FireSince we’re talking about all things Shakespearean at the moment, we though we’d take a look again at the day on which The Globe Theatre burnt down.

The theatre was only about 14-years-old when on  29th June, 1613 – the 400th anniversary of which passed last year – a “special effects” cannon was fired during a performance of King Henry VIII (also known as All is True) – specifically as the king made his entrance on the stage. While cannons had apparently been used for years with no ill effect – that was not to be the case this time.

It is said sparks from the cannon landed on either directly on the theatre’s thatched roofing or a roof beam near the thatch and caught fire – there are also suggestions the fire was in fact caused when one of the stoppers used to block up the cannon came into contact with the thatch.

Theatre patrons apparently initially thought the smoke was simply from the cannon blast but can’t have been confused for long – the fire was said to have moved very quickly; in fact one contemporary letter writer – author, diplomat and politician Sir Henry Wotton – says the entire theatre was burnt to the ground in less than an hour.

The audience – the theatre is thought to have housed some 1,000 people seated and a further 2,000 standing – is thought to have escaped unharmed. There are no reports, at least, of any deaths as a result of the fire.

The theatre was quickly rebuilt – apparently more opulently – and reopened the following year. Traces of the burnt theatre was found during an excavation of the Globe site in 1989.

For more on The Globe, see our earlier post here.

PICTURE: Ashley Nummerdor/www.freeimages.com

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Hidden away to the north-west of the City of a quiet cul-de-sac, the oldest still-in-use Roman Catholic church in London (indeed, in England) is St Etheldreda’s Church in Holborn.

St-EtheldredaLocated in Ely Place, this atmospheric church – named for Etheldreda, seventh century female abbess of Ely – opened as a Roman Catholic Church in 1878, although the building in which it is lodged is much older, indeed a rare survivor from the 13th century. It was built in 1290 by John De Kirkeby, the Bishop of Ely and Treasurer of England during the reign of King Edward I, as a chapel to a residence he constructed on the site.

It and the adjoining palace remained in use by subsequent bishops and other nobles (including John of Gaunt who lived here after his own residence, Savoy Palace , was burnt down during the Peasant’s Revolt) up to and after the Reformation – the first reformer Bishop to use it was Thomas Goodrich, who built the nearby Mitre Tavern. (Worth noting is that the church also has some strong links to Shakespeare – there’s a great article on the church’s website exploring these).

In 1620, the Spanish Ambassador, the Count of Gondomar, moved into Ely Place and the chapel was used once again for Catholic masses (the residence was considered part of Spanish territory) – this was a relatively short-lived development for, thanks to deteriorating relations between England and Spain following a failed match between Prince Charles (later King Charles I) and the Infanta of Spain, the next ambassador was refused permission to live there.

Having escaped destruction in the Great Fire of London, the chapel was requisitioned by Parliament as a prison and hospital during the Civil War and subsequently fell into disuse before in 1772, the property – including the chapel – was sold to the Crown who in turn sold it to a surveyor and builder, Charles Cole.

Cole demolished the palace buildings with the exception of the chapel and had the current Ely Place built with neat rows of Georgian homes, modernising the chapel for the use of residents as an Anglican place of worship. The church attracted few worshippers, however, and in 1820 was taken over by the National Society for the Education of the Poor.

In 1873, the chapel was again to be sold and following a somewhat controversial auction was bought by the Catholic Institute of Charity (aka the Rosminians) and restored under the eye of Father William Lockhart (the Catholic Emancipation Act had been passed in 1829, allowing Catholics to have churches and say mass).

Interestingly, it was during this work that 18 bodies were discovered buried in the crypt – they had died in the ‘Fatal Vespers’ of 1623 when, during a secret meeting of Catholics at the French ambassador’s house in Blackfriars, the floor collapsed and more than 100 were killed. Not able to be buried publicly due to anti-Catholic feeling, they were buried in secret with some of them buried here.

A mass commemorated the completion of the restoration work on 23rd June, 1878, and the church has been in use as a Roman Catholic Church ever since (although years of repairs were needed following significant bomb damage in World War II). Further restoration work was carried out in the 1990s when Flemish tiles from the original cloister were discovered.

These days the church – which features a relic of St Etheldreda contained in a bejewelled cask sitting by the altar – is a quiet oasis in the midst of the bustling city – a great place to take some time out in the midst of a busy day. Also of note is the east window – the work of Joseph Edward Nuttgens, it was completed in 1952 and, like all the other windows, replaced a Victorian window destroyed in the Blitz (look for the image of St Etheldreda) – and the  west window – the work of Charles Blakeman, it is apparently the largest stained glass window in London and depicts a series of English Catholic martyrs.

WHERE: St Etheldreda’s Church, Ely Place (nearest Tube stations are Chancery Lane and Farringdon); WHEN: 8am to 5pm Monday to Saturday; 8am-12.30pm Sunday; COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.stetheldreda.com.

Both of the next two are from our Thursday updates – Around London…

6. Around London: Olympic Torch Relay hits London; mascots pop-up all over the city; and Shakespeare at the British Museum – not a surprising mention, given the Olympic theme;

5. Around London – Butler’s Retreat reopens in Epping Forest; Designs of the Year; and, Lucian Freud’s last work. The reason for this update’s inclusion remains a bit of a mystery – but it was a big year for the late Lucian Freud.

Around London…

July 28, 2010

• A team of archaeologists from the Museum of London have unearthed the remains of a brewhouse close to the purpose-built theatre, known simply as The Theatre, where Shakespeare first acted. The brewhouse could represent what became a dedicated ‘tap room’ aimed at theatre customers and may well have been a watering hole of the Bard himself. It – and a nearby bakehouse – were originally part of Holywell Priory, once one of the richest in England, which was dissolved in 1539. You can follow the dig’s progress here: www.mymuseumoflondon.org.uk/blogs/blog/category/excavations-at-shakespeare’s-theatre/

London’s Dickens Museum has unveiled the long-lost tombstone of a cartoonist who took his own life after he was believed to have been rejected by the famous author. Robert Seymour apparently took his own life after Charles Dickens was believed to have informed him that he would no longer be employed to illustrate The Pickwick Papers (there remains considerable debate over whether Dickens should be blamed for his death). The gravestone had been missing for a century but was reportedly discovered in the crypt of a London church by scholar Stephen Jarvis. It will now be displayed in the back garden of the museum which is housed at 48 Doughty Street in Dicken’s only surviving London home (he lived there between 1837 and 1839 while writing novels including The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist). The museum is preparing to celebrate the bicentenary of Dickens’ birth in 2012.  www.dickensmuseum.com

• Sir William and Sir Joseph Hooker – the father and son responsible for transforming Kew Gardens in the nineteenth century – have been honored with a blue plaque at their former home on Kew Green. The home where Princess Alexandra was to unveil the plaque became the official residence of the garden’s director when Sir William moved there in 1851. Sir William had been appointed director of the Botanic Gardens 10 years before and during his 24 year tenure not only greatly expanded them but also opened them to the public. His son, Sir Joseph, had travelled aboard the HMS Erebus as it explored the southern oceans between 1839-1843 before succeeding his father as director upon his death in 1865. www.english-heritage.org.uk/about/news/princess-alexandra-unveils-blue-plaque-for-former-directors-of-kew-gardens