London’s first covered theatre and Shakespeare London home stood on the site of the former Dominican priory at Blackfriars. There are no signs on the site to reveal this history… only this walking tour from The BeeKeepers.
From 1576 it was in use as a theatre, and from 1596 was owned by William Shakespeare’s acting company. Shakespeare also owned a London apartment in the east gate of the old priory. In 1613 The Tempest may have been performed at what’s now Playhouse Yard.
A history walk with a difference… from Church Entry to Ireland’s Yard EC4, London.
Now the home of Euromoney, there is little but the name of the street to let you know that one of the most important theatres in Shakepseare’s time stood here. This is all the more incredible considering that the Bard lived but a few minute’s walk away.
His house, which was left to his daughter Sussana, was almost certainly located at the top of St Andrew’s Hill, near Ireland Yard. The Cockpit Pub nearby is a reminder that cock fighting and bear pits were as popular as pastimes in Elizabethan London as the theatre.
Timeline of Blackfriars Theatre, the Globe and the Theatre, Hoxton
Annulment of the marriage of Henry VIIIth and Catherine of Aragon held in the Great Cloister of the Dominican Priory (modern-day Blackfriars). Later dramatised by Shakespeare and Fletcher as ’All is True’.
Following the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536, Blackfriars becomes crown property. It’s controlled by Sir Thomas Cawarden, Master of the Revels, who lets it out. The site is able to house theatres after this – despite being inside the London walls – because it’s not under the City’s jurisdiction.
William Shakespeare is born in Stratford on 26th April.
The Mayor and Corporation of London permanently expel players from the City as a precaution against plague (a precaution first introduced in 1572).
1576 – 1584
First Blackfriars Theatre established by Richard Farrant, Master of Windsor Chapel, who rented part of the former buttery from the lease-holder. Farrant’s acting troupe combined his Windsor children with the Children of the Chapel Royal.
First documentary evidence of Shakespeare living in London. (A ‘complaints bill’ of a law case before the Queen’s Bench court at Westminster).
25th December: The actor Richard Burbage, James Burbage’s son, is summoned with two other members of his company the Lord Chamberlain’s Men – William Kempe and William Shakespeare – to act before Queen Elizabeth for the first time, at Greenwich Palace.
Problems with the tenancy arise with landlord of the Theatre in Shoreditch, Giles Allen.
February: James Burbage leases the frater (refectory) of the abandoned Dominican monastery for £600 as a replacement for the Theatre, Hoxton and a new home for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. He begins construction of a two or three tiered theatre with a roof, artificial lighting and room for at least 600 paying patrons.
November: Nearby residents – including his patron the Lord Chamberlain and Burbage’s printer – win a ban on James Burbage bringing his company to Blackfriars.
James Burbage dies. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men are forced to move out of the Theatre in Shoreditch. They move to the nearby Curtain Theatre.
On the night of 28th December, Burbage’s sons Richard and Cuthbert and other owners of the timber comprising the Theatre – along with their carpenter Peter Street – go to the disused site and take the building down, transporting it to Street’s warehouse outside the City wall on the Fleet River and opposite Blackfriars, at Bridewell.
Richard and Cuthbert lease the finished Blackfriars Theatre for a second troupe of child actors, the Children of the Chapel Royal, to Nathaniel Giles and Henry Evans. Over the next nine years the Children of the Chapel Royal at Blackfriars Theatre stages work by some of the most talented young Jacobean playwrights: Jonson, Middleton, Chapman, Marston, Beaumont, Fletcher.
Construction of the Globe begins as the timber from the Theatre is moved across the Thames from Bridewell to Southwark. The Burbages own half of the shares; Shakespeare, John Heminges, Augustine Phillips, and Thomas Pope the remaining half between them equally. The round structure is finished in the summer, probably in time for the first performance of Henry V:
“can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?”
Henry V, Prologue.
March: Elizabeth I dies.
April: Accession to the throne of James I.
May: Shakespeare and Burbage’s company become the King’s Men by Royal Charter.
After renovations, performances for the seven winter months of the year begin at Blackfriars. The Globe remains the King’s Men’s summer playhouse.
‘The Tempest’ is performed at Halloween for King James at Whitehall Palace.
In the introduction to the 1669 Dryden / D’Avenant edition of Shakespeare’s collected works, John Dryden says ‘The Tempest’ was performed at Blackfriars.
‘All is True’ is performed at the Globe: a thinly-veiled dramatisation of the annulment of the marriage of Henry VIIIth and Catherine of Aragon by Shakespeare and Fletcher, held in the Great Cloister of the Dominican Priory in 1529.
March: Shakespeare buys the East Gatehouse of the old Blackfriars priory (in relation to modern-day Playhouse Yard where the stage was, the gatehouse stood roughly where the Cockpit Pub is now at the end of Ireland’s Yard, a minute’s walk from the stage). It’s widely assumed this was mainly an investment as he already had a large house in Stratford.
The Globe is destroyed by fire. Shakespeare doesn’t buy shares in the second Globe.
Shakespeare dies on 23rd April. He leaves Blackfriars Gatehouse to his eldest daughter Susanna. There’s no mention in his will of shares in Blackfriars or in the original Globe. This is widely assumed to mean he sold them before 1614.
In the reign of Charles I, Queen Henrietta Maria is in the Blackfriars audience several times: on 13th May 1634 she and her attendants saw a play by Philip Massinger; in late 1635 or early 1636 they saw Lodowick Carlell’s ‘Arviragus and Philicia, part 2’; and they attended a third performance in May 1636.
Outbreak of the English Civil War. Theatres are closed. Only the Red Bull Inn in Farringdon continues to stage plays under the Commonwealth, and is subject to constant government raids and closures.
The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse opens by the Globe, Southwark, a Jacobean theatre with a roof. It’s based on drawings approximating Blackfriars Theatre, probably by John Webb in 1660. (Originally they were thought to be by Inigo Jones and the original name for the new building was to be the Inigo Jones Theatre).