The Rose Theatre: A Brief History

The Rose Playhouse, established in 1587, was the first theatre on Bankside, the district on the southern bank of the River Thames in London. Predating the arrival of the first Globe Theatre by 12 years, the early success of The Rose established Bankside as the area for playgoing in the late 16th century. Consequently, in 1598, when Shakespeare and his company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, were looking for somewhere to build their own theatre (having been virtually evicted from their previous Shoreditch base), Bankside was the obvious choice. Therefore, the Rose plays an integral role in the story of the Globe Theatre and the subsequent development of London theatre.

Today, Bankside is again home to a Globe Theatre. Shakespeare’s Globe, located several hundred yards away from the archaeological site of the Rose, is one of London’s most iconic and successful theatre venues, a reconstruction of the Shakespearean original, lovingly reincarnated with the same building materials and building practices. However, unlike its modern-age successor, the original Globe Theatre, along with the Rose and other playhouses of the time, were not located in London. Originally, Bankside, across the Thames, was outside of the jurisdiction of the City of London; a separate, independent area, away of the authority of the puritanical city fathers.

Entertainment on Bankside

Its position outside London, allowed Elizabethan Bankside to thrive as the entertainment district for the city, connected across the river by the original London Bridge (London’s sole bridge across the Thames until the construction of Westminster Bridge in 1750). Virtually the equivalent of an Elizabethan high street, London Bridge was lined with an array of shops and houses; by 1599, the year that the first Globe opened, there were said to be about 200 buildings on the bridge. Between 1305 and 1678, the heads of traitors were spiked and displayed on the Great Stone Gate at the northern end of the bridge. The beheading of traitors was standard practice but display on London Bridge was reserved especially for people found guilty of treason; Thomas More and Guy Fawkes, for example, both had their heads spiked on London Bridge after their execution.

If one wanted to avoid the crowds, and the gruesome sight of severed heads, Londoners had the alternative of taking a wherry, or water taxi, across the Thames to Bankside. In 1193, the City Corporation had started licensing boats and in 1514, an Act was passed to regulate the fares charged for journeys on the river. In 1555, a governing body known as the Company of Watermen was established. In 1598, there were 40,000 licensed watermen on the Thames. The watermen themselves were quite colourful characters and became infamous for their coarse, foul-mouthed ‘water language’ and would wait on rough stone benches by the river until their boats were filled up with passengers looking to cross the river.

Across the river, punters were greeted with about 300 inns and alehouses, a boisterous haven for drinking and gambling for the citizens. There were also, of course, many brothels, regulated and managed by none other than the Bishop of Winchester, who shamefully profited from the activities of his ‘Winchester Geese’. Additionally, another popular pastime in Bankside was bear-baiting. Hugely popular in the 16th century, Henry VIII had his own bear-pit built at the Palace of Whitehall, whilst Elizabeth I was also a fan of the barbaric blood-sport.

Later, in 1614, Phillip Henslowe, a theatrical entrepreneur, attempted to capitalise on Bankside’s appetite for playgoing and bear-baiting, fusing the two together with the creation of the Hope Theatre. Envisioned as a dual-purpose venue, with bear and animal baiting taking place on Sundays and Thursdays, with plays on the other days, the Hope enjoyed little prominence, its greatest claim to fame being the home of Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair. However, Jonson himself dismissed the Hope as “dirty as Smithfield and stinking every whit”.

Henslowe enjoyed more success with his first Bankside theatre, The Rose. Along with his business partner, John Chomley, Henslowe accquired a plot of land called the Little Rose estate in March 1585. Together, the budding impesarios signed an agreement to build a playhouse in Bankside and run it for eight years. Constructed by the carpenter John Griggs, the theatre was made of timber, with a lath and plaster exterior and thatch roof. Theatre had arrived in Bankside.

Discovery and Excavation

In December 1988, on the site between Rose Alley and Park Street, the Museum of London commenced a two-month dig following the demolition of Southbridge House, a 1950s office block, and a new development by Imry Merchant. The archeologists knew that the area was the location of the Rose but did not expect anything to have survived, since no existing part of an Elizabethan theatre had yet been discovered

Remarkably, two thirds of the foundations of the Rose were discovered and so, for the first time, there was physical evidence of the shape, size and layout of an Elizabethan theatre which, until then, had only been based on speculation. The first foundations were uncovered in January 1989, with more remains discovered over the following months. Imry Merchant did grant several extensions and helped to fund the dig but they still wanted their new office block so, in May 1989, they called a halt to any more work on the site. However, the archeologists pleaded for more time because of how important and significant the remains were and the fact that there was still more to discover. By this time, the discovery had become nationwide news and a campaign was launched to Save the Rose to prevent the site from being destroyed. Established actors and leading figures in the theatre world joined the campaign and a compromise was agreed. Imry Merchant would go ahead and build their office block (Rose Court) but agreed to a redesign so that no piling would damage or destroy the current remains. They also agreed to an underground croft from where the site could be seen.

Perhaps the biggest discovery revealed by the excavations in 1989 was the shape of the theatre. Prior to the discovery in 1989, it was widely believed that the Elizabethan theatres were circular, which is how they are shown in contemporary drawings and maps from the period. Scholars also assumed that all the sides would be of

equal length. However, it was confirmed with the Rose discovery that the Elizabethan theatres were in fact polygonal in shape. They also discovered that the Rose had fourteen irregular sides; one theory is that John Grigg, was constricted by a ditch (which lead to the Thames) and was forced to add two bays to a planned, twelve-sided, regular polygon. Another surprising discovery was the position of the stage. Previously, it was believed that the Elizabethan stages were set in the southwest so that sunlight would not directly shine on and damage the expensive costumes of the actors. However, the stage of the Rose was discovered in the northern sector of the theatre, which proved that this was not always the case and shows us that no two Elizabethan theatres were exactly alike.

The Admiral’s Men and Marlowe

In 1592, the Rose became home to a playing company called the Admiral’s Men. They were a very prestigious group, mainly because they were led by the leading actor of the period, Edward Alleyn. Shortly after the Admiral’s Men came on board, Henslowe extended the stage, likely to accommodate for his new exclusive group of players. Alleyn later married Henslowe’s daughter, Joan Woodward, and became his business partner. When Alleyn died in 1626, he left all his wealth to found Dulwich College, which continues today as a boarding school for boys.

As well as Alleyn, there was another name behind the rise of the Rose; the top playwright of the day, Christopher Marlowe. Marlowe’s earliest and greatest plays — Doctor Faustus, The Jew of Malta and Tamburlaine — were first performed at The Rose with Alleyn starring in the lead roles. Marlowe may well have emerged as the greatest playwright of the Elizabethan age but was killed at the age of 29, in suspicious circumstances, in Deptford. Marlowe’s death left the stage open for Shakespeare to later establish himself as the era’s leading playwright (two of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, Henry VI and Titus Andronicus, were first performed at the theatre).

Fortunately, the archaeological skeleton of the Rose, and the works of Marlowe and Shakespeare, were not the only remnants of the theatre left behind. A wealth of information regarding the running of the Rose, and subsequently the business of Elizabethan theatre, has been preserved with the survival of Henslowe’s diary. Henslowe was a meticulous notetaker and most entries in his diary relate to the Rose, giving us a unique, first-hand record of how an Elizabethan company was run. Henslowe lists props, costumes, records of loans to players, payments for play-texts and for three continuous years, the totals of each day’s takings at the Rose, complete with the titles of each play performed there.

Ultimately, the glory days of the Rose proved short-lived, despite the presence and talents of Alleyn and Marlowe, and the shrewd management of Henslowe. A competitor came along in 1595 in the form of the Swan Theatre, followed by the first Globe Theatre in 1599. When The Globe opened, it soon overtook The Rose as the leading theatre on Banskide and by 1606, Henslowe had virtually abandoned the theatre (having opened The Fortune in Shoreditch). It was later dismantled and its timbers were used elsewhere.

Today, the remaining 1/3 of the theatre is yet to be excavated. The Rose Playhouse Trust has been established to preserve the excavations and to excavate and preserve the remaining third, with the whole site to undergo redevelopment as a performance and education centre in the future. The story of the Rose, Bankside’s first Tudor theatre, is far from over.

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Lawrence Bennie

Lawrence Bennie

Teacher & Theatre tour guide. Interested in Arts & Culture, Film, History, Psychology, and the odd mystery!