside him for the one mile to his next stop where she was rewarded with a skinful of drink and an English Crown. Kemp was so impressed with her that he invented a rhyme in her honour, which begins:
A Country Lasse browne as a berry,
Blith of blee in heart as merry,
Cheekes well fed and sides well larded
Every bone with fat flesh guarded,
Meeting merry Kemp by chaunce,
Was Marrian in his Morrice daunce…,
On the 8th March, after a delay of three days, to allow time for an appropriate celebration to be arranged, (He liked a good party) Kempe entered Norwich where he was received by the Mayor of that city. Kempe had achieved his goal, he had danced from London to Norwich, a distance of over 100 miles and had done so in nine days (even it did take nearly a month in reality to complete). He deservedly received a number of accolades and prizes including five pounds in Elizabethan Angels, a pension for life of 40 shillings and the Freedom of the Merchant Adventurers. In return Kempe donated to the city his dancing shoes (which must have been pretty worn by that time) which were then fastened to the walls of the Guildhall.
The stories and his legacy still continue today:
Kempe’s dance still ignites the imagination of many today and on its 400 year anniversary, Morris dancers from all over the UK joined together to re-enact Kempe’s dance including members of Kemp’s Men who keep alive the Morris dancing tradition. More recently in April 2015, Rick Jones to celebrate Shakespeare’s anniversary also recreated Kempe’s journey. Jones started from Southwark Cathedral and danced through many of the same places that Kempe had done, dressed in a similar costume and carrying a lute. He completed the journey in exactly nine days. In Norwich a new walkway connecting Bethel Street to Theatre Street was named Will Kemp Way and a statue erected to Kempe can be found in Chapelfield Gardens in Norwich, carved by Suffolk sculptor, Mark Goldsworthy.
Kempe’s final swan song:
Kempe’s extraordinary dancing feat turned out to be his swan song and little was heard from him afterwards. In 1601, an entry in an account book belonging to Philip Henslowe, the manager of the Rose theatre, records that he had made Kempe a loan of 20 shillings. At about the same time Kempe was reported to have joined the Worcester’s Men. No one really knows why Kempe fell into such financial straits and why he fell out of favour. Kempe died in poverty and obscurity possibly during a plague outbreak in 1603. This date would tie in with an entry in St Saviour in Southwark Parish which simply mentions the death of “Kempe, a man”. Whether this is the jigging, eccentric, flamboyant, larger than life William Kempe, dancer extraordinaire, is unclear but it does seem that the man that once lit up the Elizabethan theatre, left his final stage with barely a flicker.
Thomas Gilbert’s Welcome Poem honouring Will Kemp:
W With hart, and hand, among the rest
E Especially you welcome are
L Long looked for as a welcome guest,
C Come now at last you be from farre.
O Of most with the city, sure,
M Many good wishes you have had;
E Each one did pray you might indure,
W With courage good the match you made
I Intend they did with gladsome hearts
L Like your well wishers, you to meete:
K Know you also, they’l doe their parts,
E Esther in field or house to Greece
M More you than any with you came
P Procur’d thereto with rump and fame