Middleton began his fortieth year working on commission for both court and city. He and Rowley co-wrote The World Tossed at Tennis for Prince Charles’s Men to perform at Denmark House for Prince Charles. But it transferred to the Swan, for the first time successfully bringing “A Courtly Masque” into commercial playhouses for popular audiences. Middleton’s relationship with Charles in Tennis reflected the domestic and foreign policy problems created by the outbreak of the Thirty Years War; those issues profoundly affected his work in the 1620s, through the celebration of the White Knight in A Game at Chess to the disappointments of 1626-7.
While collaborating with Rowley for Charles, Middleton was composing for Mayor William Cokayne whose inaugural pageant he had written and produced six months before the first of his ten Honourable Entertainments (Apr 1620-Apr 1621). His appointment as the first salaried City Chronologer (6 Sep 1620) transformed his status, and prompted much of his subsequent work: his lost manuscript Annals (1620+), four more Mayors’ pageants, various occasional poems and entertainments, and his lost manuscript Farrago (describing political events, 1625-27). What Jonson was for Jacobean court masques, Middleton was for Jacobean civic revelry: its dominant, and most inventive, practitioner. Unlike Jonson, he was also an historian.
Meanwhile, he kept writing successful plays, alone and in collaboration. Women Beware Women probably belongs to 1621; “Never came Tragedy off with more applause”, playwright Nathaniel Richard testified in 1657. In late 1621 or early 1622 Middleton re-joined Webster to produce Anything for a Quiet Life for the King’s Men. By 7 May 1622 he and Rowley had finished The Changeling, performed by William Beeston’s company at the Phoenix; its title does not signal genre, and although since the 19th century it has been recognized as a tragic masterpiece, in the 17th it was most often remembered for its comic scenes. The Nice Valour (Sep 1622?) contains the period’s most popular theatrical song (the beautifully melancholy “Hence all ye vain delights”); a Prologue written for a posthumous revival explains that Middleton hated writing prologues “to a Play well made”, and claims that “our Poet ever writ Language so good, mixt with such sprightly wit, He made the Theatre so soveraigne With his rare scenes . . .” For The Spanish Gypsy (9 Jul 1623), Middleton teamed with Rowley, his old partner Dekker, and Dekker’s new partner John Ford; performed at the Phoenix, and also at court (Nov 5, for Prince Charles), the play was so popular that it provoked contempt or envy for its “Gipsie Iigges” and “other Trumpery” (Steen 39).
Middleton’s greatest theatrical triumph was also his last. The King’s Men performed A Game at Chess at the Globe for an unprecedented nine consecutive days (5-14 Aug 1624) before it was closed by the Privy Council after the Spanish ambassador complained. The biggest box-office success and most talked-about dramatic work of its era, Middleton’s modern history play survives in more manuscripts than any other play, and was the first single play printed with engraved title-pages. It is sui generis: an allegorical representation of English history in the 1620s and of the origin of modern party politics, a work of astonishing originality in conception, executed with an unsurpassed verbal and theatrical command. Accounts of it were dispatched to Brussels, The Hague, Madrid, Florence, Rome, and Venice. Middleton went into hiding, pursued by a warrant; his son Edward was arrested and brought before the Privy Council; Middleton himself claims, in a poem to King James, that he was imprisoned “in the Fleet”. None of his extant plays can be convincingly dated after Aug 1624, and he was probably released on condition that he stop writing for the stage.
His relationship with the City of London also deteriorated, perhaps because he was sick or depressed. Plague prevented a Lord Mayor’s show in 1625. He and his usual partner Garrett Christmas were employed to prepare London’s official coronation pageant, but what plague delayed was finally aborted by royal indisposition. In Jan 1626 the Court of Aldermen received complaints “of abuses and badd workmanshipp in and about the contrivings and payntings of the pagents” (Rep. 40, f. 84). On 1 Feb, the Common Council resolved to end Middleton’s annual salary (of L10) “unless he give this Court satisfaction according as was intended he should do when the said pension was first granted him” (Rep. 41, f. 216-219). On 25 May the Earl of Pembroke ordered the Lord Mayor to “remove the said Pageants” (Remembrancia, vi.86); in June, the Aldermen ruled that “noe further moneys” be paid to Middleton and Garrett for the three Coronation pageants (Rep. 40, f. 256). The Drapers’ Company commissioned Middleton and Garrett to produce the 1626 Lord Mayor’s show, but on 31 Dec they complained to the Court of Assistants that they had not been paid by the Drapers, who replied that payment had been “putt of<f> in regarde of the ill performance” of the pageant (Robertson, 110); in the end the two were paid, at an unspecified date, L25 (17%) less than in 1623.
Middleton was writing till the end. His (lost) Farrago included an account of “Habeas Corpus 1627” (Oldys); the opening rounds of the historic Five Knights Case began in late June 1627. On 4 July Middleton was buried in St Mary’s churchyard, Newington. His impoverished widow survived him by only a year.