The Future of History

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Fire at the Globe

400 years ago today, the first Globe theatre was destroyed by fire.

But was it an accident?

The afternoon of Tuesday, 29 June 1613, was warm and sunny. Crowds crossed the River Thames to see William Shakespeare's latest play, All is True.  It was a lavish production: expensive costumes had been donated and real cannons were used.  These cannons were discharged at a key moment in the action - just as King Henry VIII was about to meet and fall in love with Anne Boleyn.

A courtier, Sir Henry Wotton, received a report on what happened.  Some "paper, or other stuff" from one of the cannons "did light on the thatch".  At first, it was thought "but an idle smoke".  The audience was too preoccupied with the pageantry on the stage to take much notice.  But the fire "kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very grounds."

There were no casualties - apart from a man whose breeches caught fire; fortunately, he had a bottle of ale to hand with which he doused the flames.  The Globe Theatre, though, was ruined.  Its timbers had in fact been recycled from the earlier Theatre, built in 1576, and so nearly four decades of theatrical tradition had come to a fiery end.

Ten years later, another fire tore through the lodgings occupied by Ben Jonson.  Shakespeare's great literary rival responded to the destruction of his books and manuscripts with a mock-serious poem, which he entitled An Execration Upon Vulcan.

Addressing the lame Roman "Lord of Fire", Jonson recalled the earlier fire at the Globe - or what he chose to call Vulcan's "cruel Stratagem, / (Which, some are pleas'd to stile but thy mad Pranck), / Against the Globe'.  Jonson claimed to have seen "the Glory of the Bank" destroyed, but confided that other accounts of how the fire started had been gossiped about at the time:

Nay, sigh'd, ah Sister 'twas the Nun, Kate Arden
Kindled the Fire!  But, then one did return,
No Fool would his own harvest spoil, or burn!

"If that were so," Jonson continued, "thou rather would'st advance / The Place, that was thy Wives Inheritance."

It's always difficult to know how far Ben Jonson's tongue was in his cheek.  But subtlety was never his strong point.  A "Nun" - Kate Arden - might have "Kindled the Fire", even though in doing so he spoilt his own "harvest" and burnt his wife's "Inheritance".

Officially, there were no nuns in Protestant England.  Jonson was presumably referring to a Bankside whore, although he gave her the name of William Shakespeare's home region and his mother's family - and then promptly changed her sex!  Whoever Jonson was hinting at had a financial interest in the Globe ("thy Wives Inheritance") and was tarred with the brush of "Popery".

So could it be that the fire which destroyed the Globe 400 years ago was started deliberately, as Jonson seems to have been suggesting?  And, if so, why?

Perhaps it had something to do with the play that was being performed that afternoon.  Although All is True - or, as it is better known today, Henry VIII - was credited to William Shakespeare, much of the text had been rewritten by John Fletcher, the son of a former Bishop of London, who had the rare distinction of being "loved" by Ben Jonson.  Fletcher's revisions had turned Shakespeare's play about the beginnings of the English Reformation into a rather crude piece of Protestant propaganda.

It might be no coincidence that the theatre was burned down on the traditional feast day of St Peter, the very first "Bishop of Rome".  Nor that Ben Jonson should have been reminded of this "mad Pranck" when his own library was incinerated just a month before the First Folio of Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, over which Jonson had tried to wield editorial control, appeared in print.

The fires of 1613, which destroyed Shakespeare's Globe, and 1623, which ravaged Jonson's study, provide glimpses into an age of sectarian strife.  The accepted account of the fire at the Globe pretends that there was no ideological warfare going on - a false pretence maintained, to this day, by Shakespeare scholars.  But Ben Jonson could not keep a secret.

It was no accident but a "cruel Stratagem" that razed the first Globe Theatre, four hundred years ago.

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