William Strode's Play for Charles I's visit to Oxford

The family of William Strode, who wrote the play The Floating Island to entertain Charles I on a visit to Oxford, was prominent in the Dartmoor tin industry, in the stannary district of Plympton. The published text is in the British Museum.

Like John Ford and and John Elford, William Strode came from a family well known for its connection with the Dartmoor tin trade, this time in the stannary district of Plympton. One of his ancestors was Richard Strode, the Member of Parliament for Plympton who, a tinner himself, was imprisoned by the stannary authorities in Lydford Prison for trying to bring in a bill which would protect river mouths and harbours from pollution caused by tinworking. William’s father, Philip Strode, seems to have had an interest in a minimum of seventy five tinworks in the Plympton area, some of which were passed on to his son when he came of age (Greeves, 1985, 87-89). William was born in or near the parish of Plympton (Prince, 1810, 730) and baptised at Shaugh in 1603 (Greeves, 1985, 89). He was sent away to school at Westminster, and thence elected to Christchurch College, Oxford. He became a distinguished scholar, was ordained in holy orders and eventually rose to the office of public orator at the University of Oxford. Described by Prince as a ‘rare poet’, he is recorded by him as having written an ‘ingenious comedy’ under the title of The Passions Calm’d or The Settling of the Floating Island. It was performed in the great hall at Christchurch as an after-dinner entertainment for King Charles I and his court during a visit to Oxford in 1636, ‘acted by the young gentlemen of the house with great applause’. Strode died in 1644 but his play was later printed in London in 1655 as The Floating Island, a Tragi-comedy (Prince, 1810, 732-3) .

The Floating Island is an allegory more reminiscent, as a play, of Tudor interludes and morality plays than the post-Shakespearean stage of Ford and his London contemporaries, although Ford had himself been part author of an allegory when he collaborated with Dekker on their masque The Sun’s Darling. The allegorical structure may have been Strode’s way of appeasing his own conscience, since the printed preface declares that ‘he wrote it at the instance of those who might command him; else he had scarce condescended to a Play, his serious thoughts being filled with notions of deeper consideration.’ Yet such an accomplished piece of work, using the blank verse rhythms and language of the London stage, could hardly have been created by a man who was not a student of contemporary drama. Indeed the authorities would have been unlikely to command a play from him for such an important occasion unless it was known that he had some ability in this direction. Perhaps because it was written for a royal audience, and the masque was a form popular at court, The Floating Island has something of the feel of a masque about it; for example at the outset a floating island does actually appear, presumably through some kind of stage machinery. Moreover, the title page announces that music to the songs was composed by Henry Lawes, indicating the importance attached to the musical element, another feature of masque. Lawes was at that time the King’s Master of Music. Nevertheless The Floating Island is a play not a masque; despite the lack of characterisation, the centre of the work is its blank-verse dialogue rather than its stage directions or songs, and the writing is not only accomplished but sometimes thought-provoking, as this extract shows:

Fancy.  What think ye of transforming Amorous?
Hilario.  He’s undone then, he cannot show his legs, nor use his postures nor enjoy his idol.
Morphe. No, change Sir Timerous, he’s as fearful as a hare, and may be as
changeable: he hath many symbolical conditions of womanhood already: he is female in every part but one, and half female in his clothes. Give me but an inch of ribband from Fuga, and I’ll undertake to present the lady Timida.
Fancy.  Fuga, Give him one of your changeable fancies.
Thus first ourselves must whet our own invention;
Else others will not stir. Men do not strive
Methinks to please me as they ought to do.
No other rarities these many Ages
But powder, printing, seaman card, and watches?
So much vain dotage for the fond elixir?
Why are not yet my crystals malleable,
To make our gold no gold, and foil the diamond?
Why want I instruments to measure out
The year, the day, the hour, without the help
Of sun, or turning of these tedious wheels?
Nothing to carry me but barges, coaches?
Sedans and litters? Through the air I’d pass
By some new waftage. I must have my house
Conveyed by wheels and sails and plummets hung
In some deep pit, deep as the way is distant,
To hurry me, my family and it,
Whether I please. I’ll travel like the snail
With all my house; but swifter than the falcon…
I will have vaults which shall convey my whispers
Instead of embassies to foreign nations;
Places for echoes to pronounce a speech,
Or give a suffrage like a multitude:
Consorts well played by water; pictures taught
By secret organs both to move and speak:
We spend our selves too much upon our tailor;
I rather would new mould new-fashion nature.
The Floating Island, III, III

The plot concerns King Prudentius, who is deposed by the Passions over whom he rules and replaced by Queen Fancy, only to be reinstated to sort out the chaos which ensues. Whether this was a veiled hint to King Charles not let his Catholic queen Henrietta have too much influence over policy is a matter for conjecture, as is the possibility that Strode was caricaturing Ford in the character of a Passion called Melancholico, but the message is certainly the stoic one that ruling oneself is a prerequisite for ruling others. When we compare Strode’s disapproval of Queen Fancy with The Fancies Chaste and Noble in which Ford extols the chaos of feeling out of which happiness emerges, we see encapsulated the difference not only between The Floating Island and Ford’s work, but to some extent the difference between Ford and his age. Yet, as we have seen, Ford evinces evidence of a stoic viewpoint in his plays, and it is interesting that Strode does the same.

Although he seems to have spent his working life away from Dartmoor at Oxford, William Strode had a Dartmoor tinworking background. The fact that he wrote a play well enough thought of of to be printed after his death reinforces the link between drama and the tin industry – a link that runs all the way through the history of Dartmoor theatre before the Civil War, not least in the work of John Ford.