Nicholas UDALL

Born: 1504, Hampshire, England

Died: 23 Dec 1556

Buried: St. Margaret

An English playwright and schoolmaster, the author of 'Ralph Roister Doister', regarded by many as the first comedy written in the English language.

Born in Hampshire, educated at Westminster School and at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. During his time at Oxford he was forced to leave for a time because of religious disputes. He later returned to finish his studies. In 1533, after university, he became a teacher at a London grammar school. Udall was an intimate friend of John Leland, and with him he wrote a number songs to celebrate the coronation of Anne Boleyn, and at Eton he produced plays for his pupils to perform. He taught Latin at Eton College, of which he was headmaster from about 1534 until 1541.

Udall's career had a downturn when he was imprisoned for stealing some school candlesticks. On 12 Mar 1541 a London Goldsmith named William Elmer was examinated by the Privy Council "for the buying of certain images of silver and other plate which were stolen from the college of Eton". Subsequently two late cholars of Eton, John Hoord and Thomas Cheney, were charged with the theft. Cheney imlicated Headmaster Udall and his servant Gregory. When Udall was sent for "as suspect to be counsail", he also confessed to having sexually and physically abused a number of his pupils, among them Thomas Cheney. A son of the Chesham Boys branch of the Cheney family, he was a relative of the wife of Sir Thomas Wriothesley. Wriothesley, parhaps Udall's patron, sat on the Privy Council and heard his case. He was convicted under the 1533 Buggery Act for committing sodomy. Although the felony of buggery carried a sentence of capital punishment (by hanging), his sentence was reduced to just under a year in Marshalea prison.

A former pupil, the writer and poet Thomas Tusser, wrote in later years of Udall flogging him for no good reason. Despite all of this he was befriended by Catherine Parr, the Queen at the time, who was most impressed by his translation of 'Apothagmata' by Erasmus (1542). He also edited a version of St.Luke's Gospel at Parr's request.

Udall also translated parts of the works of the Roman comic poet, Terence. Along with the works of Plautus, this was to have an influence on his writing. 'Ralph Roister Doister' is classical in form, with its acts and scenes and developing plot, although his characters are clearly from his contemporary England. The comedy plays that came after Udall's owe a debt to his innovation in drama; from Marlowe to Shakespeare and beyond, and it is for this reason that he is important in the history of English drama.

A Protestant, he flourished under King Edward VI of England, composing a response to the West Country insurgents, and he was given the custody of Edward Courtenay, who was imprisoned in the Tower since the execution of his father, the Marquis of Exeter. He was made prebend at Windsor in Nov 1551 (a post later forfeited through his absence), and in Mar 1553 he received the rectory of Calborne on the Isle of Wight. Udall survived into the reign of the Catholic Mary I. Udall was in good terms with Gardiner, and replaced the protestant Alexander Nowell at the direction of Westminster in 1554. He published several translations and commentaries for the benefit of his pupils. 'Ralph Roister Doister' was written specifically for schoolboys to perform, but was not published until after the author's death.

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