The Writings of Gwynneth Bowen 32

Book Review:
The Boar’s Head Theatre—An Inn Yard
Theatre of the Elizbethan Age
By C. J. Sisson. Edited by Stanley Wells.
(Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972)

Copyright 1972 by Gwynneth Bowen
First published in Shakespearean Authorship Review (English), Winter 1972.

TILL comparatively recently next to nothing was known about the Boar’s Head Theatre; not even where it was. For obvious reasons, it was once believed to have been in Eastcheap, but there were several other Boar’s Head inns in Elizabethan London besides the famous one in Eastcheap. It is on record that a play called A Sackful of News was performed in 1557 at the “Boar’s Head without Aldgate” and Sir Edmund Chambers suggested that this was identical with the “‘Blue Bore Inne” marked on Ogilby’s map of 1677. It was on the north side of Aldgate High Street—without Aldgate, but just within the bars that marked the extended bounds of the City; where the licensing of playhouses came to an end in 1596. For this reason, Chambers thought it “exceedingly improbable that either this or the Eastcheap inn was converted into the theatre, of which we have brief and tantalizing records in the seventeenth century.” (1) On the last day of March 1602, the Privy Council addressed a letter to the Lord Mayor, with instructions that the Boar’s Head was to be licensed for the servants of the Earl of Oxford and the Earl of Worcester, “beinge joyned by agrement, together in on Companie” and that they were to play there and nowhere else, that being “the place they have especially used and doe best like of”. Early in the reign of James I, Worcester’s Men (presumably the amalgamated company) became Queen Anne’s Men and, as such, they were granted a new licence to play at the Boar’s Head (as well as the Curtain), and probably continued to play there till about 1606, when they moved to their new, specially built theatre, the Red Bull in Clerkenwell. Another seventeenth century reference comes from a letter of Joan Alleyn, wife of Edward Alleyn of the Admiral’s Men, written to her husband on 21st October 1603: “All the Companies be Come hoame & well for ought we know, but that Browne of the Boare’s head is dead & died very pore, he went not into the Countrye at all”. (2)

As long ago as 1936, the late Professor Sisson published an article entitled “Mr. and Mrs. Browne of the Boar’s Head”, (3) which is the remote precursor of the present book, but he gave no references here to his sources; and almost twenty years later, having occasion to refer back to the story of Mr. and Mrs. Browne in another article—The Red Bull Company and the Importunate Widow (4) —he cited his earlier article in a footnote, with the rider: “A full account of the Chancery suits, together with material in Star Chamber, from which this information is derived, must await another opportunity”. But he was a busy man and more time passed. When he died in 1966, one was left with the hope of a posthumous publication, but even that hope had faded. And now, at last, here is the book, thanks to the devoted work of the editor, Stanley Wells, Senior lecturer in English and Fellow of the Shakespeare Institute, Birmingham.

It is a very small book—less than a hundred pages; but as the editor says in his introduction, after assuring us that the book is substantially in the form in which Sisson wrote it: “The lucidity of his account disguises the difficulty of his task. The documents from which he worked do not present the facts in anything like chronological order and the work of organising them was a considerable challenge to a man in failing health, even one as experienced in reading records as Sisson”.

Scholars familiar with the original article, will find the same story re-told here, with much that is new, and of course, full reference to the sources. For others it will all be new. It is a very dramatic story about the building, or rebuilding, of a theatre in the yard of an inn between 1595 and 1599, and a subsequent battle for the possession of it, by lawful and unlawful means, including “riotous proceedings in the theatre itself in the midst of a performance”. For many readers, however, the chief interest of the book will lie in the incidental information to be found in the ensuing law-suits about the theatre itself—its history, its structure and its location. And this is the more valuable because so little is known about any of the inn-yard theatres of Elizabethan London.

The Boar’s Head Theatre was, in fact, as Chambers had predicted, near the Blue Boar Inn, but on the other side of “Hog Lane”, later famous as “Petticoat Lane”—just outside, instead of just inside the bars. The records place it indisputably in the parish of St. Mary Matfellon, “alias Whitechapel”, in the county of Middlesex; and according to Sisson, the actual site “is commemorated in the street-name Boar’s Head Yard, leading off Whitechapel Street on its north side between Middlesex Street (Petticoat Lane) and Goulston Street. It was certainly a converted inn, though obviously not the Blue Boar; but then, the Blue Boar was not necessarily the same as the Boar’s Head “without Aldgate”—a conveniently vague term—and Sisson identifies this with the theatre, in which case, plays may have been performed there, from time to time, ever since 1557.

The human story begins in 1595, when Mrs. Poley, widow, copyhold tenant of the Boar’s Head, leased it to Oliver Woodlif, haberdasher, reserving certain rooms for her own use, and on condition that in the next seven years he would spend £100, a considerable sum in those days, “in building of the larder, the larder parlour, the well parlour, the coal house, the oat loft, the tiring house and stage”. Sisson interprets this in the sense of re-building, or repairing existing buildings, including a tiring house and stage. He stresses the fact that the definite article is used, but though he may be right, it is arguable that this would be natural enough even if the buildings existed only on a blueprint.

Woodlif moved in; kept on Mrs. Poley’s inn-keeper, Richard Samwell; and set to work on the buildings. But he got into financial difficulties and, in April 1598, conveyed the inn to Samwell, reserving his own rooms, and excluding the yard, through which Samwell, though landlord of the inn, had only a right of way. In the summer of 1599, however, he conveyed the yard too, with its unfinished theatre structures, to Samwell, by a verbal lease before witnesses, in return for loans already received and on condition that Samwell would finish the job himself. Samwell, in turn, got into difficulties and before the year was out, conveyed both inn and theatre to the well-known actor, Robert Browne, leader of Worcester’s Men in 1583—when Edward Alleyn, then aged sixteen, was a member of the same company—and from 1590 onwards the best known English actor on the continent, where he and his company performed English plays at foreign courts. Chambers gives an account of his activities abroad, but refused to identify him with Browne of the Boar’s Head, for the simple and excellent reason (if true) that he was still acting in Germany long after 1603, when Browne of the Boar’s Head was dead. (5) But Sisson points out that there were two Robert Brownes who acted in Germany, father and son; the father being Browne of the Boar’s Head. “Mrs. Browne”, of Sisson’s article, was his second wife, Susan, his first wife and all her children having died, evidently of the plague, in 1593—another piece of information that we owe to Joan Alleyn” (6)

By the end of September 1599, the Boar’s Head Theatre “was available for occupation, licensed by the Master of the Revels and protected at Court. Browne, who had furnished part of the capital by loan to Samwell, held the bonds of six other principal sharers in Worcester’s Men to play at the theatre in which he had this interest and at no other. By Michaelmas they had begun playing . . . The theatre, with its covered stage and roofed galleries, was designed and equipped for use as a winter theatre, and the resources of the inn were available for playgoers requiring food and refreshment. The Boar’s Head indeed served admirably the needs of Worcester’s Men, who were moreover Browne’s fellows . . . ”

And then—Francis Langley, builder and owner of the Swan theatre on Bankside which, however, he was no longer allowed to use as a theatre, (7) turned up at the Boar’s Head with a rival claim. Woodlif, he said, had sold the lease of the entire premises to him; and as far as the theatre was concerned, Woodlif did not deny it. Instead he denied Samwell’s verbal lease, which was valid in law if it could be proved that the transaction took place, and took place before Woodlif’s lease to Langley; and the validity of Browne’s lease depended upon the pre-existence of Samwell’s—hence the law-suits that have preserved the story for us. Meanwhile Langley took the law into his own hands. I must omit the details, but in short, life at the Boar’s Head was made intolerable for Worcester’s Men, who consequently broke their agreement with Browne and went to play at Henslowe’s Rose on Bankside. And this would explain the fact (though Sisson does not quite make this point) that Browne’s name appears as payee for another company (Derby’s) in the records of performances at Court on 3rd and 5th February 1600, and 1st and 6th January 1601. Between these two pairs of dates—in the summer or early Autumn of 1600—Browne sued Worcester’s Men in Queen’s Bench, and in the Michaelmas term they sought relief in Chancery. The matter was settled by decrees of May and June 1601. Meanwhile the litigation over the ownership of the theatre dragged on, only to be terminated at last by the death of all the principal litigants. Samwell and Langley both died in 1601, leaving Woodlif and Browne to fight it out. Woodlif died in July 1603, and Browne, himself, the following October. He was buried at St. Mary’s Whitechapel on the 16th, five days before Joan Alleyn’s letter was written. No wonder he died “very pore”, but as Sisson puts it, he died “in undisputed possession of the inn and its yard and theatre”, with Samwell’s son as the manager of the inn. Moreover: “it is clear that in 1603, as twenty years before, in 1583, he was a sharer in Worcester’s Men, soon to be Queen Anne’s Men”.

Susan Browne survived him, and two more husbands after him, to become eventually, as Mrs. Baskerville, the “importunate widow” of the Red Bull Company.

And here, if only to forestall criticism, I must call attention to an error in the index. Under Browne, Susan, one is referred to Baskerville, Susan, where the entry reads: “Baskerville (later Browne, then Greene), Susan,” but Susan’s maiden name is unknown, and Baskerville was her third and last husband, not her first (See The Red Bull Company and the Importunate Widow).

G. M. B.


1. Elizabethan Stage (1923), Vol. 2, p. 444.
2. Henslowe’s Diary, ed. R. A. Foakes and R. T. Rickett, 1961, p. 297.
3. Life and Letters Today, Vol. 15, no. 6, winter 1936, pp. 99-107.
4. Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 7, 1954, pp. 57-68.
5. Elizabethan Stage, Vol. 2, pp. 279 (note 1) and 304.
6. Henslowe’s Diary, Foakes and Rickert, p. 277.
7. He had got into trouble two years before for putting on a scurrilous play called The Isle of Dogs, which is known to posterity only by its consequences for all concerned.