On the 29th of June 1613, Shakespeare’s company, The King’s Men, were performing their new play Henry VIII, or All is True, when a cannon was shot and set the thatch roof on fire. Henry Wotton describes the event in a letter to Edmund Bacon:

                …Now, King Henry making a Masque at the Cardinal Wolsey’s House, and certain Cannons being shot off at his entry, some of the Paper, or other stuff, wherewith one of them was stopped, did light on the Thatch, where being thought at first but an idle smoak, and their Eyes more attentive to the show, it kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole House to the very ground (Reliquiae Wottoniae)

The tragic loss of the 1599 Globe was a significant event in the history of theatre. Julian Bowsher, The Museum of London Senior Archaeologist who has been working on the remains of London’s Shakespearean playhouses tells us what archaeology can reveal about the burning of the Globe. He spoke to Dr Farah Karim-Cooper, Head of Higher Education and Research at Shakespeare’s Globe. 

FKC: First, can you tell us about the excavations at the original Globe site?

JB: After finding the Rose in early 1989 we did a small archaeological evaluation at the Globe site in October of that year. Research had indicated that most of the Globe lay under Anchor Terrace, the late Georgian building fronting Southwark Bridge Road, but some remains might have survived to the east. There was some excitement therefore when fragmentary Tudor remains emerged. These turned out to be the chalk foundations for the original gallery walls in the north-east part of the Globe. Unfortunately only a very small area was exposed and it was not possible to fully ascertain the dimensions of the original building. Our analysis indicates that the diameter of the Globe was between 84ft 6in (25.76m) if it was a 16 sided polygon or about 95ft (25m) if it was 18 sided. Nevertheless, it gave us an indication that it was certainly larger than the Rose and the earlier Shoreditch playhouses. Another important discovery were the foundations of a ‘stair tower’ as seen on the famous engraving by Wenceslaus Hollar.

 

FKC: What kind of evidence did you find of the 1613 fire?

JB: Within the limited area of excavation, there were distinct traces of burning over the foundation levels.

FKC: Why is this significant?

JB: Contemporary accounts refer to the second Globe being built ‘upon an old foundation’ and more specifically that the new building was ‘erectyed, built, and set up … in the same place where the former house [ie the original first Globe] stood’. We were now able to confirm this was the case because brick footings for the galleries were over these burnt deposits on the original chalk foundations.

Another significant discovery was that the foundations of the stair tower were also built over the burnt deposits where it was tacked on to the outer wall of the building. The rest of the stair tower foundations were a new construction which shows that this feature was not original to the first Globe of 1599 but one only created with the second building of 1614. This has made us rethink the development of the playhouse form and differing modes of entry.

FKC: What kind of materials were used when reconstructing the roof?

JB: As it was the roofing thatch that caught fire, the use of tiles for the second Globe’s roof was sneeringly remarked on in contemporary literature. The anti-theatrical William Parrat wrote ‘As to them whose howse was thatched / Forebeare your whoreing, breeding biles / And laye up that expence for tiles’. Ben Jonson, who had acted in and write for the Globe, was just as scathing; ‘see the world’s ruins! Nothing but the piles / left, and wit since to cover it with tiles’.

In contrast to the thatch found at the Rose, the Globe excavations did find many tile fragments.

FKC: Why do you think it is important for us to remember this event?

JB: It’s a very important event in theatre history. Fires were not uncommon in a city where many buildings were made of wood and thatch but the disastrous loss of the Globe was a real news item at the time.  A couple of hundred yards away Phillip Henslowe hastened to build the Hope – as a dual purpose venue hosting alternate dramas and bear baiting – but the swift rebuilding of the Globe meant that it soon regained its enormous popularity. Shakespeare and other playwrights continued to write for the Globe.

We know that the second Globe cost much more than the first and it is thought to have been built in greater opulence though unfortunately we will never really know how much more lavish the new building was. Only Hollar’s engraving shows it with a massive stage structure which is likely to have been larger than the 1599 original.

FKC: The Theatre, Curtain, Rose and Hope – is there anything from the excavation of these playhouses that informs us about the Globe today?

JB: It was once thought that there was a uniform paradigmatic ‘type’ of ‘Shakespearean theatre’ but the more we have physically found, and then critically re-examined the documentary sources, we have learnt that these buildings were subject to the same development, experimentation and evolution as any other building type. This was no great surprise to archaeologists who spend much of their time disentangling different building phases from the Roman period to the present. Theatres and playhouses however, needed to keep the loyalty of their audiences – as well as their actors and playwrights – just as the third Globe engages with the 21st century!

MOLA’s work at the site of the Theatre, built in Shoreditch in 1576 shows that it was about 72ft (22m) in size which was the same as the Rose. This strongly suggests of course, that the Rose was modelled on the Theatre. Preliminary excavations at the site of the Curtain, built near the Theatre in 1577, two years ago found that it was also the same size. It would seem that there might have been an original ‘type’ but the Rose was completely remodelled in 1592 and we can be sure that experimentation occurred elsewhere. The Swan was said to be the largest of those seen in 1595, the Fortune of 1600 was square ! It is likely that the Globe was modelled on the Swan  and the in the case of the Hope of 1614 we have documentary proof that it was modelled on the Swan – the absence of the Globe left the Swan as the only other playhouse on the Bankside.

 

When the Globe was reconstructed again in the 1990s, Sam Wanamaker had already fought a long battle with the London fire authorities to ensure that we would have as ‘authentic’ a Globe Theatre as possible.  He insisted upon a roof made entirely of thatch. He thankfully won that battle, albeit with a degree of compromise- a sprinkler system that perhaps was not available in 1599 was installed. It is fair to say that in the spirit of Prometheus, the trickster figure who stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind, Shakespeare’s Globe likes to play with fire too. In 2010 we staged a performance of the Henry VIII on the very day the original Globe burnt down (of course, Globe staff had doused the Globe with jugs, mugs and glasses of water); this year we will be staging the Scottish play on the 400 year anniversary of that fire and in January we will be opening the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse- a wooden structure that will house performances lit entirely by candles. Wish us luck and when you visit just flick a bit of water our way…

Globe Education is commemorating this significant anniversary in a series of, lectures, readings and events , including:  Shakespeare on Fire! by Festival of the Spoken Nerd.