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The History of
The Rose Theatre
By David Nash Ford

London is well known today for its theatrical attractions. Before the first of these were built in Shoreditch in the 1570s, plays were mostly performed in tavern yards, sometimes in the streets or on temporary stages or carts. Bankside in Southwark, outside the jurisdiction of the City fathers, quickly became the home of Elizabethan theatre, and it all started with the playhouse called 'The Rose'.

Reconstruction of the Rose Theatre

On 10th January 1587, two South London businessmen, Philip Henslowe and John Cholmley, signed an agreement to build a playhouse in Bankside and run it together for eight years. Though the profits from this endevour were to be divided equally, being a grocer, Cholmley was to retain sole interest in a house for selling refreshments at the southern end of the theatre plot. At the time of the agreement, the theatre itself was already in the process of being erected by their carpenter, John Grigge, on the site of a house known as 'The Rose'. The building is known to have been open to the public by October of the same year when there was a complaint about plays being acted on the Sabbath. It may have originally been intended as a more general place of entertainment, but the building soon became known as 'The Playhouse': the only one in Southwark.

Cholmley appears to have died some time before the eight year partnership was up. From at least 1595, Henslowe was working alone. It may have been from this time that the theatre gained its new name. In 1596, the Dutchman, Johann De Witt, wrote of it as 'The Rose' on account of the sign which hung outside it. Henslowe was a dyer who had married his dead master's widow. He lived in Clink Street in Southwark and had several property interests in the area as well as holding minor positions at court. He is said to have been a generous man, allowing various companies to perform at his theatre and giving out loans for some productions. However, money leant was quickly paid back from the first takings and Henslowe was said to have had few scruples in his business dealings.

Much is known about Henslowe's time at 'The Rose,' due to the survival of his papers which were placed in the library of Dulwich College by its founder (1619), the principal actor of the company known as The Admiral's Men and Henslowe's son-in-law, Edward Alleyn.

Christopher MarloweThe Admiral's Men appear to have arrived at 'The Rose' in May 1591 after they split from the company of London's most famous actor, Richard Burbage, at 'The Theatre'. They probably brought with them, in their repertoire, plays by Robert Greene and especially Christopher Marlowe who became particularly associated with 'The Rose'. Edward Alleyn married Henslowe's step-daughter in 1592 and the two men became partners in several theatrical ventures. Grigge undertook major alterations for them at the Globe. They bought the nearby 'Bear Garden' and later established both 'The Hope' and 'The Fortune' Playhouses.

Lord Strange's Company performed at the Rose throughout 1592, but the Admiral's men remained the playhouse's mainstay. In March, they showed off their theatrical skills in a play called 'Henry VI' and it is generally accepted that this was the version written by William Shakespeare, though there were other contemporary plays of the same name. It has even been tentatively suggested that Shakespeare may have been attached to the company at this time and may have walked the boards of 'The Rose'.

Disorder in the city led to the suspension of all theatrical events until December 1592. Their return saw the premier of Marlowe's 'Massacre at Paris' held at the Rose in early 1593. Plague forced another closure in February until the end of year. By this time, the repertoire of the Admiral's Men was seriously depleted. There were no new plays from Robert Greene, Thomas Kyd or Christopher Marlowe who were all dead.

Several other companies took to playing at 'The Rose': The Queens' Men and Lord Sussex's Men who staged Shakespeare's 'Titus Andronicus' in January 1594, though this was probably not a premier performance. By May, however, Alleyn had restored the Admiral's Men to life. They returned to 'The Rose' and entertained audiences there for some seven years. At their height, in the year from June 1595, they acted out nearly three hundred performances of thirty-six plays, twenty of which were new. There were occasional closures due to the plague or riots, such as at Southwark Market, but the Rose thrived and Henslowe was able to give the theatre a cosmetic overhaul.

However, the decline of 'The Rose' was on the horizon. In the Winter of 1595-6, 'The Swan' playhouse opened nearby. Performances at 'The Rose' began to be reduced in the face of this new competition. People were turning more to comedies and tragedies, rather than the great history plays for which 'The Rose' was renowned. Then, in 1598, Ben Johnson killed his fellow Rose actor, Gabriel Spencer, in a dual in Shoreditch where both men lived. Alleyn decided to retire and Henslowe shifted his position from landlord and banker to that of full financial manager. The entries in his papers begin to dwindle at this point.

It was a bad time for theatres as a whole. A now-lost play called 'The Isle of Dogs' performed at 'The Swan' was thought to be seditious and the Privy Council considered closing all the playhouses. There was a temporary closure of 'The Swan' until mid-September.

By the Spring of 1599, 'The Rose' was receiving still further competition from the newly opened 'Globe' theatre. The Chamberlain's Men, under Richard Burbage, were performing Shakespeare's plays there to great acclaim. In January the following year, Henslowe and Alleyn turned their attentions north of the Thames and built 'The Fortune' using Peter Street who had erected 'The Globe'. Despite the decaying state of 'The Rose,' the Admiral's Men had several months of success there until their last appearance in July 1600. They moved to 'The Fortune' in November with Alleyn coming out of retirement to help them on their way.

'The Rose' was left in the hands of Philip Henslowe's actor-manager nephew, Francis. Lord Pembroke's Men appeared there briefly in August 1600, but it largely remained unoccupied until August 1602. There was a short-lived revival under Lord Worcester's Men and Will Kempe. New plays brought success, but this was cut short by mourning for the death of Queen Elizabeth I in March 1603. The theatres reopened in May, but it seems that 'The Rose' had withered at last. Plague again forced its final closure. Henslowe's lease ran out in 1605 and the playhouse was demolished soon afterward.

For many centuries, only Rose Alley remained to show where this historic building had stood. However, in 1989, the extant remains of the theatre were discovered and partly excavated. After a lively campaign to 'Save the Rose,' the area has been preserved for future investigation and an exhibition of the theatre's history is now open to the public there.


Aaron Atte Southwerk (1994) An Hystory of ye Southwerk
Julian Bowsher (1998) The Rose Theatre: An Archaeological Discovery
Robert J. Godley (1996) Southwark: A History of Bankside, Bermondsey and 'The Borough'.
Elizabeth Gurr (1998) Shakespeare's Globe: The Guidebook
The Rose Theatre Trust (1990) The Rose Theatre: Past, Present & Future
Jean Wilson (1995) The Shakespeare Legacy
Ben Weinreb & Christopher Hibbert (1983) The London Encyclopaedia
Rosemary Weinstein (1994) Tudor London

The Rose Exhibition Opens
Southwark and William Shakespeare

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