Today (August 21) in London History – the day of days in London theatre history

August 21st is the day of days in London theatre history. This Today in London History podcast explains why.


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London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Good day for London theatre, August 21st. Maybe the best day in the entire year. 

But let’s keep that date in reserve.

First thing we need to do is introduce the dramatis personae. 

And that really is the right way of putting it.

Say hello to Thomas Killigrew and William Davenant. Killigrew’s a playwright and theatre manager. Davenant’s a poet, playwright and theatre manager. Davenant grew up in Oxford. But his roots are London through and through. 

Killigrew was born in London, baptised in London, grew up in London, cut his theatre teeth in London. 

As a boy he’d go to the Red Bull Playhouse in Clerkenwell. We get this story from none other than Samuel Pepys himself. Anyway, as a boy Killigrew would go to the Red Bull playhouse and when the man cried to the boys, “Who will go and be a divell, and he shall see the play for nothing?” – then the lad Killigrew would go in and be a devil upon the stage. He was pretty well connected. Doors opened. By the time he was 20 he was serving as a page of honour to Charles I. He ingratiated himself with Queen Henrietta Maria herself. He accompanied Walter Montague, the queen’s favourite, on his travels to the continent. He married one of the queen’s maids of honour. He joins the royalist side at the outbreak of the civil war. Both the king and the queen employ him as a messenger. Those were tricky times. At one point he was placed under house arrest. It’s very satisfying to know that his lodgings were at the Piazza in Covent Garden. He leaves England sometime in 1643. Hooks up with the court in exile. Becomes a Groom of the Bedchamber. And then come the big national moment – the Restoration and King Charles II returning from exile – Thomas Killigrew is on the ship that brought Charles II back. And those are just his court connections and travels. All the while that all of that is going on he’s writing plays. And going to plays. On the continent, that is. The Puritans of course had outlawed theatre in England. 

Now let’s move the spotlight to William Davenant. As I said, London roots. His parents had married in the 1590s. His father was a wine merchant. They lived in the parish of St James’ Garlickhythe. Close to the river and Vintners’ Hall and directly opposite the playhouses on the Southbank. We learn from the antiquary Anthony Wood that Davenant’s father was ‘an admirer and lover of plays and playmakers, especially Shakespeare’.

Come 1600 – or perhaps 1601 – the family leaves London, moves to Oxford. Davenant’s father takes over a wine tavern and inn in the centre of Oxford. And who should come calling – indeed stay there on his annual visits to Stratford – yes, William Shakespeare. There’s of course a tradition – highly unlikely but a fun thought to entertain nevertheless – there’s a tradition that Shakespeare and his Oxford hostess – Davenant’s mother – shared a bed in the ‘painted chamber’ of the tavern, and that William was the result of their union. That’s what you could call being to the manner born if you’re a poet and a playwright. Father John Davenant’s health begins to fail in 1621. He dies in 1622. His sixteen-year-old son William comes to London. He becomes a page in the household of Frances Howard at Ely House in Holborn. He weds. Very young. Like Shakespeare. The first of his many sons is baptised at St James’ Clerkenwell in 1624. And sure enough, young Davenant, like Killigrew, starts writing. Learns his craft. Both poetry and eventually plays. Then on Davenant’s 30th birthday – May 29th, 1660 – Charles II enters his capital. 

And so the stage is set. Less than three months later – this day, August 21st, 1660 – Thomas Killigrew and Sir William Davenant (he’d been knighted) obtain patents from the King to erect two theatres in London, to raise two new companies, and to have sole regulation of them. 

The roots of modern London Theatre go down to those two patents – handed over to Thomas Killigrew and William Davenant on August 21st 1660. There’s not a direct line from Shakespeare’s Globe and the other Bankside Theatre to modern London Theatre for the very good reason that Cromwell closed the theatres, shut them down, uprooted them from London in the 1640s.

There are two other points worth making here. Thomas Killigrew was six year younger than William Davenant but he had a couple of advantages Davenant didn’t have. He had the exclusive rights to a large repertory of pre-Restoration plays, which included nearly all of Ben Jonson’s works and many of Shakespeare’s.

And Killigrew and Davenant were in a race to introduce actresses on the London stage. Killigrew won that race. The prize was another patent. Issued to Thomas Killigrew in April 1662 and decreeing that all female parts were to be played by women.

And that’s a lot of it about theatre and London and the date August 21s. But it’s not all of it. The rebuilt Globe Theatre – the modern recreation of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre – opened on August 21st 1996. In opened with a production of Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona.

So Cromwell and the Puritants may have truncated the life of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre – and in consequence the roots of modern London theatre only go down to those two royal patents issued to Thomas Killigrew and William Davenant on August 21st, 1660 – but surely the decision to open the rebuilt Globe on August 21st 1996 that’s timing that conjoins, that unites, that heals the breach.

August 21st – the day of days in London theatre history.

And for a Today in London recommendation. This one’s a no-brainer. Go to the Shakespeare’s Globe Exhibition. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks.  See ya tomorrow.

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