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For centuries, theater historians have glossed over noy only the location, but actually argued over the very existence of a theater at Newington Butts. Originally established as an archery range under Henry VIII during a time when learning the sport of archery was required for all young men, the high ground at Newington Butts just outside of London proper would morph into a popular theater destination that our guest this week believes was not only a frequent destination for playing companies, but may have also been a playhouse that William Shakespeare stopped at several times. To share with us ground breaking research that changes what we thought we knew about early modern theater, and to research that is tantalizingly close to information about Shakespeare’s Lost Years, is our distinguished guest, Laurie Johnson.
Laurie Johnson is Professor of English and Cultural Studies at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia. He is the current President of the Australian and New Zealand Shakespeare Association (since 2016) and a member of the editorial board of the journal Shakespeare. Laurie's books include Shakespeare's Lost Playhouse: Eleven Days at Newington Butts (2018), The Tain of Hamlet (2013), and the Wolf Man's Burden (2001), and he is co-editor of two essay collections, Embodied Cognition and Shakespeare's Theatre: The Early Modern Body-Mind (with John Sutton and Evelyn Tribble, 2014) and Rapt in Secret Studies: Emerging Shakespeares (2010). He has also published over 50 articles and book chapters, and is currently working on a book on the Earl of Leicester's Men, which he hopes to complete later this year, and is developing an international project to examine the impact of climate shift in Sixteenth-Century Britain on the rise of the playhouse industry.
In this episode, I’ll be asking Laurie Johnson about :
- Since the late 1600s historians have argued over whether Newington Butts playhouse even existed. Why is there so much disagreement?
- Henry VIII was quite fond of sports, including archery. Was the original site of the archery butts established during his reign?
- Did Shakespeare’s playing company perform at Newington Butts?
… and more!
Use this Hand Illustrated Print to Explore The Theaters and Inns of 1600 London
Early in Elizabethan times, players performed at any public house that would allow it include Inns and Play yards. In this map of 1600 London, you can see the locations of several of the theaters of London and while this map does not include all of the smaller churches and inns which might have houses plays, it shows most of the major competing playhouses that rivaled Shakespeare when he was writing for the The Globe, and the Blackfriars playhouse.
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Laurie Johnson graciously provided slides from his presentation on the discovery of the location of Newington Butts that he gave in connection with University of Queensland for use in this episode of That Shakespeare Life, in order to provide listeners with a visual guide to the location he talks about with us today. This is one of two maps we will share in this episode from Laurie and shows the 1681 Walworth Map that indicates Newington Fields. Citation for the image is provided on the slide above. Image used by permission of Laurie Johnson.
Newington Butts Location
Since the late 1600s historians have argued over whether Newington Butts playhouse even existed. Even when you look it up on Wikipedia or in a general Google search, you will immediately find contradictory information with many sources arguing that there is “no evidence” for Newington Butts having existed. Laurie explains that some of the argument stems from how historians traditionally view Shakespeare himself.
“Over time, centuries of argument. Significant focus on Shakespeare as a particular kind of person. Various people/writers want a particular sense of who he is–writer for the court initially (Elizabeth) later describes, Coleridge, “should be read in isolation”, and others who want to see him as a playwright/actor/theater. Theater history has been morphed around “what is most relevant to shakespeare and his influence on theater” Example Edmund Malone 1790, history of theaters, only interested in Blackfriars and the Globe, because they are the two Shakespeare was performed at, and he dismisses Shoreditch all together–so there was this huge push in literature about history to dismiss anything not exclusively Shakespeare…Thomas Fairmen….1599 Early Playhouses, he decides there was a Newington Butts, but so little evidence, he’s arguing by logical inference rather than clear evidence.”
Recent evidence has been uncovered in the way of examining flood planes in the area and records of water rescues. Laurie explains that the Newington Butts location would have been ideal when taking flooding into account:
“Southern area of the Thames is notoriously a floodplain. That area floods regularly, and several records of floods in that area, but the Newington Causeway, and that plot of land in particular was one of the highest points in that floodplain and was recorded as having never gone under. Nearby rescued by boats yet that sight remained dry. You could safely put a theater there and feel like it would not flood.”
Laurie explains a detail about the maps. When compiling his research, Laurie relied on Ida Darlington's Survey of London (1955) . Both of the maps we cite here in the show notes (and that Laurie uses in his research and talks about in today's episode), “were, in fact, in Ida Darlington's 1955 survey of London, so on the same site you found the section of the Rocque map [This hyperlink links you to British History Online. The Rocque map is shown below. Scroll down on this page to see it], we used to be able to find the reproduction of the Walworth map (Plate 49, though I now see it has been removed for copyright). What Darlington didn't explain in her caption and source information about the Walworth map is that she reproduced it by hand, so it's her drawing, and there are several inaccuracies. I was able to locate the original in the UK National Archives, held in the Canterbury Cathedral Archives (reference CCA-19). The quality of the original is quite poor and faded, and does not reproduce well, but I provided an image and section in the book (Shakespeare's Lost Playhouse: Eleven Days at Newington Butts (Routledge Studies in Shakespeare) pages 63, 65) for the sake of accuracy… the original is map 19 in the CCA and listeners could also consult my book, pp. 63-65, for reproduction and discussion of the map.”
Plan of the Manor of Walworth, and Parish of Newington, Surrey, in the year 1681.| Reproduction of manuscript map of 1681. “Reproduced (two thirds scale) by permission of the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury, from the original in their possession.” Prime meridian: GM. Relief: no. Graphic Scale: Furlongs. Projection: Plane. Printing Process: Lithography. | Huntington Rare Book Maps | Original Source
Portrait of Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon (1526-1596). | Public Domain | Henry Carey, the 1st Baron Hudson, was Elizabeth I's Lord Chamberlain, Anne Boleyn's nephew, and patron of The Lord Chamberlain's Men. | Image source
Lord Chamberlain's Men Performed at Newington Butts
Laurie shares that while it is highly improbable that Shakespeare himself was among the copmany of players that performed at Newington Butts, we do know that “his” playing company, The Lord Chamberlain's Men, did perform there. Laurie explains:
[There is a ] Long standing theory that Shakespeare was with Strange’s men before Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and strong likelihood the Earl of Leicester’s men before that, and popular theory that Leicester’s Men performed there.
Of the three options, the strongest possibility is he’d of been there in 1594 with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, bc among the plays we have Henslowe recording (Admiral’s Men) at Newington butts, Henslowe records Hamlet, Titus Andronicus, and Taming of the Shrew, normally associated with Shakespeare, [it is] not impossible that Shakespeare wasn’t there, but highly improbable.
Lord Chamberlain’s Men did perform there, went on to bc King’s Men, 1594, record of them performing along with Lord Admiral’s Men Charles Howard, in June 1594, one reason that would have happened, why the men performing at the Rose, and the men previously on tour prior to this, would both end up here at Newington Butts is because this was a flood year (june 1594) they looked for higher ground. [Again, the flooding was a real issue and Newington Butts would have been protected against flooding due to its’ location]
Not only did playing company comes to The Playhouse at Newington Butts to perform, but in one instance, The Lord Strange’s Men, were specifically ordered to perform there by the Privy Council. In the 16th century, a playing company could be compelled to perform at a particular location. Laurie explains the circumstances surrounding this order, calling attention to a restraining order in the early 1590s:
“Furthermore, an undated Privy Council warrant stipulates that Lord Strange’s Men had been “enioyned” to play for three days at Newington Butts during a restraint against the Rose in Bankside, and then, in 1594, the playhouse hosted the Admiral’s and Chamberlain’s Men…Restraint was handed down from an authority (privy council or lord mayor for london, examples) generally considered a wide order to close the theaters. Most of the restraints we know of are plague orders. Too dangerous to gather in large groups, so in a sense is a social distancing measure circa 1500s style. One way to avoid this problem is to be sure they aren’t performing in playhouses, the 1590s record is an odd restraint bc it is very specific in what they stipulate, they name the playhouse and the company, Lord Strange’s Men, ordered to vacte the Rose (their main venue, Henslowe backs this up). Told to play at Newington Butts–go there instead of the Rose. No reason given for this closure, but his research suggests that combined with other council orders and sewer records, that Henslowe among others with properties on Maiden Lane (including Rose), had been told many times to clean the sewer, and failed to do so, so the government started ramping it up with other orders, Elizabeth makes an official proclamation to clean your sewers! Order to clean it up, closure until they do.”
Another Episode You Might Enjoy
Laurie Johnson graciously donated slides from his presentation on Newington Butts for use in this episode of That Shakespeare Life as a guide for listeners to be able to find on a map the spot where The Playhouse once stood. Now the site of the Elephant and Castle junction, this map shows where it was located on a map from 1746. Citation is included on the slide “Rocque, John, “London, Westminster, and Southwark,” (1746), courtesy Motco Image Database. [Access 21 May 2016].” | Used by permission of Laurie Johnson.
Newington Butts Original Owner
The original owner at Newington Butts was himself involved in theater. The original owner was a man named,
“Jerome Savage [who was a] lead player [in the] Earl of Warwick’s Men, [he] leased it for 30 years, dies before he can finish the lease. Jeremy Savage before 1575, takes a sublease on a portion of that land. Savage takes a sight that Hicks had already developed.
We don’t know into what or how the land was developed. Laurie suggests the original site was a market of some kind, providing a location to sell wares for people headed to the Butts.
Find more information on Newington Butts and maps where you can explore the location here inside Sarah Beth McLean's work on REED.
Survey of London: Volume 25, St George's Fields (The Parishes of St. George the Martyr Southwark and St. Mary Newington). Originally published by London County Council, London, 1955. This free content was digitised by double rekeying and sponsored by English Heritage. All rights reserved. “Plate 53: Part of Rocque's Map of 1755 showing Newington Butts.” Survey of London: Volume 25, St George's Fields (The Parishes of St. George the Martyr Southwark and St. Mary Newington). Ed. Ida Darlington. London: London County Council, 1955. 53. British History Online. Web. 28 December 2020. http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol25/plate-53
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.
Photo of Newington Butts Present Day Location. Taken by Laurie Johnson 5 August 2016. Today, this location is at a Tesco inside the Elephant and Castle shopping center. Laurie's description: “I took [this photo] on site at the Elephant and Castle on around 5 August 2016, when I skipped out from the World Shakespeare Congress one morning to investigate the Newington Butts site using the coordinates I'd calculated in my research. The playhouse was located at the site of the modern location of the Tesco at the Elephant & Castle shopping centre — the photo was taken at street level, looking down onto the external lower level where stall shops are located. Please feel free to use this as well if it will be helpful.” Thank you, Laurie, it is tremendously helpful! How incredible that you were able to find the exact spot! We are impressed and honored to have you share this research with us. Thank you, again. My dear listener, I hope you, too, will post a thank you to Laurie for the photos and visuals he provided for this episode both here in the comments as well as in the review of his episode on your chosen podcast platform. Photo is used here by permission. Copyrights belong to Laurie Johnson.
Newington Butts Named for Archery
Laurie’s research references a Privy Council record that indicates archery was taking place at Newington Butts. Laurie explains that the term “butts” was used to describe an archery range that had been located at Newington in the 16th century.
The term itself, [according to the OED], [was being used] 200 years prior to being used to describe archery in the 16th century, archery ranges are a defensive wall against which to set your targets.
Henry VIII was quite fond of sports, including archery. Laurie explains that establishing a site for training in archery would have been a priority for Henry VIII, as anyone
“above the age of 17 and decent physical shape was required to keep up practice. Best way for England to have a proper militia.”
When Newington Butts became the site of a playhouse, it was like other playhouses, a site of multiple recreational activities, likely including archery. Nearby to this site today there is a church that contains rather odd looking mounds that are (if you ask the people who installed them) placed there for children to play upon, but many have remarked how reminicent they are of the archery butts which were likely there originally.
Books & Resources Laurie Johnson Recommends
Laurie shares that “Prior to my work, the most comprehensive study of Newington Butts was a chapter in Bill Ingram's The Business of Playing (Google Books preview = https://books.google.com.au/
Additional non-book resources from Laurie Johnson:
Use this Hand Illustrated Print to Explore The Theaters and Inns of 1600 London
Early in Elizabethan times, players performed at any public house that would allow it include Inns and Play yards. In this map of 1600 London, you can see the locations of several of the theaters of London and while this map does not include all of the smaller churches and inns which might have housed plays, it shows most of the major competing playhouses that rivaled Shakespeare when he was writing for the The Globe, and the Blackfriars playhouse.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter right here and immediately download this map as our free gift.
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