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In Search Of The Red Lion Theatre

January 26, 2017
by the gentle author

Is this the location of The Red Lion Theatre?

The Red Lion Theatre in Whitechapel was constructed in 1567 by John Brayne and his father-in-law James Burbage as London’s first purpose-built public commercial theatre, predating by some years those in Shoreditch which are celebrated as the home of Shakespeare’s first plays. Now, recent excavations up in Shoreditch have led to a renewed interest in what may be discovered down in Whitechapel, encouraging my own speculation about the location of The Red Lion Theatre.

For centuries, Whitechapel was the point of arrival and departure for those travelling east, where coaching inns – such The Boar’s Head at Aldgate – became venues for the performance of plays, and Henry VII Treasurer’s Accounts book for 1501 includes the entry – ‘6 August 1501: Also to the players at Mile End, 3 shillings, 4 pence.’

Evidence for the existence of The Red Lion Theatre resides in two legal documents which record the nature of disagreements between John Brayne and those who built his theatre. This first extract describes the location of The Red Lion and outlines its dimensions.

‘The condition of this obligation is such that if the within bounden John Reynolds, his executors, or assigns, or any of them, at his or their proper costs and charges do frame, make, or build and set up for the within named John Brayne within the court or yard lying on the south side of the garden belonging to the messuage or farmhouse called and known by the name of the sign of the Red Lion (about the which court there are galleries now building), situate and being at Mile End in the parish of St Mary Matfellon, otherwise called Whitechapel without Aldgate of London, sometime called Stark’s House, one scaffold or stage for interludes or plays of good, new, and well-seasoned timber and boards, which shall contain in height from the ground five feet of assize and shall be in length north and south forty foot of assize and in breadth east and west thirty foot of assize, well and sufficiently stayed bounden and nailed, with a certain space or void part of the same stage left unboarded in such convenient place of the same stage as the said John Brayne shall think convenient; and if the said John Reynolds, his executors, or assigns do make, frame and set up upon the said scaffold one convenient turret of timber and boards which shall contain and be in height from the ground, set upon plates, thirty foot of assize… and also that the said scaffold or stage so to be made be fully finished, wrought and workmanly ended and done before the eighth day of July then next immediately ensuing without fraud or further delay: that then this obligation to be void and of none effect or else to stand and abide in full strength and virtue.’

This second document challenges the quality of the carpenters’ work and names one of the plays performed at the theatre as The Story of Sampson.

‘Court holden the 15th day of July 1567 … by master William Ruddock, Master Richard More, Henry Whreste, and Richard Smarte, wardens, and Master Bradshaw. Be it remembered that … where certain variance, discord, and debate was between William Sylvester, carpenter, on the one party and John Brayne, grocer, on the other party, it is agreed, concluded, and fully determined by the said parties, by the assent and consent of them both with the advice of the master and wardens above said, that William Buttermore, John Lyffe, William Snelling, and Richard Kyrby, carpenters, shall with expedition go and peruse such defaults as are and by them shall be found of, in, and about such scaffolds as he the said William hath made at the house called the Red Lion in the parish of Stepney, and the said William Sylvester shall repair and amend the same with their advice substantially as they shall think good. And that the said John Brayne on Saturday next ensuing the date above written shall pay to the said William Sylvester the sum of £8 10 shillings lawful money of England, and that after the play which is called The Story of Samson be once played at the place aforesaid the said John shall deliver to the said William such bonds as are now in his custody for the performance of the bargain. In witness whereof both parties hereunto hath set their hands.’

It is unknown whether these two scaffolds were used for performances beyond 1567 but it is unlikely that such a large structure with a trapdoor and a turret would be built to serve for just one season. Within a decade, John Brayne entered into a second collaboration with his father-in-law James Burbage, building The Theatre in Shoreditch in 1575. Thus The Red Lion in Whitechapel can be seen as a prototype of The Theatre, the structure which was eventually transported across the river and rebuilt on Bankside as The Globe in 1599.

As part of Before Shakespeare, a project to explore the origins of public playhouses in sixteenth century London, actors from The Dolphin’s Back staged a reading of Robert Wilson’s play The Three Ladies of London (1584) in Whitechapel recently at The Urban Bar – the venue closest to the location of The Red Lion. One of the first playhouse scripts to be printed, this lively allegorical drama exposes the exploitation of the poor and vulnerable, drawing a picture of London as a cosmopolitan city of international trade, where rents are escalating beyond affordable levels and citizens are anxious about the amount of revenue paid to Europe. Plus ça change!

The Gascoyne Map of Stepney (courtesy Before Shakespeare)

‘…within the court or yard lying on the south side of the garden belonging to the … farmhouse called and known by the name of the sign of the Red Lion…’ The Red Lion Farm is circled and the theatre is believed to have been constructed upon the westerly piece of land labelled ‘Bowling’ . (courtesy Before Shakespeare)

The presumed location of the Red Lion Theatre between Cavell St and Millward St is now occupied by a car park and a railway cutting

Actors from The Dolphin’s Back read Robert Wilson’s  The Three Ladies of London at the Urban Bar in Whitechapel close to the site of the Red Lion Theatre

This vacant lot at the corner of Middlesex St and Aldgate High St was once the site of The Boar’s Head, Whitechapel, 1557: ‘[Privy Council orders the Lord Mayor] to give order forthwith that some of his officers do forthwith repair to the Boar’s Head without Aldgate where the lords are informed a lewd play called A Sack Full of News shall be played this day, the players whereof he is willed to apprehend and to commit to safe ward . . . and to take their playbook from them and to send the same hither.’

For further information consult

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3 Responses leave one →
  1. Jim McDermott permalink
    January 26, 2017

    A nice, convincing piece of historical/archaeological detective work, GA. The 16th century association of actors with ‘low’ culture and insalubrious surroundings is a strong contrast to the reserved pedestal we give the profession these days. Perhaps somewhere in-between would be ideal.

  2. Ros permalink
    January 26, 2017

    Exciting stuff! Who’d have thought it??

  3. Jason Neely permalink
    June 4, 2017

    Hello, I too have wondered about the Red Lion – and why there isn’t more interest locally in marking the site. Regarding your photo – according to the following study no, that would not be the correct site – they place it just south of there, near corner of Cavell and Newark where, interestingly, there is a vacant lot.
    Best regards, Jason

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