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A view of Rhodes, designed by Inigo Jones' pupil John Webb, to be painted on a backshutter for the first performance of Davenant's opera The Siege of Rhodes "in recitative music" in May 1656, at Rutland House.

The Siege of Rhodes is an opera written to a text by the impresario William Davenant.[1] The score is by five composers, the vocal music by Henry Lawes, Matthew Locke, and Captain Henry Cooke, and the instrumental music by Charles Coleman and George Hudson.[2] It is considered to be the first English opera.

Special permit

Part 1 of The Siege of Rhodes was first performed in a small private theatre constructed at Davenant's home, Rutland House, in 1656. Special permission had to be obtained from the Puritan government of Oliver Cromwell, as dramatic performances were outlawed and all public theatres closed. Davenant managed to obtain this by calling the production "recitative music", music being still permissible within the law. When published in 1656, it was under the equivocating title The siege of Rhodes made a representation by the art of prospective in scenes, and the story sung in recitative musick, at the back part of Rutland-House in the upper end of Aldersgate-Street, London. The 1659 reprinting gives the location at the Cock-pit in Drury Lane, a well-known theatre frequented by Samuel Pepys after the Restoration (1660). Pepys himself later read the text and commented in his Diary that it was "certainly (the more I read it the more I think so) the best poem that ever was wrote."[3]


The Rutland House production included England's first professional actress, Mrs Coleman.[a] [6] Part 2 of The Siege of Rhodes followed in the 1657–1659 season and was first published in 1663.

In 1661, the piece was rewritten to take advantage of the skills of the young actresses now in Davenant's Company, and this revival introduced Hester Davenport as Roxalana.

Lost score

The plot was based on the 1522 siege of Rhodes, when the island was besieged by the Ottoman fleet of Suleiman the Magnificent. The score of the opera is believed to be lost. However, the original sketches by John Webb for the stage sets, themselves an innovation of the day, are extant.

See also


  1. ^ Catherine Coleman was the daughter of composer Alfonso Ferrabosco and wife of another performer, Edward Coleman; Edward would be appointed Musician in Ordinary to the royal court after the restoration of King Charles.[4][5]


  1. ^ Sir William Davenant (1606–1668)
  2. ^ Roger Parker, The Oxford Illustrated History of Opera, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994; pp. 39–40.
  3. ^ 1 October 1665.
  4. ^ Randall, Dale B. J. (1995). Winter Fruit: English Drama, 1642-1660. University of Kentucky Press. pp. 170–171. ISBN 0-8131-1925-1.
  5. ^ McManus, Clare (2 December 2013). "The Vere Street Desdemona". In McMullan, Gordon; et al. (eds.). Women Making Shakespeare: Text, Reception and Performance. London: Bloomsbury. p. 225. ISBN 978-1-4725-3938-0..
  6. ^ Terence P. Logan and Denzell S. Smith, eds., The Later Jacobean and Caroline Dramatists: A Survey and Bibliography of Recent Studies in English Renaissance Drama, Lincoln, NE, University of Nebraska Press, 1978; pp. 203–204.

4 Annotations

First Reading

Terry F  •  Link

Siege of Rhodes, The (1656), revised in (1661)

Opera-cum-heroic drama by Sir William D'Avenant, thought to have been written originally as a play, with music added later in order to circumvent the Commonwealth (see Interregnum) law against purely dramatic entertainment, and gain the Government's permission to mount it at Rutland House. The performance helped pave the way for the re-opening of the theatres, and for D'Avenant's own receipt of one of the monopoly patents as theatre manager. The action concerns the siege of Rhodes by Soleyman the Magnificent, and Duke Alphonso's unreasonable jealousy of his wife, the virtuous Ianthe, who eventually saves her husband and the island. D'Avenant said he wrote it partly to illustrate `the Characters of Vertue in the shapes of Valor and Conjugal Love'. The staging as with the earlier court masque was accompanied by lavish spectacle.

Dictionary of English Literature, Marion Wynne-Davies, Bloomsbury,1997…

Michael Robinson  •  Link

D'Avenant, William, Sir, 1606-1668.
The siege of Rhodes: the first and second part; as they were lately represented at His Highness the Duke of York's Theatre in Lincolns-Inn Fields. The first part being lately enlarg'd. Written by Sir VVilliam D'Avenant.
London : printed for Henry Herringman, and are to be sold at his shop, at the sign of the Anchor, on the lower-walk in the New-Exchange, 1663.
4⁰. First edition of the 'second' part; there were two editions, and a further re-issue, all with the same imprint. Part I appeared in 1656, rpr. 1659.

Read by Pepys on Sept 23rd. 1664, however Pepys does not appear to have retained his separate copy of the Siege. The work was included in, and the separate edition presumably replaced by, his copy of Davenant's 'Works' London: 1673 - PL 2347.

Bradford  •  Link

"The First English Opera," on BBC Radio 3: a 45-minute feature on "The Siege of Rhodes," available online through Sunday 6 June 2010:…

The programme information:

First performed under Cromwell in 1656 when the theatres were still officially closed, The Siege of Rhodes bewitched the ears of the great diarist Samuel Pepys and remains one of the most important works in the history of both English literature and music. And yet - like its creator, the noseless poet laureate Sir William Davenant - it is almost totally forgotten today.

Why is this seminal work, the first opera in English to be performed publicly, now so largely ignored? No doubt it's partly because the music - which the enchanted Pepys desperately tried to obtain for himself in the early 1660s - is lost, but the reasons for its neglect are more complicated than that.

As we discover from a variety of contributors, the neglected Davenant was actually one of the most innovative forces in the history of English theatre - not only did he "invent" English opera, he was also very instrumental in the creation of the idea of Shakespeare the National Poet and claimed to be spiritually and perhaps even biologically the "Son of Shakespeare".

Travelling from Cromwell's House in Ely via Pepys' Library in Cambridge and Shakespeare's Globe to the site of the old Cockpit Theatre in London where the Siege was performed, presenter Claire van Kampen traces the complicated genesis and afterlife of this lost operatic treasure. The programme follows the royalist Davenant's extraordinary travails in the Civil War and afterwards, uncovering the shady political machinations that led to Davenant being granted permission to stage the first English opera while all other dramatic activities remained strictly forbidden, and culminates in an attempt - the first in around 350 years - to reimagine what the music that so obsessed Pepys might actually have sounded like.

Second Reading

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Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.






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