Places and people often leave behind traces of themselves in the memory of a landscape. In the countryside archaeological remains can often survive as ‘lumps and bumps’ on the ground or as marks in fields of growing crops, both, given the correct conditions and time of year, are often clearly visible from the air. An urban landscape does not lend itself to such aerial surveys, buildings and roads smother any archaeology often by many metres. However, echoes do survive.
The Theatre was London’s first purpose built playhouse and lasted for 21 years and the year after it opened a second, The Curtain, was built in Shoreditch some 200m to the south; its exact location is not yet known archaeologically, but it lasted until at least 1627 when it disappeared from the records. It has, however, left a mark on London’s streetscape.
Running from Worship Street in the south, crossing Great Eastern Street to Old Street in the north is Curtain Road, so named for the eponymous theatre that once stood nearby; a blue plaque marks an approximate location just off Curtain Road on Hewitt Street.
The Curtain was used by Shakespeare’s company, The Lord Chamberlains Men, after the closure of The Theatre, until their new venue, The Globe, was completed in 1599.
Also on the west side of Curtain Road, a stone’s throw from our site, lies another shade from Shoreditch’s past – a 20th century building named in remembrance of the family intrinsically linked with the theatrical world of Shakespeare’s day, Burbage House. James Burbage built The Theatre and his son, Richard, was one of the most famous actors of his day playing the lead in many of Shakespeare and other writers’ plays.
To the observant, any walk or bus ride through London is replete with such echoes in the landscape; for even in a city that is constantly consuming and rebuilding itself yards and passages, streets and roads are named in memento mori for long defunct pubs and inns, markets, factories, docks, wharfs and theatres.
“The world must be peopled…” (Much Ado About Nothing, II, iii, 262)
We have previously mentioned in passing various people from the time of The Theatre, so some facts from the lives of these dramatis personae will be interspersed throughout this and the following post to repopulate the past.
Dramatis personae: James Burbage: 1531-1597
- A joiner skilled in carpentry, possibly from Stratford
- Succumbed to the lure of the stage and became an actor with the Earl of Leicester’s Men then entrepreneur and impresario of the Elizabethan London theatre scene, being the first Englishman to obtain a theatrical licence in 1574
- On land leased from Giles Allen he built The Theatrein 1576, borrowing £666 13s 4d from his brother-in-law John Brayne (Burbage was married to Ellen, John’s sister) to do so. An earlier Brayne theatrical enterprise at the Red Lion Inn, Mile End had failed, but the experience was not wasted. This experience combined with Burbage’s building and business skills to make the new joint venture, The Theatre, was a success
- Burbage’s The Earl of Leicester’s Men were probably the first troupe associated with The Theatre
- Burbage also established an indoor playhouse at Blackfriars
- He was buried in St Leonard’s church, Shoreditch, the “actor’s” church
Our recent hard work has been paying handsome dividends; we have started to find evidence for much more intensive medieval activity than the historical records had suggested. Up until now the evidence we had for the medieval Priory buildings had conformed to the, albeit conjectural, map of the priory featured in our previous post showing the brew and bake house range running down the western edge of the Priory Great Court but with no buildings behind, to the west.
Dave' sketch plan of hte new medieval features
We have now uncovered a series of walls, floors, ovens and a possible water-course in this area to the west of the brew house and bake house range. Dave’s interpretive sketch plan shows The Theatreremains (real and conjectural in pink), the brew house (to the east and highlighted in yellow) with the new walls, floors and ovens arranged below (to the west); some have been found in our trenches underneath The Theatreitself, so even when Burbage came to build his playhouse on Allen’s open ground behind the brew house it is clear that this was not always the case and that it had previously been very built up.
The new discoveries are adding layers of detail and complexity to this site and to the 400 year history of the Priory – as many years as separate us now from The Theatre – and we hope to bring you more details of these new discoveries as they emerge.
In archaeology, we know that no matter how much and how detailed the historical research done, our sites almost always turn up something exciting and we always have to expect the unexpected. In this way, archaeology informs history and visa versa, the two combining to create a fuller picture of the past.
But history, the written record, is incomplete, it has many voids: not all events were recorded, records were not retained, were lost or destroyed and history itself for Britain really only begins with the Romans who first wrote of Britain in the first century BC, before that is Pre-history. There is now new evidence that suggests our ancestors walked this green and pleasant land as far back as 800,000 years ago (follow this link for more information: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/about-us/news/2010/july/ancient-britons-were-earliest-northern-europeans72335.html) and it is in the absence of history that archaeology is the onlysource of evidence for some 798,000 years of human and proto-human activity.
Preservation by Record
In the field, we often use little interpretative sketches, such as Dave’s shown here, to help us keep a handle on various features as they are being excavated, but there is much more to recording an excavation than that.
We use what is known as the “single context system” to record and plan all the features we find during our excavations. A context is the smallest recordable archaeological unit, for example, if we find a pit, the cut (the edge/surface) of the pit is recorded as one context and what it contains as another or others if there is more than one clearly distinguishable fill. Deposited layers, ditches, post holes, floors, walls and other structures are all broken down into individual contexts.
Each context is given an individual number (context number) and separately described and recorded on specially designed sheets. Each context is allocated a position in a stratigraphic matrix according to its stratigraphic relationship (or age, relative to the other contexts) to other contexts. We use the “law of superimposition” to work out the contexts’ position in the matrix as we excavate them; for example if layer A is on top of layer B then layer B has to be older than layer A according to how they were laid down. If a pit, with cut C and filled with D, is dug through our layers we would end up with the sequence (from newest to oldest) D-C-A-B. Just as with Flinders Petrie’s relative chronology for his pottery (featured in our third post), we can build up a relative chronology for the site using this method. Later, when the finds and samples have been examined by our specialists we can use them to date contexts within the stratigraphic matrix which allows us to create a dating framework for the site as a whole.
Also, our sites are divided into a five metre grid set out by our surveyors and the contexts are individually drawn on almost indestructible waterproof paper called “permatrace” using this grid. Back at the office, these individual plans are then digitised (mapped onto a computer) as layers, which allows us to separate or group contexts in a number of different ways to help with our post excavation analysis: to best understand the sequences of construction, usage and destruction. The plan of The Theatre remains (shown in our second posting) was derived from such an analysis; we can use real and conjectural layers to attain the best interpretation from the evidence excavated.
All these records, paper, digital and physical (in the form of any finds recovered) form the site archivewhich will be accessible to future generations of researchers to study. One the post-excavation analysis is complete and a report written, the archive will reside in the London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre, the LAARC (for more information on the LAARC, follow this link: http://www.museumoflondonarchaeology.org.uk/English/ArchiveResearch/).
“O Rare Ben Jonson” (epitaph)
Dramatis personae: Ben Jonson: 1572-1637
- Jonson did not attend university, but had a good education at the Westminster School, prided himself as being a scholar and was later awarded an honorary degree by Oxford University
- Started as a bricklayers apprentice
- His first professional theatrical engagement was at The Theatre
- He wrote many plays, mostly comedies and satires, including: The Case is Altered, Every Man in His Humour (in which Shakespeare is thought to have played as an actor), Eastward Ho, Valpone and the Alchemist
- A contemporary, rival and friend of Shakespeare
- He killed the actor, Gabriel Spencer, in a duel and only narrowly escapes the gallows
- After Shakespeare’s death, he wrote many words in his praise, including: “While I confess thy writings to be such, As neither man, nor muse, can praise to much”, “he was not of an age, but for all time” and also “Sweet Swan of Avon”
- Jonson have edited Shakespeare’s posthumous First Folio
- His portrait bares an uncanny likeness to the actor Tom Baker
- he is buried in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey under a slab inscribed “O Rare Ben Jonson”
“when I am king, as king I will be, there shall be no money…” (Henry VI, Part 2. IV, ii, 73).
Or will there?…
Much like theatres today, the better the seat, the more you pay. Takings for the entertainments provided at The Theatre, were collected by a team of people called the gatherers in little pottery boxes, like piggy banks. The gatherers would have stood at the main entrance and at the foot of the stairs leading to the three levels of galleries. We know from historical records the names of two of these gatherers: Henry Johnson, a cloth worker or silk weaver, who may also have been a costumer for The Theatre,and was in post for the first 10 years; also Margaret Brayne, the widow of Burbage’s erstwhile partner and father-in-law and who succeeded Johnson.
Playgoers paid one penny to enter which would have allowed them to stand in the theatre yard as groundlings. If they wished for a better view and a seat, they passed another gatherer at the entrance to the gallery stairs and paid another penny.
These entrances were described by a foreign visitor to the later Swantheatre called Johennes De Witt. He called them ingresses (singular: ingresus), as he named the parts of the theatre using classical references from the Roman writer Vitruvius, the English it seems, more prosaically named them dores.
The better the seat, the more ‘dores’ and gatherers were passed and the more pennies paid. The best seats in the house were the Lord’s Seats which would have cost up to six pence. The exact position of the Lord’s Seats within the theatre is still debated, but it was there that the wealthy and privileged would have sat in their finery as much on show themselves as to watch the show.
The term box office seems to have originated in Tudor London’s Theatreland and derives from the small backstage room where the gatherers brought their (hopefully) full money boxes once the performance had begun. Here the boxes were broken open and the takings emptied into the ‘Common Boxe’for the counting and later division of the monies; a room for boxes, hence box office. James Burbage was once accused by his partner of stealing from the common box by means of a counterfeit key, just one of the many legal wrangle he became embroiled in during his business life, records of many of these cases still survive and it may be that Shakespeare’s line “the first thing we do, lets kill all the lawyers” (Henry VI, Part 2, VI, ii, 73) was possibly inspired by their over involvement in the lives of his theatre folk!
During the last few weeks we have discovered the remains of the gatherers’ pottery money boxes and some errant pennies.
The economy of Elizabethan England was not in the healthiest of states (history has the habit of repeating itself!) and the official mints only produced silver and gold coinage. So if you needed small change you had to resort to other means. Typically in the period, German tokens or jettons were used as small change. These were not strictly legal tender, but markets and providers of services being what they are were prepared to allocate a value to these jettons and they passed for pennies in London and beyond.
Between The Theatre’s inner and outer walls, underneath where the galleries would have been, Charlotte found such a jetton. Should such an item been dropped by a groundling on the theatre yard it would not have gone un-noticed for long, but our find must have slipped between the floorboards and come to rest in the dust and detritus below to wait the 400 years for us.
Our Shakespearean Theatre expert, Julian Bowsher, has identified it as being made by one of the three master token makers named Hans Schultes (I–III) from Nuremberg (you should be able to just make out the NS and SCHUL of his name in the picture). Julian suspects that it is a jetton of Hans Schultes II (a token master from 1586 until his death in 1603). These dates fit well with the second decade of The Theatre and we will able to confirm this when has been cleaned, conserved and examined by our numismatists(coin experts). You can see more about these jettons at http://www.mernick.org.uk/Bexley/article3.htm.
The money boxes themselves were cheaply produced, of various shapes and sizes but typically 10-15cm tall and round, were usually glazed in brown or green, had a penny sized slot cut into them and a characteristic ‘knob’ moulded on top.
We have now found seven of the ‘knobs’ and a handful of body sherds. The excavation at The Rose and The Globe theatres produced 162, so we have a little way to catch up in the week remaining of the dig! The picture of the whole money box (above) is from the Museum of London’s online collections which can be found at http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/English/Collections/OnlineResources/ .
Money box from below
Money box top in profile
You can see in the photo of one of our moneyboxes (left), where the glaze has bled from outside to inside (see red arrow), this marks the top of the coin slot, through which some of Hans Schultes’s jettons may have passed, perhaps for a performance of Romeo and Juliet, with Richard Burbage in the lead.
Examples have been found at other sites in London but they are particularly associated with the theatres and it is at those sites that the bulk of them have been unearthed; The Theatre is the prototype, the first of the purpose built playhouses and it is here that these little pottery money box tops are providing hard physical evidence for what has only been mentioned before in documents, London’s first purpose built theatrical box office.
As for the room itself? That lies under an adjacent building, waiting.
The box office for the Tower Theatre Company’s new theatre (see the plans on: http://www.thetheatre.org.uk/index.htm) will be, as modern convention dictates, at the front of the building. The pottery money boxes and gatherers have been replaced by credit card-reading machines and internet advanced booking to ensure that those bums on seats have paid their pennies.
“a fellow of infinite jest…” (Hamlet, V, i, 201)
Dramatis personae: Richard Tarlton: 1530-1588
- Also known as Snuff, he was a Clown, singer, musician, fencing master and writer
- Plays were not the only entertainments provided by the playhouses. Displays of fencing were common as was clowning and Tarlton was the best known of these clowns. He would perform his skits at the end of the play often engaging heavily with the audience
- Sometimes people would come to the theatre just to see Tarlton and not the plays which lead to some occasional arguments with the players
- He was called the “writing clown” with many pamphlets, ballads, poems and at least one, sadly lost play The Seven Deadly Sins, to his name
- In one pamphlet he wrote a description of the Great Earthquake of April 6th1580 which shook The Theatre and The Curtain such that the audience were “not a little dismayed”. An event that Shakespeare later recalls in Romeo and Juliet, where Juliet’s nurse tells:
’Tis since the earthquake now eleven years;
And she was wean’d – I never shall forget it
- Tarlton wa talented at improvisation (modern stand up comedians take note) often from suggestions provided by the audience and he was a master at the putting down of hecklers
- The description of Yoric given by Hamlet (V. i. 201), was said to have been written in memory of Tarlton
- He was Elizabeth I favourite clown
- Tarlton’s Jests, written posthumously, contained many of his jokes and many that weren’t as unscrupulous publishers tried to cash in on his fame
- He is buried in St Leonard’s church, Shoreditch, his epitaph was: “he of clowns to learn still sought/ But now they learn of him they taught.”
- Follow http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/583614/Richard-Tarlton for a woodcut depicting Tarlton
- All good things come to an end – the last week of excavation
- Round up of discoveries
- So what did you think of it all? – some thoughts from those involved
- Further information