Remains of London's oldest playhouse found by archaeologists

Experts believe the Red Lion outdoor theatre in London was built around 1567

Archaeologists excavating the timber structure. Archaeology South-East/UCL.
Archaeologists excavating the timber structure. Archaeology South-East/UCL.

Archaeologists believe they have discovered the remains of London’s oldest playhouse that was built only three years after the birth of William Shakespeare.

Dozens of timbers were found at the site in east London that experts believe could have been part of the outdoor stage and seating of the Red Lion, the earliest purpose-built playhouse, dating from about 1567.

A 3D model of the theatre site discovered by archaeologists. Archaeology South-East/UCL
A 3D model of the theatre site discovered by archaeologists. Archaeology South-East/UCL

It was thought to have been built by John Brayne, an entrepreneur who went on to build another larger theatre that staged plays by a young Shakespeare at the end of the 16th century.

The probably location of Red Lion based on a 1703 map and land deeds. Archaeology South-East/UCL
The probably location of Red Lion based on a 1703 map and land deeds. Archaeology South-East/UCL

Little is known about the playhouse but it features in two lawsuits from the 1560s when Brayne sued the carpenters because of shoddy work.

No physical evidence of the playhouse had been discovered until excavations in January 2019 started to uncover the timbers at the site of a planned housing development.

The playhouse is thought to have been a prototype that was used as a venue for companies of travelling actors, said Stephen White, who directed the excavation of the site.

“I thought we were on a hiding to nothing,” Mr White said. “There was a chance that something might be there – but it was a surprise.”

The theatre pre-dates by more than three decades the more famous Globe Theatre, which became closely associated with Shakespeare and the company of actors he wrote for during his career.

The Globe was re-created as a theatre and opened in 1997 on the banks of the River Thames and is one of London’s most popular tourist attractions.

Archaeologists working inside one of the beer cellars. Archaeology South-East/UCL
Archaeologists working inside one of the beer cellars. Archaeology South-East/UCL

Archaeologists believe the playhouse was part of a sprawling complex that developed from a farm, an inn and animal-baiting venue, according to the archaeologists from University College London. They also found bottles, tankards and a mug bearing the symbol of King Charles II, who reigned from 1660 to 1685.

A late 17th century tavern mug with a Royalist medallion of Charles II. Archaeology South-East / UCL.
A late 17th century tavern mug with a Royalist medallion of Charles II. Archaeology South-East / UCL.

“This is one of the most extraordinary sites I’ve worked on,” said Mr White. “After nearly 500 years, the remains of the Red Lion playhouse …. may have finally been found.”

Published: June 10, 2020 06:09 PM

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