Here, author and broadcaster Andrew Dickson brings you the facts about the Globe fire of 1613…
In early May 1613, having just turned 49, William Shakespeare was at the height of his career. He was the most famous playwright of the age, imitated by younger writers and lauded even by jealous contemporaries. He wasn’t just a royal servant; no fewer than six of his works had recently been performed by the King’s Men (Shakespeare’s acting company) at court, some during the elaborate celebrations to mark the wedding of James I’s daughter Elizabeth.
Among them were the triumphant late dramas The Winter’s Tale (first performed at the Globe in May 1611) and The Tempest (first performed in November 1611). Shakespeare was doing well financially, too: that March, he had bought an apartment in the Blackfriars complex, near the company’s indoor theatre. It was his first property investment in London, adding to a substantial portfolio back home in Stratford-upon-Avon.
He was also hard at work on a new play: he and a younger playwright, John Fletcher, were finalising a script called All is True, a historical thriller based on the divorce of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon (to modern audiences, it is usually named after its hero, Henry VIII). Packed with spectacular pageantry and effects, it was a new mode for the playwright – perhaps a new beginning.
That summer, All is True finally went on stage. On 29 June 1613, in the mid-afternoon, the Globe playhouse on Bankside was packed; the performance, probably the play’s third or fourth outing, seemed to be going smoothly. When a set of stage cannons were fired near the end of Act One to mark the entrance of King Henry for a masque scene at Cardinal Wolsey’s residence, barely anyone in the crowd noticed that a piece of flaming material from one of the cannons had landed on the theatre’s thatched roof. Even when smoke began to curl upwards, no one paid much attention; in the words of one eyewitness, “their eyes [were] more attentive to the show”.
An engraving from an early portrait of William Shakespeare, published on the title page of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, 1623. (Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)
But within minutes the fire had run around the inside of the roof “like a train”, and the Globe was doomed. As the flames consumed the all-wooden structure there was a panicked evacuation, so rapid that a number of people left their cloaks behind. One man apparently had his clothes set on fire and had to throw a bottle of ale over himself. According to another account, someone else was burned after attempting to save a child. No one is reported to have died, but for Shakespeare’s playhouse, the most famous theatre in England, it was the end. The day was hot and dry, and within little more than an hour only smoking ruins were left. The fire raged so intensely that a house next door went up too.
That we know so much about the most infamous fire in theatre history indicates what major news it was at the time: several eyewitnesses noted the event, and it must have been the talk of Jacobean London. Much of this information derives from a letter written by the diplomat and politician Sir Henry Wotton a few days later, which recorded the catastrophe in remarkable detail, from the “paper or other stuff” that set fire to the thatch to the unfortunate theatregoer who “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”.
Much of the information about the Globe theatre fire derives from a letter written by Sir Henry Wotton. (Photo by Michael Nicholson/Corbis via Getty Images)
The tone of this account is jocular – perhaps because Wotton seems to have been irked by common players depictingrevered historical figures such Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey, and felt that Shakespeare and his theatre had got their just deserts. Theatre-hating puritans couldn’t help crowing, too, detecting divine vengeance in the “sudden fearful burning”. Not long after the conflagration a street ballad appeared, marking the event (its author is unknown). Its refrainpuns on the title of the play that had caused the tragedy:
This fearful fire began above,
A wonder strange and true,
And to the stage-house did remove,
As round as tailor’s clew;
And burnt down both beam and snag,
And did not spare the silken flag.
Oh sorrow, pitiful sorrow, and yet all this is true.
An artist’s reconstruction of a 16th-century playhouse in the time of Elizabeth I. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Indeed, the burning of the Globe was anything but a comedy for Shakespeare and his fellow shareholders in the King’s Men. Not only would the theatre have to be rebuilt – in an era before buildings insurance, they would have to foot the cost – it would need to be done in a hurry, because every day without a playhouse depleted their reserves even more. The company could continue to perform at the Blackfriars, but that theatre only seated a few hundred ticket-buyers; at the open-air Globe, they could cram in as many as 3,000.
It has been speculated that the shock of the fire destroyed Shakespeare’s health; as one of the authors of All is True, he might even have felt somehow responsible, particularly as the fire was caused by a boastful piece of staging (it was more usual to fire cannons for battle scenes rather than for the entrance of a monarch). Certainly, when the King’s Men banded together to pay £1,400 for the erection of the new Globe, which took a year to build – this time with a fireproof tiled roof – Shakespeare was not among them, having apparently sold his shares in the company in the interim.
Shakespeare’s last script, The Two Noble Kinsmen, another collaboration with Fletcher, was probably written later that year; its Prologue refers to “our losses” in what looks wistfully like a reference to the fire. By the end of the year, Shakespeare seems to have been based full-time in Stratford and engaged in bitter litigation over his land rights. His writing career was over. Two years later, in April 1616, he was dead.
Andrew Dickson is a broadcaster and author. His books include The Globe Guide to Shakespeare (2016) and Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare’s Globe (2015)
This article was originally published by HistoryExtra in 2018