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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

X. The Elizabethan Theatre

§ 14. The Blackfriars

In February, 1596, James Burbage, already in difficulties with the landlord of the Theater, bought of the executor of Sir Thomas Cawarden, late master of the revels, for £600, the freehold of a complicated collection of rooms, great and small, stairs, cellars and yards (including “seven great upper rooms” all on one floor, formerly one great and entire room), which lay in Blackfriars, near the Pipe office, adjoining the house of Sir George Cary. The buildings, which had been in the occupation of Cawarden, were in the old precinct of the “Blackfriars preachers,” or Dominican monks, and had formed part of their monastic dwelling. Blackfriars, in those days, was a popular resort, not, like Finsbury fields, for the people, but for nobles and gentry, who went there to play tennis; there were also a few aristocratic houses on a small portion of the site of the monastery. In making up his mind to establish a playhouse, in defiance of the law, within the city walls, Burbage must have counted for support less on the people than on the nobility; and, to some extent, the proceeding is an argument in favour of the view that royal and aristocratic support was the chief encouragement of the drama. These seven rooms Burbage turned into an indoor or “private” playhouse, spending on it a larger sum than had hitherto been spent on any playhouse in London, and constructing a building which recent discoveries have shown to be much larger than was commonly supposed. The term “private” does not imply that the public were excluded; the corporation, in an order for the suppression of the Blackfriars in 1619, refer to it explicitly as a “publique playhouse.” Burbage’s intention, however, was, doubtless, to construct a playhouse which should attract aristocratic patrons by greater seclusion and comfort, the auditorium being completely roofed over, and, perhaps (though this is thorny ground), by a stage which might reproduce to some extent the scenic completeness attained in the indoor performances at court. In November, 1596, the inhabitants petitioned against the establishment of a playhouse in their midst, but ineffectually. In July, 1597, letters patent were issued to Nathaniel Giles, master of the chapel children, to impress boys for the Queen’s service; and, about this time, the chapel children are found occupying Burbage’s new playhouse. In 1600, Richard Burbage leased the Blackfriars to one Henry Evans for 21 years at a yearly rent of £40, and Evans continued the children’s performances. Later, came trouble over Evans’s too drastic exercise of the powers granted to Giles under the patent; the playhouse ceased to pay; the lease was assigned; the chapel children, who, after James’s accession, had been reconstituted as the children of queen Anne’s revels, lost the royal patronage after their performance of Eastward Hoe in 1605, and were again obnoxious in their production of Biron. In August, 1608, Richard Burbage took back the lease to Evans, and, a little later, the King’s company began to use the house themselves. In January, 1619, the corporation tried to close the Blackfriars, but the privy council stepped in and confirmed its use; and the King’s company continued to play there without interruption till 1642.

The move of the Chamberlain’s men to Bankside left the north bank of the Thames without any strong theatrical attraction, and Henslowe and Alleyn endeavoured (not without strenuous but ineffectual opposition from local and municipal authorities) to cater for the population of that part of the town by building the Fortune playhouse off Golding (now Golden) lane in the parish of St. Giles without Cripplegate. The extant contract for the building, made by Henslowe and Alleyn with Peter Street, carpenter, is so interesting, in the light it throws on the material and structure of the Globe and the Fortune, and, indirectly, of Elizabethan playhouses in general, that part of it deserves quoting verbatim.

  • The frame of the saide howse to be sett square and to conteine ffowerscore foote of lawfull assize everye waie square wthoutt and fiftie five foote of like assize square everye waie wthin wth a good suer and stronge foundacõn of pyles brick lyme and sand bothe wthout & wthin to be wroughte one foote of assize att the leiste above the grounde And the saide fframe to conteine Three Stories in heighth The first or lower Storie to Conteine Twelve foote of lawfull assize in heighth The second Storie Eleaven foote of lawfull assize in heigth And the Third or upper Storie to conteine Nyne foote of lawfull assize in height all which Stories shall conteine Twelve foote and a halfe of lawfull assize in breadth througheoute besides a Juttey forwardes in either of the saide Twoe upper Stories of Tenne ynches of lawfull assize with ffower convenient divisions for gentlemens roomes and other sufficient and convenient divisions for Twoe pennie roomes wth necessarie Seates to be placed and sett Aswell in those roomes as througheoute all the rest of the galleries of the saide howse and wth suchelike steares Conveyances & divisions wthoute & whin as are made & Contryved in and to the late erected Plaiehowse On the Banck in the saide pishe of Ste Savio’s Called the Globe Wth a Stadge and Tyreinge howse to be made erected & settup wthin the saide fframe wth a shadowe or cover over the saide Stadge.… And wch Stadge shall conteine in length ffortie and Three foote of lawfull assize and in breadth to extende to the middle of the yarde of the saide howse The same Stadge to be paled in belowe wth good stronge and sufficyent newe oken bourdes And likewise the lower Storie of the saide fframe wth inside, and the same lower storie to be alsoe laide over and fenced wth stronge yron pykes And the saide Stadge to be in all other proporcõns Contryved and fashioned like unto the Stadge of the saide Plaie howse Called the Globe Wth convenient windowes and lightes glazed to the saide Tyreinge howse And the saide fframe Stadge and Stearecases to be covered wth Tyle and to have a sufficient gutter of lead to Carrie & convey the water frome the Coveringe of the saide Stadge to fall backwardes And also all the saide fframe and the Stairecases thereof to be sufficyently enclosed wthoute wth lathe lyme & haire and the gentlemens roomes and Twoe pennie roomes to be seeled wth lathe lyme & haire and all the fflowers of the saide Galleries Stories and Stadge to be bourded wth good & sufficyent newe deale bourdes of the whole thicknes wheare need shalbe and the saide howse and other thinges beforemencõed to be made & doen To be in all other Contrivitions Conveyances fashions thinge and thinges effected finished and doen accordinge to the manner and fashion of the saide howse Called the Globe Saveinge only that all the princypall and maine postes of the saide fframe and Stadge forwarde shalbe square and wroughte palasterwise wth carved proporcõns Called Satiers to be placed & sett on the Topp of every of the same postes.
  • The contract is dated 8 January, 1599/1600, and the work, which was to cost £440, was to be finished by 25 July. The actual cost worked out at £520, and the playhouse appears to have been opened in November or December, 1600, by the Admiral’s men, who occupied it throughout the remainder of the period. It is noticeable that the outside was square. The Fortune was burned down in 1621, and all the wardrobe and playbooks were destroyed; it was rebuilt, some two years later, round in shape and of brick. It appears, in its later years, to have become a popular house, rather despised by the more refined.

    The Rose fell out of use in 1603, and the importance of the Blackfriars and the Fortune robbed Bankside of much of the patronage of playgoers. When the Globe was burned in 1613, it seems to have been feared that the King’s men would move back to the north of the river; and a petition was addressed to the king by the company of Watermen, praying that the players might not be allowed to have a playhouse in London or Middlesex within five miles of the city—which petition was not granted.