“… I will entertain you at the present with what happened this week at the Banks side. The King’s players had a new play called All is True, representing some principal pieces of the reign of Henry the Eighth… Now King Henry making a Masque at the Cardinal Wolsey’s house, and certain cannons being shot off at his entry, some of the paper or other stuff, wherewith one of them was stopped, did light on the thatch, where being thought at first but idle smoak, and their eyes more attentive to the show, it kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very ground. This was the fatal period of that virtuous fabrick, wherein yet nothing did perish but wood and straw, and a few forsaken cloaks; only one man 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.”
This was how Sir Henry Wotton described the fire which burned the Globe Theater in London on the evening of today’s date, June 29 in 1613. Sir Henry was writing in a letter on July 2 of that year, and the fire must have a big impression on him and the others who witnessed it, although happily nobody seems to have been killed, and apparently the only injury came to the man with the flammable breeches.
The Globe: A Fire Waiting to Happen!
Built in 1599, the Globe Theater had seen some of the finest plays of William Shakespeare’s career as a much celebrated dramatist. But there had been competition with other theaters to see who could stage the most elaborate productions, complete with gunfire and flames at times. So here was the Globe with a thatched roof, and made mostly of timber, with an interior which was also made of wood. It had three tiers of roofed galleries with balconies with three rows of wooden benches which got larger towards the back, which followed the shape of the structure of the building. There were about 1500 people in attendance for Globe theater plays. and no plans in place for evacuation in the event of a fire.
(Below: a modern re-construction of the Globe Theater in performance).
The Globe Theater constituted an accident just waiting to happen – a major fire hazard. And as the props were improved – more spectacular effects were expected. Some boob had the idea of using a live cannon…
A Cannon Fires and There Goes the Globe…
The Globe Theater had for several years used cannons for special effects without any significant problems. But the danger persisted. For this performance of “Henry VIII” by Shakespeare (which was in fact what was being performed that night) the cannon was situated inside the house, in close proximity to the thatched roof. The cannon was used to create a dramatic special effect such as announcing entrances of great characters. This was a particularly popular effect in the plays which were about a famous event in history. The cannon was loaded with gunpowder and wadding, and sparks from the cannon fire landed on the thatched roof on that night in June, starting a massive fire.
“It was a great marvaile…”
“The burning of the Globe or playhouse on the Bankside on St. Peter’s day cannot escape you; which fell out by a peal of chambers, (that I know not upon what occasion were to be used in the play,) the tampin or stopple of one of them lighting in the thatch that covered the house, burn’d it down to the ground in less than two hours, with a dwelling-house adjoyning; and it was a great marvaile and a fair grace of God that the people had so little harm, having but two narrow doors to get out.”
– From a letter by Mr. John Chamberlaine to Sir Ralph Winwood, dated July 8, 1613
Not only were there in fact two exits, but as stated at the beginning, nobody seems to have been seriously injured in this blaze. William Shakespeare himself was comfortably in retirement at Stratford at the time that this happened, and would only live three years longer. Although his reaction to the fate of the scene of so many of his greatest plays was never recorded, one can only imagine….