Excavations in Whitechapel may have uncovered the remains of the first purpose-built Elizabethan playhouse, The Red Lion.

An archaeologist excavating a wooden structure believed to be the Red Lion.
Excavating the timber structure believed to be The Red Lion, the first purpose-built Elizabethan playhouse. [Image: Archaeology South-East/UCL]

The Red Lion playhouse is believed to have been built around 1567 by John Brayne, who later built The Theatre in Shoreditch (see CA 225). It is thought to be the first structure built in the Elizabethan era specifically for the performance of plays. What we know of The Red Lion comes from two lawsuits between Brayne and the carpenters who constructed it: one record details the large ‘scaffolds’ or seating galleries around the stage, while the other includes a description of the stage’s dimensions (12.2m north to south, 9.1m east to west, and 1.5m above the ground). However, the exact location of the theatre remained unknown until these excavations.

The discovery was first made by Archaeology South-East in early 2019, during archaeological work in Stepney Way, east London. The excavations revealed a rectangular wooden structure made of 144 timbers, with post-holes around it. The measurements of the structure (12.27m north–south and 9.27m east–west) closely resemble those detailed in the historical documents regarding The Red Lion, and the post-holes may relate to the galleried seating around the stage, suggesting that this structure is likely to represent the remains of the theatre.

Excavations in the north-east corner of the site also unearthed the remains of 15th- or 16th-century buildings, which became part of a larger complex in the 17th century. These buildings may represent the Red Lion Inn itself, which began as a farmstead that served beer but, by the late 16th century, had become established enough to have a prototype theatre built on its land. Two of the buildings uncovered have been identified as beer cellars, and the vast quantity of drinking vessels found on the site further support its interpretation as the inn.

It is hoped that post-excavation work will be able to further improve understanding of the discovery, but it appears likely that this is indeed The Red Lion, an important piece in the story of Elizabethan theatre.

A 3D model of the rectangular stage structure can be seen online at https://skfb.ly/6T6Rx.


This news article appears in issue 366 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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