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At The Boar’s Head Playhouse

October 14, 2019
by the gentle author

Excavations at Aldgate

Down in Aldgate, on the corner where Petticoat Lane meets Whitechapel High St, once stood the Boar’s Head Playhouse. Just outside the City gate, it originated as a tavern and lodging for travellers at the beginning of the sixteenth century but by 1557 it was operating as a playhouse and continued to do so through the Shakespearean era.

We only know this because of a record of the Privy Council banning a lewd play entitled ‘ A Sack Full of News’ from being performed there in that year. In fact, most of what is known about this playhouse comes from lawsuits and it seems the Boar’s Head quickly acquired a reputation for satires and low city comedies of London life.

Last week, I went down to visit the Museum of London Archaeology‘s excavations and stand in the muddy spot where the players stood five hundred years ago, as the traffic of modern London roared around my ears. The archaeological site is in the shadow of a new Travelodge which suggests that, when it comes to the need for cheap accommodation, not too much has changed in this corner of Aldgate.

In 1594, Oliver Woodliffe took out a lease on the Boar’s Head and contructed a theatre in the yard complete with tiring house and a stage. In 1598, this was subleased to Richard Samwell who expanded the audience capacity by adding galleries. As a measure of the success of the playhouse, the following year he added more galleries and built a roof on the stage.

The Lord Derby’s Men became the first resident players and Robert Browne, leader of the company, quickly acquired the theatre, bringing in the Lord Worcester’s Men as the next resident company of actors. This was the heyday of the Boar’s Head Playhouse when the Privy Council wrote to the Lord Mayor in 1601 praising Worcester’s Men, ‘the place called the Boar’s Head is the place they have especially used and do like best, we do pray and require that the said house, namely the Boar’s Head, may be assigned to them.’

Yet the glory days of theatre were short-lived, curtailed by an outbreak of plague the following year. In 1603, Joan Alleyn wrote to her husband Edward, the celebrated actor, ‘Browne of the Boar’s Head is dead and died very poore.’

Chief Archaeologist Heather Knight confirmed that the Boar’s Head was a rectangular theatre in common with others north of the river, The Curtain, The Fortune and The Red Bull, while those on the south bank were round, The Globe, The Rose, The Swan and The Hope. Rectangular theatres offered a broad stage which suited plays with lots of action involving fencing, whereas the more intimate round playhouses suited romances. It is a mystery why these different styles of playhouse evolved on the opposing banks of the Thames, though it may reflect the differing audiences in each part of London.

How I wish I could have walked down from Spitalfields to the Boar’s Head Playhouse to join the audience and enjoy scurrilous comedies by Thomas Heywood, Thomas Dekker, John Webster, William Rowley, Thomas Middleton and see Ben Jonson’s lost play ‘The Isle of Dogs.’

A wall of the Boar’s Head Playhouse is uncovered (photograph courtesy MOLA)

The Boar’s Head Playhouse 1598 by C Walter Hodges

The Boar’s Head Playhouse 1599 by C Walter Hodges

Finds from the recent excavations at the Boar’s Head – the beer mug is likely to be from the tavern

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6 Responses leave one →
  1. Ian Silverton permalink
    October 14, 2019

    Thought that MOLA had enough old relics stored at Eagle Wharfe M Wheelers House to last a life time,my guide last time we went told me she had 5 years of old bones and pots to go through on her own,at the time more was arriving as we spoke,enough time spent in London on this,and that’s from somebody who in the 1950s dug up around the Mithras Temple in the City of London,now housed in the new Bloomberg Building same site same spot,go visit.

  2. aubrey permalink
    October 14, 2019

    It’s obvious that much research is the basis of this article. Fascinating.

  3. October 14, 2019

    Very interesting. Thank you.

  4. Pauline Taylor permalink
    October 14, 2019

    I bet that I can tell you the names of some of those who attended performances here as I am sure it would have appealed to them more than ‘romances’ south of the river. If a list still existed with a record of those who had bought tickets I have no doubt that William Tearoe and John Summersell would be there. William would have been taking an evening off from his duties as one of the Archbishop’s watermen and I can just imagine him rowing himself and his brother in law, John, across the river from Lambeth, and even more I can imagine them rowing back after an evening which probably ended with a bit of carousing in the Boar’s Head. I can just picture it all and this is what history in London is all about for me, and why I think I am so fortunate to have so many family connections with the City. From William Tearoe to John Beard, who sang at Covent Garden. John West, money scrivenor to Samuel Pepys who lived in a house where the Mansion House now stands and later Frederick Greenwood, the first editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, friend of Thackeray, Dickens and almost all the well known Victorian authors who was also responsible for Disraeli buying the shares in the Suez Canal for this country. Thank you GA for all that you do to bring all this to life for me, today’s piece being a case in point, London is full of such fascinating stories and we are so lucky to have you to write about so much of it for us. Thank you again.

  5. October 14, 2019

    I love to see relics, as part of your various posts. Mud-larking, excavations, etc. I love it when the earth “coughs up” these tenuous/tenacious bits. Here in the New York, when the World Trade Center Towers were being constructed, my soon-to-be husband and I would meet in a nearby churchyard for outdoor lunches. Workmen had appropriated a discarded rolling hot dog cart, and turned it into a VERY unofficial installation of found relics from the excavation. Complete with a cardboard hand-lettered sign…….”m u s e u m”……..We always looked forward to seeing what was added. I always wondered if anyone ever gathered up that bunch of stuff, and put it in a more (ahem) official place. As you can imagine, the array of unearthed stuff from the earliest settlements in Lower Manhattan might have deserved a grander backdrop than the motley cart. But we loved the serendipity involved, and always referred to it as The Cabinet of Curiosities. We’ve now been married over 51 years, the Towers are gone, but I still think of the artifacts.

  6. Paul Loften permalink
    October 14, 2019

    The black broken beer mug is surely evidence of the bawdy goings on at the site. One can only imagine how it got there. Perhaps thrown full of ale across the theater during a lewd 16 th c performance and landing in forever hidden corner ? I once read in a science magazine that a university was researching if it was possible to recover the sounds that could trapped in broken pieces of ancient pottery . Far fetched perhaps but would you not like to hear the riotous laughter and screams of long ago ? On second thoughts perhaps not. It may be a bit scary for some of us

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