Tag Archives: Thomas Platter

Experiences of the theatre in Post-Medieval London 

Thomas Platter

In  1599, Thomas Platter, a Swiss visitor to London, wrote:

“After dinner on the 21st of September, at about two o’clock, I went with my companions over the water [to Southwark], and in the strewn roof-house [?The Globe] saw the tragedy of the first Emperor Julius with at least fifteen characters very well acted.  At the end … they danced according to their custom with extreme elegance.  Two in men’s clothes and two in women’s gave this performance, in wonderful combination with each other”.


“On another occasion, I saw … a comedy; if I remember right, in Bishopsgate.  Here they represented various nations, with whom … and Englishman fought … , and overcame them all except the German … .  [H]e outwitted the German … .

[E]very day at two o’clock  … two and sometimes three comedies are performed, at separate places, wherewith folk make merry together, and whichever does best gets the greatest audience.

… What they … produce daily by way of mirth … every one knows well, who has happened to see them … playing … .

With such …  pastimes … the English spend their time; … [and] …  learn what is going on in  other lands … ”.

Others took  much less  favourable views of the theatres, and  of the  badly-behaved crowds that they attracted.

The Lord Mayor and Aldermen made repeated efforts to have them closed down, on one occasion petitioning the Privy Council as follows:

“We have signified to your Honours many times heretofore the great inconvenience which we find to grow by the common exercise of stage-plays.  We presumed to do so, … being persuaded … that neither in polity nor in religion are they to be suffered in a Christian commonwealth, … containing nothing but profane fables, lascivious matters, cozening devices, and scurrilous behaviours … .  Among other inconveniences it is not the least that they give opportunity to the … evil-disposed and ungodly people that are within and about this city to assemble themselves … for … lewd and ungodly practices … .  For avoiding whereof we are now again most humble and earnest suitors to your honours to direct … letters … to the justices of peace of Surrey and Middlesex for the present stay and final suppression of the said stage-plays, as well at the Theatre, Curtain and Bankside as in all other places in and about the city … ”.

Indeed, the theatres were eventually temporarily closed down by the Puritans in the 1640s to 1650s, during the  Civil War and succeeding Commonwealth and Protectorate, only reopening in the 1660s, after the Restoration of the Monarchy.


Bear-baiting  in Old London

A Medieval depiction of bear baiting

On this day in 1623, John Chamberlain wrote in a letter to Sir Dudley Carleton:

“The Spanish Ambassador is much delighted in beare baiting: he was the last weeke at Paris garden [in Southwark], where they shewed him all the pleasure they could  … and then turned a white [polar] beare into the Thames, where the dogges baited him swimming, which was the best sport of all”.

The Swiss visitor Thomas Platter had written of the practice of bear-baiting earlier, in 1599:

“Every Sunday [!] and Wednesday in London there are bear-baitings.  … The theatre is circular, with galleries … for spectators, [and] the space … below, beneath the clear sky, … unoccupied. In the middle of this place a large bear on a long rope was bound to a stake, then a number of English mastiffs were brought in and first shown to the bear, which they afterwards baited … .  [N]ow the excellence … of such mastiffs was evinced, for although they were much … mauled by the bear, they did not give in, but had to be pulled off by sheer force … .  The bears’ teeth were not sharp so to they could not injure the dogs; they have them broken short.  When the first mastiffs tired, fresh ones were brought in … .  When the bear was weary, another one was supplied … .  … When this bear was tired, a … bull was brought in … .  Then another powerful bear … .  Lastly they brought in an old blind bear which the boys hit  with … sticks; but he knew how to untie his leash and … ran back to his stall”.

And Henry Machyn, in 1554:

 “The sam day at after-non was a bere-beyten on the Banke syde, and ther the grett blynd bere [whose name was Sackerson] broke losse, and in ronnyng away he chakt a servyng man by the calff of the lege, and bytt a gret pesse away, and after by the hokyll-bone, that with-in iii days after he ded”.

The barbaric practice of animal-baiting began at least as long ago as the Middle Ages: the oldest record of the royal office of “Master of the Bears” is from 1484, during the reign of the last Plantagenet King, Richard III.

Bear Gardens - Copy.JPG

The old  animal-baiting arenas on Bankside in   Southwark eventually closed down in the late seventeeth century, although  at the same time new ones opened up Hockley-in-the-Hole in Clerkenwell, “the home of low-caste sport.  Animal-baiting was only finally outlawed, under the “Cruelty to Animals Act”, in the early nineteenth century, in 1835.