The Mountjoys

HELENA: Which is the Frenchman? 

DIANA: He - that with the plume. 

All’s Well that Ends Well, 3.5.77-8


Early years

We have an idea of Shakespeare’s habitat in these years in Cripplegate - the furnished room, the businesslike street, the neighbours whose faces he knew, the mansions split up into tenements, the little parish church with its peal of bells - but we have so far only a passing acquaintance with the most important figures in this landscape: the family he lived with. What is their story, and how does it come to intersect with Shakespeare’s?

Of the Mountjoys’ origins there is only fragmentary information. We know where Christopher Mountjoy was born but not when, and we know when Marie Mountjoy was born but not where.

In his act of ‘denization’ or naturalization (of which more later) Christopher is described as ‘a subject of the French King and born in the town of Cressey’.1 ‘Cressey’ is presumably the English clerk’s spelling of Cr’cy. There is more than one Cr’cy in France, but most probably Mountjoy was from Cr’cy-en-Ponthieu. This is certainly the Cr’cy that Englishmen had heard of, being the site of the famous battle of 26 August 1346, when Edward III’s English archers routed the French army during the Hundred Years War. It lies in Picardie, in north-western France, in the fertile flat-lands of the lower Somme, which flows into the English Channel about 12 miles west of it. Mountjoy calls it a ‘town’ (or perhaps this is the clerk’s phrasing) but today it is little more than a large village, population about 1,500.

No record of the birth of Christophe Montjoi or Montjoie is to be found in the registres d’état civil for Cr’cy-en-Ponthieu, but the sixteenth-century registers are by no means complete.2 For reasons I will give a little later it is likely he was born in the mid-1550s or early 1560s.

Various larger market-towns and trading centres were within easy reach of Cr’cy. The nearest was Abbeville, 10 miles away, but the most important one was Amiens, the regional capital of Picardie, famed for its Gothic cathedral (the largest in France) and its medieval water-gardens, Les Hortillonnages. Amiens was a centre for clothworking, part of that densely populated belt of northern France and Flanders which produced high-quality textiles: wool, cotton, silk and linen. In the 1593 ‘Return of Strangers’, a detailed listing of foreigners in London, there are twenty-five immigrants from Amiens, living in fourteen households. All of those whose employment is given are clothworkers - the majority are silk-weavers; there are also two ‘taffety-weavers’, a silk-winder and a silk-twister, a dyer and a bobbin-maker. Another nearby town was Arras, famous for those embroidered hangings. From here came more silk-weavers, two wool-combers and a feltmaker.3

Christopher Mountjoy’s future trade of tiremaking is grounded in the textile industry of his native Picardie. He doubtless served an apprenticeship, though we do not know where or in what. The creation of a head-tire involved various craft skills, among them silk-twisting, threadmaking, wire-drawing and embroidery. It also involved wigmaking, and I note the name Montois or Montoyes - possibly a variation of Montjoie - in a seventeenth-century list of maˆtres perruquiers (master-wigmakers) in Amiens.4

The name could be of Norman origin, connected with the town of Montjoie in La Manche. But William Arthur’s Etymological Dictionary of Family and Christian Names suggests a grander origin - that it may have been adopted by a French crusader, recalling a mountain near Jerusalem, which (according to that mysterious medieval globetrotter Sir John Mandeville) ‘men clepen Mount-Joye, for it gevethe joye to pilgrymes hertes, because that there men seen first Jerusalem’. Arthur also suggests a military connection, for in old French dictionaries ‘mont-joie’ is defined as ‘a heap of stones made by a French army, as a monument of victory’. Another authority tells us that ‘Montjoy St Denis!’ was ‘the French king’s war cry’.5 Related to this, perhaps, is the fact that Montjoi(e) was from medieval times the title of the Chief Herald of France. These military and heraldic associations may suggest that Christopher Mountjoy was a descendant or offshoot of a family of substance.

In Shakespeare’s Henry V the French herald is indeed called ‘Montjoy’:

A tucket sounds. Montjoy approaches. 

MONTJOY: You know me by my habit [uniform]. 

king: Well then, I know thee: what shall I know of thee?

king: What is thy name? I know thy quality. 

MONTJOY: Montjoy. 

king: Thou dost thy office fairly. (3.6.111-12, 135-7)

Some biographers have wondered about this, but as there is a purely historical reason for the name, it is hard to argue any in-joke reference to Christopher Mountjoy. There is also Shakespeare’s own statement that he first knew Mountjoy in about 1602, which makes it unlikely, prima facie, that he referred to him in a play performed three years earlier. On the other hand, it is possible to know of someone without having actually met them. It is in general worth remembering that Shakespeare’s statement in the Court of Requests refers only to his acquaintance with Christopher. He was not asked for, and did not volunteer, any information about how long he had known other members of the household - Marie Mountjoy, for instance.

One should not discount the presence of private allusions and in-jokes in Shakespeare. Plays like Love’s Labour’s LostThe Merry Wives and Twelfth Night, all written for specific courtly or aristocratic audiences, are full of them. In this case it is just about possible that the ‘Montjoy’ of Henry Vhas some ulterior reference to the real Mr Mountjoy of Silver Street, but I doubt it. If it does, nothing much is made of it, though there was perhaps a titter at the Globe when Henry says to him, ‘Thou dost thy office fairly’ - a joke at the herald’s expense, in that to do one’s ‘office’ meant to go to the privy, often called the ‘house of office’.

We know nothing of the origins of Marie Mountjoy. She may have been Christopher’s childhood sweetheart in Picardie, or they may have met in London, in which case she could be from another part of France entirely. We do not even know for sure she was born in France - she could have been the daughter of French immigrants already settled in England.

What we do have is her approximate date of birth. According to her own statement, made to the astrologer-physician Simon Forman, she was thirty years old in November 1597. This useful precision is rendered less precise by her statement to the same doctor two weeks later that she was twenty-nine.6 According to the laws of arithmetic at least one of these statements is false, and that one of them is false makes me wonder ungallantly if both might be slight understatements. The older of her two ages would mean she was born in 1567 or late 1566, and perhaps we might think the latter year more likely. She was thus two or three years younger than Shakespeare, and was in her mid-thirties when he became her lodger. It is worth bearing this in mind. In the biographies she is almost invariably called ‘Mrs Mountjoy’, which is correct and convenient, but which tends - especially in conjunction with the faintly comic overtones of ‘landlady’ - to give an older image of her than is right.

New evidence, shortly to be presented, shows that the Mountjoys were a married couple by 1582. Marie was then only fifteen or sixteen, so the marriage must have been quite recent (brides under fifteen are unusual at this time, though the legal minimum age was twelve).7 They were by then living in London, so it is possible they were married there. The marriage registers of the French Church in London might have enlightened us, but they are lost - the earliest that survive date from 1600.

The approximate date of their marriage helps to define the otherwise unknown age of Christopher Mountjoy. As he was married by 1582 he must by then have completed his apprenticeship. The conventional age to be ‘freed’ of apprenticeship was twenty-one - this is variable, but I would say eighteen is a practical minimum age for a married craftsman. Mountjoy was born, therefore, no later than c. 1564, the same year as Shakespeare. He was probably older than this, but he cannot have been that much older, as his brother Noel was born in about 1582.8 Allowing their mother a maximum child-bearing span of twenty-five years (and assuming Noel was not a half-brother, in which case the argument collapses) we could say speculatively that Christopher was born some time between c. 1557 and c. 1564. These are porous arguments, but I have the feeling that, like Marie, Christopher is probably rather younger than the inferred picture of him given in Shakespeare biographies. There is no real warrant for Schoenbaum calling him an ‘old man’ at the time of the lawsuit in 1612.

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