William Shakespeare’s London: Guide to The Bard’s former homes and haunts
Find out where William Shakespeare used to spend his time during his two decades in London.
Although he was born, died and spent a lot of his life in Stratford-upon-Avon, actor, playwright and poet William Shakespeare (1564-1616) found fame – and fortune – on the London stage. Over 400 years after The Bard’s death, his life and works continue to fascinate and entertain people around the world. Although many of Shakespeare’s former homes and haunts in Warwickshire are in good condition, it’s rather more difficult to find his London hotspots. Fires, plagues, war and redevelopment over the centuries have changed the fabric of the City of London and Bankside and left little of Shakespearean sights. However, fans of the great literary legend can make a pilgrimage to some Shakespearean landmarks, with some buildings still in existence or plaques marking his presence.
What was William Shakespeare’s life like in London?
Born in 1564, Shakespeare moved to the capital in his twenties. It’s been difficult to pinpoint exactly when he headed for the big city, as historians have referred to 1585 and 1592 as Shakespeare’s “lost years” due to lack of records. However, it’s certain that he was a married man and a father-of-three by the time he sought fame and fortune in the capital. He was definitely working in London by 1592 when he was mentioned by a rival dramatist Robert Greene.
Shakespeare lived in London for around two decades, but split his time between the city and Stratford-upon-Avon, where his wife Anne (1556-1623) remained bringing up their children. Soon after arriving in London, he began his career as an actor and playwright, with records showing his plays were being performed by 1592. He started acting with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later becoming the King’s Men, and became part owner of several theatres, including The Globe. He turned his attention from plays to poetry when theatres were closed during the plague outbreak of 1593. He remained in London for another 20 years or so, eventually retiring to Stratford in 1613, three years before he died.
Guide to William Shakespeare’s London landmarks
- The Crosse Keys
Today, the Crosse Keys is a Wetherspoons pub in a former Victorian bank. However, the pub takes its name from the former Crosse Keys Inn, which stood near the site in the late 16th century. Shakespeare’s troupe, the Chamberlain’s Men, performed for audiences of up to 500 people in the cobbled courtyard of the Inn on a regular basis in the early 1590s. The original Crosse Keys was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, with its replacement burning down in 1734.
– The Crosse Keys, 9 Gracechurch Street, City of London, EC3V 0DR. Nearest station: Bank.
- St Helen’s Parish
By 1596, Shakespeare was living in the parish of St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, while his family back in Stratford had moved into the recently bought New Place. The exact address is not known, but it is believed he was living near Leadenhall Street and St Mary Avenue. The Bard is listed as failing to pay 5 shillings on £5 worth of taxable goods in November 1597. Living locally, it was likely he worshipped at St Helen’s Bishopgate church and is commemorated inside with a stained glass window of his image.
– St Helen’s Bishopsgate, Great St Helen’s, EC3A 6AT. Nearest station: Liverpool Street.
- The Theatre
After the Plague led to plays being banned from the City of London, theatre troupes like Shakespeare and co started to move to just outside the jurisdiction of the City. The Theatre was built in 1576 on the site of the former Holywell Priory by actor and theatre impresario James Burbage – a colleague of Shakespeare at the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. By 1594, the group started performing The Bard’s plays exclusively and it soon became the leading acting company in London. Romeo & Juliet was believed to have been performed at The Theatre for the first time, with the tragedy estimated to have been written around 1591-95. However, The Theatre was dismantled in 1598, with some of its materials being used to build The Globe, after the company fell out with the land’s owner Giles Allen. Archaeologists discovered remains of the theatre in 2008. A building to house offices and a permanent exhibition about The Theatre is currently being constructed on site. Today, a mural of Romeo & Juliet commemorates Shakespeare’s spell in Shoreditch.
– New Inn Broadway, Shoreditch, EC2A 3PZ. Nearest stations: Shoreditch High Street or Old Street.
- The Curtain Theatre
Located just 200 yards south of The Theatre was The Curtain Theatre, which opened in 1577. After The Theatre closed in 1596, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men moved the short distance to The Curtain, where they performed for two years before moving south to The Globe. Audiences were entertained by productions of Romeo & Juliet, Henry IV Parts I and II, while Shakespeare also acted in Ben Jonson’s Every Man In His Humour in 1598. The Curtain vanished from records in 1627, with its remains found by Museum of London archaeologists in 2012. What was found has been preserved and will be on display as part of a new development, The Stage.
– Hewett Street, Shoreditch, EC2A 3NN. Nearest stations: Shoreditch High Street or Old Street.
- The Globe (original site)
By the turn of the 17th century, Bankside had become the playground for Londoners, where they were able to enjoy wilder pursuits outside the borders of the City of London. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men crossed the River Thames and built the Globe Theatre – a 20 sided polygonal structure – in 1599. Shakespeare was a shareholder in the theatre, as well as an actor. The company leased the site for 31 years with Shakespeare, Augustine Phillips, Thomas Pope, John Heminges and William Kempe holding one half of the lease, while the Burbages the other. At the time of The Globe’s opening, Shakespeare was lodging in the nearby area, which was known as ‘the Liberty of the Clink’. It is believed 15 of his plays were debuted at the Globe. By 1603, the troupe changed their name to The King’s Men after they were awarded a royal patent by newly-crowned King James I. Shakespeare retained his share in The Globe until 1612, the year before it burned down during a performance of Henry VIII, when a stage canon set fire to the thatched roof. Only 5% of the original Globe has been excavated, as a majority of it is buried beneath Southwark Bridge and a listed Georgian building. Today, a plaque marks the site on Park Lane, which was known as Maiden Lane during The Bard’s lifetime.
– Park Street, Bankside, SE1. Nearest station: Cannon Street or London Bridge.
- Shakespeare’s Globe (new)
The Globe theatre you see today on the banks of the River Thames is a reconstruction, opened in 1997. It was built using ‘green’ (untreated) oak, lime plaster reinforced with goat hair, bricks (made to an Elizabethan recipe) and topped with a Norfolk reed thatched roof. Just like in Shakespeare’s time, you can stand or sit on benches and watch his famous plays brought to life… and potentially get rained on.
– Shakespeare’s Globe, 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, SE1 9DT. Nearest station: Blackfriars or Southwark.
- The George Inn
Located on a cobbled courtyard off Borough High Street is the Grade I-listed pub, The George Inn. It’s the last remaining galleried inn in London and is now owned by the National Trust. Although the current building dates back to 1676, the previous Inn dated back to 1542. It once surrounded three sides of the courtyard, but today is only on one side. Actors used to perform in the courtyard, with the audience sitting in the galleries to watch. Living and working locally in Bankside, it’s highly likely Shakespeare would have visited the original Inn.
– The George Inn, 73 Borough High Street, Southwark, SE1 1NH. Nearest station: London Bridge.
- The Rose Theatre
The Rose was the first of the major London playhouses to be built south of the River Thames in 1587. Shakespeare’s plays Henry VI and Titus Andronicus premiered at The Rose around 1592 and 1594 respectively. The theatre was torn down around 1606. Its remains were found in 1989 and have been preserved underneath an office block. Today, part of The Rose is open to the public as a performance space.
– The Rose Playhouse, 56 Park Street, Bankside, SE1 9HS. Nearest station: London Bridge.
- The Boar’s Head Inn
Shakespeare referenced many 16th century London landmarks and pubs in his plays. One such establishment immortalised by the Bard was the Boar’s Head Inn on Eastcheap, where Sir John Falstaff and Prince Hal would often meet in Henry IV, Part 1. The pub was established before 1537 and destroyed in the Great Fire of London, before being rebuilt and remaining until the late 18th century. Although the Inn was demolished in 1831, a vinegar warehouse was built on the site in 1868. The architect Robert Lewis Roumieu incorporated a boar’s head sculpture on the façade in a nod to the site’s history. Although the vinegar company has long moved on, the Neo-Gothic building remains.
– 33–35 Eastcheap, City of London, EC3M 1DE. Nearest stations: Monument or Fenchurch Street.
- St Giles Cripplegate
The Anglican church of St Giles stands out as a relic surrounded by the modern brutalism of the Barbican Estate. The 14th century church, which was bombed in World War II, has family ties to Shakespeare. The Bard’s brother Edmund (1580-1607) baptised one of his sons in the church, with the playwright as his witness.
– St Giles Cripplegate, Fore Street, Barbican, EC2Y 8DA. Nearest station: Moorgate or Barbican.
- Middle Temple Hall
This Grade I-listed, Elizabethan hall has been used by the lawyers of Temple Inn since the 16th century. It was believed to be the location for the first performance of Twelfth Night, watched by Queen Elizabeth I in February 1602.
– Middle Temple Hall, Middle Temple Lane, EC4Y 9AT. Nearest station: Temple.
- Lodgings at Mountjoy’s
By 1604, Shakespeare had relocated north of the Thames and was renting rooms in Cripplegate. The playwright’s landlord was French Huguenot and wigmaker Christopher Mountjoy, who owned a house on the corner of Silver Street and Monkwell Street. It is believed that Shakespeare wrote Othello and King Lear while living there. He was called to testify in a 1612 court case between Mountjoy and his son-in-law Stephen Bellott over a marriage dowry. The Bard had been friends with Mountjoy, Bellott and their families and swore under oath he had known both parties for 10 years. He also admitted he helped to matchmake Mountjoy’s daughter Mary and Bellott. During Shakespeare’s lifetime, the Mountjoy house was near the former St Olave’s Church, Silver Street, but both were destroyed in the Great Fire. Today, there is a small park on what was the graveyard of the church and a plaque marking Shakespeare’s former lodgings.
– St Olave’s Churchyard, Noble Street and London Wall, City of London, EC2V 7EE. Nearest station: St Paul’s.
- Southwark Cathedral
When Shakespeare lived at Bankside, it fell under the parish of St Saviour, which meant he would have known Southwark Cathedral well. His younger brother Edmund was living the parish when he died in 1607 aged just 27. Edmund was buried at St Saviour’s with the 20 shilling burial fee likely to have been paid by his famous sibling. A stone dedicated to Edmund still exists in the choir area of the Cathedral. A William Shakespeare stained glass window was added in 1964, joining an alabaster memorial bust from 1912.
– Southwark Cathedral, Southwark, SE1 9DA. Nearest station: London Bridge.
- Site of Blackfriars Theatre
Shakespeare’s Chamberlain’s Men colleagues James and Richard Burbage bought the frater of the former Blackfriars Priory in 1596. After building the second Blackfriars Theatre on the site, the acting company finally started performing there in 1608. Shakespeare’s share in the company helped make him a very wealthy man, demonstrated by his property portfolio back in Stratford. Experts believe The Bard wrote The Winter’s Tale and Cymbeline for The Blackfriars stage, which was very different to The Globe. While the Bankside theatre was more suited to warmer seasons, the Blackfriars Theatre could be used in the winter so could be used year-round. Its City location attracted a wealthier crowd so the company could charge higher ticket prices. The Theatre eventually closed during the English Civil War and was demolished in 1655. Today, its location is marked by Playhouse Yard, just off Black Friars Lane.
– Playhouse Yard, Blackfriars, City of London, EC4. Nearest stations: Blackfriars or City Thameslink.
- The Gatehouse
Although Shakespeare lived in many lodgings in the capital, there is only record of him owing one home. In March 1613, the poet bought the gatehouse of the former Blackfriars Priory for £140. The purchases deeds belong to the London Metropolitan Archives. Shakespeare never lived there and rented it back to Henry Walker – who he had bought it off. He left to his daughter Susanna Hill in his will. Today, there is a plaque marking the site of the house at 5 St Andrew’s Hill, although some historians argue the actual site was the Cockpit Pub next door.
– 5 St Andrew’s Hill, Blackfriars, City of London. Nearest stations: Blackfriars or City Thameslink.
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