A contemporary of William Shakespeare (and hence, given our current focus on Shakespeare, the reason why we’re featuring him), Philip Henslowe was a theatre owner and impresario who, along with John Chomley, built the Rose Theatre in Bankside.
Henslowe is believed to have been born in about 1550 and was the son of Edmund Henslowe, master of the game at Ashdown Forest in Sussex. He is known to have moved to London in the 1570s and there became an apprentice to dyer Henry Woodward. Marrying Woodward’s widow Agnes, from 1577 Henslowe lived in Southwark – in the Liberty of the Clink – where, along with other business interests including bringing in timber from Sussex, he is known to have been a prominent landlord.
He and Chomley built The Rose Theatre – the first theatre in Bankside – in 1587 on land Henslowe had purchased several years earlier and from 1591 onwards, he partnered with the acting company known as the Admiral’s Men (they had parted ways with theatre owner James Burbage after a dispute about money). In fact it was the company’s leading actor, the renowned Edward Alleyn, who married Henslowe’s step-daughter Joan.
Following the arrival of the rival Globe Theatre in Bankside in the late 1590s, Henslowe decided to make a move and built the Fortune Theatre in the north-west corner of the City which subsequently became home to the Admiral’s Men. He is also believed to have had interests in several other theatres – Newington Butts, the Swan and more latterly, the Hope in Paris Garden, a versatile facility which could be used as both animal-baiting ring and theatre.
His prominence in business matters led to many rewards including serving as a Groom of the Chamber during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and the delightfully named Gentleman Sewer of the Chamber during the reign of King James I.
He died in 1616, leaving behind a diary which spans the period 1592 to 1609 – it includes mention of performances of many of Shakespeare’s plays and although the Bard himself doesn’t get a mention, many of his contemporaries – Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson included – do. The diary – which had been written in an old account book and provides great detail of Henslowe’s theatre-related business – passed into the care of Dulwich College which his son-in-law had founded.
Click here to buy Henslowe’s Diary.
The origins of the name Shoreditch – now a slowly gentrifying area to the north of the City of London within the Borough of Hackney – are lost to time but there are a few interesting theories around.
While the name probably comes to us as a derivation of Soersditch or Sewer Ditch – perhaps in reference to a drain that was once here – a more tragic version has it named after Jane Shore.
A mistress of King Edward IV in the mid to late fifteenth century, she, so the story goes, was buried in a ditch in the area after dying in a state of penury following a dramatic fall from favour during the subsequent reign of King Richard III (the king apparently had Jane arrested and made her perform a public penance for being a harlot).
There was an important priory here – the Augustinian Priory of Holywell – in medieval times and by Elizabethan times, some substantial houses. In 1576, James Burbage built England’s first theatre – known as The Theatre – on its site located near Curtain Road. Some of William Shakespeare’s plays were performed here and at the nearby rival, the Curtain Theatre, before a dispute with the landlord in the late 16th century saw the theatre relocated to Southwark in the dead of night (although the foundations must have remained – these were excavated a few years ago). Both Shakespeare and follow playwright Christopher Marlowe had associations with the area.
The area, which centred on St Leonard’s Church (while the current building dates from around 1740, there is believed to have been a church here – at the intersection of Shoreditch High Street and Hackney Road – since Saxon times), become known for its textiles in the 17th century and later for its furniture industries.
It was still known as one of London’s premier entertainment districts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with well known music halls and theatres but by then was also just as well known for its poverty.
Shoreditch suffered heavily during the Blitz and while the area continues to suffer from urban decay there is now some new life being breathed into it with the arrival of projects as the Boxpark Shoreditch which, made from shipping containers, is billed as “the world’s first pop-up mall”. There’s also an annual festival, the Shoreditch Festival, held in summer along Regent’s Canal.
PICTURE: View down Shoreditch High Street to the City – © David Adams.
First opened in 1587, The Rose was one of the first purpose-built theatres in London and the first Elizabethan theatre in Bankside, then an area noted for its entertainments including gambling dens, bear and bull baiting pits, and brothels.
The theatre was built for businessman and theatre developer, Philip Henslowe, and his partner John Cholmley, and subsequently hosted plays including Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta and Shakespeare’s Henry VI part I and Titus Andronicus. Among the actors was Edward Alleyn, Henslowe’s son-in-law, while among the companies which performed there were Lord Strange’s Men, Sussex’s Men, the Queen’s Men and the Admiral’s Men.
Its success led to the building of rival theatres in the area including The Swan in 1595 and The Globe in 1599. It had apparently fallen out of use by 1603 and was abandoned soon after.
The theatre fell out of history until the late 1980s when, following the demolition of a 1950s office block, archaeologists from the Museum of London uncovered the remains of much of the theatre’s floorplan, revealing that it was a smallish many sided structure based on a 14-sided polyhedron. A campaign to save the remains was launched – attracting support from acting luminaries including Sir Laurence Olivier and Peggy Ashcroft – and much of the site was preserved from development.
Some 700 objects, including jewellery, coins and a fragment of one of the moneyboxes used to collect entrance money, were excavated at the site.
The site was reopened to the public in 1999 – it now features displays and some of the objects found by archaeologists – and part of it has been used as a performance space again since 2007.
WHERE: Rose Theatre, Park Street, Bankside; WHEN: 10am to 5pm Saturdays (Shakespeare’s Globe also offer tours during matinee performances at The Globe when tours there are not available – see www.shakespeares-globe.org for more details); COST: Free (donations welcomed and there is a charge for tours from The Globe); WEBSITE: www.rosetheatre.org.uk