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Prior to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1538, the section of London known as Blackfriars was as major religious institution extending along the bank of the Thames River. In its’ entirety, Blackfriars was second in size only to St. Paul’s Churchyard. After the Reformation, Blackfriars was located in what’s known as a Liberty, which meant it was just outside the reach of the mayoral law. Being outside the mayor’s jurisdiction made Blackfriars especially attractive to entrepreneurs like The Burbages and their star writer, William Shakespeare, who wanted to open a theater that wasn’t subject to the tighter restrictions of London proper. Blackfriars wasn’t only attractive to innovative theater professionals, however, it was also attractive to immigrants and the highly religious who were seeking freedom from the regulation of guilds. At the time that Shakespeare and the Burbages were looking at Blackfriars as a home for their theater, the parish of St Anne, Blackfriars, was dominated by godly clergy and parishioners, the people we usually think of as the enemies of theater. Here today to explain to us how Blackfriars theater was able to survive and thrive in this section of London is our guest, Chris Highley.  

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Christopher Highley is Professor of English and the Director for the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the Ohio State University where he has taught since 1991.  Chris, who grew up near Manchester in the north-west of England, was an undergraduate student at the University of Sussex and a graduate student at USC and Stanford. He is author of the monograph, Blackfriars in Early Modern London: Theater, Church, and Neighborhood (Oxford University Press, 2022) which he joins us today to share with us the research he’s done for that publication specifically. See more of Chris’ work and links to his publications in the show notes for today’s episode.  

I’ll be asking Chris Highley about:

  • With other sections of the city available to them, what made Shakespeare and the Burbages want to open a theater in the Blackfriars district specifically? Was it only the freedoms afforded by being outside the mayoral arm of the law, or were there other socioeconomic forces at play as well?   
  • What was the building where they were trying to create a theater, did it come up for sale to create this opportunity, and was that site previously a church? 
  • Why did Puritans, specifically, want to be located in a Liberty? Were they not afforded the right to worship or hold services within London proper? 
  • …and more!

The Map of Early Modern London—Agas map recreation. Links to primary texts, John Stowe’s survey of London, Lord MAyor’s Shows, linking those to the map, etc.

Ian W. Archer, The Pursuit of Stability: Social Relations in Elizabethan London (Cambridge, 2003). 

Sarah Dustagheer, Shakespeare’s Two Playhouses: Repertory and Theatre Space at the Globe and the Blackfriars, 1599-1613 (Cambridge, 2018). 

“There is the playhouse now, there must you sit:…”

— Henry V (II.0))

Drawing of the second Blackfriars Theatre according to legal descriptions of the times | “Blackfriars Theatre: Conjectural Reconstruction” by G. Topham Forrest, The Times, 21 November 1921, p. 5. | G. Topham Forrest | Public Domain | Source

What made Blackfriars an Important Parish of London for Theater?

Blackfriars parish was located in a Liberty, but it was also highly religious, enclosed by a wall, and regulated by a very strict group of resident-authorities. Chris explains that while the combination of an elite audience and the ideal location for potential customers made the parish attractive, it was sheer desperation that that made Blackfriars worth the tremendous effort.

In the middle of the 1590s, the Burbage and the Chamberlain’s men are in Shoreditch, north of the city, at a location called The Theater, and the Burbages own the structure, but they don’t own the land on which the theater is built. The lease is set to run out in 1597, so they are desperately negotiating a renewal of the lease, and it might be the case when they bought the Blackfirars they were looking for two venues (staying at the Globe under a new lease and then having an additional enclosed site at the this new place in the city). That’s one reason they choose a new venue at Blackfriars right in the heart of the city.  There’s the Inns at Court right nearby, and it’s also easily accessible. Blackfriars is easy to get to by the street via Fleet Street to Ludgate, and there’s also plenty of places where you can drop people off if their coming in coach, and easily accessible by the river, and many would have used ferries or werries from Westminster, they could take a riverboat and be dropped off at Blackfriars stairs. Accessibility was a big issues as well.  

The American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse (recreation of the Second Blackfriars) in Staunton, Virginia | Photo by Manicpixiedreamworld | This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.| Source

We now that Blackfriars parish is located in what’s known as a “liberty” and while often that phrase is used to describe a lawless section of town where brothels and unsavory establishments might setup shop, Blackfriars was unique in that while it was located outside the reach of the Mayor of London, it was not at all free from strict law and order. The difference, as Chris points out, is that for Blackfriars, the first line of defense against lawless behavior was the resident-authorities of Blackfriars, including some of the most prominent citizens of London.

The freedoms and the liberties being advantageous, you have to remember that technically in a Liberty, before 1608, the residents and business owners had certain privileges and rights that people living outside the liberties didn’t have. So outside of a liberty paid fewer taxes but it’s not accurate to think of the area as an authority free zone. It was self-governed, and the leading residents, gentry, and elite members of the community ran the show and many of those were in the Blackfriars and it was a desirable place to live. There was a governing structure and the theater, whether it’s indoor or it’s a public amphitheater was also governed by the court, so the Privy council, for example, have a big say in which theaters can be built, how many are allowed to be in and around London, and there’s also the court officials, the Lord Chamberlain and the master of the revels who regulate the operation of the theater and plays themselves, so it’s not as if they saw it as a place they could do whatever they want.  

“These are the youths that thunder at a playhouse, and fight for bitten apples; that no audience, but the tribulation of Tower-hill, or the limbs of Limehouse, their dear brothers, are able to endure.”

— Henry VIII (V.4)

The Blackfriars Real Estate Deal

Originally, the building that was converted into the Blackfriars theater was actually part of a large friary that extends well beyond the portion of the friary Shakespeare and the Burbages wanted to use for their theater. The portion they were considering buying had been converted into several apartment homes, which would need to be torn down and re-done if the structure were to be useful for performances. Designing the building was far from the first step in ownership, however, as the building was in the ownership of one of London’s most influential men, Thomas Cawarden and his heir, William More.

Before the Reformation it was a friary, or a priory. The reformation granted the land and property there to several prominent figures, the most important being Thomas Cawarden. He was Elizabeth I’s first Master of the Revels. He was the one who inherited most of the property, and it was. A huge stone, multistory building, and even a monastery (different entity) but there’s several rooms, three cloisters stacked on on top of another. The cloister is a green space surrounded by mutli-story stone built structures, and the particular part of the priory that the theater is built into is the Western Range, it’s running north to south, and it’s own an upper floor, the main rooms—7 great rooms, (*The Indenture, between the Burbages and Cawarden’s heir, William More, the contract) the rooms and their location, their six are clearly delineated…Staircases, cellars, kitchens, outside yards, all part of this deal. We don’t know how the Burbages came to negotiate this deal. We don’t know how they came to know the space was available, but they are buying them outright, not leasing it from More.  

The Bargain and sale of seven upper rooms in the Blackfriars to James Burbage, by William More. Dated February 4, 1595/1596, Repository: Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC, USA Call number and opening: L.b.356 View online bibliographic record | Images that are under Folger copyright are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This allows you to use our images without additional permission provided that you cite the Folger Shakespeare Library as the source and you license anything you create using the images under the same or equivalent license. For more information, including permissions beyond the scope of this license, see Permissions. The Folger waives permission fees for non-commercial publication by registered non-profits, including university presses, regardless of the license they use. For images copyrighted by an entity other than the Folger, please contact the copyright holder for permission information. | Source

“Here is my hand; the premises observed, Thy will by my performance shall be served.”

— Alls Well That Ends Well (II.1)

Strict Puritans were the Majority in Blackfriars

Blackfriars was a section of London, and within that section was a church who served the residents that attended the church (known as the parish). The church was St. Anne’s Blackfriars. Over the years, the parish develops a very serious Puritan reputation, to such a degree that Puritans from other parts of the country would travel here to attend the sermons.

There are only two main ministers in the Blackfriars: from 1560s-17th century it is Stephen Egerton, then also William Gouge. They dominate religious life of the parish, appointed by the lay freeholders, More and Cawarden, who are referred to as “Lord of the land and soil of the Blackfriars.”  There’s nothing inherent in this being a “liberty” from taxes and responsibilities, the Puritans are attracted by the leadership here being Puritan, so the space is supportive [to their religious life].  Religious life is not regulated by the city, alderman, etc. It’s the responsibility of the local authorities. Gouge, get in trouble with the Archbishop of London and Canterbury, at times suspended or disciplined, and fined, they are partial/semi conformists, they manage to hang on to their posts.  Plenty of other ministers complain about Gouge and these ministers because they draw sermon goers away from other parishes, they are so powerful and charismatic they draw away sermon-gadders, people moving around the capital to hear the best sermons.  

“But ‘twould offend him; and in his offence Should my performance perish.”

— Antony and Cleopatra (III.1)

Miscalculating the Puritan Response to Their Theater

It appears that while James and Richard Burbage, as well as Cuthbert, must have known the Puritan stronghold that was Blackfriars parish, it seems they misjudged the vehemence with which the Puritans would act out against their theater idea.

James Burbage and his sons rIchard and cuthbert, and Shakespeare, they miscalculated. They didn’t not expect a petition to a privy council. [This petition] bLocked the opening of the theater and now they’re at risk for not having any space [anywhere].  That’s how the Globe comes into being. And we don’t know how much money they spent renovating [Blackfriars], because it was essentially apartments, and they had to break all that down to create a theater space. Blocked 1596 indefinitely from using the space as a theater. So they move the Globe across the Thames because it’s their only shot.  

The 1596 Petition against the establishment of a theater at the Blackfriars can be seen at Shakespeare Documented here.

This is a map of the Blackfriars parish, a detail from this Historic Towns map (now available online from Layers of London): | Image provided for That Shakespeare Life by Christopher Highley | Used with permission.

Blackfriars was not the first indoor theater  

The Blackfriars theater was not the first theater to be located in this parish. In fact, among historians, the Blackfriars we know as Shakespeare’s indoor theater, is referred to as “The Second Blackfriars” because, as Chris explains, “in that same Western range, 1576-1584, [we see] the First Blackfriars theater. It was in the Northern part, rather than the Southern part, and it was a theater that was owned and run by the Master of the Royal Choristers, Choir boys, lead by Richard Farrant–he was a leader/parental figure and he was looking for a permanent place for the local choir boys, and they also put on 1576, commercial plays. It was a boy’s theater, and it was putting on occasional plays (maybe 1-2 week) the main responsibility [of their group] is to sing in the royal chapels, and the boys, they did perform plays at court for the Queen, mostly around Christmas and Shrovetide, and in a sense, the plays they performed were dress rehearsals, essentially for the court. You were getting a taste of court elite to see them perform.”

Richard Farrant was a composer as well as playwright. Source: Lasocki, David (1998). A biographical dictionary of English court musicians, 1485-1714, Volumes I and IIISBN 9781315097817.

So it seems that there was a consensus among the Blackfriars residents that they only wanted performance groups that were religious, or perhaps ones that were well connected at the royal court. At any rate, they were strongly opposed to Shakespeare and Burbage’s new venture.   

Boys Performing is Ok, but Not Adults

The primary and most powerful residents of the Blackfriars Parish were Stephen Egerton, Lady Elizabeth Russell. They strongly opposed the Blackfriars theater and organized a petition against it.

[Lady Elizabeth Russell] was a godly gentlewoman, powerful, opinionated, strict in her Protestant views, and they opposed, the Blackfriars by Burbages/Shakespeare, because this was a boy company, rather than adult men, and they were performing occasionally, and they were Royal choristers, so there was also the royal connection.

The Lord Chamberlain’s Men seem to eye an opportunity in that perspective, however, and decide they can make money off of their newly purchased space by leasing it to a more approved group.

In this publication: Flood, “New Light on Late Tudor Composers: IV. Richard Farrant,” in The Musical Times. Richard Farrant is credited with creating the Second Blackfriars theater. (Source)

The City of London, which has extended very little, in the late middle ages. The once wholly walled square mile is nationally referred to as “The City”. Locally is one of the notable extensions, meaning Blackfriars forms the south-west corner of the City, save for Temple which is technically a special category in local government. | Map of the British city of London in around 1300. Vectorised version of File:Plan of London in 1300.jpg by William R. Shepherd, a work in the public domain in the United States, also its home country, by virtue of being published in 1923 without copyright renewal. | Source

The adult chamberlain’s men has to do something with it, so they lease it to another group of choristers, another boy’s company 1600, The Children of the Blackfriars/Children of the Queen’s Revels, and there’s no objection from the residents to the boy’s company performing plays there. No petitions 1596-1619, and it is fairly clear that there aren’t any petitions we’ve lost because the 1619 refers to the 1596 as being the first one.  

So what are they afraid of? Well, it seems as if at least some of their complaints and reservations are based on healthy and safety concerns with the kinds of crowds and goings on that are associated with playhouses. Quite surprisingly, their objections never, at any point in the historical record that survives, seem to be based on an objection to performance, theater, or the stage on any moral grounds.

They are upper class, nice homes, and they are afraid of the crowds brining noise, disease, and gross things with then, also afraid of disorder. (comparing to Rose, Fortune, etc) and there are trouble in these places, so they didn’t want that coming to Blackfriars. (they mention the drums and trumpets) What’s interesting is they don’t object to theater as being morally corrupting or degenerate, Satan’s work, etc, they don’t talk about that as well it’s all secular/economics.  

Theatre Map of early modern London. Blackfriars Theatre is to the south-west of St. Paul’s Cathedral, which is left of center. | 1917 map showing theatres of 16th and 17th century London, with position of “Globe” corrected to reflect 1989 archaeology. | Public Domain | Source

Mapping the Blackfriars and The Theater’s Immediate Neighbors

Chris, who is leading the Map of London project to map out the parishes of London (including Blackfriars), describes for us the location of Shakespeare’s theater, as well as the property Shakespeare bought in this parish in his later years.

Were’ at Ludgate hill, facing East, looking at ST. Paul’s 

What you’re going to do there, coming up Ludgate HIll, go through Ludgate, make a right turn heading South now you’re into Blackfriars, but there’s 4 gates and a wall around it. Gates are closed at night and open in the morning by porters.  

Blackfriars Monastery, London – ground plan. A plan of the various buildings as they appeared before the dissolution, based on the Loseley Manuscripts and other documents, surveys, and maps. The Buttery became Farrant’s, the Frater Burbage’s playhouse. | The Project Gutenberg eBook, Shakespearean Playhouses, by Joseph Quincy Adams – | Public Domain | Source

As we walk south, we’re on water lane, and the first thing you’ll notice is the shell of the old friary, a huge stone building, and parts of that building has been converted into houses, the first and most prominent belonged to Thomas Cawarden and then William More, his heir. There was a church there originally, but it’s not converted into a private residence and enclosed yard you can’t see form the street.  

There are other mansions, Lord Cobham’s house, next door to that is Lady Elizabeth Russell’s house, later down is Hunsdon House, all in the western range, and as you approach Hunsdon house on the southern end, there’s an opening, if you walk through that, you can go up several stairs to the Blackfriars’s theater. Hunsdon house and the theater shared a general entry from water lane (that goes down to the river Thames). If you look left you can see the towers of Bridewell Palace. It’s across the Fleet River/Fleet Ditch, but Bridewell Palace had become Bridewell Workhouse, it was the largest penal institution in London, and you can see the structures there, and you can certainly hear the noise of people being whipped, breaking stones, and timber yards nearby as well. Probably couldn’t see but could certainly smell Fleet Ditch, and now it’s an open sewer, lots of complains in this period by Blackfriars about the awful smell.  

If we decide to cut across the former cloisters, across the middle of the friary, we are going to catch a glimpse of bowling alleys, tennis courts, and other dens of iniquity, sites of pleasure, but more unusually, there’s the entrance to a Glass House. In the vaults, the crypts beneath the friary, there was a glass house making very fine glass wear, it was a thriving business and very expensive glass, and some of the tenants in the glass house paid rent to the landlord with glass wear and money. You could visit it and he’s sure Shakespeare would have visited and Lady Russell’s daughter in law, says she visited her mother in law and went to the glass house while she was there. As you go Easy there’s a parish church, St. Anne’s Blackfriars (built into the old chapter house of the friary) and there are accounts of this church being nothing more than a small room up a staircase, and certainly within earshot of the entrance to the Blackfriars. Eventually you come to the Eastern gate house, (1613, this is where Shakespeare bought property), we don’t know if he ever lived there, above the gatehouse, etc, they disappear from the records shortly after his death. But they are fascinating because they were occupied in recent memory by Catholic families, with tunnels underneath that were secret ways of getting out of the precinct if you were being sought after by pursuivants (officers pursuing Catholics).  

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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time!