Today (April 15) in London History – “sicklied o’er with more than the pale cast of thought”

The Globe Theatre was demolished on April 15th, 1644. This Today in London History episode tells the story.


London calling. 

Is this a deed I see before me, that name before my eyes?

Well, several names actually. But the one that stops you in your tracks is William Shakespeare.

The deed is dated February 29, 1599. (Yes, I know – our concern here is April 15th, and we will get there, I promise you.)

Ok, back to that deed. It provides us with a description of a property – just a piece of ground, marshy ground – on the Southwark side of the River Thames. The Bankside.

And as long as we’re at it – the other signatories. We can imagine them meeting on neutral ground, perhaps an upstairs room in a London tavern. Seven principals, all men. And in all probability, a few retainers. At the very least, a couple of lawyers. One for each side.

Two sides meeting over – and scrutinising – that deed. And then signing it.

On one side, Nicholas Brand, Esquire. He’s the landowner. On the other side, Cuthbert and Richard Burbage. They’re half-lessees. The signatories for the other half were going to be Augustine Phillipps, Thomas Pope, William Kempe, John Hemynge and William Shakespeare. Cuthbert is Richard Burbage’s older brother. He’s the only one of the seven who’s not an actor. But they’re not just actors, not just hired hands. They’re in deeper. Sharing the risks but also sharing any rewards. You do the maths it’s all readily apparent. The Burbages were in for 50 per cent, Shakespeare and Heminge and the others would have been in for ten per cent each. 

In the event, Will Kempe bailed. So Shakespeare and the other three had 12.5 per cent each rather than ten per cent.

And while we’re at it – naming names, I mean – we mustn’t leave it at Shakespeare and Heminge. We need to do that Martin Scorsese manoeuvre, put the camera on a couple of those other faces and introduce them properly. Even if he bailed Will Kempe commands our attention as being in on the scheme in its early stages. Commands our attention because Will Kempe was the greatest comedy actor of his day. And Richard Burbage, along with Edward Alleyn, the greatest tragedian. In modern terms Will Kempe would maybe be Robin Williams or Rowan Atkinson. And Richard Burbage Robert de Niro.

But I singled out Heminge – conjoined his name with Shakespeare – because along with a fellow actor Henry Condell, John Heminge is the reason we have the First Folio. Had they not done what they did over half of those plays – Shakespeare’s plays – would have been lost. 

We’re talking about a world without Twelfth Night and As You Like It, two of the greatest comedies ever written. A world without Macbeth and Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, three of the greatest tragedies ever written. But that’s a different line of inquiry.

But our main object here is not shuddering at the thought of a world without Twelfth Night and Macbeth – thinking what a close call that was –

our main object here is a world without the Globe Theatre, the most famous theatre ever.

And with that lease, we’ve backed up to get a running start, get over the ground to April 15th, 1644 when the most celebrated theatre of them all was demolished.

It’s that deed. And yes, bears repeating, it’s not just the names on that document – as shiver up the spine as those names are – it’s also the other particulars that it brings into focus. The exact location, for example. It was an unsavoury and low-lying spot. It was flanked by open sewers on its north and south sides. It was effectively a marsh. A marsh into which were driven the piles that supported the theatre. And of course as is well known, it was a neighbourhood of brothels and prisons and taverns. It was low-life London. You want to put it in 1950s California and Mexico terms, it was Tiajuana to San Diego.

How can it not give pause for reflection that many of the greatest speeches that actors have ever given tongue to were heard for the very first time in a low-life slum, heard for the very first time in a wooden O perfumed by the stench from those two open sewers. One whiff of those bournes and you’d be sicklied o’er with more than the pale cast of the thought.

And it’s not just that group of men and the lineaments – if that’s the word – of the property.  It’s also the date. February 21, 1599. 

The Globe Theatre began life in Shoreditch. In 1576. It was just called The Theatre. The Burbages had signed a 21-year-lease. When that lease expired the landlord, Giles Allen, claimed that the building was his. The Burbages and their team took a different view. The land was Giles Allen’s but by god, the theatre, those timbers, were theirs. They waited until he was out of town. As it happens the date was December 28, 1598. The Burbage team dismantled the theatre. They took it down. Timber by timber. Transferred the timbers to a riverside warehouse. What I wouldn’t give to see the look on Giles Allen’s face when he turned up a few days later to take no little satisfaction in the building that was now his thanks to the expiration of the lease. Turning up and finding an empty lot. Sometimes the good guys do win one. 

Anyway, Burbage and Co. waited for the weather to get better. And they shopped around for a site. Presumably got word that Brend’s piece of ground there on the Bankside was available. All of which led to that February 21st meeting – the centrepiece of which was our document, the deed on the table. 

Anyway, moving along now…the Globe of course got built. Reusing the timbers that had made up The Theatre, as it was known, the building in Shoreditch.

Fourteen glorious years ensued. And then disaster. It was June 29th, 1613. A performance of Henry VIII. They were going for some verisimilitude. They dragged a cannon on stage. Fired it off. A spark flew up into the thatching. The thatching caught fire and in no time the building was an inferno. It’s a measure of what a good design it was that everybody got out, no one was injured.

One man, his breeches caught fire. Ants ants pants on fire. But somebody had the presence of mind to empty a bottle of ale over him and put the fire out.

The Globe was rebuilt the following year. And that’s the Globe we’re concerned with here. There were sea changes in this country over the next 25 years or so. And of course Shakespeare and his fellows all died off. Come the 1540s the Puritans seized power. They disapproved of the theatre. They outlawed it.

And on this day, Sir Matthew Brend – he was the son of Nicholas, the landowner who’d signed the deed with Burbage and Shakespeare and the others – Sir Matthew Brend demolished the second Globe. Built houses on the site.

And that was it for the Globe Theatre. Well, that was it for the Globe Theatre until 1949 when the classically trained American actor came to London and made a beeline for the site of the Globe Theatre. And was horrified at what he found. A dusty plaque on a brewery wall.

“That’s all we’ve got for the greatest theatre ever,” said Sam. That’s not good enough. It needs to be rebuilt. I’m going to make that happen. It was the impossible dream. It took half a century. But Sam made that dream a reality. He met all kinds of opposition, not least from the local council. It took forever to get planning permission. They didn’t want to give it to him. He didn’t give up. It took many years but he got it. When he got it he held a press conference. A press conference at which he famously said, “well, at long last we’ve got the planning permission. The hard part’s over. Now comes the easy part: raising the money.”

Thanks, Sam.

I’ll be coming back to this subject on June 29th. That podcast will be about the first Globe, the one that burned down on June 29th, 1613.

You’ve been listening to the daily London Walks podcast. Emanating from – home of London’s only award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, the oldest urban walking tour company on the planet. Walking tours fronted by accomplished professionals: barristers, doctors, the former Editor of Independent Television News, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, Museum of London

archaeologists, the world’s leading expert on Jack the Ripper, distinguished academics – a Cambridge University palaeontologist, a University College London geologist, elite, award-winning professionally qualified Blue Badge guides, etc. Guides who make the new familiar and the familiar new. Well, you get the idea. 

And no, I didn’t forget. Time to lift the flap on the London Walks equivalent of a Yule Calendar. My Today in London tip. And, yes, it’s achingly obvious: pay a visit to the Globe Theatre Exhibition. And, ideally, catch a show. And let’s clear the bases, make this tip a grand slam. London Walks does two Shakespeare Walks. Rick Jones, the Chairman of the Critics Society, does a Shakespeare’s London Walk in the neighbourhood of the Globe. Rick’s a musician – he was the chief music critic for the Evening Standard for ten year – so sure enough, he brings along his lute. His is a Shakespeare’s London Walks in which you get serenaded by a distinguished lute-playing guide, critic, journalist. 

The other one is our Shakespeare’s and Dickens’s Old City walk. It goes twice a week – explores the other side of the river in relation to those writers. It’s actor-guided. Andy on Tuesday. And Stephen Noonan on Sunday. I’m going to single out Stephen here because he’s all over the news at the moment. They’ve just released an audio version of Dr Who that recreates the very first Dr Who. And sure enough it’s Stephen Noonan – he of Royal Shakespeare Company fame – recreating William Hartnell’s role as the very first Dr Who. Stephen has the best ear of any actor in this country. Which is why he got the role. I’ll put up – on the page for the Shakespeare’s & Dickens’s Old City–  a couple of links to the performance that everybody’s making a fuss about. And to the press conference Stephen gave.

Final thought here: look, I know I’m not a disinterested party – but London Walks guides are in a league of their own. You don’t need to take it from me – it’s all writ large in their accomplishments, in their distinguished careers. 

See you tomorrow.

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