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UCL archaeologists believe they have discovered first Elizabethan playhouse in Whitechapel

PUBLISHED: 12:00 15 June 2020

UCL archeologists doing the exploratory work which led to their discover of what is believed to be the first Elizabethan Theatre, The Red Lion. Picture: Archaeology South-East/UCL

UCL archeologists doing the exploratory work which led to their discover of what is believed to be the first Elizabethan Theatre, The Red Lion. Picture: Archaeology South-East/UCL

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A team of archaeologists from University College London (UCL) believe they may have discovered the earliest Elizabethan playhouse at a site in Whitechapel.

A model of what the Red Lion stage may have looked like, after remains of the very first Elizabethan theatre were found in Whitechapel by UCL archeologists. Picture: Archaeology South-East/UCLA model of what the Red Lion stage may have looked like, after remains of the very first Elizabethan theatre were found in Whitechapel by UCL archeologists. Picture: Archaeology South-East/UCL

The remains of the Red Lion — believed to have been built around 1567 — were discovered by UCL’s Archaeology South-East at 85 Stepney Way.

Stephen White, who directed the excavation, said, “This is one of the most extraordinary sites I’ve 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.”

The Red Lion was set up by John Brayne, who went on in 1576 to construct The Theatre, Shoreditch with brother-in-law James Burbage.

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Acting troupes found their first home at the theatre, with the venue also staging a young Shakespeare’s plays in the 1590s.

The only information known about the Red Lion is from two lawsuits between John Brayne and the carpenters responsible for elements of the playhouse’s construction.

Details from both proved crucial once archaeological excavations began in Whitechapel.; In January 2019, 144 surviving timbers were uncovered as part of an unusual rectangular structure.

Their dimensions matched those outlined in the historic lawsuits, leading the team to believe that this could be the Red Lion.

In the north-east corner of the site, fronting what was once Mile End Green, excavations revealed 15th/16th century buildings that later became a sprawling complex during the 17th century.

Of the buildings uncovered, two are probable cellars; this, alongside recovered drinking assemblages, adds to the idea that this may be the Red Lion Inn.

Emily Gee, Historic England’s regional director for London and the South East, described the find as “tantalising”.

This discovery adds to other exciting finds in the area, including the Boar’s Head in Aldgate.


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