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Archaeologists may have uncovered London’s earliest playhouse

Archaeology South-East/UCL

By Emily Beament, PA Heritage Correspondent

London’s earliest playhouse, which “marked the dawn of Elizabethan theatre”, may have been found at a site in Whitechapel, archaeologists have said.

The Red Lion playhouse is thought to be the earliest known purpose-built theatre of the Elizabethan era, but its exact location has long been debated.

Discoveries of timber structures, artefacts and buildings that could indicate the playhouse has been found were made by Archaeology South-East, part of UCL’s Institute of Archaeology, ahead of a housing redevelopment.

The Red Lion playhouse was set up by John Brayne, who went on to construct The Theatre in Shoreditch with his brother-in-law, James Burbage, father of famed Elizabethan actor Richard Burbage.

The Theatre was the first permanent home for acting troupes and a venue for Shakespeare’s plays in the 1590s, as drama flourished in Elizabethan London.

All that is known of The Red Lion is from two lawsuits, the first of which dates from 1567, the year the playhouse is thought to have been built, describing the timber scaffolds or galleries around the stage.

A second lawsuit from 1569 mentions a “farme house called and knowen by the name of the Sygne of the Redd Lyon”, as a site with an outdoor stage and seating.

It includes a description and dimensions of the stage as 40ft (12.2m) north to south by 30ft (9.1m) east to west and a height of 5ft (1.5m).

Experts said analysis of historic mapping and land deeds relating to the Red Lion suggested it was on or near the Whitechapel site, but before the excavations there was no physical evidence of the playhouse or farm.

Archaeological excavations in January 2019, ahead of housing redevelopment in Stepney Way, started to uncover an unusual rectangular structure with 144 surviving timbers and dimensions that closely matched those of the stage in the lawsuits.

Post holes around the timber structure appear to correspond with “scaffolds” or galleried seating, archaeologists said.

In the north-east corner of the site, excavations revealed 15th or 16th century buildings that developed into a sprawling complex in the 17th century, which could be the Red Lion inn itself.

Farmsteads of the time were known to serve beer, and the uncovered site was established enough to have had a prototype playhouse on its land by the late 16th century, the archaeologists said.

The buildings that have been uncovered include two probable beer cellars, while glass and pottery finds include beakers and drinking glasses, ceramic cups and a late 17th century tavern mug with a royal medallion of Charles II – suggesting the development into a more formal inn.

Stephen White, who directed the excavation for UCL Archaeology South-East, said the site is one of the most extraordinary he has worked on.

“After nearly 500 years, the remains of the Red Lion playhouse, which marked the dawn of Elizabethan theatre, may have finally been found.

“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.”

Emily Gee, from government heritage agency Historic England, said: “This tantalising find follows the exciting recent discoveries of The Theatre and The Curtain playhouses in Shoreditch, and of the Boar’s Head in Aldgate, which together have immensely improved our understanding of the beginnings of English theatre.

“We will continue to work closely with the developer to interpret these archaeological remains and display them so the public will be able to understand them within the finished development and appreciate the rich history of this site.”