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date: 07 July 2022

Heminges, Johnfree

(bap. 1566, d. 1630)

Heminges, Johnfree

(bap. 1566, d. 1630)
  • Mary Edmond

Heminges, John (bap. 1566, d. 1630), editor of Shakespeare's first folio, was baptized on 25 November 1566 at St Peter de Witton, Droitwich, Worcestershire, the son of George Heminges. In 1578 his father sent him to London to serve an apprenticeship, and on 2 February, Candlemas, his master James Collins presented him for a nine-year term within the Grocers' Company, one of the major city livery companies. He lodged with the family in the parish of All Hallows, Honey Lane, near Guildhall, and when Collins died in 1585 he left a will bequeathing Heminges 40s.—a generous sum—'yf my wiffe shall thincke good' (TNA: PRO, PROB 11/69, sig. 4). Heminges completed his service, was made free on 24 April 1587, and became a freeman of the city (he describes himself as citizen and grocer in his will).

Heminges must have become stage-struck, for by 1593—while playing was still banned in London because of plague—he and Augustine Phillips were members of a small troupe employed by Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange (from September 1593, earl of Derby), before his death in 1594. On 6 May 1593 the privy council had granted Strange's actors a touring warrant allowing them to play anywhere free from plague and outside a 7 mile radius of the capital.

In 1594 the plague was over, and players from several small troupes became members of the new Chamberlain's Men, which opened to the public under the patronage of the queen's cousin Lord Hunsdon. Heminges is known to have acted in Every Man in his Humour and Every Man out of his Humour, written for the company by Ben Jonson, in 1598 and 1599; in 1603 James I acceded to the English throne and the Chamberlain's Men became the King's Men. Heminges's name appears immediately after those of Shakespeare, Burbage, and Phillips in their first licence, dated 19 May, and heads the list in the second, dated 27 March 1619. He was in four more plays by Jonson between 1603 and 1611, when he probably gave up acting; it is not known whether he ever appeared in any of Shakespeare's plays. He seems always to have been mainly on the management side, and is believed to have succeeded as company manager and principal payee when Augustine Phillips died in 1605. Freemen of the Grocers' Company often became big businessmen, and his long apprenticeship would have fitted him well for the work. In his will Phillips named Heminges first of four executors and overseers and bequeathed him a silver bowl valued at £5.

Alexander Cooke, apprenticed to Heminges within the Grocers' Company, also later became a member of the King's Men; before his early death in 1614 he asked Heminges and Henry Condell to deposit some of his money with the Grocers for the upbringing of his young children. Heminges acted as a trustee for Shakespeare when in 1613 he bought part of the Blackfriars gatehouse property; and in the retrospective list of twenty-six 'Principall Actors' in all Shakespeare's plays (the word 'actor' covering all theatre people, not just performers) Heminges comes third after Shakespeare and Burbage—principal playwright, player, and manager. In court records he is constantly referred to as 'presenter' of plays for command performances: in consultation with the master of the revels he would presumably have made the arrangements about places, times, dates, rehearsals, temporary seating in palaces, and transport.

On 5 March 1588, having come of age, Heminges, describing himself as a gentleman of St Michael Cornhill, had secured a licence to marry a young widow: Rebecca Knell, née Edwards (bap. 1571, d. 1619). Her first husband, the actor William Knell, had been killed in 1587 in an affray with John Towne, a fellow member of the Queen's Men, then on tour at Thame in Oxfordshire. Heminges and Rebecca Knell were married at St Mary Aldermanbury on 10 March 1588, and seem to have had fourteen children baptized there between 1590 and 1613, of whom probably about half survived to adulthood. At the time of Heminges's death in 1630, the eldest surviving son was William Heminges, who achieved note as a poet and playwright. William's younger sister, Margaret (wrongly entered as Mary in the register), was baptized on 21 June 1611, and on 11 December 1627 she was married at St Mary Woolchurch in Lombard Street to a lawyer, Thomas Sheppard of Lincoln's Inn. In an imposing Latin entry she is described as 'filia Johannis Hemings generosus' ('gentleman')—further evidence of his status. Rebecca Heminges was buried at St Mary Aldermanbury on 2 September 1619, and John moved down to the Bankside parish of St Saviour, close to the Globe playhouse.

Shakespeare had become a very near neighbour of the Heminges and Condell families when in the early 1600s he lodged with the Huguenot couple Christopher and Marie Mountjoy in the parish of St Olave, Silver Street: playwright, theatre men, and skilled ‘tyre’ (attire) makers would have collaborated in productions for court and theatre, where audiences expected a ‘good show’ in both senses. In 1604–5 Heminges presented a play commissioned by James I's consort, Queen Anne of Denmark, who had her own household, and her accounts show that 'Marie Mountjoy Tyrewoman' was paid more than £50 for 'Roabes and other ornamentes'; she died in the following year, and Shakespeare perhaps moved elsewhere, before finally retiring to Stratford upon Avon.

With Richard Burbage, Heminges and Condell are the only men from his London life whom Shakespeare mentions in his will: he left them two nobles each to buy a ring in his memory, a very common bequest at the time. In their epistle to 'the great Variety of Readers' they lay much stress on the 'care, and paine' with which they had collected the works, since the author had not 'liv'd to have set forth, and overseen his owne writings'. They declare that 'wee have scarce received from him a blot in his papers': if 'wee' and 'received' are to be taken literally, they seem to mean that Shakespeare actually gave them some manuscripts or transcripts to work on. The alleged scarcity of 'blots' may be taken as pardonable exaggeration.

Preparatory work on the folio began in 1620, and in that year the churchwardens' accounts of St Martin's, Carfax, in the centre of Oxford include a list of some seventy people who had contributed 'toward the Clocke & chimes': they are all parishioners with the exception of 'Mr John Hemmings of London', who contributed 10s. and whose name is tacked on at the end, presumably during a visit. The editor would have crossed Cornmarket to the wine tavern, still run by John and Jane Davenant who had often entertained Shakespeare in the past, seeking information and/or abandoned papers. Oxford is half-way between London and Stratford, where Heminges would probably have called at New Place in pursuit of papers in the late playwright's study, and perhaps useful information from his son-in-law Dr Hall.

After Heminges's death in October 1630, in the parish of St Saviour, Southwark, his body was taken back to St Mary Aldermanbury for burial on the 12th, no doubt as close to Rebecca as possible, as he had asked in his will; the funeral would have been conducted 'in decent and Comely manner … in the Evening without any vaine pompe or Cost' (terms similar to Condell's three years earlier) (Honigmann and Brock, 164–9). Funerals involving two churches were expensive, but both men could well afford it.

Probably 1000 copies of Heminges's and Condell's edition of the first folio had been printed, perhaps costing the solid sum of £1—a quarto of a single play usually cost 6d. In New York in October 2001 one of only five complete copies of the folio still in private hands was sold to an anonymous private bidder for £4.1 million.


  • GL, Grocers' Company MSS
  • parish register, London, St Mary Aldermanbury, 10 March 1588, GL, MS 3572/1 [marriage]
  • parish register, London, St Mary Aldermanbury, 12 Oct 1630, GL, MS 3572 [burial]
  • parish register, London, St Mary Woolchurch, Lombard Street, 11 Dec 1627 [marriage: Margaret (‘Mary’) Heminges, daughter]
  • parish register, Droitwich, St Peter de Witton, 25 Nov 1566, Worcs. RO [baptism]
  • churchwardens' accounts, St Martin's, Carfax, Oxon. RO, OA/Par 207/4/F/1, 129–30
  • M. Eccles, ‘Elizabethan actors, II: E–J’, N&Q, 236 (1991), 454–61, esp. 457–9
  • M. Eccles, ‘Elizabethan actors, III: K—R’, N&Q, 237 (1992), 293–303, esp. 296, 303
  • M. Eccles, ‘Elizabethan actors, IV: S to end’, N&Q, 238 (1993), 165–76, esp. 174
  • will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/69, sig. 4 [James Collins]
  • will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/158, sig. 86
  • E. A. J. Honigmann and S. Brock, eds., Playhouse wills, 1558–1642: an edition of wills by Shakespeare and his contemporaries in the London theatre (1993)
  • E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare, 2 vols. (1930), vol. 2
  • M. Edmond, ‘In search of John Webster’, TLS (24 Dec 1976), 1622

Wealth at Death

a man of property: Eccles, ‘Elizabethan actors II’, 457–9; will, 9 Oct 1630, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/158, sig. 86

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