The fearful fire began above

On June 29th 1613 Shakespeare’s Globe theatre burned to the ground during a performance of Henry VIII or All Is True. Henry Wotton, writing to Edmund Bacon, described the event in a letter dated 2nd July. Several ballads were printed detailing the fire, one of which follows below.

‘The King’s players had a new play called All Is true, representing some principal pieces of the reign of Henry VIII, which was set forth with many extraordinary circumstances of pomp and majesty, even to the matting of the stage; the Knights or the Order with their Georges and garters, the Guards with their embroidered coats, and the like: sufficient in truth within a while to make greatness very familiar, if not ridiculous. Now, King Henry making a masque at the Cardinal Wolsey’s house, and certain chambers being shot off at his entry, some of the paper, or other stuff, wherewith one of them was stopped, did light on the thatch, where being thought at first but an idle smoke, and their eyes more attentive to the show, it kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very grounds. This was the fatal period of that virtuous fabric, wherein yet nothing did perish but wood and straw, and a few forsaken cloaks; only one man had his breeches set on fire, that would perhaps have broiled him, if he had not by the benefit of a provident wit put it out with bottle ale.’

‘A sonnet upon the pitiful burning of the Globe playhouse in London’

Now sit thee down, Melpomene,
Wrapped in a sea-coal robe,
And tell the doleful tragedy
That late was played at Globe;
For no man that can sing and say
But was scared on St. Peter’s Day.
O sorrow, pitiful sorrow, and yet all this is true.

All you that please to understand,
Come listen to my story,
To see Death with his raking brand
‘Mongst such an auditory;
Regarding neither Cardinal’s might,
Nor yet the rugged face of Henry the Eight.
O sorrow, pitiful sorrow, and yet all this is true.

This fearful fire began above,
A wonder strange and true,
And to the stage-house did remove,
As round as tailor’s clew;
And burned down both beam and snag,
And did not spare the silken flag.
O sorrow, pitiful sorrow, and yet all this is true.

Out run the knights, out run the lords,
And there was great ado;
Some lost their hats and some their swords,
Then out run Burbage too;
The reprobates, though drunk on Monday,
Prayed for the fool and Henry Condye.
O sorrow, pitiful sorrow, and yet all this is true.

The periwigs and drum-heads fry,
Like to a butter firkin;
A woeful burning did betide
To many a good buff jerkin.
Then with swollen eyes, like drunken Flemings,
Distressed stood old stuttering Hemings.
O sorrow, pitiful sorrow, and yet all this is true.

No shower his rain did there down force
In all that sunshine weather,
To save that great renowned house;
Nor thou, O ale-house, neither.
Had it begun below, sans doubt,
Their wives for fear had pissed it out.
O sorrow, pitiful sorrow, and yet all this is true.

Be warned, you stage strutters all,
Lest you again be catched,
And such a burning do befall
As to them whose house was thatched;
Forbear your whoring, breeding biles,
And lay up that expense for tiles.
O sorrow, pitiful sorrow, and yet all this is true.

Go draw you a petition,
And do you not abhor it,
And get, with low submission,
A license to beg for it
In churches, sans churchwardens’ checks,
In Surrey and in Middlesex.
O sorrow, pitiful sorrow, and yet all this is true.

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved


  • June 25, 2011 - 12:30 am | Permalink

    Great post. I’m glad that guy got the fire in his breeches out, could have been nasty. The whole place must have gone up like a house on fire so to speak. Everything must have been bone dry, wonder if it was a particularly hot summer that year. I thought the ballad was fantastic, there is a real rhythm to it.

  • Anonymous
    June 19, 2011 - 5:35 pm | Permalink

    As ever most interesting but felt guilty at drifting into a 50c rap as I read the sonnet. HDKey

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