The Burbages: First Family of Theatre
There are a lot of myths about where Shakespeare might have been during his Lost Years. If he went directly to the Burbages, he could have had no better entrée into the Elizabethan theatre.
When we look at the history of the Elizabethan theatre, the name of Burbage resounds more than any other. James Burbage, the patriarch, is celebrated as the builder of London’s first, permanent, purpose-built playhouse, called simply, The Theatre. His younger son Richard is renowned as one of the greatest actors of all time and was the first to play Shakespeare’s greatest roles such as Richard III, Othello, Hamlet and King Lear. His elder son Cuthbert became the manager of The Globe playhouse where Shakespeare’s greatest plays were performed.
Although we have some facts about the Burbage family, little is known of their origins. Before building The Theatre, James was a member of Earl of Leicester’s Men. Lord Leicester was the younger brother of the Earl of Warwick and his country seat, Kenilworth, was in Warwickshire. There was also a William Burbage living in Stratford-upon-Avon. Given these connections, it is possible that the Burbages originated in Warwickshire and moved to London sometime before James Burbage was married there in 1559.
James married Ellen Brayne, the daughter of a tailor Thomas Brayne and his wife Alice. Ellen was pregnant when she and James married and she may have been as young as seventeen. The Braynes lived in the London parish of St Stephen’s, while the Burbages lived in the neighbouring parish of Cripplegate. The couple were married at St Stephen’s and their first six children were christened there, only three of whom were to survive: Cuthbert born in 1565, Richard in 1568 and Ellen in 1574. Their youngest daughter, Alice, was born in 1576 after the family moved to Shoreditch.
Though a carpenter by trade, in 1572 James Burbage was a member of the Earl of Leicester’s Men and possibly their leading player as he had the authority to put his signature to a petition to their patron from the company. When the company was granted a royal patent in 1574 James Burbage’s was the first name listed. It would be safe to assume that Burbage was by then a long standing member of the company so may have joined before his marriage and perhaps met Ellen when he visited his family during the Lenten break. No doubt Ellen’s parents were wary of her marrying a strolling player and so young, but the fact that her children were christened in her parents’ parish church suggests that Ellen continued to live with them while her husband toured the country.
The issuing of the royal patent to Leicester’s Men coincided with new laws restricting the performance of plays within the city of London. These developments inspired Burbage to leave the company and settle in London where in 1576 he took out a lease on a site in Holywell Street in the borough of Shoreditch north of London, just outside the city walls and beyond the jurisdiction of the city authorities. By right of his status as a member of the Carpenters’ Guild, Burbage undertook to build on this site the first permanent, purpose-built playhouse in London which he would call The Theatre. By 1585 he had also taken over the management of The Curtain, another playhouse close by.
Burbage’s connection with the building of playhouses may have begun as early as 1567 when his brother-in-law, John Brayne, commissioned the building of a stage set up in an open yard at the Red Lion Inn in Stepney with wooden scaffolding for seating. Unfortunately, it was never to host a performance as the structure was unsuitable on two fronts for apart from being unsound, it was well out of town. As both a player and a carpenter, Burbage should have known it was doomed to failure, so one wonders whether Brayne acted on or against Burbage’s advice. It may well have been guilt over the failure of this venture that prompted Burbage to accept Brayne as a business partner in The Theatre, a decision he would regret for the rest of his life.
No doubt Burbage learned from his brother-in-law’s mistakes as well as from his own years as a touring player, playing in inn-yards, market places, churches and guild halls. On his travels he may have seen the remains of ancient Roman amphitheatres. He may also have visited a bear-baiting pit now and again. All these influences went into his design of his own playhouse which set the pattern for all subsequent Elizabethan playhouses like The Rose, The Curtain and The Swan.
Although The Theatre was Burbage’s life’s work, it came at a great personal cost. He was in continuous conflict with his brother-in-law over financial matters which resulted in debts and litigation. He also met constant opposition from his landlord who was never comfortable with his land being used for a playhouse and had financial problems of his own which also had repercussions on the Burbages. Meanwhile the city authorities, who were always opposed to the culture of theatre-going, took every opportunity to harass him. Ironically it is thanks to the litigation that resulted from these problems, and the extensive documentation engendered, that we know so much about the Burbages and the construction of The Theatre.
James’ two sons, Cuthbert and Richard, inherited their father’s passion for the theatre, although it is doubtful this is the future their parents wanted for them. Apart from his christening, the first record we have of Cuthbert is from 1589 which finds him employed as a clerk in Chancery. It is evident that James gave his sons a good grammar school education. However, while Cuthbert at least started out fulfilling his parents’ ambitions for him, the first record we have of Richard is in 1590 which finds him as a player in a production by the Lord Admiral’s Men and he may well have been acting for some time before then. Cuthbert was brought into the family business when he took over the lease on The Theatre in 1590 in an attempt to sort out his father’s legal and financial problems. Thereafter the brothers’ careers were inextricably linked to each other and to The Theatre.
The Burbages’ conflict with the Braynes continued after John Brayne’s death when his widow Margaret, supported by her husband’s other business partner Robert Myles, continued to pursue them for the half share in their income she believed she had inherited from her husband. Acting on a court order in November 1590, Margaret and Myles stormed The Theatre with their supporters to seize that day’s takings. At the time the Lord Admiral’s Men and Lord Strange’s Men were jointly occupying The Theatre. When Edward Alleyn, the leading player of the Lord Admiral’s Men, and his brother John took the widow’s side, there ensued a falling out between the Alleyns and the Burbages which would have long term repercussions on the Elizabethan theatre.
In the immediate aftermath of the fracas which ensued, Edward Alleyn walked out taking players from both companies with him. The next we see of him he was leading Lord Strange’s Men at The Rose, Philip Henslowe’s playhouse south of the Thames, while a rump of the Lord Admiral’s Men went on tour. Meanwhile, it is believed the Burbages acquired the Earl of Pembroke’s patent to form a new, albeit short-lived, company. In 1594 when the playing companies were reorganised the Alleyns would lead the reconstituted Lord Admiral’s Men while the Burbages led the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.
The first definitive evidence we have of a connection between the Burbages and William Shakespeare was in 1595 when he is listed as a sharer in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men with Richard Burbage, although there is reason to believe their association went much further back. Shakespeare’s relationship with the Burbages was to last until his death when he left a token of friendship to Richard Burbage in his will.
Whether or not the Burbages introduced Shakespeare to the theatre, they certainly maintained for him the perfect environment to practise his craft. While Shakespeare wrote his plays, Cuthbert worked quietly in the background keeping the company and the playhouse going. Richard brought Shakespeare’s plays to life, his performances no doubt going a long way to making the plays so successful and popular, and thus ensuring that they endured to be enjoyed by us today. So it may well be that without James Burbage and his sons, there may never have been a William Shakespeare and his plays.
Herbert Berry, (edited by) The First Public Playhouse: The Theatre in Shoreditch 1576–1598, McGill-Queen’s University Press (1979)
William Ingram, The Business of Playing: The Beginnings of the Adult Professional Theater in Elizabethan London, Cornell University Press (1992)
C.W. Wallace, The First London Theatre: Materials for a History, Nebraska University Studies (1913)
© Pauline Montagna 2015