Blackfriars Theatre in Renaissance London

A monastery built in 1278 by Dominican monks was closed in 1538 by Henry VIII, used as site of two theatres, and permanently closed in 1642 by Puritans.

Blackfriars Theatre was named in reference to monks’ vestments. Located near the Thames River in London, England, it was a ‘liberty’ property (within the city walls, but outside city jurisdiction).

The large area with great gardens and numerous buildings was divided up after Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1538. The beautifully-landscaped property became a place where the gentry built grand houses or whiled away their time.

First Theatre at Blackfriars

In 1576, during Queen Elizabeth’s reign, one building at Blackfriars was leased for use of the Children of the Chapel, under Richard Farrant’s direction. The child actors/singers rehearsed and performed their plays prior to their presentations at the Royal Court.

The owner of the building, Sir William More, disapproved of the renovations to his building and the public performances for money. There was also strong opposition to the plays that were considered too political.

Through several years, even after Richard Farrant’s death, More fought to evict the performers. The lease exchanged hands several times as benefactors attempted to maintain the theatre. In 1584 More banished the actors and their benefactors from Blackfriars and converted his building into tenements.

Theatrical Entrepreneur James Burbage

Elizabethan actor and theatrical entrepreneur James Burbage (1531-1597) made considerable profit by presenting plays at Inn Yards. He was responsible for construction of The Theatre in 1576.

In 1596, Burbage purchased property at Blackfriars where, at great expense, he converted a building into an indoor venue for winter theatrical productions. Wealthy residents of the area who strongly objected to its use as a theatre prevented James Burbage from opening. He leased the building to a boys acting company which disbanded in 1608. James Burbage died in 1597.

Innovative Acting Company Included Shakespeare

In 1608, James Burbage’s sons, Richard and Cuthbert, formed a syndicate to manage the Blackfriars playhouse. The syndicate comprised the Burbage brothers, William Shakespeare, John Herminge, and Henry Condell (all members of the King’s Men acting troupe) as well as William Sly and Thomas Evans. The brothers held 50% of the shares because they had paid the majority of expenses.

Richard Burbage (1567-1619) was the most famous actor of the Globe Theatre. He was the principal actor in plays written by Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare. Also an actor, Cuthbert Burbage (1566-1636) was more interested in management than performance and production.

The King’s Men Acting Troupe

The King’s Men (formerly Lord Chamberlain’s Men), under King James’ patronage, was the leading theatrical company in London. It was one of the few to own its own playhouse and to maintain it over a long period of time. The company performed numerous times at the Royal Court.

William Shakespeare’s plays were frequently presented at Blackfriars, as were those of many playwrights. Among them was Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour in which Shakespeare performed.

The company employed about twenty actors, and by 1608 it was operating both the Globe and Blackfriars. The King’s men performed at the Globe during summer and at Blackfriars during winter. Area residents’ attempts to close the theatre in 1619 failed when the Privy Council intervened.

In 1642, the new Puritanical regime of London closed down all places of entertainment. The Globe Theatre was demolished in 1644. Having fallen into disrepair, the Blackfriars theatre was demolished in 1655.

A modern street sign “Playhouse Yard” near the Apothecaries Hall, and a fragment of the old stone wall are the only reminders of the theatre’s existence.

Sources:

  • Shakespeare’s friends by Kate Emery Pogue, Greenwood Publishing Group, Incorporated 2006

Leave a Comment