London – The First Theatres – 1574 – Patents

This article is from the book London – Volume 3 published in 1824 by Sholto and Reuben Percy – Brothers of the Benedictine Monastery – it covers the history of London’s theatres from the 1100s through to the 1800s.

London – The First Theatres – 1574 – Patents

When dramatic representations ceased to be founded on religious subjects, they were no longer performed in churches, as was the case sometimes with the mysteries and moralities, and playhouses became necessary. The convenient form of the  inns (still preserved in many of them) in London, with an open area in the centre, and a gallery on each side of the quadrangle, presented itself as a theatre ready made, with the exception of the stage; this was easily raised either in the centre or on one side of the court, and thus many of our early dramatic pieces were performed in the yards of the inns. Even the first theatres were but a very slight improvement, for the area or pit was generally exposed to the air.

The first company of players that received the sanction of a patent, was that of James Burbidge and others, the servants of the Earl of Leicester, to whom Queen Elizabeth granted a patent in [1574]. The children of the royal chapel, afterwards called the children of the Revels, were next formed into a company; and the Lord Admiral and Lord Strange had each a company of players, who occasionally exhibited at the houses of their patrons, or in other parts of the town. Stowe states, that Lord Strange’s players performed an obnoxious play at the Cross Keys in 1589 and although the lord treasurer had requested the lord mayor to suppress it, they disobeyed the order, which induced his lordship to commit two of them to the Compter, and to prohibit all plays until the pleasure of the lord treasurer was known. Previous to this time the plays were complained of as personal satires; and so early as the year [1574], Sir James Hawes, lord mayor, issued a proclamation in which he claimed for himself and the court of aldermen, the privilege now exercised by the lord chamberlain, of perusing and sanctioning the plays previous to their being acted. A penalty of five pounds and fourteen days imprisonment were inflicted on all actors of plays, “wherein should be uttered any words, examples or doings of any unchastity, sedition, or such like unfit and uncomely matter.” Yet it was provided that this act “should not extend to plays performed in private houses, the lodgings of a nobleman, citizen or gentleman, for the celebration of any marriage or other festivity, and where no collection of money was made from the auditors.”

It appears from Stowe, that the first players were “ingenious tradesmen and gentlemen’s servants,” who united in a company of themselves “to learn interludes, to expose vice, or to represent the noble actions of our ancestors;” but that in process of time it became an occupation, when the players publicly “uttered popular and seditious matters, and shameful speeches; and these plays being commonly acted on Sundays and festivals, the churches were forsaken, and the play houses thronged.”

Excerpt from London Volume 3 1824 by Sholto and Reuben Percy – Brothers of the Benedictine Monastery

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Further reading and external links

William Shakespeare on Wikipedia

The Globe Theatre on Wikipedia

Sholto and Rueben Percy