1576 is a date to remember in literary history. In fact, considering its importance in so many areas, it’s a date to remember in mainstream history as well. It was in 1576 that the commercial Stage was born in London, a step not only towards artistic freedom for performers and playwrights, but for freedom of speech itself. It was sometime in the spring or summer of 1576 that Burbage’s public theater in Norton Folgate first opened its doors to paying customers (Stopes 20), and sometime during the Christmas holidays that same year that the same thing occured with the elite little indoor theater in the Liberty of Blackfriars (Irwin Smith 135).
There are coincidences in life, but that the commercial Stage was born in two places in London––one private, one public––within weeks of the Earl of Oxford’s arrival back from Italy, Europe’s theatrical center, is simply not one of them!
The First Blackfriars Theater was located between the Thames and Fleet Street just inside the City Wall that separated the City of London from Westminster and the Inns of Court, the legal colleges, to the west. For centuries Blackfriars had been London’s wealthiest and most prestigious monastery, but in 1526 when Henry VIII turned it over to his Master of the Revels, Sir Thomas Cawarden, it became home to the royal entertainers. Gone were the monks and lawmakers; in came the actors and musicians. Over time, Cawarden sold and leased sections of it to various wealthy or important courtiers (most notably to George Brooke, Ld Cobham, and Henry Baron Hunsdon, the Queen’s Lord Chamberlain) while retaining for the Revels the use of those sections that were handiest to the King’s palace of Bridewell, just across what was then Fleet Creek.
Burbage’s public stage, named The Theatre, was located in Shoreditch, in the Liberty of Norton Folgate, in medieval times a hamlet connected with the Priory of Holywell, a convent of St. John the Baptist. At that time, Shoreditch was still a relatively quiet semi-rural suburb just outside the City Wall, north of the East End. Both theaters were protected (to some extent) from interference by the City by being located within “liberties,” zones created centuries earlier to segregate religious institutions from secular politics, now administered by the Crown.
Our use of the word “theater” as opposed to “stage” stems from Burbage’s choice of it as the name for his “house.” Both “theater” and “stage” came from French, “stage” somewhat earlier, from the Old French “estage,” meaning “a place.” The spelling of “theatre”––a somewhat loftier term derived from Greek––shows its French origin.
Since it’s obvious, or should be, that the development of these two theaters was connected in some way with Oxford’s return, it may be that he also had something to do with their locations.
He would certainly have been familiar with the warren of apartments and studios at Blackfriars from his earliest days at Cecil House. When preparing for some important Court event, he and Rutland would have learned their dance routines from the Court dancemaster, Richard Frith, who, from 1554 until 1589, held the lease on the apartment next to the one that, according to Irwin Smith, later became the first Blackfriars Theater (134). Most likely Oxford and Rutland also studied fencing with William Joyner, the fencing master whose studio occupied rooms on the floor directly beneath the theater apartment (125-6). Later, once Oxford was living at Court and helping to produce Court entertainments, these rooms would have been the ones he used for rehearsals, with costumes and props coming from the apartment next door.
Oxford had a connection as well with the Holywell property on which Burbage built his theater through his friend, the Earl of Rutland. Although The Theatre was built on land leased from one Giles Allen, who had inherited it through marriages and wills from Henry VIII’s Tower Porter who had obtained it as a gift from the King following the Dissolution of the monasteries (Stopes 68), a large portion of the monastic property remained in the hands of the Rutland earls.
Rutland’s family had held the stewardship of the manor of Shoreditch, including the Priory and the land surrounding it, since the days of Richard II. (The Church of St. Leonard’s at Norton Folgate still contains plaques in memory of generations of members of the Manners family.) Though the King had given away or sold some of the priory land, in 1576 the Earl of Rutland still held what appears to have been a large portion of undeveloped land. This bordered at its northwestern corner on the portion now belonging to Giles, where The Theatre was located. This shared an access road and a horse pond with the Rutland property, and presumably also with the audiences that streamed into the area on a daily basis once The Theatre opened its doors.
Although it’s unlikely that Rutland was personally involved with the actual theater transaction, we can assume that his permission at least was needed, and beyond that, his assurance that no one would give them any trouble. Planning to build something as noisy as a public theater so near to the property of a peer would have required permission, if not legal, then certainly to forstall future problems. In fact it was not until some time after the death of Oxford’s friend that the Burbages had any problems with a Rutland (Stopes 68).
Also of interest is the fact that Oxford’s father’s first marriage (1536) took place at Holywell Priory where he married one of the daughters of the Earl of Westmorland while his friend, the 2nd Earl of Rutland, father of Oxford’s friend, married the other.
At some point within the four years following his return from Italy, Oxford moved from Broad Street to the manor in Bishopsgate known as Fisher’s Folly. This placed him walking distance from Burbage’s Theatre to the north and from two of the bigger theater inns, the Bull and the Cross Keyes to the south. Here he would come to be surrounded by a diverse community of Catholic recusants, French Huguenot refugees and other religious dissidents, spies, Continental weavers, plus a community of performers, among them members of the original group of actors who called themselves Leicester’s Men and several members of the Bassano family of Court musicians. Years before taking possession of it, Oxford had become familiar with Fisher’s Folly while following the Court on its summer progress, which at least twice had included Jasper Fisher’s manor.
Considering the fact that Burbage’s Theatre was the first of its kind in England––possibly in all of Europe––a good deal of thought must have gone into its planning. Most simply assume that Burbage came up with the design himself. But although James Burbage was a carpenter as well as an actor by trade, builders in those days built according to patterns they learned while apprenticing; professional architects would not appear until later. So far as I can tell, Burbage’s was the first round theater to be built in England––perhaps in all of Europe. Oxford had grown up with four versions of the ancient classic on architechure, de Architectura by the ancient Roman architect Vetruvius, in which several chapters were devoted to a stage design so similar to Burbage’s that there must be a connection––the subject of Frances Yates’s Theater of the World.
1576: Birth of the commercial Stage
Thus before the year 1576 was over, from nothing but a few inns that functioned as theaters only intermittently and the little theater at Paul’s Cathedral where the choirboys put on plays, there were suddenly two commercially successful full-time theaters in operation in London: a huge outdoor auditorium that drew the public through the open fields just north of the East End and an intimate indoor space that provided entertainment for the mostly upper class intelligensia who lived, or gathered, in the West End. In addition, the company known as the Lord Admiral’s Men was first organized this year.
Much as this may have pleased a public hungry for entertainment, it did not please the bishops, the local magistrates, or various influential persons who lived within the liberties of Blackfriars or Norton Folgate. Within months of their opening the protests began. City officials complained of the noise and dangers to public health and safety while clerics condemned them as sinkholes of sin––protests that would only rise in fervor as the City, the Church, and the theaters’ neighbors tried one means or another to get rid of them. But the theaters had powerful, if silent, supporters, and once they proved their value, the London public would not sit silently by had any one of these opponents succeeded in shutting them down.
1576 is also the year that Andrew Gurr tells us the long-lived company later known as the Lord Admiral’s Men was formed under the patronage of Lord Charles Howard (he acquired the title of Lord Admiral during the approach to the 1588 showdown with the Spanish Armada), then functioning as Vice Chamberlain under Sussex. As Howard’s Men, they first appear in the Court Revels accounts performing two plays during the 1576-77 holiday season at Court, one, Tooley, unknown, but the other, The Solitary Knight, sounds like it could be an early version of Timon of Athens.
Other adult companies that appeared at Court in 1576-77 include Sussex’s Men with their star actor Richard Tarleton, Warwick’s Men, who engaged in a race in 1576 with Burbage to get a theater built, theirs in Newington Butts, and Leicester’s Men, the company with Burbage at The Theatre, whose leading figure then was Robert Wilson. But the main companies were still those of the boy choristers, always the Queen’s favorites. (Gurr Companies 186)
The very different kinds of audience that attended these two theaters created an unprecedented demand for plays. A travelling company might make do with a relatively small playbook since they could keep giving the same two or three plays as they moved from one town to another. But a company that stayed put would need a greatly expanded playbook if they were to keep their audience coming back week after week. What sort were these early plays? Although the Revels accounts give us some titles from this early period, we know nothing else about them––or their authors.
The first play to be produced that first holiday season following Oxford’s return was Mutius Scaevola, performed by a large company made up of the various Children’s companies. That it was probably Oxford’s play we can guess by the title, since it was about one of the semi-mythical heroes of the early Roman republic whose story thrilled the imaginations of Renaissance Europeans. Like another story from that period, the Rape of Lucrece, it was freqently portrayed in works of artthat Oxford would have seen while touring northern Italy.
Many of the titles of these early plays reveal that the popular genre during this period was the pastoral, stories with a Greek romance flavor that bore titles like Philemon and Philecia or Chloridon and Rhadiomanta. Pastorals focused on romantic situations where a pair of lovers had to overcome great odds to arrive at the requisite happy ending. Shakespeare parodies this genre in the rude mechanicals’ production of “Pyramis and Thisbe” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Most of these have been lost to time.
Nevertheless, probably because he was a better playwright than anyone else (also because he was addicted to getting published) some of Oxford’s romance plays have survived, though we know them only from their later Shakespearean revisions. Among the plays from this period, roughly 1576-79, would have been the initial versions of what we know today as Timon of Athens, Two Noble Kinsmen, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Cymbeline.
There are three, however, that we can be certain date from this early period, roughly 1578 to 1588, that were almost certainly never revised. These are Edmund Ironside, Thomas of Woodstock, and The Play of Sir Thomas More. All three have important characteristics in common with each other and with early Shakespeare.
Woodstock and Ironside were discovered in the middle of the 19th century in a bundle of play manuscripts known as MS. Egerton 1994, most of them dating from the late 17th century, that at one time belonged in the collection of Dulwich College. E.B. Everitt was the first to suggest, in 1954, that Ironside was early Shakespeare, followed in 1985 by Eric Sams’s more detailed treatment of Everitt’s thesis, and most recently and convincingly by Michael Egan’s four-volume exegesis. Both plays show signs of having been written in the late 1570s, probably for one of the adult companies, though it seems likely that they were then passed on to the Queen’s Men. The somewhat more sophisticated “More,” which can be dated with certainty to 1580, surfaced as a manuscript (MS. Harley 7368) in the mid-18th century when it ended up in the Harleian collection.
Apart from a few translations of classic plays during his teens, Oxford’s career as the author of original plays probably began in the early 70s with the appointment of Thomas Radcliffe, Earl of Sussex, as the Queen’s Lord Chamberlain. Sussex had gotten to know Oxford on a more personal level in 1569 while the 19-year-old was serving under him on the Scottish border during the Rebellion of the Northern Earls.
In Sussex Oxford may have felt for the first time that he had someone of his father’s age and rank that he could look to for support and understanding, a man of proven military prowess, and, not least, who shared his painful rivalry with the Earl of Leicester. With the Queen’s Lord Chamberlain in his corner, Oxford was free to spread his artistic wings while Sussex, for his part, saw that Oxford’s talent gave him a powerful weapon in his drive to take the Court Stage away from Leicester.
The first Blackfriars theater
Oxford’s standard procedure during the early 1570s would have been to work with the masters of the various children’s companies, plus a consort of Court musicians, at one of the apartments at Blackfriars. Once the show reached the dress rehearsal stage, the doors would be opened to select members of the local community for a short run preceding the Court performance. Those with any experience of the Theater can see this as the natural process of all acting companies, one that gave the little actors more time to play before a real audience before taking the show to Court. He was assisted in this by the masters of the two major Children’s companies, Sebastian Westcott (the Children of the Queen’s Chapell), and Richard Farrant (Children of the Windsor Chapell), and by his secretary, John Lyly.
In their case it also brought in some badly needed income for their masters, whose offices under tightwad Elizabeth were permanently underfunded. Growing boys have to be fed and clothed, so if the process was not strictly proper it was too useful to all concerned for there to be a fuss, that is, before 1576 when the occasional rehearsal performance turned into an ongoing commercial enterprise. As soon as that happened it opened the door to an uproar of protest.
With the establishment of the Blackfriars apartment in 1576 as a school for young choristers, one that contained a small theater where a paying audience could assemble on a regular basis, the occasional rehearsal performance turned into what had probably been intended all along, an ongoing commercial enterprise of which the goal was communication with the best audience in London, the gentlemen of the Inns of Court, whose West End digs lay just steps to the west, outside the City Wall, and who were able to pay top dollar for a night’s entertainment.
In this manner was born, in 1576, the London commercial Stage, in two locations, both closely connected with the training, interests, talents and life history of the nation’s Lord Great Chamberlain, the 26-year-old Earl of Oxford.