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Delightfully worried to death by dogs

Today’s post comes from guest blogger Simon Leake, who explores the curious and often over-looked early modern bloodsport of Horse Baiting.

There are many surviving eyewitness reports of bull and bear-baiting throughout England from the Middle Ages to the early 19th Century. The baiting of horses however seems to have been much less frequent, or less frequently described. Joseph Strutt, in The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England from the Earliest Period (1801) reproduces this image of “the cruel diversion of baiting a horse with dogs, from a fourteenth century manuscript.”

Strutt’s claim is repeated in several subsequent books on the subject, and even finds its way into Chamber’s The Medieval Stage (1903). In more than one of these later books, the baited animal in the image is given a mane

but closer examination of the manuscript upon which Strutt bases his claim, ‘The Queen Mary Psalter’ (MS Royal 2.VII), reveals that the animal in question is clearly a horned bull (see title image) and not a horse.

When horses appear in the Bear Gardens of 16th Century London, they are usually at the end of the bill, sent into the ring with apes tied to their backs. A report from an attendant to the Duke of Nájera, visiting London in 1544, shows that this entertainment was not without violence:

Into the same place they brought a pony with an ape fastened on its back, and to see the animal kicking amongst the dogs, with the screams of the ape, beholding the curs hanging from the ears and neck of the pony, is very laughable.

On the 23rd of August 1584 the German traveller Lupold von Wedel crossed the river to Southwark to see a bear baiting. After watching three bears fight with dogs, but before the baiting of a bull, “a horse was brought in and chased by the dogs.” The performance ended with dancing, fighting, a shower of bread and apples, and a fireworks display.

During the first half of the 17th Century horses continued to have a secondary role in the bloody business of the bear-garden. In his ‘Bull, Beare, and Horse, Cut, Curtail and Longtail’ (1638) John Taylor, the Water Poet, describes the appearance of the mounted ape on his Bear Garden palfrey:

Where Iack-an-Apes his horse doth swiftly run
His circuit, like the horses of the Sun.
And quicke as lightning, his will trace and track,
Making that endlesse round his Zodiacke,
Which Iacke (his Rider) bravely rides a straddle,
And in his hot Careere perfumes the saddle

It is in Restoration London that we find specific references to the baiting of horses, and these events seem to have caused a degree of anxiety that was absent from the baiting of bears and bulls. In both of the following examples the promoters of the event take pains to emphasise the unnatural viciousness of the animal, perhaps attempting to justify the baiting as a form of execution as much as a sport. On the 17th of August 1667 John Evelyn wrote in his diary:

There was now a very gallant horse to be baited to death with doggs; but he fought them all, so as the fiercest of them could not fasten on him, till they run him through with their swords. This wicked and barbarous sport deserv’d to have ben punish’d in the cruel contrivers to get mony, under pretence that the horse had kill’d a man, which was false. I would not be persuaded to be a spectator.

On the 7th of April 1682 the following advertisement ran in Nathaniel Thomson’s newspaper, The Loyal Protestant and True Domestick Intelligence:

London, April 7. At the house on the Bankside, being his Majesties Bear-garden, on Wednesday the 12th day of this instant April, at one of the clock in the afternoon, will be a Horse baited to death, of a most vast strength and greatness, being between 18 and 19 hands high, formerly belonging to the Earl of Rochester, and for his prodigious qualities in killing and destroying several horses, and other cattel, he was transmitted to the Marquiss of Dorchester; where doing the like mischiefs, and also hurting his keeper, he was sold to a brewer; but is now grown so headstrong they dare not work him; for he hath bitten and wounded so many persons (some having died of their wounds) that there is hardly any can pass the streets for him, though he be fast tied; for he breaks his halter to run after them (though loaden with eight barrels of beer), either biting or treading them down, monstrously tearing their flesh, and eating it, the like whereof hath hardly been seen. And ’tis certain the horse will answer the expectation of all spectators. It is intended for the divertisement of his Excellency the Embassadour from the Emperour of Fez and Morocco; many of the nobility and gentry that knew the horse, and several mischiefs done by him, designing to be present.

The venue for this event was Philip Henslowe and Jacob Meade’s Hope Theatre, which had opened in 1614 on the site of the earlier Bear Garden as a dual-purpose venue. By 1682 the Hope was used exclusively for bloodsports, but this event did not go exactly according to plan and the monstrous, murderous horse almost won a reprieve:

London, April 15. This day, the great Horse mentioned in our last being brought to the Bear-garden, several dogs were set upon him, all which he overcame, to the great satisfaction of all the spectators. But, after a little time, a person resolving to save his life, and preserve him for another time, led him away; and being come almost as far as London bridge, the Mobile then in the house cryed out it was a cheat, and thereupon began to untyle the house, and threatened to pull it quite down, if the Horse were not brought again and baited to death. Whereupon the Horse was again brought to the place, and the dogs once more set upon him; but they not being able to overcome him, he was run through with a sword, and dyed. It was designed principally for the entertainment of his Excellency the Embassadour from the Emperour of Fez and Morocco; but, by reason of bad weather, he was not there.

Soon after the baiting of the Earl of Rochester’s horse the Hope appears to have been abandoned as a venue for bloodsports. A new Bear Garden opened at Hockley-in-the-Hole, Clerkenwell, where animals were baited and men fought until the 1730s:

At the Bear-garden in Hockley in the Hole, near Clerkenwell Green, 1710. This is to give notice to all gentlemen, gamesters, and others, that on this present Monday is a match to be fought by two dogs, one from Newgate-market, against one from Honey-lane market, at a bull, for a guinea to be spent, five let-goes out of hand, which goes fairest and fastest in, wins all. Likewise, a green bull to be baited, which was never baited before; and a bull to be turned loose with fireworks all over him. Also a mad ass to be baited. With a variety of bull-baiting and bear-baiting, and a dog to be drawn up with fireworks. To begin exactly at three of the clock.

A much later reference to horse-baiting, from the notes to Alexander Chalmers 1822 edition of The Tatler shows how attitudes to some bloodsports began to change as the 18th century drew to a close:

…it was advertised in 1785, that a fine horse, brought at great expense from Arabia, would be delightfully worried to death by dogs, in an inclosure near the Adam and Eve, in Tottenham-court-road; and to exclude low company, every admission-ticket was to cost half-a-guinea. But the interposition of the magistrates, who doubted of the innocence, or of the wisdom of training dogs and horses to mutual enmity, put a stop for once to that superfine exhibition.

Simon Leake lives in Seattle with his wife and daughter. He tries to be kind to his cat. You can follow him on Twitter here

You might also enjoy If you will have your horse fetch and carry a glove

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

Entertainment London Shakespeare Theatre

‘I’ll go to the Bull or Fortune, and there see a play for two pence’

Shoreditch from The Agas Map of London (1591)

The First Public London Theatres

The first purpose-built public playhouse in London was the Theatre, constructed under the watchful eye of James Burbage in 1576. Burbage, an actor by trade, was tired of touring and playing in makeshift venues and recognised the need for members of his profession to have a permanent theatre as close to London as possible. Locating a theatre outside the city limits ensured no interference from the city fathers, who made vigorous efforts to ban plays, believing them to corrupt youth, promote idleness, and spread disease. Burbage signed a twenty-one year lease on a site in Shoreditch, and his brother Robert, a carpenter, began construction on the Theatre. This new playhouse, a wooden, unroofed amphitheatre modelled on the popular bear-baiting arenas in London, was described as a ‘gorgeous Playing-place erected in the fieldes’.

By the early 1590s, the Theatre was a flourishing venue, and in 1594 it saw the staging of several early Shakespeare plays, including Romeo and Juliet. In 1597 however, the lease expired, and following a legal dispute with the landlord, Burbage and his players relocated to the Bank Side in Southwark and erected the Globe in 1598.The Globe wasn’t the first theatre in Southwark. The Rose, under the directorship of Philip Henslowe, had opened in 1587, and the Swan under Francis Langley had been showing plays from 1596. Like Burbage’s Theatre, these were all public playhouses, unlike the private theatres in the City and Inns of Court which charged high admission prices to a wealthy and select audience.

Wenceslas Hollar’s detail of The Globe (1647)

The Globe was described at the time of its construction as ‘a house newly built with a garden attached… in the occupation of William Shakespeare and others.’ Public playhouses were polygonal or round buildings, built on a timber frame, with a thatched or tile roof over the galleries. The yard, or standing area, was open to the sky, and reached via a series of entrances. The seated galleries, protected by the roof, were accessed via a series of staircases. Plays were performed daily at two in the afternoon, plague permitting, and were announced by a trumpet fanfare from the theatre’s roof, which also sported a flag which flew at high mast when a performance was underway. Several different plays a week were performed, never the same two in the same week, and printed handbills provided details of performances to passers-by. Thomas Platter, a German visitor to London in 1599, wrote an account of seeing a play at the Curtain:

Thus daily at two in the afternoon, London has two, sometimes three plays running in different places, competing with each other, and those which play best obtain most spectators. The playhouses are so constructed that they play on a raised platform, so that everyone has a good view. There are different galleries and places, however, where the seating is better and more comfortable and therefore more expensive. For whoever cares to stand below only pays one English penny, but if he wishes to sit he enters by another door, and pays another penny, while if he desires to sit in the most comfortable seats which are cushioned, where he not only sees everything well, but can also be seen, then he pays yet another English penny at another door. And during the performance food and drink are carried around the audience, so that what one cares to pay one may also have refreshment.

Johannes De Witt’s sketch of the Swan Theatre (1596)

The stage in most public playhouses extended out into the yard, which meant the audience surrounded the actors on three sides. The Lords’ Rooms, which flanked the stage, were the best seats in the house. Behind the stage was the tiring house where the actors changed costumes, and above the stage an open balcony which extended the performance space. Over both the stage and balcony was a canopied roof supported by pillars, protecting the players from the elements. Known as ‘the heavens’ this was often brightly decorated. The stage also had a trap door and mechanical devices for lowering props and players up and down.

Philip Henslowe, owner of the Rose, includes in his list of stage props: a tree of golden apples, the city of Rome, Hell’s mouth, a rainbow, lion and bear skins, coffins, tombs, and ‘a robe for to go invisible’. Costumes were prized possessions. A black velvet cloak belonging to Henslowe’s theatre, with embroidered sleeves of silver and gold, was listed with a value of £20.10s 6d, about a third of the cost of a house in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Due to this vast expense, the aristocracy often donated costumes to the theatres.

Sound effects were simple but effective and included cannons, bells, and trumpets. A sheet of wobbling metal simulated thunder, and plays often called for mist, lightning, flaming torches, and in one case, fireworks. Because blood made such a frequent appearance on the stage, animal entrails were used for gore, and a sponge soaked in sheep’s blood, tucked under an actor’s armpit and squeezed at the opportune moment, reproduced the realistic effect of a stabbing.

Entry to the Globe’s yard, standing room only, cost a penny. For a more comfortable experience a visitor could pay an extra penny to sit in the galleries, and a further penny rented a cushion for the duration. Available refreshments included apples, oranges, pies, ale, wine, and even a pipe full of tobacco (three pence a pipe). Theatres on Bankside could accommodate up to 3,000 people per play, and audiences were comprised of every sector of society. Only Puritans abstained for fear of corruption. Bankside wasn’t the only area of London where public theatres flourished. There were playhouses in Clerkenwell, Finsbury, Lincolns Inn, and the City. There were several companies of players attached to the theatres; the Admiral’s Men played at the Rose, Paul’s Children at Pauls, Queen Anne’s players at the Red Bull, Lady Elizabeth’s at the Swan, and the King’s Revels Children at Whitefriars.

Map of London showing the theatres (1920)


In 1609, Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men, acquired a second theatre at Blackfriars. Little is known of this, the first indoor public playhouse. There is some speculation it was converted from the paved hall of an old priory. Its stage was much small than that of the Globe, and flash young things were permitted to sit on it during performances at a cost of 2 shillings. Admission to Blackfriars was more expensive than the Globe. Six pence paid for a seat in the galleries, and half a crown bought a private box. Lit by candles, and protected from the elements, Blackfriars became a lucrative investment for the King’s Men since they could stage plays all year round. In addition to the public and private theatres in London, plays were also performed at Court and at the Inns of Court. In 1612-13 the King’s Men performed five plays for James I in the Great Hall at Hampton Court.

Estimates suggest that between 1574 and 1642, the playhouses in London had regular audiences well in excess of 150,000 people, demonstrating Burbage’s simple decision to build a theatre in a field led to the birth of one of the most enduring forms of popular entertainment in Europe.

Bankside, prior to the construction of the Globe, from The Agas Map of London (1591)


Further reading: Andrew Gurr, The Shakespearean Stage 1574-1642, CUP (1980); The Shakespeare Company 1594-1642, CUP (2004).
This post was originally published in The London Historians newsletter.


© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved
Actor Stage Theatre

Puppit-plays are still up with uncontrolled allowance

This fragment comes from a text published in 1643 to protest the closure of the theatres by the Puritans. Not only does it reveal some interesting details about how actors and playhouses were regarded by the authorities, it also sheds charming light on the working practices and employees of a typical theatre in 17th Century London. It’s a really delightful text. I particularly love the bitter disparaging remarks about puppet shows.

The Actors Remonstrance or Complaint, for the silencing of their Profession, and banishment from their severall Play houses. In which is fully set downe their grievances, especially since Stage-playes, only of all publike recreations are prohibited; the exercise at the Beares Colledge, and the motions of Puppets being still in force and vigour.

Oppressed with many calamities and languishing under the burthen of a long and (for ought wee know) an everlasting restraint, we the Comedians, Tragedians and Actors of all sorts and sizes belonging to the famous private and publike Houses within the City of London and the Suburbs thereof, to you great Phoebus, and you sacred Sisters, the sole Patronesses of our distressed Calling, doe we in all humility present this our humble and lamentable complaint, by whose intercession to those powers who confined us to silence, wee hope to be restored to our pristine honour and imployment.

First, it is not unknowne to all the audience that have frequented the private Houses of Black-Friers, the Cock-Pit and Salisbury-Court, without austerity we have purged our Stages from all obscene and scurrilous jests such as might either be guilty of corrupting the manners, or defaming the persons of any men of note in the City or Kingdome; that we have endevoured, as much as in us lies, to instruct one another in the true and genuine Art of acting, to represse bawling and railing, formerly in great request, and for to suite our language and action to the more gentile and naturall garbe of the times; that we have left off for our owne parts, and so have commanded our servants to forget that ancient custome, which formerly rendred men of our quality infamous, namely, the inveigling in young Gentlemen, Merchants Factors, and Prentizes to spend their patrimonies and Masters estates upon us and our Harlots in Tavernes. We have cleane and quite given over the borrowing money at first sight of punie gallants, or praising their swords, belts and beavers, so to invite them to bestow them upon us; and to our praise be it spoken, we were for the most part very well reformed, few of us keeping, or being rather kept by our Mistresses, betooke our selves wholy to our wives; observing the matrimoniall vow of chastity, yet for all these conformities and reformations, wee were by authority (to which wee in all humility submit) restrained from the practice of our Profession.

That Profession which had before maintained us is now condemned to a perpetuall, at least a very long temporary silence, and we left to live upon our shifts, or the expence of our former gettings, to the great impoverishment and utter undoing of our selves, wives, children, and dependants. Besides which our extremest grievance that Playes being put downe under the name of publike recreations, other publike recreations of farre more harmfull consequence permitted still to stand namely, that Nurse of barbarisme and beastlinesse, the Bear-Garden, whereupon their usuall dayes those Demy-Monsters, are baited by bandogs, which dare not be seen in our civill and well-governed Theatres, where none use to come but the best of the Nobility and Gentry; and though some have taxed our Houses unjustly for being the receptacles of Harlots, yet we may justly excuse our selves of either knowledge or consent in these lewd practices, we having no propheticke soules to know womens honesty by instinct.

Puppit-plays, which are not so much valuable as the very musique betweene each Act at ours, are still up with uncontrolled allowance, witnesse the famous motion of Bell and the Dragon, so frequently visited at Holbourne-bridge these passed Christmas Holidayes, whither Citizens of all sorts repaire with far more detriment to themselves then ever did to Playes, Comedies and Tragedies being the lively representations of mens actions, in which, vice is alwayes sharply glanced at, and punished, and vertue rewarded and encouraged; the most exact and naturall eloquence of our English language expressed and daily amplified; and yet for all this, we suffer.

First our House-keepers, that grew wealthy by our endevours, complaine that they are enforced to pay the grand Land-lords rents during this long Vacation, out of their former gettings; in stead of ten, twenty, nay, thirty shillings shares which used nightly to adorne and comfort with their harmonious musique their large and Well-stuffed pockets, they have shares in nothing with us now but our mis-fortunes; living meerly out of the stock, out of the interest and principall of their former gotten moneyes, which daily is exhausted by the maintenance of themselves and families.

For our selves, such as were sharers, are so impoverished, that were it not for some slender helps afforded us in this time of calamitie, by our former providence, we might be enforced to act our Tragedies. Our Hired-men are disperst, some turned Souldiers and Trumpetters, others destin’d to meaner courses. Their friends, young Gentlemen, that used to feast and frolick with them at Tavernes, having either quitted the kin in these times of distraction, or their money having quitted them, they are ashamed to look upon their old expensive friends those Buxsome and Bountifull Lasses, that usually were enamoured on the persons of the younger sort of Actors, for the good cloaths they wore upon the stage, beleeving them really to be the persons they did only represent.

Our Fooles, who had wont to allure and excite laughter with their very countenances, at their first appearance on the stage are enforced, some of them at least to maintaine themselves, by vertue of their babbles. Our boyes, ere wee shall have libertie to act againe, will be growne out of use like crackt organ-pipes, and have faces as old as our flags.

Nay, our very Doore-keepers, men and women, most grievously complaine that by this cessation they are robbed of the priviledge of stealing from us with licence. Our Musike that was held so delectable and precious, that they scorned to come to a Taverne under twentie shillings salary for two houres, now wander with their Instruments under their cloaks, into all houses of good fellowship, saluting every roome where there is company, with Will you have any musike Gentlemen?

For our Tire-men, and other that belonged formerly to our ward-robe, with the rest, they are out of service: our stock of cloaths being a sacrifice to moths. The Tobacco-men, that used to walk up and downe, selling for a penny pipe, that which was not worth twelve-pence an horse-load, being now bound under Tapsters in Inns and Tippling houses.

Nay such a terrible distresse and dissolution hath befallen us, and all those that had dependance on the stage, that it hath quite unmade our hopes of future recoverie. For some of our ablest ordinarie Poets, in stead of their annuall stipends and beneficiall second-dayes, being for meere necessitie compelled to get a living by writing contemptible penny-pamphlets

To conclude, this our humble complaint great Phoebus, and you nine sacred Sisters, the Patronesses of Wit, and Protectresses of us poore disrepected Comedians, if for the present, by your powerfull intercessions we may be re-invested in our former Houses, and settled in our former Calling, we shall for the future promise, never to admit into our sixpenny-roomes those unwholesome inticing Harlots, nor any female of what degree soever, except they come lawfully with their husbands. The abuses in Tobacco shall be reformed, none vended, not so much as in three-penny galleries, unlesse of the pure Spanish leafe. For ribaldry, or any such paltry stuffe, as may scandall the pious, and provoke the wicked to loosenesse, we will utterly expell it. Finally, we shall hereafter so demeane our selves as none shall esteeme us of the ungodly, or have cause to repine at our action or interludes.

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Shakespeare Theatre

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

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