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Archaeologists unearth what’s believed to be London’s oldest theater building

Digging Up Drama

Archaeologists unearth what’s believed to be London’s oldest theater building

Archaeologists can now confirm that a timber structure first unearthed last year is London's first purpose-built theatrical venue. (Courtesy Archaeology South-East / UCL)

Excavation work at a housing redevelopment site at 85 Stepney Way in the Whitechapel district of East London has yielded a most significant find: the timber remains of what’s believed to be the Red Lion, a purpose-built theatrical venue completed circa 1567, the very first of its kind in London. Archaeologists first discovered the timbers in January 2019 and have since been at work collecting artifacts and poring over historical documents in order to definitively confirm the structure’s identify.

As reported by BBC News, the existence of the Tudor-era Red Lion has never been under dispute although the exact physical location of the roughly 453-year-old playhouse, built by John Brayne, has long remained a mystery. In 1576, Brayne, along with his thespian brother-in-law John Burbage, went on to establish The Theatre in Shoreditch, a famed Elizabethan playhouse with ties to a young William Shakespeare.

“This is one of the most extraordinary sites I’ve worked on. After nearly five hundred years, the remains of the Red Lion playhouse, which marked the dawn of Elizabethan theatre, may have finally been found,” said Stephen White of Archaeology South-East, part of University College London’s Institute of Archaeology, in a press statement. “The strength of the combined evidence–archaeological remains of buildings, in the right location, of the right period, seem to match up with characteristics of the playhouse recorded in early documents. It is a privilege to be able to add to our understanding of this exciting period of history.”

As the Independent elaborated, the Red Lion has long been considered a “missing link” between the strictly biblical traditions of medieval theater and the Elizabethan era when secular plays flourished and purpose-built playhouses, the first permanent one being The Theatre, emerged across London. (Shakespeare, the defining face of Elizabethan drama, was born just a couple of years before the Red Lion was completed.) Built on the grounds of a farmstead and pub, the Red Lion opened with a performance of a biblical spectacular (as was customary at the time) titled the Story of Samson although the theater went on to pave the way for less conservative venues like The Theatre that tolerated works by Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

The site unearthed by White and colleagues is modest in size (just 40 feet by 31 feet) and closely mirrors descriptions of the venue, an open-roofed wooden structure, mentioned in two late 16th-century lawsuits between Brayne and the laborers hired to build the playhouse. The dimensions of the stage, in fact, are an exact match.

In addition to the timber remains of the Red Lion, archaeologists unearthed drinking vessels, coins, and fragments of what are believed to be green-glazed glass boxes that were used to collect admission fares at Tudor-era theaters.

As noted by the Independent, the Red Lion was only in operation for a decade or so as Brayne largely abandoned the venue to focus his energy on The Theatre.  The adjacent pub continued to operate and the playhouse was repurposed as a dog fighting arena. The remains of dozens of dogs, many of them with telltale signs of how they died, were also unearthed by archaeologists at the site.