The February edition of Living South contained the most recent example of slander levelled against the founder of Dulwich College , the Elizabethan actor and theatre owner, Edward Alleyn. In an article about the College entitled Secret History, Old Alleynian Chris Coates writes ; "The School was partly founded on the profits of bear-baiting and prostitution". He recounts that he picked up the story while a pupil at the College studying English under Neil Fairlamb, who is now vicar of Aberystwyth.
Chris Coates and Neil Fairlamb are not the only followers of a tradition regarding the life of Edward Alleyn. At the unveiling of the statue to Alleyn, raised by the Dulwich Society in 2005 to mark the benefactor's purchase of the Manor of Dulwich in 1605, the Rt Hon. Tessa Jowell MP, the Culture Secretary and Member for Dulwich, could not resist including the same reference in her opening remarks when she unveiled the statue. A whole series of authors of books on Dulwich (including myself) have also fallen victims of this tradition.
The slander is based on the ownership of a lease of a property on Bankside in Southwark called the Barge, the Bell and the Cock which at one time had clearly been three smaller and adjoining properties, which passed to Alleyn on the death of his father-in-law, Philip Henslowe.
Many years ago Paull Franklin Baum, an American scholar was writing a riposte in the academic journal Modern Language Notes concerning The Bell inn mentioned by Chaucer, and pointing out that there were half-dozen Bell Inns in Southwark, including, in 1723 one in Clink Street. He says "this is probably the same as that given in the token book of 1596 as the residence of Philip Henslowe: 'The Bell, near Horse Shoe Alley'". He also notes that in 1577 John Woodwarde of Southwark is the 'hoste' of the Bell.
We know that Henslowe's wife's name was Agnes Woodwarde, and that he had a step-daughter, Joan Woodwarde, who married Alleyn in 1592. There has long been speculation over the name and occupation of Joan's father, as well as the amount of property, if any, she brought to her husband. Thus Paull Baum's discovery accounts for how the 'Barge, Bell and Cock' might have passed initially to Philip Henslowe, and then to Edward Alleyn, or directly to Alleyn on his marriage to Joan, who then might have agreed to her step-father continuing to live in the property. Or, indeed, they might all have lived en famille especially during Alleyn's absence on theatrical tours. According to a letter in the College archives, this house was situated "on the bank sid right over against the clink". Paull Baum takes this to read that it stood opposite the Clink prison, close beside Winchester House.
So where does the tradition spring from that Edward Alleyn was a brothel owner? It seems writers have taken their cue from John Stow whose Survey of London Written in the Year 1598 devotes considerable space to a description of Bankside and especially what were known as 'the stews': "Next on this bank was sometime the Bordello, or Stewes, a place so called or certain stew-houses privileged there, for the repair of incontinent men to the like women". Stow traces their history from 1345 until 1506 when he notes that the number of bordellos had been reduced from eighteen to twelve and they were allowed "to have signs on their fronts, towards the Thames, not hanged out, but painted on the walls". Amongst the names he mentions are the Boar's Head, the Cardinal's Hat and The Bell. The Stow perambulation then states that next comes the Clink jail followed by the Bishop of Winchester's house.
What later writer's have overlooked is that Stow goes on to say that in 1546 Henry Vlll put down the row of bordellos, " proclaimed by the sound of trumpet, no more to be privileged, and used as a common brothel, but the inhabitants of the same to keep good and honest rule, as in other places of this realm."
Very recently another American academic, the Emerit Distinguished Professor Henry Ansgar Kelly of the University of California Los Angeles, has unwittingly come to the rescue of Edward Alleyn's reputation by claiming that there is no historical evidence to connect properties belonging to the bishop of Winchester, called the Bell and the Barge with the medieval vice-trade. In the Medieval Academy of America's journal Speculum volume 75, published in 2000, Kelly speculates in a lengthy article on long- held accusations that the Bishop of Winchester and Prioress of St Leonard's Priory, Stratford-in-Bow benefited from this trade.
Kelly shows that a Deed dated 1540 from the bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner, leased "certain capital messes and tenements called the Barge, the Bell and the Cock properties to William Payne (who built a bear garden on this spot)." The document shows the bishop's property as going all the way to Maiden Lane. He says there is nothing to show the nun's property (which bordered the Barge, Bell and Cock to the west) or the bishop's properties of the Barge, Bell and Cock contained stew houses and the notion of twelve stew houses (mentioned by Stow) surviving closure is based on a rumour reported by the compiler of The Great Chronicle of London, probably Robert Fabyan. Indeed the names of the Bell and the Cock are not included in the list of twelve bordellos mentioned. The Barge which was mentioned in the list of twelve bordellos was originally called the Antelope and briefly called the Barge in 1506. Professor Kelly says of the what became Alleyn's property known as Barge, Bell and Cock, that there was no reason for suspecting the property, which might have become one or more hospices, as containing stew houses.