On 29th June 1613 the famous Globe Theatre – part owned by William Shakespeare himself – was destroyed by fire – but not for the first or last time by all accounts due to the flammability of the materials used to construct the building and the carelessness of the usually drunken mob who watched the plays in very crowded conditions!
Eye witness account of Sir Henry Wotton on the Globe Theatre Fire
An eye-witness account account of the fire is given by Sir Henry Wotton, in a letter dated July 2, 1613.
“… I will entertain you at the present with what happened this week at the Banks side. The King’s players had a new play called All is True, representing some principal pieces of the reign of Henry the Eighth, which set forth with many extraordinary circumstances of pomp and majesty even to the matting of the stage; the knights of the order with their Georges and Garter, the guards with their embroidered coats, and the like: sufficient in truth within awhile to make greatness very familiar, if not ridiculous. Now King Henry making a Masque at the Cardinal Wolsey‘s house, and certain cannons 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 idle smoak [harmless 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 ground. This was the fatal period of that virtuous fabrick, 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 broyled him, if he had not by the benefit of a provident wit, put it out with a bottle of ale.”
Using gunpowder inside a theatre since then was of course banned before another Globe was built on the same site by the following June. Unfortunately in September 1642 the Long Parliament ordered a closure of the London theatres. The order cited the current “times of humiliation” and their incompatibility with “public stage-plays”, representative of “lascivious Mirth and Levity”. The ban by the force of Puritans in Parliament at the time was not completely effective so was reinforced by an Act of 11 February 1648. It provided for the treatment of actors as rogues, the demolition of theatre seating and fines for spectators.
A modern reconstruction of the Globe, named Shakespeare’s Globe, opened in 1997 approximately 750 feet (230m) from the site of the original theatre. From 1909, the current Gielgud Theatre was called “Globe Theatre”, until it was renamed (in honour of John Gielgud) in 1994.
The following articles make for fascinating reading: