by Eva Griffith
Posted 14 November 2016
Introduction: Serious Plaque-arguing and the Importance of Theatre History
I begin to write this Introduction today on 9th November 2016, the day when we are all absorbing how America voted in a businessman and television personality as the 45th president of the United States. A businessman is one thing – economic benefit is one topic that will come up in this essay – celebrity is quite another. Yet what I write here has everything to do with entertainment – the business of celebrities – so all feels fit and well for discussion today. If America voted in a businessman to lead their country, they may well have made an intelligent decision; if they voted in an entertainer, they have been fooled by a business of smoke and mirrors – my business since I was nine years old. It was my parents’ business too, and it remains a livelihood source for members of my family. So obsessive have I become about the venue-related development of that business, that I have spent many years trying to do justice to one neglected theatre of the beginning of the enterprise – the Red Bull playhouse in Clerkenwell – which eventually culminated in a book: A Jacobean Company and Its Playhouse. Now I want the other thing that is missing for the Red Bull. A plaque on its site – a marker. And as I look over my shoulder and contemplate how modern history has developed alongside entertainment history – a Hollywood actor being made president in the ‘80s, for example (Ronald Reagan), a Polish actor being made Pope (John Paul II) and now a TV frontman as current president elect, I think to myself what a very important thing Entertainment History must be, and how essential it is that we plot how it became such an essential thing, not just in relation to our cultures but to our political and international situation (apparently) as well.
On a mundane level, this is really about the nuts and bolts of decisions made over four hundred years ago and I have researched and written it in order to argue what the nature of the Red Bull Playhouse is and was in Islington terms. How it was this borough’s first theatre. A specialist not me but like me might say: ‘The Red Bull? The Red Bull? Surely The Fortune Playhouse near Golden Lane was Islington’s first built-for-the-purpose playhouse, Eva? The Fortune playhouse near Golden Lane was built in 1600. The Red Bull, St. John Street, in 1605. This essay represents my description of why it is the Red Bull that should own the title of ‘Islington’s First Theatre’ and why the tale imparts much that is important about the entertainment industry then and now.
John Rough and the Godly at The Sarcacen’s Head
We are talking about choices and candidates, so let’s get an early contender out of the way first.
According to the protestant martyrologist, John Foxe, on pp.1645-6 (p.1727 for some) of his Actes and Monuments when writing about ‘The death and martyrdome of Iohn Rowgh Minister, and Margaret Mearyng’ an illegal meeting took place in Islington during Advent 1557. The significance of this to us is that it was a meeting which pretended to be a play at ‘the Saracens hedde’ in the parish. The occasion, truly, was a gathering of Protestant Godly folk which included ‘exercises of praier and hearing the woord of God’. The Queen’s Vicechamberlain ‘apprehended’ the guilty at this Saracen’s Head which was, one guesses, an inn or tavern of some kind. The description in Foxe represents the earliest known account of an entertainment-related event at a publicly-accessed Islington location. In another mention of this place, more obviously a tavern from the text, the “Sarazen’s-head in Islington” was also where a scene was set for Jack Wildblood, Frank Rivers and Stephen Flylove at the opening of Thomas Jordan’s later seventeenth-century piece, Tricks of Youth, or, The Walks of Islington and Hogsdon, with The Humours of Woodstreet-Compter. But this comedy doesn’t present any play produced within the play in this drinking house, only ‘Tavern-Boyes’ and prostitutes. It isn’t associated with theatre production at any point. Presumably play-watching at The Saracen’s Head was a usual thing to do in the 1550s given that it was thought a suitable front for Protestants to avoid prosecution there. Yet I know of no other record to do with a ‘Saracen’s Head’ as an entertainment venue, and no evidence – as yet – of what I would call a ‘purpose-built’ theatre there erected.
What is ‘Purpose-built’? What is a City Parish? What is Islington?
By a ‘purpose-built’ theatre I mean one that was consciously erected as stand-alone construction or something created out of another kind of building in a way that opened up welcome drama producer-profits. Getting down to the main business of the moment (serious playhouse plaque arguing) I want to bring your attention to the two main contenders as early ‘purpose-built’ (or inn-converted or building-modified) entertainment venues of Shakespeare’s time. Both of these were organised so that the people investing in the construction work could access the wonder of economic benefit from them through being builder-owners. Neither of the two theatres I’m writing about produced a Shakespeare play as far as is known. Both were nominally pigeon-holed – in their day and after – as catering to ‘the citizens of London’ – meaning, somewhat dismissively, that their drama appealed to the tradespeople of early modern London – the apprentices and masters (if you like) of the square mile of the City. My intention here is to prove that one of these two ‘citizen playhouses’, the Fortune, was more City-orientated and City-belonging than the other when seen from a socially-mobile and respectably-perceived location point of view. That ‘square mile’ was and still is one that is divided into ward units – each administered by a representative of the City’s elite (aldermen). It was and is a thing of itself, although this would have seemed much more pressing and relevant at the time about which I am writing than it is today. The Fortune playhouse didn’t want to be a Middlesex venue. It wanted to be a City one. And for good, economically well-thought-out reasons too. While demonstrating how City-orientated this playhouse wanted to be, I want to show you how the other playhouse – the Red Bull – is more deserving of the title of ‘Islington’s First Theatre’, for I truly believe this to be the case.
Nobody that I know of has ever tried to seriously isolate a ‘first theatre’ – of the ‘purpose-built’ kind – for current-day Islington. What’s Islington anyway? A village? A parish? A borough? Perhaps all three. And all three definitions have something to say about London history and our perceptions of it with the first two words wrapped around one another. Islington has been a village in Middlesex and it has been a parish (quite a large one) and it still is a parish with St. Mary’s Upper Street at its historical heart. Quite how Islington became a ‘borough’ which included the places where both the Fortune playhouse in Golden Lane and the Red Bull off St. John Street were, is, again, another story. This story is one I’ve enjoyed researching (in however a secondary sources perfunctory kind of a way) because I, myself, have always been a product of Islington and I am a resident of it again within its bounds.
The Fortune, Golden Lane and St. Giles, Cripplegate Ward
We are accustomed, today, to perceive contemporary ‘London’ Theatre as both a ‘West End’ thing and a ‘Fringe’ thing. Before Shakespeare’s time, the first entertainment venues could be found in inns, City inns, royal or noble residences, and also places where the economic benefits of building and owning the venue were recognised. By the time of Shakespeare’s first play premiere, this economically-beneficial owning-your-own-that-you-built option was on its way up the popularity scale. However, requiring ‘space’, anything ‘purpose-built’ or at least ‘converted’ or ‘modified’ usually occurred outside the bounds of the City. The added benefit of this might be that the trades-minded of London, sensitive to the distraction theatre could prove to workers who should be focussed on their jobs, might see the suburbs as a safe distance away for the production of entertainment. The question was, how far away from City interests should you pitch your playhouse if you wanted – in the end – to appeal to the economically-enabled inhabitants of that place (people who could afford to go, people it was valuable to know)?
Edward Alleyn, actor-manager at the Fortune playhouse from its erection in 1600 and part-owner of it, clearly did not want to place his venue too far away. According to Susan Cerasano’s Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry, up until the building of the Fortune, Alleyn was someone who had already experienced the obvious benefits City-association could bring, while he was, at the same time, someone who saw virtue in having a foot in both camps.
Four hundred and fifty years ago this year, 2016, and two years after the birth of William Shakespeare, Edward Alleyn was born in the parish of St. Botolph’s Without Bishopsgate. This was a City parish which was outside the old walls but within the ward structure of London (Bishopsgate Ward). St. Botolph’s Without was of similar size and nature (quite large) as the other City St. Botolph’s parish ‘Without Aldgate’, also outside the old walls and related to a gate. Alleyn is said to have been born at an inn situated in St. Botloph’s parish at ‘the sign of the Pye”. It was near the location of a ‘Devonshire House’ found in that area (not the one in Piccadilly and this one quite possibly to do with the Cavendish/Devonshire family). Alleyn’s father, also called Edward, was the likely innholder of that inn at ‘the sign of the Pye’. Like many a wife who comes to our notice both in early modern history and in Shakespearean drama, Alleyn’s mother became a serial wife and widow. When Alleyn’s father died, his mother married a second time, and when Mr. Christopher died she married a third time – on this third occasion to a Haberdasher called John Browne. The invocation of the term “Haberdasher” is not an idle one. This third time when Margaret Christopher formerly Alleyn née Townley married, she allied herself to a powerful livery company of the City (one of the Twelve Great livery companies) – the which marriage representing, perhaps, not the first time Edward had seen a citizen, but probably the first time he had lived in close proximity to one.
By the time he was seventeen, Alleyn had become an actor, a part of a company called the Earl of Worcester’s men. These were the forerunners of the troupe who were later to act at the Red Bull playhouse. The Earl of Worcester Alleyn worked for at that time – in a company associated with touring – was William Somerset, the third Earl of Worcester’s, where the Red Bull actors’ patron was his son, Edward’s (the fourth earl). By 1592 Alleyn was working for the Lord Strange’s company at the Rose on the Bankside – on the other side of the River Thames beyond the City – a very different kind of place compared with his City parish roots. Eight years later, his work interests took him back north of the City walls and the wards ‘without’. For while he was at the Bankside Rose Alleyn formed an important alliance with Philip Henslowe, the builder and owner of it, who was a Dyers’ company member (and therefore another man with City/citizen rights). Once married to Henslowe’s stepdaughter, Joan Woodward, on 22nd October 1592 this venue owner/player alliance became a very useful partnership for Alleyn.
Enter the Burbages from everybody’s perspective, for in 1599 they, too, arrived on the Bankside with the Chamberlain’s men (Shakespeare’s company) to build their Globe playhouse. This was but a few paces away from the Rose and it was a manoeuvre that made hand flourishes – as in an over-elaborate bow – to the rival company just across the road. Nothing daunted, Henslowe and Alleyn decamped north of the walls – with Alleyn now a highly respected leading actor – to build their new project, the Fortune, Golden Lane. A contract with the carpenter Peter Street was signed on 8 January 1600 for a quadrilateral playhouse in the City parish, St. Giles in Cripplegate. St. Giles Church, like St. Botolph’s Without Bishopsgate, was outside the walls but within the City of London in Cripplegate Ward. Golden or Golding Lane, however, the area where the Fortune was built, may have been in St. Giles’s parish, but fell short of Cripplegate Ward. It was physically located in Middlesex Thus we have the cleverness of the Henslowe-Alleyn choice of location for their ‘citizen playhouse’ given that it was City-allied through parish but was not placed in the City of London. It therefore possessed the best of both worlds: a City entity on a local level but with Middlesex freedoms.
The Red Bull, St. John Street and St. James parish, Middlesex
The company of actors and associates who built the Red Bull five years after the erection of the Fortune and to the west of it in St. James’s parish, Clerkenwell, also aimed at a city audience. Thomas Heywood, the main actor-playwright of what was Edward Somerset, the fourth earl of Worcester’s men, had recently seen his company become Queen Anna of Denmark’s Servants at the Red Bull (Alleyn’s Admiral’s company at the Rose/Fortune were now Prince Henry’s Men). Heywood had already produced the City-orientated The Four Prentices of London and Edward IV (the latter focussing, much of the time, on Jane Shore the London Goldsmith’s wife). Yet their new self-owned playhouse wasn’t built in any sense at all on City land, but in the genuinely independent parish of St. James in the village of Clerkenwell in Middlesex. More akin to say, the Theatre or the Curtain venues in St. Leonard’s parish in Shoreditch, it completely enjoyed freedoms outside City jurisdiction while possessing none of the City-allied benefits that the Fortune had. The Red Bull inn where innholder Aaron Holland converted its yard into a playhouse was actually located on a charitable piece of land known to Islington historians as ‘the Seckford estate’. Thomas Seckford was a Tudor Master of the Court of Requests who, coming from Woodbridge in Suffolk and approaching the end of his life, resolved to leave the rents from his Clerkenwell properties to fund an almshouse for the poor in his home town. A brewer’s daughter called Anne Bedingfeild came into a lease of a part of the charitable land after her father, John Draper, died. The Red Bull Inn was located on this part of the Seckford land and, subleasing this inn to Aaron Holland and an actor called Martin Slatiar, Anne Bedingfeild received rents which were supposed to go to the Seckford charity. Thus this ‘citizen playhouse’ had possessed a different provenance in comparison with the Fortune. The Fortune was found in a City parish; the Red Bull, a Middlesex one. The Red Bull was built on charitable land managed by governors; the Fortune was built on some kind of independently acquired City/Middlesex territory, purchased by Henslowe-Alleyn for the sole purpose, as far as I know, of playhouse-building.
I am not a Fortune scholar, although I can see some points of contact between the tactics employed at a local level by Henslowe-Alleyn at St. Giles and Holland-Slatiar at St. James. In fact, it may well be that Martin Slatiar, in a petition made to the privy council about the Red Bull telling us much about its beginnings, copied the Alleyn approach. According to accounts, in preparation for the move into St. Giles, Alleyn ingratiated himself with the local community by donating poor relief there. With the Fortune people getting into trouble with some justices who were against the playhouse idea, patron Charles Howard, the Lord Admiral, was able to send papers in support. Then the St. Giles parishioners followed with evidence of Alleyn’s help for the poor directed at the privy council. Similarly with the Red Bull, when Martin Slatiar wrote to the privy council objecting to a stay in the building work, he was able to cite his own company’s provision for the poor of St. James.
But there was a difference in status for actors at the one playhouse over the other. And perhaps it was this varying status which contributed something of the attitude the Red Bull has been enduring in comparison to its fellow ‘citizen playhouse’ over many years. Most obviously this can be seen with Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle (London, 1613). This play, originally performed by the Children of the Queen’s Revels at the Blackfriars, was a famous failure on its first night, perhaps because it made fun of citizen tastes. It did this with reference to a lot of Red Bull plays, but not, surprisingly, many Fortune pieces. Reference is certainly made to Hieronimo, a character from The Spanish Tragedy which was performed at Henslowe’s Rose, but the allusion is respectful, unlike those made to many Heywood/Red Bull plays like The Four Prentices, If You Know Not Me You Know Nobody, The Rape of Lucrece and Edward IV. Beaumont makes reference to Shakespeare plays too. Thus, from a local perspective, and concerning ‘public’ playhouse fare, it is almost as if Beaumont is trying to make his elite audience laugh at suburb-located Middlesex or Surrey venues, but not at the City-parish-related Fortune. Either way the satirical play failed because the audience were likely to have included the children of citizens (citizens were rich enough to send their children to university or the inns-of-court at this time), and these may have struggled to find it in themselves to laugh at jokes aimed at their parents.
Shoring up this argument, a few seventeenth-century actors, where they could, took to being a part of the St. Giles community over Middlesex parishes like St. James, probably because of its City associations with its network of influence. The Burbages generally liked to be associated with Shoreditch. Both James and his son Richard (the famous actor who created many of Shakespeare’s leading roles) were determinedly buried in that Middlesex parish. Cuthbert Burbage moved to St. Giles, however, at some point in the 1620s, and Nicholas Tooley, a Chamberlain’s/King’s Men actor who was a witness to Richard Burbage’s will, is recorded buried from Cuthbert Burbage’s house at St. Giles. My book, A Jacobean Company traces many Red Bull actors of the time staying in the Middlesex parish of St. James, Clerkenwell. Thomas Greene, John Duke, Robert Leigh and Richard Perkins are all actors who were buried in the parish. None of them had London citizen status of any kind. Ellis Worth, down as a gentleman in records, never a citizen, was a long-term Red Bull performer who ended up at the Fortune and living in St. Giles. He was buried there requesting an interment in the aisle of the church with his relatives. There was never too much rhyme or reason to it, but it is interesting to trace where the actors moved and did not move in relation to their careers and also, quite possibly, in terms of their own best interests.
Where the Red Bull becomes its most Islington-interested is by way of Anne Bedingfeild, the leasehold landlady of the site. I have already mentioned the sixteenth-century freehold owner of Red Bull Inn and its environs, Thomas Seckford, and the way in which he left the land where the theatre was located to fund an almshouse for the poor in his hometown of Woodbridge. With Anne Bedingfeild herself, we only have to look to her mother’s family, especially Thomas Wilkes her maternal grandfather who was a ‘rich landowner of Islington’ in the Dictionary of National Biography’s words. Bedingfeild’s aunt, Dame Alice Owen, formerly Elkin, formerly Robinson née Wilkes (obviously another serial wife then widow) through the riches she gained from each successive husband, set up her own almshouse charity directed at poor women of both Clerkenwell and Islington. She famously instituted a school which is still running today (once in the Owen Row area of St. John Street, now in Potters Bar). The leasehold landlady of the Red Bull, Bedingfeild, must have been someone who had a consciousness of what could be achieved for Middlesex people, regardless of City of London considerations. Her aunt’s almshouse and school were situated a quiet stroll up St. John Street from the Red Bull, and charity-conscious women-focussed plays, (I am thinking, in particular of Thomas Heywood’s If You Know Not Me You Know Nobody Part II) must have rang bells around the two parishes.
The year 1605, the year when the Red Bull playhouse in Clerkenwell was built, was a long time ago. It took me a long time to learn, while a postgraduate student, that Islington (where I was brought up) was never the big section of land that it is today. Up until recently I had no idea to what extent it was enlarged just shortly after I was born. In Shakespeare’s time, Islington was a Middlesex village. I suppose I sort of knew this when my mother and I were living in 1970s’ Canonbury Square. I stress 1970s’ Canonbury because nobody like us (the single-parent-mother-and-child unit that my mother and I were then) could live in such a high-end gentry place today. At that time we were tenants of the Marquess of Northampton who owned Canonbury House and the Canonbury Tower, and was landlord over – not just us but the Tower Theatre – the place I first saw Shakespeare (Twlefth Night, beautifully done) and grew to an appreciation, I guess. Canonbury was a manor once owned by the holy religious of St. Bartholomew’s, West Smithfield, according to a book I’ve been consulting at the Islington Local History Centre, The History of the Comptons of Compton Wynyates by William Bingham Compton, 6th Marquess of Northampton, and published in 1929 (p.314). So much of what I write in general has something to do with the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the parcelling out of land to noble families after this. Thomas Seckford’s land had once belonged to the nuns of St. Mary’s Priory, Clerkenwell; both the Theatre and Curtain in Shoreditch had belonged to Augustinian nuns at Holywell Priory and so forth. The Fortune, as I’ve intimated, seems to be differently sourced although perhaps under-researched from a land point of view; but the manor of Canonbury was another one of those ex-religious-owned pieces of land. It ended up in the tenure of the Spencer family from 1570, “purchased… for £2000 by John Spencer, from Lord Wentworth.” ‘Wentworth’ is another name that seems to come up time and again in relation to post-Reformation property ripe for theatre construction, for example. But that is something perhaps worth investigating in the future as I have seen this name many times on property transferences relevant to the subject.
Just like Islington, Clerkenwell – in 1605 – was a village in Middlesex. Everything, in those days, was parish-based as I hope you’ve got a general idea of with reference to the City parishes and Alleyn. There were no such things as boroughs then really, just habitations set around parishes. The brief recent administrative history I’ve just learned starts with the London Government Act of 1899. According to a 1963-published book The Borough of Finsbury Official Guide (Margaret McDerby, Pyramid Press Ltd.), Finsbury, formed around the time of the act, included “the Clerkenwell parishes (St. James and St. John); St. Luke, Middlesex; St. Sepulchre, Middlesex; the Charterhouse; and the Liberty of Glasshouse Yard.” The description goes on “It is bounded by the City of London on the south, by Holborn on the west, by Islington and St. Pancras on the north and by Shoreditch on the east.” It was – after Holborn – “the smallest of the Metropolitan Boroughs”. But in a couple of years’ time it was to be no more. For in 1965 it was annexed to Islington. It was at this time, then, that what had been the small reflection of a mixed-status group of parishes just outside the ward structure of the City of London became part of the borough that had once been a parish.
Perhaps all that one needs to understand about the London Government Act of 1899 is that it came about with the end of the Metropolitan Board of Works and the introduction of the London County Council. The 1888 abolition of the Board of Works was followed by the 1890 Housing Act, paving the way for the LCC and the administrative change to boroughs in 1899. Islington Borough stayed the same shape as St. Mary’s parish until that 1965 change when Finsbury was added. It was at this point that both the sites of the Fortune and the Red Bull became ‘Islington’ territory – even though what had once been Finsbury land was a mixture of City of London parishes and otherwise.
What I have presented here is a description and an argument of what is more deserving of a title – ‘Islington’s First Theatre’ – and therefore a plaque. We could say that the Fortune near Golden Lane, predating the Red Bull by four or five years, is now in current-day ‘Islington’ just like Holland’s venue in St. John Street and more obviously deserving. But you see – the actors and the drama they performed at the Fortune never wanted to be perceived as anything but City-associated (with, perhaps, a little royal patron-hoping on the side). It was intelligent to ply their trade where ‘business advantage’ could be prioritised in a parish where city-related ‘deals’ might happen. The Red Bull was much more village-located. Much more proudly Middlesex-parish-based. And on that account, much more ‘Islington’.
It’s as likely to succeed in getting enough votes for a plaque as – well – an entertainment-tapping businessman with no previous experience in straight politics to become 45th President of the United States. Entertainment is a business, and business, of itself, can be very entertaining, and can win votes. And with the Red Bull, Islington’s first theatre, alongside its fellows – with the Fortune, the Globe and the Rose as examples – the economics of venue production as well as the phenomenon of profitable drama production itself – will always go on to prove how making money on the door (or the ‘portal’, perhaps, in our internet age) was and still is the ideal way to go forward with business and entertainment of any kind. Mr Holland knew that, Mr. Alleyn knew that and so, I’m sure, does Mr. Trump.