East London seems to be a hotbed of ancient Elizabethan theatres. In 2018, archaeologists excavated The Theatre in Shoreditch, a playhouse which pre-dated the Globe. Now experts appear to have found another at a site in Whitechapel – and this one is even older.
A team of archaeologists from UCL believe they have uncovered the remains of the earliest Elizabethan playhouse, known as the Red Lion. Stephen White, who directed the excavation said, ‘This is one of the most extraordinary sites I’ve worked on. After nearly five hundred years, the remains of the Red Lion playhouse, which marked the dawn of Elizabethan theatre, may have finally been found.’ Discovery of artefacts on the site, such as two-handled drinking mugs, bottles, and tankards, could also indicate the location of the theatre’s pub, the Red Lion Inn.
The Red Lion was founded by John Brayne. Along with his brother-in-law James Burbage, a member of acting company The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, he would go on to set up that impeccably named Shoreditch venue we mentioned earlier, The Theatre, which put on a young Shakespeare’s plays in the 1590s.
What we know about the Red Lion is gleaned from lawsuit documents. John Brayne was not happy with the work of the carpenters involved in the theatre’s construction, and decided to take them to court. The 1567 lawsuit notes timber scaffolds being located at ‘the house called the red lyon’.
The location of the Red Lion has been the subject of debate for years but the UCL Archaeology South-East team seem confident they have unearthed this slice of Elizabethan history.
Stephen White said, ‘The strength of the combined evidence – archaeological remains of buildings, in the right location, of the right period, seem to match up with characteristics of the playhouse recorded in early documents. It is a privilege to be able to add to our understanding of this exciting period of history.’
Meanwhile, in 2020, Shakespeare’s Globe is struggling to survive.
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...or catch Tom Hiddleston in the National Theatre’s online stream of ‘Coriolanus’.