Simon Eyre (Draper and Mayor)
Simon Eyre (Draper and Mayor)
The Early Years
Born in Brandon, Suffolk to John and Amy Eyre, Simon Eyre moved to London in his teens and became an apprentice to an upholder (second hand clothes dealer), Peter Smart. In 1419, Eyre ended his short career as an upholder and transferred to the prestigious Drapers’ Company (Barron). Unlike Thomas Deloney’s and Thomas Dekker’s fictionalized portrayals of Eyre, the real Eyre was never a shoemaker.
As Caroline M. Barron notes in her summary of Eyre’s life, he soon became a distributor to London merchants: "Unlike other successful merchants of this period Eyre did not make his money in overseas trade . . . but acted instead as a middleman, buying cloth in the countryside and selling it to the royal wardrobe and to other merchants, above all to Italians." At the same time, Eyre also purchased dyes and spices from the Genoese and Venetian merchants and redistributed them throughout England. As Italian merchants were forbidden to sell their own goods in London, Eyre saw high profits and few risks acting as a distributor. Due to Eyre’s increasing success, the Drapers’ Company elected him as Master in 1425 (Barron).
Eyre the Civic Benefactor
Despite Eyre’s protests of his modest wealth, the City elected him as sheriff in 1434. In 1435, he was elected as the Master of the Drapers for a second time. Perhaps due to these two appointments, Eyre became deeply involved in civic projects (Barron). In 1441, for example, Eyre succeeded as a common councilman who, as Barron reports, actively engaged in civic duties "serving on at least eight important joint committees of the common council and court of aldermen." Eyre also served as an auditor from 1437–39 (Beaven).
By the time the City elected Eyre as the alderman of Walbrook Ward in 1444, he was already engaged in rebuilding the Leadenhall granary. Eyre was indeed one of the granary’s primary financers and he aided in the land negotiations for the granary at Cornhill (Barron). In A Survey of London, John Stow recounts that Eyre envisioned the granary as a public space: "among other his works of pietie, effectually determined to erect and build a certaine Granarie vpon the soile of the same citie at Leaden hall of his owne charges, for the common vtilitie of the saide Citie" (1.154). Perhaps due to his civic vision, business savvy, increasing wealth, and influential spirit, the aldermen elected Eyre as the Mayor of London in 1445.
Eyre was married a second time between the years 1419 and 1457, but not much is known of his wife, Alice, except that she gave birth to Eyre’s only son, Thomas. Throughout his life, Thomas frequently squandered his money, so his father continually bailed him out of debt. Thomas died only ten years after his father (Barron).
The Later Years
From 1446–58, Eyre continued to serve as an alderman for various wards including Bread Street (1446–49), Cornhill (1449–51), and Langbourn (1451–58) (Beaven). Barron infers from the evidence of Eyre’s decreasing civic involvement that he "lost interest in his civic career" after the completion of Leadenhall: after ending his term as mayor, Eyre served on one last committee in 1454 and attended his last meeting in 1456 (Barron). Stow depicts Eyre as a public hero, recording his bequest of five thousand pounds for the release of the poor, his desire to release certain prisoners, and his contribution of over two thousand marks for various charities throughout the city (1.154). Instead of civic affairs, Eyre focused his efforts on improving the new Leadenhall by expanding its original function from a granary into a free school for young scholars. He not only began a curriculum to teach children Latin grammar, songs, and vernacular writing, but willed about two thousand pounds to his executors, the Drapers’ Company, to "establish schools, maintain buildings, and pay salaries" (Barron). At his death in 1458, Eyre’s wealth was estimated between five thousand and seven thousand pounds. Although Eyre wished to build a "London dynasty," his dreams were thwarted. After his death, the executors did not implement Eyre’s vision; rather, they used the funds to maintain the church of St. Mary Woolnoth, the site where Eyre is buried (Barron). While Stow remarks that he had heard speculative "flying tales" regarding the dispersal of Eyre’s wealth, the cause for the executors’ decision to deny the realization of Eyre’s dream remains unknown (1.155).
Eyre the Shoemaker
In his 1597 early novel entitled The Gentle Craft, Thomas Deloney refashioned Eyre into a shoemaker and a draper. Although Thomas Dekker would draw on Deloney’s characterization of Eyre in his 1599 play The Shoemaker’s Holiday, he re-scripted Eyre solely as a shoemaker. Michael Manheim reasons that Dekker’s motivation for shifting Eyre’s occupation lay in his desire to combine historical and legendary elements of Eyre’s life: "The main plot—which follows the rise of Simon Eyre from humble cobbler, to Sherriff, and finally to Mayor of London, is rooted in folklore and was a very well known legend in its time" (316). Alternatively, W.K. Chandler argues that Dekker "exercised reasonable historical accuracy in naming his characters-an accuracy which is at variance with the romantic spirit of the legend about Eyre, ’the mad shoemaker of Tower street’" (175), while still setting the overall stage action in a "realistic Elizabethan setting" (182).
Both Deloney and Dekker apply past historical knowledge to contemporary conceptions (and in some cases, romanticizations) of Eyre’s life. In both works, Deloney and Dekker revise history by blending past and present events. As Brian Walsh argues in his analysis of Dekker’s historicity, not only is Eyre an anachronistic figure in the play, but his temporal displacement also beckons to "a more general idea of enacting pastness" (328). Dekker deploys the real elements of Eyre’s biography alongside fantastical legends to create a "local" historical imagination—a "pastness" that the audience would find familiar and could reconcile with their contemporary experience (324).
Barron, Caroline M.
Eyre, Simon (c.1395–1458).Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Ed. H.C.G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. Online edition ed. Lawrence Goldman. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Web.
- Beaven, Alfred P. The Aldermen of the City of London - Temp. Henry III - 1912. London, 1908. Print. [A searchable transcription of the 1912 edition of Beaven is available at British History Online, courtesy of The Centre for Metropolitan History..]
- Chandler, W.K. "The Sources of the Characters in The Shoemaker’s Holiday." Modern Philology 27.2 (1929): 175–82. Print.
The Construction of The Shoemaker’s Holiday .Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 10.2 (1970): 315–23. Print.
Performing Historicity in Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday .Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 46.2 (2006): 323–48. Print.
This project is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.
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