400 years ago, 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 Thames to see William Shakespeare’s latest play, All Is True. It was a lavish production: with expensive costumes and real cannons. 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.
And as the cannons expended their load, the fire began.
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 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.’
Sketch of The Globe Theatre
Source: © Michelle Henry
Sounds like an accident so far…
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!
But that’s not the whole story…
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.
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 did one 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 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 so doing he spoilt his own ‘harvest’, depriving his wife of her ‘Inheritance’.
The Globe…way back when…
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’.
Could it be that the fire which destroyed the Globe 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’ – better known today as 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 Jonson. Fletcher’s revisions had turned the play into a rather crude piece of Protestant propaganda.
A performance of Henry VIII (All Is True) at The Globe
It may be no coincidence that the theatre was burnt down on the feast day of St Peter, the first ‘Bishop of Rome’. Nor that Ben Jonson should happen to be 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 appeared in print.
Sounds suspicious to me…
The fires of 1613, which destroyed Shakespeare’s Globe, and 1623, which destroyed Jonson’s books, provide glimpses into an age of sectarian conflict. The accepted account of the fire at the Globe pretends that there was no ideological warfare going on. But Ben Jonson could not keep a secret.
It was no accident but perhaps an underhand scheme that sent the Globe to ashes over 400 years ago. What do you think?