‘Before Shakespeare’ at The National Archives


Event: Wednesday 1 August 2018, 14:00

Before Shakespeare

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 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? 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 turned into a visitors’ and exhibition centre.

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.  Their enterprise alters the theatrical landscape of London and introduces another north-of-London space (alongside the nearby Curtain playhouse) to watch fencing, entertainments, and plays.

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 move around — and into and out of — London; it 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; 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.


View of London showing 'More Fyeld' (Moorfield) and 'Fynesburie Fyeld' (Finsbury Field).

View of London showing ‘More Fyeld’ (Moorfield) and ‘Fynesburie Fyeld’ (Finsbury Field). A section from Civitas Londinum, a 1633 copy of a woodcut from around 1561. Often referred to as the Agas map. The National Archives document reference MPEE 1/25.


The equity case bequeaths us, in mediated form, the voices of individuals who grew up in Shoreditch in the very period when 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 broadly label ‘playhouses’.

These did not supplant, but rather supplemented the many other varied spaces in which playing companies performed. However, 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 tendency of Tudor tenants and landowners to get involved in lawsuits.

We have much reason to thank them for their quarrelsomeness: it is because of these arguments that we learn much of what we know about 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 [broomstick] calling him murdering knave with other vile and unhonest words.’ (C 24/228/10)  Here, we have two women laying claim to theatrical space and asserting their agency, ownership, and investment in the playing industry. With a broomstick.

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 Wednesday 1 August 2018, 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). They can tell us about how much it cost to build a space, or who wanted to tear it down.

They also reveal how audiences travelled there, what such spaces meant to owners, visitors, and neighbours, and who were the women and men who were closely involved with running, building, adapting — and, of course, arguing about! — such spaces.

Guest post by Dr Callan Davies, Research Fellow at the University of Roehampton.

Dr Callan Davies, Dr Lucy Munro and Dr Andy Kesson will be discussing the history of playhouses at our Before Shakespeare event on Wednesday 1 August 2018 at The National Archives.


  1. Graham Burbage says:

    Quite a rowdy bunch by all accounts. Still if he needed a beating with a broomstick, a beating he must have.

  2. Dr Nina Kane says:

    Fabulous research. The connection between theatre and former religious spaces is fascinating. Good to have this focus on such an exciting piece of London history. Thank you.

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