His parents lived, and Thomas was probably born, in a house on the corner of Ironmonger Lane and Cateaton Street. William Middleton had immigrated to London as a young man; on 23 Apr 1568 his coat of arms was certified by the Garter King of Arms, making his son Thomas “a gentleman born”. William and Anne were married on 17 Feb 1574; their only other child to survive to adulthood was Avis, baptized 3 Aug 1582. William was a fairly prosperous member of the Honourable Company of Tilers and Bricklayers.
When Thomas was five, his father died (20 Jan 1586). The net worth of his estate was valued at just over L335. On 7 Nov 1586 Anne married Thomas Harvey (1559?-1606?), a young but indigent gentleman Grocer; Harvey had returned to England after “one whole yeare & more in very miserable Case” as chief factor in Sir Walter Ralegh’s abortive colony at Roanoke, having “spent or lost whatsoeuer he embarked & shipped” (Chancery 2 Eliz. S16/48). Less than two weeks after their wedding, husband and wife began fighting over the trust Anne had created to protect her children’s inheritance. So began fifteen years of lawsuits. Harvey spent years at a time abroad, months at a time in debtors’ prison. The struggle for conjugal mastery rippled outward, as neighbours, friends, tenants and relatives joined the tug of war. Thomas Middleton is first named as a party to a lawsuit in 1597; as late as 1606, he was called as a witness by his sister and her second husband over her share of their father’s estate, twenty years after that father’s death. Middleton’s astute satire of the legal profession, from the character Tangle in The Phoenix to “the wilderness of law” in A Game at Chess (2.1), surely has its origin in this extensive early experience of a “law-tossed” world, where “what one court orders is by another crossed” (3.3).
In Apr 1598 Middleton matriculated at Queen’s College, Oxford. One of his fellow students there was Thomas Overbury; allusions to Overbury’s murder and the resulting trials (1613-16) have been detected in several Middleton plays. Middleton was still a student on 28 Jun 1600, but by Feb 1601 was “in London daylie accompaninge the players” (Req. 2/224/19). He left Oxford degreeless, and it’s tempting to read autobiographically his account of a poor scholar who “daily rose before the sun, talked and conversed with midnight, killing many a poor farthing-candle”, reading Aristotle, but who “unfruitfully led to the lickerish study of poetry, that sweet honey-poison that swells a supple scholar with unprofitable sweetness and delicious false conceits” eventually became “one of the Poor Knights of Poetry” (Father Hubburd’s Tales, 1239-86). But Middleton had enlisted in that bedraggled regiment of poets even before he matriculated.