High and Dry at Newington Butts: The Genesis of the Permanent Playhouse

We are pleased to host the a double-bill of guest posts on the Newington Butts Playhouse. Next week, Sally-Beth MacLean examines issues pertaining to renting the grounds of this early playhouse.  Here, Laurie Johnson, the recent author of the only book devoted to the long-overlooked playhouse, introduces us to the area . . .


A travelling player wanders the King’s Highway south of London, his eyes scanning the side of the road for viable property. It is some day in 1575. Or perhaps it is a day in 1574. We can be quite sure that it isn’t 5 October 1570, because on that particular date England was beset by such great storms and tidal surges that ships were driven through houses, entire townships along the eastern seaboard were washed into the sea, and hundreds of lives and thousands of head of livestock were lost.[1] While London remained relatively sheltered from the worst of the storm, a tidal wave was said to have surged up the river, leading the Thames to break its banks and inundate flood-prone areas as far inland as Oxford. Sir Henry Lee, whose estate was in Quarrendon, some 12 miles from Oxford but fed by a tributary of the Thames, lost more than 3000 sheep, “besides horses and other Cattell a great number.”[2] Yet even if our travelling player had cause to travel along the King’s Highway heading along the Newington Causeway on that terrible day in 1570, he might have sought shelter among the buildings near the turnpike at the junction known as Newington Butts. From this vantage, he could have witnessed the sight of waters spreading through the flood zone from the west, rushing across the fields at St. George’s and threatening the church of the parish of St. Mary, before settling against the raised bank of the causeway.

This sight would not have been new to locals: since Roman times, the road north and south of London was elevated above the floodplain to protect the thoroughfare from the vicissitudes of the Thames. The same event played out, time after time, whenever the river broke its banks. On 29 September 1555, “the grettest rayn and fludes that ever was sene in England” hit London, as London merchant Henry Machyn wrote in his diary,[3] and to which claim John Stow in his Annales adds some harrowing detail:

That morning the King’s palace at Westminster, & Westminster hall was overflown to the stair foot going to the Chancery and King’s bench, so that when the Lord Mayor of London should come to present the sheriffs to the barons of the Exchequer, all Westminster hall was full of water, and by report there that morning, a whirrie man rowed with his boat over Westminster bridge into the palace court, and so through the Staple gate … and all the marshes on Lambeth side were so overflown, that the people from Newington church could not pass on foot, but were carried by boat from the said church to the pinfold, near to Saint George’s in Southwark.[4]


This day in 1555 being the Sabbath, the good folk of the parish attended the church but then found themselves stranded by the highest waters ever seen in the region, and so boats were needed to ferry them to safety further along the causeway to the north of the turnpike. Even in the face of such high waters, the eastern side of the Newington Butts juncture was unaffected by flooding.[5] This is because the top end of the juncture happened to be one of the three highest points of land in the Southwark and Newington region—along with the Church of St. George the Martyr, where the Newington churchgoers were taken to dry ground in 1555, and the future site of the obelisk at St. George’s Circus.[6]

So to return to our player, regardless of when it was that he found himself wandering south along the King’s Highway, any residents he encountered would have had stories to tell of the floods fresh within living memory and of the barrier provided by the causeway on which he was walking. Jerome Savage was a leading member of the company of players who enjoyed the patronage of Ambrose Dudley, Earl of Warwick, and was familiar with the demands of life on the road: Records of Early English Drama document performances by Warwick’s Men from 1572 to 1575 as far afield as Tavistock in Devon,[7] Coventry in Warwickshire,[8] and Leicester,[9] and in August 1575 they played before Queen Elizabeth during her progress in Lichfield, Staffordshire.[10] It may be that this last performance provided Savage with the motivation to seek out a more secure location within the vicinity of London for his company to set down roots. The Earl of Leicester, Dudley’s brother Robert, had been patron to players for many years and on 10 May 1574 he secured for his players the first royal patent granting the company a licence to stage plays “within the city of London and liberties of the same, as also within the liberties and freedoms of any our cities, towns, boroughs, &c. whatsoever as without the same, throughout our realm of England.”[11] Leicester’s company had also been regular performers at the Court revels since 1572,[12] and were involved in the Kenilworth Castle entertainments between 9 and 27 July 1575, when Leicester spared no expense trying to win the monarch’s heart. The performance by Warwick’s players a few short days later in Lichfield must have seemed like an anti-climax.

The Queen or, perhaps more likely, the Master of Revels was nevertheless impressed enough either by the company’s performance at the revels on 14 February 1575 or by the Lichfield performance that Warwick’s Men were promoted to open the 1575/76 Christmas revels on 26 December, a spot that had been reserved during the past three years for Leicester’s Men. It was a position that Savage’s company would fill again on 26 December 1576 and 1578 and in the intervening year they performed three times on the holiday schedule.[13] For several years from 1575, then, Savage and his company were on relatively equal footing with Leicester’s Men, which included none other than James Burbage, the player who built the Theatre in Shoreditch in 1576, conventionally held to have been the first purpose-built playhouse. What Warwick’s Men lacked, and which Leicester’s Men had in hand when they went on the road, was a royal patent.

So while they were equally likely to be called upon to perform for the Queen at the seasonal revels or during royal progresses, only Leicester’s Men could be relatively certain of playing a full schedule on tour, armed with royal authority to stage any play approved by the Master of Revels. Savage and his fellow travellers could rely on the Warwick livery to protect them from being treated as vagabonds on entry to a provincial town, but their capacity to perform plays in these locations remained subject to negotiations with local authorities. Just as they were on the cusp of becoming one of the Queen’s favourite companies, though, it must have become increasingly apparent to Savage, the two Dutton brothers (John and Laurence), and other members of the company that their patron was not going to be as helpful to them as the Earl of Leicester had been to Burbage and company. Ambrose Dudley was wounded in the leg during the final days of the battle for Havre in 1563, and complications caused him to suffer prolonged bouts of ill health and immobility thereafter, particularly from around 1570 onwards.[14] He was elevated to the Privy Council in 1573, but was a regular absentee from Council sessions.

Lacking a royal patent and unlikely to secure one, and with an increasingly ailing patron for assurances, Savage was wandering the road to the south of London with a bold, innovative idea in mind: identify a viable property within easy walking distance of the City, and set up shop at a permanent playhouse from which home base his company could perform reliably all-year round in readiness to play for the Queen. His walk to the south would have taken him past the site of Southwark Fair, perhaps noting the commercial potential for setting up a playhouse shopfront in the midst of the market stalls, puppeteers, dancers, jugglers, and the throng enjoying the festivities. He knew the Fair was only held, weather permitting, for a couple of weeks in the year, but the area was popular among Londoners in any case as a destination for leisurely pastimes, with St. George’s Fields in particular used for bowls, horse riding, and all manner of games.[15] With much of the Fields divided between private holdings and a share granted to the City of London by Edward III, there was nevertheless no prospect for Savage to lay claim to any part of them for his new venture. He continued south.


Horsley Down Fair.  “Antiquarian copy from an engraving of Horselydown (George Hoefnagle, c. 1590) at Hatfield House, made 1855” in G.R. Corner, “On the History of Horselydown,” Surrey Archaeological Society Proceedings 1 (1858): 156-78; inset 170.

Only a little further along the road, past the turnpike and near the stables that would become the Elephant and Castle inn, Savage chanced upon a property on the eastern side of the road to Walworth—it looked ideal for his needs. The property was an enclosure with an orchard and small dwelling house on the southern portion and a barn or commercial building on the northern side. Rather than expending his entire investment on constructing a playhouse from scratch, he could lease this land and convert the existing structure for a fraction of the cost. A small problem presented itself when he realised that there was an occupant already, Richard Thompson, who explained that he was only a few years into a nineteen-year lease from one Richard Hickes.[16] For one reason or another, Thompson agreed to Savage’s proposal for a buyout of the lease, or for at least an initial sublease; perhaps being decked out in the livery of the Earl of Warwick gave Savage an advantage in the transaction.

In the interests of fair dealing, Thompson may well have pointed out three potential flaws in the property, any of which might even have been a precipitating factor in his willingness to part with it:

  • the property was bordered on the southern edge by a common sewer and, although the enclosure was only 48 yards in width on that boundary, the occupant was bound to be tasked by the Sewer Commission with the maintenance of the full 10 rods (55 yards) that also covered the gap provided by the enclosure wall and tree line beyond along the eastern edge of the larger property leased by Hickes from the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury;[17]
  • there were archery butts not far from the property on the southern side of the sewer, after which Newington Butts was named,[18] as it happens, so the occasional errant arrow could pose a threat to the occupant or any guests he allowed to enjoy the view of his orchard. Rather than the law being any help in limiting the danger, a mandate issued under Henry VIII remained in force, protecting from prosecution any archer who accidentally killed a man, so long as he called out “Fast!” before he shot;[19]
  • John Hilles, the neighbour on the southern side of the sewer, was a cantankerous man who was not altogether helpful when it comes to the maintenance of the sewer and was rumoured among local residents to be intent on stirring up trouble by damaging the butts closest to the residential properties along the Newington Butts juncture.[20]

From Savage’s perspective, the first two were hardly likely to have been flaws: the sewer—which in Elizabethan times referred to any waterway draining into a major tributary (in this case, the Thames) meant a ready source of water, bound to be handy when catering to the audiences at a public playhouse; the archery butts provided added reassurance that the thoroughfare on which the property was fronted saw regular traffic from Londoners. Only the troublemaking Hilles was likely to be a problem, but the travelling player was used to dealing with difficult people, and he could always drop the Earl’s name in conversation if he needed to pull his neighbour into line.

The deal was done. Hickes must have also agreed to allow Savage to take over the lease from Thompson, at least unofficially, since he then formally agreed to Savage’s request in writing to renew the lease for a period of a further 30 years on 25 March 1576. By this time Savage and his players had already converted the commercial structure into “the Playhouse,” styled with the definite article to announce its fixed function to the clientele who passed regularly through Southwark in search of pastimes and entertainments.[21] Hickes then became more of a problem than Hilles might have ever been, since he was soon lodging bills of complaint against Savage and trying to force him out of the property, but that is another story.[22] For the moment, let us content ourselves with that happy moment when Savage’s bold plan was all but set in motion with nary an obstacle in sight: Warwick’s players were established in a playhouse centrally located in what we might call the leisure precinct south of the Thames. If Thompson had spelled out the potential drawbacks to the site, he might also have provided a most appealing selling point that helped to seal the deal when they met in 1574 or 1575: the travelling player may well have noticed the waterlogged sections of St. George’s Fields as he passed by, or he might have noticed the marshes of Lambeth or “Stewfen” during some other sortie further afield,[23] and so he might have asked about the risk of the road being cut off or his playhouse being inundated. Let me tell you, Thompson could have assured him, about the great floods of 1555 and 1570

Laurie Johnson



[1] These events are recorded in Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, 6 Vols. ([1577] London: J. Johnson; F.C. and J. Rivington; T. Payne; Wilkie and Robinson; Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme; Cadell and Davies; and J. Mawman, 1808): Vol. 4, 254–57; Thomas Knell, A declaration of such tempestious, and outragious fluddes, as hath been in diuers places of England (London: William How, for John Allde and William Pickeryng, 1571).

[2] Knell, ibid.

[3] The Diary of Henry Machyn, Citizen and Merchant-Taylor of London, 1550–1563. Ed. J.G. Nichols (London: Camden Society, 1848), 94.

[4] John Stow, Annales, or a Generall Chronicle of England. Rev. by Edmond Howes ([1603] London: Richard Meighen, 1631), 627.

[5] Ida Darlington, Survey of London, Vol. 25: St. George’s Fields, the Parishes of St. George the Martyr, Southwark and St. Mary, Newington (London: London County Council, 1955), 2.

[6] Darlington, ibid., 1.

[7] REED Devon 279.

[8] REED Coventry 270.

[9] Item not yet documented in REED but reported by Andrew Gurr, The Shakespearian Playing Companies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 182; John Tucker Murray, English Dramatic Companies, 1558-1642. Vol. 1 (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1910), 290.

[10] Gurr, ibid., 182; William Ingram, The Business of Playing: The Beginnings of the Adult Professional Theater in Elizabethan London (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 1992), 141.

[11] Glynne Wickham, Herbert Berry, and William Ingram, eds. English Professional Theatre, 1530–1660 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 63.

[12] John H. Astington, English Court Theatre, 1558-1642 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999): 227-28.

[13] Astington, ibid., 228-29.

[14] Simon Adams, “Ambrose Dudley, Earl of Warick (c. 1530-1590).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Index number 101008143. First pub. 2004; online edn. Jan 2008.

[15] Darlington, ibid., 39-40.

[16] Wickham, Berry, and Ingram, ibid., 320.

[17] The dimensions of the playhouse property and the Sewer Commission assessments for Savage’s responsibility are well established in Ingram, ibid. 158, 162. Ingram was rightly troubled by the discrepancy between the property’s documented width and the assessment of 10 rods, but I propose a solution in Laurie Johnson, Shakespeare’s Lost Playhouse: Eleven Days at Newington Butts (New York and London: Routledge, 2018): 70.

[18] On the evidence for the existence and location of these archery butts within the proximity of the playhouse property, see Johnson, ibid., 43, 47.

[19] Thomas Waring, A Treatise on Archery; Or, the Art of Shooting with the English Bow (London: R. Hamm, 1847): 7.

[20] Hilles is identified by Ingram as the southern neighbour named alongside Savage on the Sewer Commission assessments of 1576, 1577, and 1578 (ibid., 162). I extrapolate his plan to deface the archery butts from the fact that Hilles was among those named by a Privy Council warrant of 1578 on suspicion of having caused damage to the butts (see Johnson, ibid., 61, 68-69), and I add a speculative description of his character merely for narrative purposes.

[21] Johnson, ibid., 77-79.

[22] Well documented by Ingram, ibid., 163-67.

[23] See Ingram, ibid., 159.


6 thoughts on “High and Dry at Newington Butts: The Genesis of the Permanent Playhouse

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