Elizabeth Ist coat of arms

James Burbage

Picture of an Elizabethan Theatre

Picture of an Elizabethan Theatre

Interesting Facts and Information about James Burbage
The following facts provide interesting information about James Burbage

  • James Burbage was born 1531
  • Believed to be born in Stratford-upon-avon
  • Trained as a joiner

  • James Burbage made the unusual decision to become an actor
  • He became the head man in Leicester's Men acting troup
  • James moved from acting to theatrical management
  • Built The Theatre in 1576 - the very first in England
  • He consulted with Dr. John Dee about the architecture of The Theatre
  • The main rivals of James Burbage was Philip Henslow, who built the Rose and Fortune theatres which were used by the acting troupe called the Admiral’s Men
  • James Burbage died in 1597 and was buried in the 'actors church' St Leonards in Shoreditch

Biography of James Burbage (1531-1597)
James Burbage was an Elizabethan entrepreneur. He realised considerable profit by staging plays at Elizabethan Inn-yards and had the vision to build 'The Theatre' and the 'Globe'. He was at the forefront of the early days of Elizabethan commercial theatre and played an important part in the history of the Globe Theatre and William Shakespeare. James Burbage was born in 1531 and is said to have been born at Stratford-upon-Avon. James apparently started his career as a joiner, experienced in carpentry. At some point in his career he changed to acting - an extremely unusual choice as in the early Elizabethan era actors were viewed as nothing better than rogues and vagabonds. Travelling Actors were greeted with such suspicion that that regulations were imposed. Licenses were granted to the aristocracy for the maintenance of troupes of players, who might at any time be required to show their credentials. Initially it was also a rule that these performers should appear only in the halls of their patrons, but this requirement was soon disregarded. James Burbage became a member of Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester's players - an acting troupe referred to as Leicester's Men which was established in 1572. James Burbage became the head of this acting troup. In 1574, James Burbage became the first Englishman to obtain a theatrical license - he had become very serious about his role as a theatrical entrepreneur and manager.

James Burbage and 'The Theatre'
James Burbage built the very first theatre with his brother-in-law John Brayne, appropriately named 'The Theatre'. The word “theatre” had been in use in relation to the platforms used for the temporary stages erected in inn-yards. James Burbage borrowed 1000 marks (£666. 13s. 4d.) from his father-in-law, John Brayne, with which to build his playhouse. It was built in 1576 on land which was leased from Giles Allen who was a staunch puritan. Giles Allen was opposed to all theatrical activities on the land but was unable to stop James Burbage from building 'The Theatre' on the site. The Theatre was designed as a construction which was similar to a small Roman amphitheatre - the Elizabethan Amphitheatre. They modified the features of the existing blood sport rings with the addition of a fixed stage, unlike the trestle supported stage used in the inn-yards. This allowed the new stage productions to become far more sophisticated. Plays featured the use of props such as canons (although these massive props often had to be left on stage for the entire performance) and a much larger stage area for the actors which was complete with trap-doors. Special effects were also a spectacular addition allowing for smoke effects, the firing of a real canon, fireworks (for dramatic battle scenes) and spectacular 'flying' entrances. The other important feature was the cobbled yard, as opposed to the bare earth floor suited to animals. This allowed the 'pit' area to house playgoers, even on wet days. Thus the Elizabethan theatrical entrepreneur, James Burbage, created the blueprint for the Globe theater. The reputation of Elizabethan theatres was extremely bad. Theatres not only acted as a venue for plays but also supported gambling and blood sports. Plays attracted hundreds of people who unfortunately included undesirables, including thieves, harlots and pickpockets. Not surprisingly there were disturbances and fights. James Burbage died in 1597 and the Theatre business was taken over by his sons Cuthbert and Richard Burbage. After the death of James Burbage the lease of 'The Theatre' expired and Puritan Giles Allen stubbornly refused to renew the lease. A clause was found in the lease which allowed the Burbage's to dismantle the building on the site and use any materials which were recovered. Richard and Cuthbert Burbage with their troupe, including William Shakespeare, some labourers and carpenters all went to The Theatre under cover of night and demolished The Theatre. They used the timber in the construction of the Globe playhouse on Bankside, Southwark. When Alleyn learned of the demolition, he sued the Burbages for trespass and theft of the building materials but the case was dismissed.

James Burbage and Dr John Dee (1527-1608)
James Burbage consulted Dr. John Dee on the design and construction of The Theatre. The notorious Dr. Dee, renowned as a magician and alchemist, was also extremely knowledgeable about architecture. James Burbage relied on Dee's extensive architectural library to design the plans for the construction of The Theatre.

James Burbage and 'Blackfriars Theatre'
The Blackfriars Theatre was a disused Dominican priory which had been confiscated in 1538 when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. The Blackfriars indoor playhouse was originally established as a theatre in 1576 for the children of the Chapel Royal. In 1596 James Burbage purchased the property. He immediately began to convert it into an indoor hall playhouse for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men - a good venue for winter productions. But following local opposition, it was re-leased to a company of boy players, bringing an abrupt halt to the plans of James Burbage. James Burbage died in 1597. The company of boy players in Blackfriars disbanded in 1608, and Richard and Cuthbert Burbage, James's sons, quickly brought together a temporary syndicate of actors to again run the Blackfriars playhouse. From late 1609 the King’s Men took over Blackfriars Theatre.

The Death of James Burbage
James Burbage died in the bitterly cold winter of 1597. The Theatre was  just a few hundred yards from St Leonards Church in Holywell Street, Shoreditch. It is in the church grounds that James Burbage along with other actors of note from the era are buried.

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