John Fletcher and Philip Massinger

August 1619

a synoptic, alphabetical character list

Note: this play is generally believed to be the work of John Fletcher and Philip Massinger, though there is some disagreement over the distribution of scenes. It was first performed at the end of August 1619, after a short delay imposed by the Bishop of London—worried, presumably, by the politically sensitive nature of the subject. The surviving manuscript is marked up in the hand of Sir George Buc, the Master of the Revels, in his capacity as censor.

The following cast list is based on the Malone Society edition by T.H. Howard-Hill (1980); the historical notes are taken from W.P. Frijlinck, The Tragedy of Sir John Van Olden Barnavelt (1922). Details in square brackets are not in the play. As will be clear from the entries below, the forms of names in the play are often different from those in modern use; I have followed the Jacobean spelling, mistakes and all (cf. "Modesbargen"). Hence the hero is listed as "Barnavelt" rather than "Oldenbarnevelt."


Advocate of Holland and West-Friesland; elder statesman [he was seventy years old] and charismatic villain of the play. Barnavelt is fiercely jealous of the new, rising star, Grave Maurice, and determined to bring him down even if this means overthrowing the government. In defiance of Maurice, a Calvinist, Barnavelt declares himself an Arminian, and urges the other Arminian leaders to win over the burghers and enroll new companies to resist Maurice's soldiers, who are garrisoned at Utrecht. He then persuades the lords of the States to exclude Maurice from their assembly until they have decided on the form his oath of loyalty should take. Maurice submits patiently to this, but afterwards the two leaders confront each other with mutual accusations of pride. Their next trial of strength takes place at Utrecht, in a town where Barnavelt has enlisted mercenaries against Maurice. Helped by the English forces, and the disaffected mercenaries themselves, Maurice enters the town. He arrests Leidenberch, one of Barnavelt's principal supporters, while another, Modesbargen flees to Germany. Barnavelt's position is thus weakened, but he defends himself fiercely and refuses to submit to Maurice when his son, William Barnavelt, brings news of his supporters' defection. He is worried, however, by the arrest of Leidenberch, lest his old friend should betray his treacherous plans against Maurice. He visits the prison and is furious when Leidenberch confesses that he has already betrayed some secrets. Barnavelt urges him to kill himself in order to thwart Maurice, and later, in anguish, Leidenberch does so. News of this suicide cheers Barnavelt somewhat, but immediately afterwards a captain (whom he had refused to help earlier on) arrests him at home. He stands trial, where he is faced unexpectedly with evidence of his treachery obtained from the dead Leidenberch. Still undaunted, he reminds his hearers of his past services and engages in a vigorous dispute with his accuser, Maurice. Even when his old friend Modesbargen, now a captive, is brought in to testify against him, Barnavelt maintains his nerve. Condemned to death, he continues to relate his past glories on the scaffold (one of his hearers describes it as "bragging"), but he ends with an unexpected burst of humility, commending his family to Maurice and himself, as a "naked poor man," to Heaven. His last words are cut short by the brutal executioner, who also hacks off his fingertips by mistake [a historical detail].


The daughter of Barnavelt, a child, appears to ask her father in to supper just before his arrest and later with her mother to appeal for him after the arrest.


The wife of Barnavelt is devoted to him. She tries to encourage him before his arrest, thanks the burghers who honour him in his absence, and sends him, while he is in prison, a message hidden in a pear. This message is found by the Provost, who takes it to Maurice, thus strengthening his resolve to have Barnavelt put to death.


The servant is entrusted by Barnavelt's wife with pears containing a secret message that she wants delivered to her husband in prison. The Provost greedily takes one for himself, which the servant realizes will destroy the whole attempt; he is glad to escape with his own life.


Son of Barnavelt, governor of Barghen [better known as Bergen-op-Zoom] until 1619. His principal role in the play is to convey news to his father.


Like Morier, a French ambassador who intervenes vainly for Barnavelt's life.


A lord of the States of Holland; favours Maurice.


The three burghers discuss the situation of Barnavelt when he is arrested, and are confident that nothing will be done to him. Maurice overhears this and uses it against him.


There are two captains in this play:
  1. The First Captain goes along with the Second Captain to support him when he is sent to be punished for insurrection. Barnavelt receives them without sympathy. Later, the first captain is spokesman for the soldiers who do not want to defend the towns of Utrecht for Barnavelt against Maurice, and actually admit Maurice in spite of Barnavelt's orders. He is then sent by Maurice on a dangerous mission to Germany to abduct Modesbergen and bring him back for trial. The captain succeeds in this, and is then sent to arrest Barnavelt himself.
  2. The Second Captain is sent to Barnavelt to be punished for insurrection.


This character's name appears in the manuscript, but it is scored through. In an excised scene, she flirts with Holderus.


The four Dutch women are Arminian and liberated (doubly bad within the context of the play). During the siege, they try to persuade the Englishwoman to live like them, instead of conceding all power to her husband, and to attack Maurice. When Maurice enters, they panic, thus proving that they are cowardly as well as disobedient.


The English gentlewoman is contrasted with the Dutchwomen during the siege. She demonstrates wifely modesty, anti-Arminianism, and courage under fire.


The executioners of Harlem, Leiden, and Utrecht throw dice to determine who will have the honour of beheading Barnavelt. Utrecht wins, and accidentally cuts off Barnavelt's fingertips while they are raised to Heaven.


Pensionary of Rotterdam and faithful supporter of Barnavelt. [Grotius, or Hugo de Groot, the great Dutch jurist, was an Arminian like Barnavelt and hated by Maurice, who sentenced him to life imprisonment shortly after Barnavelt's death; he escaped in 1621.]


One of the three executioners. The others are from Leiden and Utrecht. He throws dice with his fellow executioners to determine who will behead Barnavelt and loses.


Brother and supporter of Maurice.


Pensionary of Leiden and supporter of Barnavelt, for whom he stirs up support after the fall of the siege in Utrecht. Like Modesbargen, he is by the end a prisoner whose ultimate fate remains undecided.


An Arminian preacher, corrupt and lecherous. At the siege in Utrecht, he induces the silly Dutchwomen to support Barnavelt and also to compel their husbands to do the same. When Maurice enters, he reveals his cowardly nature by running away. [Holderus was in fact the name of a zealous Calvinist preacher; perhaps a joke on the dramatists' part.]


One of the three executioners. The others are from Harlem and Utrecht. He throws dice with his fellow executioners to determine who will behead Barnavelt and loses.


Secretary of the States and follower of Barnavelt, he is characterized by the second of the two captains as a fair-weather friend. After the fall at the siege of Utrecht, he is arrested and imprisoned by Maurice in The Hague. In prison, he betrays Barnavelt's secret plans, enraging the latter. Barnavelt visits him there and persuades him to kill himself to spite Maurice. After a touching scene with his little son, he does so. His body, in its coffin, is displayed in chains at Maurice's order. [The visit of Barnavelt to the prison, and his responsibility for Leidenberch's death, is a fiction. Barnavelt was himself in prison at the time. According to Frijlinck, "The plausibility of this scene was doubted even by Fletcher's contemporaries."]


The son, portrayed in the play as a young child, is arrested with Leidenberch and volunteers eagerly to go prison to look after him. He has a touching scene with his father just before Leidenberch's suicide. [This has a basis in fact. Leidenberch's son was permitted to attend his father in prison; his name was Joost, and he was in fact eighteen.]


Alternative spelling for Leidenberch.


The hero of the play and opponent of Barnavelt. Modest despite his great military victories, Maurice at first refuses to take the political power his relatives and followers insist that he has deserved, and accepts his exclusion from the States' assembly with humility. Incited by Barnavelt, one of the towns of Utrecht closes its gates against him, but the soldiers are on his side and he is peacefully admitted despite Barnavelt's efforts. He still continues to be generous to his enemy and resists his friends when they urge him to try Barnavelt for treachery, though he arrests his friends Leidenberch and Modesbargen. At last, convinced that Barnavelt is too dangerous to forgive, he pushes through the sentence of death against him. [In their rosy picture of Maurice, as in their dark picture of Barnavelt, Fletcher and Massinger were following the prejudice of the Calvinist pamphlets they read.]


Modesbargen [real name Moersbergen] is a lord of the States, and a follower of Barnavelt. At the beginning of the play, he tries to dissuade Barnavelt from his treacherous and vengeful plotting against Maurice, and is shocked by Barnavelt's decision to embrace Arminianism in order to further his political ends. Modesbargen supports Barnavelt rather half-heartedly during the siege in Utrecht, and then flees to Germany. He is found by the first captain, Maurice's agent, who pursues and traps him. Brought back to Holland, he confronts Barnavelt at the latter's trial. His own fate is left undecided at the end of the play.


Like Boisise, a French ambassador, who appeals vainly for the life of Barnavelt.


The Provost has custody first of Leidenberch and later of Barnavelt, after their arrests. He allows Barnavelt to visit Leidenberch and is appalled for his own sake to discover the result of the visit—Leidenberch's suicide. When Barnavelt is in prison, his servant tries to pass a message to him from his wife, hidden in some pears, but the Provost takes one for himself and so finds the message, which he passes on to Maurice.


The Provost's wife has a brief, comic role. She asks her husband for one of the pears brought for the imprisoned Barnavelt by his servant, and is on the point of receiving it when he notices the message stuck inside.


A burgher of Utrecht, who tries, unsuccessfully, to induce the mercenary soldiers to support Barnavelt against Maurice.


The name of Taurinus, an Arminian divine, appears scored through in the MS. cf. Utenbogart.


Utenbogart [real name Uytenbogaert], like Taurinus, is an Arminian divine who is listed in the MS but with his name scored through. [In fact he was—ironically enough—the chaplain of Maurice, whose anti-Arminianism was entirely political.]


One of the three executioners. The others are from Leiden and Harlem. He throws dice with his fellow executioners to determine who will behead Barnavelt and wins. He accidentally cuts off Barnavelt's fingertips while they are raised to Heaven.


A burgher, whose name is listed in the MS but scored through. [According to Frijlinck, this name is a confusion for Van der Myle, who was Barnavelt's son-in-law.]


A lord of the States; favours Maurice.


Cousin and supporter of Maurice.