Before Shakespeare at The National Archives (The Theatre)

This post also appears on The National Archives blog.


Tucked away somewhere in the temperature-controlled archival store rooms of The National Archives is an equity suit in the Court of Exchequer that records a series of trespass complaints.  This suit seems unremarkable, if a little complex: it disputes an already-existing trespass complaint and seeks to undermine an ongoing case at the King’s Bench. Essentially, it records an apparent trespass on land owned by the Earl of Rutland, concerning an oat barn and some “void ground” beside it in Holywell, Shoreditch (E134/44and45Eliz/Mich18).

The case is of interest to theatre historians because one of the individuals accused of trespass was James Burbage—one of the founders (with John Brayne) of The Theatre in 1576, an early and innovative Elizabethan playhouse.  The case includes the testimony of several Shoreditch residents, including a 74-year-old Anne Thorne, who has known the area well for, she says, at least 60 years.  The details arising in the case range from the historical tenants of the space in question, the uses of the “void ground,” the building of a new housing estate near The Theatre (which offers parallels with modern-day Shoreditch), and access routes into and out of the area.

The Before Shakespeare project explores the earliest playhouses in London from c.1565, asking questions including: what are they; who decided to build such spaces and why; how were playhouses used and how were they received by contemporaries; why were the 1570s such a boom period for playhouse-builders; and what sort of entertainments occurred in them?  The equity case described above helps inform our understanding of many of these questions.  Earlier theatre historians have drawn on it to help establish the layout of The Theatre and its surrounding buildings, and we can indeed use it to map out the various adapted constructions (from horse stables to millhouses) and shifting ownership onto the site of the playhouse, which is currently being re-excavated and being turned into a visitors’ and exhibition centre (see @TheTheatre1576).

The case also presents more incidental details and plenty of local historical colour: it tells us, for instance, that the aristocratic owners of part of the area also adopted the role of local traffic wardens (by policing access and traffic to and from The Theatre’s environs)…  The Theatre was situated in the post-Reformation remains of Holywell Priory and is in many ways part of the story of the private and commercial repurposing of land formerly owned by religious orders (as are other playing spaces such as The Curtain and First Blackfriars Playhouse).  Deponents in the court case inform us that the Earl of Rutland, who owned much of this former Priory, gated and “locked up” its main entrance and controlled access off the busy road up from Bishopsgate (in what is present day Holywell Street).  In turn, Burbage and Brayne founded a “new way into the fields” (Finsbury Fields and Moorfield) after building The Theatre.  Not only does their enterprise alter the theatrical landscape of London and introduce another north-of-London space (alongside the nearby Curtain playhouse) to watch fencing, entertainments, and plays, but it also influences and adapts the infrastructure of London.  The Theatre, as several of these long-term residents of Shoreditch tell us in the court case, changes the way people moved around—and into and out of—London and adds a further recreational dimension to the spaces and routes north of the City. Finsbury Field and Moorfield (sitting to The Theatre’s west) are adorned in a contemporary Tudor map with archers, clothes-washers, practising fencers, and Sunday strollers, and The Theatre sat on the east of these spaces, its new entry route positioning it as an extension of this recreational environment and its related pursuits.

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The equity case bequeaths us, in mediated form, the voices of individuals who grew up in Shoreditch in the very period in which playhouses began to burgeon across London.  In the early 1570s, performers played in inn playhouses, halls, churches, and other similar spaces; by 1577, London’s landscape was graced with at least five further spaces (St Paul’s, Blackfriars, Newington Butts, The Curtain, The Theatre) that we might also label, broadly, “playhouses.”  These did not supplant but rather supplemented the many other varied spaces in which playing companies performed, but we know from a concentration of remarks about them in these years—including whole pamphlets dedicated to these new structures—that the “gorgeous playing place[s] erected in the fields” (as a disapproving John Stockwood puts it in 1578) garnered significant commentary.  The Theatre trespass case interrogates the neighbours who lived beside these spaces and asks them about their experience of the changing suburban landscape in the very years when buildings such as The Theatre were becoming contentious cultural touchstones.

The document’s complex interrelationship with other ongoing suits and its involvement in a whole series of other Theatre-related documents (held at the The National Archives) also underscores the litigiousness of Tudor tenants and landowners.  We have much reason to thank them for their disputatiousness: it is because of these quarrels that we learn much of what we know about theatre, and Theatre, history of the period.  The case sits among a range of legal documents at The National Archives that challenge the ownership and tenancy of the land in Holywell Priory and claims on The Theatre building itself.  These include an extended quarrel between John Brayne’s widow, Margaret, and the Burbages (in part about collecting money at plays): these court cases show us the politics, practice, and personal dimensions—as well as the implied unexceptional nature—of women’s claim on playhouses and their potential profits.  In one instance, Margaret Brayne’s claim so infuriated the Burbages that “Richard Burbage and his mother set upon” Margaret’s man, Robert Myles, “with a broomstaff calling him murdering knave with other vile and unhonest words” (C24/228/10).  Here, we have two women laying claim to theatrical space and asserting their agency, ownership, and investment in the playing industry.  Via a broomstaff… These legal quarrels become so heated that James Burbage’s son Cuthbert is at one point accused of bribing a Court of Requests clerk to erase an official decree by the court and replace it with a more favourable fabricated order, before he and his brother Richard allegedly turned up at court and “threatened to stab some of [the] witnesses [. . .] because they had testified” about the “fraudulent” document! (STAC5/A33/32; STAC5/A12/35).

On the 1 August, we explore these questions further and think about both new and old narratives raised by The National Archive’s playhouse-related documents (beyond The Theatre): how they can tell us not just about how much it cost to build a space or who wanted to tear it down, but how audiences travelled there; what such spaces meant to owners, visitors, and neighbours; and the women, as well as the men, who were closely involved with running, building, adapting—and of course arguing about!—such spaces.

Callan Davies



One thought on “Before Shakespeare at The National Archives (The Theatre)

  1. Pingback: Christmas, Newyeares tyde: A summary of works done and attendance given, 2018 | Before Shakespeare

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