Find out where William Shakespeare used to spend his time working, living and playing 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 Shakespeare’s 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.
Shoreditch street art commemorates where the tragic love story was first performed back in the 16th century.
When it comes to checking out street art in Shoreditch, you’ll be spoiled for choice. However, one of the district’s most striking murals has a special historic significance. One particular building on New Inn Broadway features a mural depicting Romeo and Juliet… on the very spot where the play was first performed.
Long before The Globe was built on Bankside, William Shakespeare (1564-1616) used to tread the boards in the East End. In 1572, the Mayor of London cracked down on plays being performed within the City of London in an attempt to prevent the spread of the Plague. As a result, theatre companies started performing just outside the jurisdictions of the City. The Theatre was built in 1576 on the site of the Holywell Priory, which has been demolished following the dissolution of the monasteries a few decades earlier. It was started by actor and theatre manager James Burbage (1530/5-1597) and his brother-in-law John Brayne (1541-1586). At the time, Shoreditch was notoriously rough and was surrounded by brothels, gambling dens and rowdy taverns. The Theatre was built in a polygonal shape, included three galleries and a yard and was said to have cost £700 to build.
The Theatre owner Burbage was a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men theatre company, with a certain actor and playwright from Stratford-upon-Avon as one of his colleagues. The LCM was formed in 1594, when Shakespeare had already been making waves in the theatre scene for at least two years. The troupe started performing Shakespeare’s plays exclusively. Shakespeare’s tragic love story Romeo and Juliet was performed for the first time at The Theatre, estimated to have been written around 1591-1595.
After 22 years of entertaining Londoners, The Theatre came to an end following a dispute between the late Burbage’s son Richard (1567-1619) and the site’s landowner Giles Allen. In a desperate bid to protect their playhouse, Richard and his brother Cuthbert enlisted the help of some associates to dismantle The Theatre in December 1598. The timbers were believed to have been hidden nearby in Bridewell, before being taken over London Bridge to Bankside when the weather improved. Timbers from The Theatre were used to build The Globe in 1599.
For centuries, the site of The Theatre was lost until it was rediscovered by Museum of London archaeologists in 2008. They found remains of brick and stone polygonal footings of the gallery, along with seeds and fruit pips and broken beer vessels from the Elizabethan period. Just north of the Romeo and Juliet mural we see today, a building is being erected to house offices and a permanent exhibition about The Theatre.
Today, a Romeo and Juliet mural adorns a modern three-storey office building on the site of The Theatre. The top of the piece features the heroine Juliet in a blue gown, looking down from her balcony for her Romeo, who gazes up adoringly at her from two storeys down. One of Juliet’s passages from Act 2, Scene 2 of the play is featured: ‘My bounty is as boundless as the sea’; ‘My love as deep the more I give to thee’; and ‘The more I have for both are infinite’. Fans of the play will recognise it from Romeo and Juliet’s post-Capulet ball discussion when they make plans to marry after meeting that evening. The mural was commissioned through the Global Street Art Agency in June 2018.
- New Inn Broadway, Shoreditch, EC2A 3PZ. Nearest station: Shoreditch High Street or Old Street.
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The interesting history of this Gothic office block – and its ties to Shakespeare.
Despite being extensively rebuilt following the Blitz, the City of London has retained many of its old street names. While some are rather humorous (e.g. Cock lane in Smithfield), others aren’t so flattering such as Eastcheap. Today, the word ‘cheap’ is used as an unattractive way to describe something low in price and quality. ‘Cheap’ actually comes from the Saxon word for ‘market’. In the Middle Ages, Eastcheap was the main meat market in the City. However, by the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution had transformed the area with offices and warehousing replacing the butchers’ stalls.
Walking down Eastcheap today, you will see a lot of the Victorian buildings survive and are home to offices, coffee shops and the like. One particular building that stands out from the rest is No. 33-35 Eastcheap, a dramatic Neo-Gothic, double-fronted structure. Prior to No. 33-35’s erection in 1868, the site was home to the famous Boar’s Head Tavern. The pub’s exact origins aren’t known, but it was used as a meeting place by William Shakespeare in several of his historical plays, most notably Henry IV, Part I (abt. 1597). The character Falstaff was a frequent drinker at the Boar’s Head Tavern. The original tavern was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, and was rebuilt and became a pilgrimage site for Shakespeare fans. It stood on Eastcheap until 1831 when it was demolished to make way for a road widening scheme leading to the new London Bridge. At the time of demolition, the building hasn’t been used as tavern since the late 18th century and had been sub-divided into shops. The Boar’s Head sign was preserved and went on show at The Globe Theatre at Bankside in 2010.
The current building of No. 33-35 was constructed in 1868 to a design by English architect Robert Lewis Roumieu (1814-1877). Born to a Huguenot family, who had arrived in Britain 100 years before his birth, Roumieu was an original and daring architect for the time. Although many of his designs were Neo-Gothic – which was trendy in Victorian times – he did like to push the boundaries. As well as the Eastcheap building, he also designed Milner Square (Islington), the Almeida Theatre, the French Hospital in Hackney, among others. Roumieu was commissioned to design a vinegar warehouse depot for Hill & Evans at a cost of £8,170. Hill & Evans were founded in Worcester in 1830 and were, at one point, the world’s largest vinegar producers. By the early 20th century, they were selling 2 million gallons of malt vinegar a year. The company ceased trading in 1965 after 135 years of business.
No. 33-35 is a Neo-Gothic, five-storey building with a further attic storey in a slated roof. On the ground floor is a huge arched doorway which would have been used for delivery access and Devonshire marble columns. However, the current iron gates only date back to 1987. The top three-storeys feature Gothic arched bays with projected canopies over the windows. Above the second floor, central window is a sculpture of a wild boar peering through long grass – a nod to the site’s former Boar’s Head Tavern. Meanwhile, the second floor canopies to the left and right feature carved heads of Henry IV and Henry V. The building features a lot of decorative elements, including tiling, cast iron cresting, and plaster badges.
When the building was completed in 1868, it certainly caused a stir, with Roumieu being labelled a ‘rogue’ architect for some of his daring styles. The British Almanac of 1869 described it as: “The style is French, but some of the details are Venetian. The general effect is novel and striking, though somewhat bizarre.” Twentieth century critics Gavin Stamp and Colin Amery were more positive, proclaiming Roumieu’s creation as “the City’s masterpiece of polychromatic Gothic self-advertisement”. Meanwhile, architectural critic Ian Nairn (1930-1983) gave it a rather dramatic review: “This is truly demoniac, an Edgar Allan Poe of a building. It is the scream that you wake on at the end of a nightmare.” Despite the critics’ mixed reviews to the building, it was Grade II listed by Historic England in 1971.
In recent decades, the ground floor has been home to various shops and restaurants. Bewlay’s Pipes had a small shop from the 1950s to 1970s, while there was a branch of J. Lyons & Co tea shops at No.35 in the 1950s. Today, the upper storeys contain offices, while the ground floor houses branches of Black Sheep Coffee and a Simmons bar.
- 33 – 35 Eastcheap, City of London, EC3M 1DE. Nearest stations: Monument or Fenchurch Street.
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It’s one of the oldest churches in London, but barely known to so many as it’s quietly hidden away amidst the legal buildings of Temple. A stone’s throw from Middle Temple Hall is the 12th century Temple Church. Although the church is usually open on weekdays for a small charge, it also welcomes visitors for free one weekend every September as part of Open House London. For those who don’t know, Open House London is chance for Londoners and tourists to see inside buildings normally off limits to the public, or usually costing to enter, for free.
The name Temple covers an area in the City of London between Fleet Street and the River Thames, east of Aldwych. The name Temple actually stems back to a Medieval group known as the Knights Templar. They comprised of wealthy and powerful soldier monks who protected pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land. Their financial skills were an early form of banking and they were renowned for their fighting during the Crusades. Back in England, they named their headquarters after Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. Originally based in High Holborn, by the 1160s the Knights Templar found they needed a bigger site for their rapidly expanding organisation and purchased a new site near the Thames, which we now know today at Temple.
The original church was circular – with this now acting as the nave – and was based on the 6th century Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The church was consecrated in February 1185 by Patriarch Heraclius of Jerusalem (1128-1190/1191) and it is believed King Henry II (1133-1189) was in attendance. The circular church measured 55 feet in diameter. It is believed the walls were painted different colours, while further decoration was provided by the Purbeck Marble columns – now acknowledged to be the oldest, surviving free-standing examples of these today. As well as the church, the Knights Templar also built residences and military training facilities on the surrounding land. Read the rest of this entry
The Georgian terrace has a plaque claiming to be the former home of Sir Christopher Wren… but what’s the truth?
Cardinal’s Wharf isn’t usually on a tourist’s checklist of things to see in London. However, inevitably a large proportion of visitors will pass by it while on the way to the Globe or Tate Modern and be attracted to the row of 18th century terraced houses juxtaposed by 20th century architecture. Standing out amongst the three buildings is the tallest – No. 49 Bankside – a three-storey cream building with red door. If you get close enough, you’ll find a cream, ceramic plaque linking it to a very important Englishman – Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723). Renowned as the architect of St Paul’s Cathedral, the Royal Naval College in Greenwich and many of the City of London’s churches, Wren is an important name in the history of the capital. The plaque claims: ‘Here lived Sir Christopher Wren during the building of St Paul’s Cathedral. Here also, in 1502, Catherine Infanta of Castile and Aragon, afterwards first queen of Henry VIII, took shelter on her first landing in London.’
If you stand with your back to the building, you have a lovely view of St Paul’s over the Thames. It’s easy to imagine Wren retiring with a glass of something to the first floor in the evening after a long day at work and gazing out of the window surveying the progress… however, sadly it’s not quite what happened. Wren was tasked with rebuilding a lot of the City of London after the Great Fire in 1666 and is believed to have based himself at Bankside… but at a building a few doors down from No.49, which has long been demolished.
Writer and historian Gillian Tindall uncovered the truth behind the myth of the building in her 2006 book The House By The Thames: And The People Who Lived There. It turns out No.49 was actually built in 1710 – the same year St Paul’s Cathedral was completed, so that already debunks the theory Wren was based there during the decades it took to build his masterpiece. Tindall believes the plaque stood on the actual house that Wren did live in, but a few houses east – situated where a modern block of flats stands today behind the Founders Arms pub. Her theory suggests Malcolm Munthe (1910-1995), who owned the property in 1945, retrieved the plaque when the original Wren building was demolished and placed it on No.49 to protect it from demolition (for a photo of No.49 in 1946, click here). While the act may have led many to confuse fact and fiction, the plaque’s incorrect placing has managed to save the house from destruction. Bankside was heavily bombed during World War II, before there was mass demolition and redevelopment in the 1960s and 1970s, so the continued existence of these three houses in Cardinal’s Wharf is a remarkable thing. According to Nicky Haslam’s 2009 memoirs ‘Redeeming Features’, antiques dealer and ‘King of Chelsea’, Christopher Gibbs (1938-2018) lived at No.49 at some point in the 1960s. Situated next to the 1940s-built Tate Modern (formerly Bankside Power Station) and the modern reconstruction of The Globe theatre (opened 1997), Cardinal’s Wharf is a striking contrast to the modernity around it. The house used to stand a lot closer to the Thames, until the Greater London Council revised the waterline back in the 1970s, creating a larger pedestrianised area we see today. No.49 remains the oldest house on Bankside today. Read the rest of this entry
For over 2,000 years, our beloved London has been ravaged by invasions, fires, war and terrorism. For every loss of an architectural wonder, we fortunately also have another preserved. The 16th century, Grade I listed Middle Temple Hall is one such historic wonder – amazingly it survived the Great Fire Of London and just about scraped through World War II with some damage to the eastern end. While many other buildings of its era have been turned into a museum, Middle Temple Hall is still functioning for the legal profession – as it was designed for – so is rarely open to the public. It is widely considered as the finest example of an Elizabethan hall in London and has hosted many historical figures over the years.
Middle Temple Hall is located in the Temple area of London – near where the City of London meets the City of Westminster. History of the area stems back to the 13th century when legal students used to lodge and study in the vicinity. The Temple Church nearby was built in the 13th century and remains open to the public, services permitting. Construction on the Hall began in 1562 by law reporter Edmund Plowden, who was Treasurer of the Inn at the time. He has been immortalised as a bust by Morton Edwards, which stands in the Hall. Completed in 1573, the Hall is 100 feet long and 41 feet wide. One of the main attractions is the stunning wooden hammer-beamed roof, which prompted an audible ‘wow’ from me when I first walked into the Hall. The oak wood panelling on the walls feature hundreds of coats of arms and stained glass windows above them of the Readers and other notable Middle Templars.
At the west end of the hall are seven oil paintings of past Royals, including Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), Charles I (1600-1649), Charles II (1630-1685), James II (1633-1701), William III (1650-1702), Queen Anne (1665-1714) and George I (1660-1727). Queen Elizabeth opened the Hall in 1573 and often dined at the hall. It is even rumoured she watched what is believed to be the first production of William Shakespeare‘s Twelfth Night in the Hall on 2 February 1602. Underneath the paintings is the High Table – made of three 29 foot planks of a single oak, which was floated down the River Thames from Windsor Forest, apparently a gift from Queen Elizabeth.
At the east end of the hall is an elaborate screen, which was built in 1574. Two double-leaved doors were added in 1671 in an attempt to prevent boisterous behaviour by junior members of The Bar. However, the screen was heavily damaged in World War II by flying masonry from nearby Elm Court, which was destroyed by a landmine in October 1940. The remains of the screen were stored in 200 sacks until the War was over and it has since been painstakingly restored. During World War II, a total of 122 out of a total of 285 chambers at the Temple were destroyed.
Over the centuries, a host of historic figures became members of Middle Temple, including R D Blackmore, Charles Dickens, Henry Fielding, Inigo Jones, Sir Walter Raleigh, Richard Brinsley Sheridan and William Makepeace Thackeray. In 1852, the Four Inns of Court (together with Inner Temple, Gray’s Inn or Lincoln’s Inn) ceased to be responsible for legal education. However, the Bench, Bar and students still meet for lunch in the Hall and host functions. Today, the Inns provide training and support to newly qualified lawyers.
Although the building is usually off-limits to the public, I was fortunate enough to visit during Open House London in September. While the building looked impressive from the outside, I wasn’t quite prepared for how magnificent it was inside. Occasionally the hall is open to the public for its annual Christmas fair and other events.
- Middle Temple Hall, Middle Temple Lane, EC4Y 9AT. Nearest station: Temple. For more information, visit the Middle Temple website.
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Read more about Temple’s history
Following a short run at Morden Hall Park, a new production of Twelfth Night opened at Brockwell Park, Herne Hill on July 3. The production features a cast of nine, and is set on a simple stage. Of course, with William Shakespeare‘s words, there isn’t much need for props. Of all the plays of The Bard I have seen, Twelfth Night is one of the more uplifting and fun and was hoping this production would do the play justice. Arriving at the open air stage just beside Grade II-listed Brockwell House at the top of the hill in the park, I was keeping an open mind with my expectations. However, was pleasantly surprised to find them surpassed. While Shakespeare’s language can be hard work to understand, the emotion and timing by the excellent cast made them easy to decipher.
The production is set during the 1960s in the Mediterranean, with twins Viola (Amy Downham) and Sebastian (Paul Hayward) arriving separately on the island of Illyria after being shipwrecked. Heartbroken with grief thinking her brother has drowned, Viola decides to disguise herself as a boy and finds work with the dashing Duke Orsino (Adrian Irvine). Orsino is lovesick for Countess Olivia (Alicia Charles) and employs Viola to woo her on his behalf. Unbeknown to him, his right hand man ‘Cesario’ is actually a woman… and pining for him. Rather uncomfortably for Viola, she realises that Olivia has fallen for her, believing her to be a man. The love triangle soon becomes a love square when Sebastian arrives on the scene – with all the locals believing he is Cesario. Viola fighting off the attentions of a persistent Olivia makes for hilarious scenes.
Providing a hilarious subplot is Olivia’s drunken uncle Sir Toby Belch (Anthony Glennon), who spends his time drinking and making mischief with his niece’s gentlewoman Maria (Jennifer Rhodes), Sir Andrew Aghecheek (Andrew Pepper) and court jester Feste (Morgan Philpott). They end up targeting Olivia’s steward Malvolio (Philip Childs) in a bid to amuse themselves, causing much discomfort for Olivia.
The play was divided into two acts, which moved very swiftly. Unlike with some other Shakespeare productions, it was easy to keep up and the audience were frequently in hysterics as the chaos unfolded. While I found the cast all excellent, Pepper’s Andrew and Childs’ portrayal of the ‘most notoriously abused’ Malvolio were particularly entertaining. On a warm summer night, the intimate setting was relaxing and quaint. I can highly recommend the production, so check it out before it closes.
- The Attic Theatre Co & Sixteenfeet production of Twelfth Night or What You Will Run runs from July 3 – 14 just beside Brockwell Hall at Brockwell Park, Herne Hill. Evening performances nightly 7.15pm, matinee performances 2.30pm (July 11) and 4pm (July 13). Tickets: £10-£17. Nearest station: Herne Hill (10 minutes from Victoria or Blackfriars). For more information and tickets, visit the Twelfth Night website