Theatreland

06 29 globeToday, I want to tell you about the Globe Theatre, in Southwark. The theatre where William Shakespeare worked and where his plays were performed. It opened in 1599, I don’t know the exact date, but I do know when it burned down and it was on this day in 1613.

The Globe was built to house an acting company called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. It was owned, for the most part, by the company’s lead actor, Richard Burbage and his brother Cuthbert. But Shakespeare owned a one eighth share in the project. The actors’ previous home in Shoreditch, north of the City, had been one of the first, and certainly the most successful permanent theatres to be built in England since Roman times. I can tell you where it was: between Alice Daridge’s garden and the Earl of Rutland’s oat barn. Just near the Great Horse Pond, next to the common sewer and a slaughterhouse. Not that this really tells you much about it’s geographical location, but it does give you some idea of what it might have been like. It opened in 1576 and was called, simply, ‘The Theatre’. But they had run into problems. The Theatre had been built by Richard and Cuthbert’s father James Burbage and a man named Mr Brayne who was his brother-in-law. After both men died, there was a huge falling-out over who owned what. Added to this, the Theatre was built on land that was leased from a man called Giles Allen. Allen was a staunch Puritan who wasn’t keen on theatre and, when the lease ran out in 1596, he refused to renew it. What’s more, he claimed that the building now belonged to him too.

The Burbages side-stepped the whole problem on the night of December 28th 1598. Giles Allen was away celebrating Christmas at his country residence and the Burbages, along with a carpenter called Peter Street and a few others, probably including Shakespeare, simply stole the building. They assured onlookers that they were renovating it, but in fact, they carted away all the massive oak beams and stored them in the carpenter’s warehouse over the winter. When the weather improved, they used the beams to build themselves a new theatre across the river at Southwark.

The site of the Globe theatre wasn’t great either. It was prone to flooding, especially at high tide and they had to build a sort of raised bank to protect it. Also, one of the other attractions on offer nearby was bear-baiting. We have an account from a Swiss tourist called Thomas Platter, who visited in 1599. He said that he saw twelve bears and a hundred and twenty mastiffs and it absolutely stank because of all the offal that was fed to the dogs. He also went to see a play. It was Julius Caesar and it may have been the first play performed at the Globe. Thomas tells us that the audience could stand and watch from the courtyard for one penny. For two, you could get a seat in the galleries and for three, you could get a cushion as well and a seat where everyone could see you. He describes the actors as lavishly dressed and explains why this was. Lords and knights, he says, tended to bequeath their best clothes to their servants. But they were much too fancy for a servant to wear, so they sold them and actors bought them.

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The theatre, as I said, caught fire in 1613. It was during a performance of Henry VIII. It broke out after the firing of a theatrical cannon. Some of the material fired from the cannon reached the thatched roof of the building where it smouldered unheeded for a while. The fire spread inside the thatch and soon the whole roof was on fire. The entire building was burned to the ground in less two hours. It seems no one was hurt though, which was lucky as the theatre could host up to three thousand spectators and there were only two small doors for everyone to get out. According to an eyewitness the only casualty was a man whose breeches caught fire, but it was quickly put out by someone pouring a bottle of ale over them.

The theatre was quickly rebuilt on the same foundations, but this time, they sensibly built it with a tiled roof. The Globe Theatre was in use, apart from periods of closure due to outbreaks of bubonic plague, until all the theatres were closed by down the Puritans in 1642. It was demolished two or three years later. We have a pretty good idea of what the theatre looked like because we have a beautiful reconstruction of it, only 750 ft from where the original stood. It is the first thatched building to have been allowed in London since the Great Fire of 1666.

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Eye Popping

06 22 saint alban portraitToday is the feast day on Saint Alban, who was the first recorded Christian martyr in Britain. The actual year this happened is not clear, but it is placed somewhere between 209 and 304 AD, during the time that the Romans still occupied Britain. In fact, we cant be certain that he existed at all. There is a vague mention of an unnamed somebody who sounds a bit like him, dating from the end of the fourth century, but we mainly know about him from a visiting bishop called Germanus.

Germanus had travelled from France, in about 429 AD, to sort out a problem that we really don’t need to go into here, but during his visit, he went to pray at the grave of Saint Alban. The legend claims that, at that time, no one knew anything about Saint Alban, not even his name. But the Saint came to Germanus in a dream. He told the Bishop his name and the circumstances of his martyrdom, which are these:

Alban, who was then a Pagan, sheltered a Christian priest who was fleeing from persecution. He was so impressed by his new friend’s devotion to his god that he began to pray with him. When soldiers came to arrest the priest, Alban put on the holy man’s clothes and presented himself in his stead. Even though it was perfectly clear that this was not the man they wanted, he was sentenced to death anyway because of his beliefs.

The spot chosen for his execution was a little way off, over a river and on top of a hill. We are told that it was a very beautiful place with lots of flowers. When he was marched off, under guard, so many people had turned out to witness the spectacle that they found their way across the bridge blocked by the throng. It is a feature of early Christian martyrs that they really wanted to die, so they could get to heaven as quickly as possible. Alban was no exception. Impatient for his martyrdom, he caused the river to dry up so they could hurry across the riverbed unhindered. His executioner was so impressed that he immediately converted to Christianity. Once at the top of the hill Alban found he was thirsty and a spring of water appeared from the ground at his feet.

His newly converted executioner now refused to perform the task. He asked if he could be martyred instead of Alban, but both were beheaded by a second executioner. At the moment that Alban’s head was struck off, and rolled away down the hill, the second executioner’s eyes popped out of his head and fell on the ground. So he was unable to rejoice at the saint’s death.

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There is another episode in the Germanus’s visit to Britain that I will mention briefly. At some point on his journey, he suffered an injury and was bedridden for a time. A fire broke out in a nearby house, which spread quickly. Everyone tried very hard to get the bishop to move to safety, but he wouldn’t. Although everything else was burned, the house where Germanus lay remained untouched.

Evidence for the existence of Saint Alban is tenuous to say the least, since he has only ever appeared in a dream. But it is enough for many to see him as a viable contender for National Saint, in place of Saint George, who never even set foot here. What I found most intriguing about this story though, are its mentions of flowers, of blindness, of something rolling down a hill and of things protected from fire. They are all themes which will come up again tomorrow, when I talk about Saint John’s Eve. I feel there is something in the legend of Saint Alban, and in the celebrations connected with Saint John’s Eve that hint at something much older that Christianity.

Dead Man Saved From Fire

05 22 chudleighToday, I want to tell you about the Great Fire of Chudleigh which happened in 1807. Chudleigh is a small town in Devon, and, like the Great Fire of London, the blaze began in a bakery. At around noon, a pile of gorse stacked near a baking oven caught light. Normally, it might have been easily controlled, but there had been a long spell of dry weather. Then, a breeze blew up which carried burning flakes from the fire to neighbouring properties. Many of the dwellings had thatched roofs which had become tinder dry in the hot sun and they quickly caught light. The same breeze then carried large pieces of burning thatch and soon, three whole streets were on fire.

The Chudleigh residents had little time to gather their belongings before they had to abandon their homes. The few items they managed to save were taken to the Market House for safe-keeping. As it had been newly rebuilt and had a slate roof, people thought that would be a good place and it filled quickly. Unfortunately, some of the stuff they took in was already on fire, so that burned down as well.

The town did have their own fire engine, but it is not clear whether they had any water after such a long dry spell. In any case, the fire engine caught fire and was no help at all. Then, at around two o’clock a barrel of gunpowder that everyone had forgotten about exploded, giving a fresh impetus to the blaze.

The body of a recently deceased gentleman lay in one of the houses in the centre of the town and someone had thoughtfully carried the coffin out into the street to protect it from the flames. But, unfortunately, people also began to pile some of their own smouldering possessions around it. His bereaved son, whose own house was on fire, was told what had happened and he rushed through narrow, burning streets to rescue his father’s body. He got there just in time to pull off the burning pall that was covering the coffin. With the help of a few friends, he managed to carry it to the churchyard. In the midst of the chaos, a hurried funeral was conducted. The vicar and two mourners were the only attendees as everyone else was pretty busy.

Also, like the Great Fire of London, the fire was only halted when the houses in its path were pulled down. In only four hours, almost two thirds of the town had been lost. Amazingly though, no one was killed. But many people had lost everything and were left homeless. Help flooded in from neighbouring communities in the form of money and clothes. They also sent bibles and prayer books. The money was used to compensate people for their losses, but it was felt that some people had made larger claims than they were entitled to. The largest claim, of one thousand two hundred and seven pounds, twelve shillings and fourpence, went to a Mr Richard Rose, an innkeeper, who used the money to rebuild his coaching inn, pictured above, which had been destroyed by the fire.

In the course of my research today, I discovered that in 2007, on the 200th anniversary of the fire, the Chudleigh Historical Society planned to commemorate the event by setting fire to a seventy foot long scale replica of the village, complete with exploding barrel of gunpowder. I’ve no idea if it came to anything, but if it did, I really hope everyone was okay.

Burning Desire

11 05 guy fawkesIn the UK, November 5th is Guy Fawkes Night. What we are celebrating is the arrest of Guy Fawkes in 1605. He was caught in the cellars of the House of Lords guarding thirty-six barrels of gun powder. The plan was to set light to them and destroy the Houses of Parliament during its state opening ceremony, which was attended by the King, James I. I often see social media posts at this time of year suggesting that the last person to enter the Houses of Parliament with honest intentions was Guy Fawkes. That is slightly over-romanticising the situation. Thirty-six barrels of gunpowder is two and a half thousand kilos (2¾ US tons). That’s quite a lot. It would have destroyed everything within 500 metres (almost a third of a mile) of the explosion. While we might not be very (or at all) happy with what our government is doing to our country, that’s clearly not the way to go.

Historically, what you need to know is that Fawkes and his co-conspirators were Catholics while the King was a Protestant. People were generally suspicious of Catholics. It hadn’t been so very long ago that, under the rule of Queen Mary, many people had been arrested, tortured and burned at the stake for the crime of not being a Catholic. Fawkes and his fellow plotters were rounded up and sentenced to death and everyone was very glad. Almost immediately, Parliament declared November 5th to be a day of thanksgiving because the life of their king had been spared. It was known as Gunpowder Treason Day. People could celebrate it pretty much how they wanted, as long as they went to church as well. In Northern Europe generally, we have always loved to celebrate things with a massive fire.

Twenty years later when King James’s son, Charles I, married a Catholic, people began to worry all over again. On November 5th that year effigies of the Pope and the Devil were burned in the celebrations. In 1644 wild speeches were made in Parliament. The Catholics were coming. They were digging a tunnel to Westminster, from Oxford, from Rome, from Hell. The celebrations became more and more fervent and, in 1647, effigies of both Guy Fawkes and the Pope were burned at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London. You might know that things didn’t go well for Charles I and in 1649 the monarchy was overturned and replaced by Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth. During this period, bonfire celebrations became a much smaller affair. Pretty problematic celebrating saving a king’s life after you’ve just cut the head off another one.

Celebrations were in full swing again under the rule of Charles II. Officially everyone was celebrating the preservation of the monarchy, but in fact, the celebrations became more diverse. By 1670, things were getting a bit out of hand. Apprentices in London had turned the day into a fire festival and general excuse for mayhem. They were demanding money for their bonfires and for alcohol. In 1673 Charles’s brother James, Duke of York, converted to Catholicism and the apprentices started to get creative. They made an effigy of the Whore of Babylon, decorated with papal crosses and wearing a triple crown. They carried it through the streets in a torchlight parade then strung it up and shot at it with pistols before lowering it into a bonfire. By 1682 so many Popes were being burned that the militia were called in and bonfires and fireworks were banned.

photo credit: Andrew Dunn. Licensed under Creative Commons.
photo credit: Andrew Dunn. Licensed under Creative Commons.

During the eighteenth century, Guy Fawkes Night celebrations became quite gentrified affairs among the nobility. But among the lower classes it was a much more riotous occasion which included flaming torches, throwing home made fireworks and rolling barrels of burning tar through the streets. It turns out, if there’s anything we like more that a massive fire, it’s a massive fire that’s rolling down the street. There were bonfire parades in towns all over the South of England, some of which still survive. Most notably in the town of Lewes in East Sussex, which is our country’s largest and most famous bonfire celebration. It has a chequered history of riotous behaviour, arrests, opposition and many failed attempts to ban it altogether. It commemorates not only the Gunpowder Plot but also the memory of seventeen Protestant martyrs who were burned at the stake for their religious beliefs under the reign of Queen Mary. Lewes has seven bonfire societies who take part in parades and hold five separate bonfire displays on the outskirts of the town. They carry seventeen burning crosses to represent the martyrs and huge effigies of Guy Fawkes and Pope Paul V, who was Pope in 1605, through the streets. They also burn effigies of currently reviled public figures. David Cameron, George W Bush, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un and bankers have all featured in recent years. In addition to the enormous figures they also parade model heads on pikes, these might be anyone who they consider to be ‘enemies of the bonfire’. They might be figures who are nationally and internationally hated for doing something terrible, or they might just be local officials who have tried to place restrictions on the event.

So,November 5th has become a focus for anyone who had a grievance against authority. Guy Fawkes had a grievance with authority, and the way he planned to address that was with a massive act of terrorism that would have killed hundreds of people. We burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes, not because he was a Catholic, but because of the awful thing he intended to do. If we choose to burn an effigy of a person or group of people it is because we disapprove of what they have done and want to draw attention to it. What we destroy is a symbol, no one is actually hurt. A much healthier way of dealing with our frustrations.