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.