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  • Who Owned the Blackfriars Playhouse?
  • Lucy Munro (bio)

In 1635 three actors, Robert Benfield, Eyllaerdt Swanston, and Thomas Pollard, petitioned the Lord Chamberlain to be allowed to purchase shares in the leases of the Globe and Blackfriars playhouses and, thereby, to take a larger cut of the profits.1 An answer to the petition was composed by a group of relatives of the Blackfriars playhouse's former owner, Richard Burbage: his brother, Cuthbert; his widow, Winifred; and his son, William. They recount the history of the ownership and occupation of the playhouses, and contrast the Globe—built on land leased from Nicholas Brend and, later, his son Matthew—with the Blackfriars, saying, "Now for the Blackfriers that is our inheritance, our father [that is, James Burbage, father of Richard and Cuthbert] purchased it at extreame rates & made it into a playhouse with great charge and troble, which after was leased out to one Euans that first sett vp the Boyes commonly called the Queenes Majesties Children of the Chappell." Later, they claim, "it was considered that house would bee as fitt for our selues, & soe [we] purchased the lease remaining from Evans with our money & placed men Players, which were Hemings, Condall, Shakspeare &c."2 They present the playhouse [End Page 247] not only as the possession of James Burbage, the man who bought the property in the Blackfriars precinct and converted it into a playhouse, and his heirs, but also of Henry Evans, who had a controlling interest in its profits during the term of his lease, which was drawn up in 1600 and projected to last for twenty-one years. With the "purchase" of the lease, the Burbages suggest, the playhouse returned seamlessly to "our selues," and it is only now, in 1635, that the newcomers, Benfield, Swanston, and Pollard, are challenging their right.

This family-orientated history leaves out a number of complications attending the ownership of the Blackfriars playhouse. First, the Burbage group's corporate "our" elides the fact that the playhouse was not, strictly speaking, Cuthbert's "inheritance": after James Burbage's death the family appears to have apportioned the Blackfriars to Richard, his younger son, and other property to Cuthbert.3 Second, the legitimate claim of William Burbage, Richard's son and heir, to own the playhouse was not at stake in Benfield, Swanston, and Pollard's petition. Instead, the three actors wanted to be admitted to the benefits of a second lease-holding structure that Richard set up in 1608, when Evans surrendered his lease after only eight years. Richard created a seven-part lease, keeping one share for himself, reserving one for Cuthbert, and assigning the other five shares to other members of his playing company, the King's Men. Both the 1600 lease and the 1608 lease transferred many of the benefits and responsibilities of ownership onto the leaseholders: they were entitled to a share of the playhouse's profits, but they were also responsible for its upkeep.

In one way, the question "Who owned the Blackfriars playhouse?" can be easily answered. Its original owner was James Burbage, who died in 1597 and was succeeded by Richard. Shortly before his own death in 1619, Richard appointed Winifred "to be his sole Executrix of all his goodes and Chattelles whatsoeuer," and in the following year the playhouse was made over to four men to hold in trust for Winifred and her children, William and Sarah.4 William, who came of age in 1637, eventually sold it in 1651 to George Best, a merchant, for £700.5 [End Page 248] Yet the question becomes more difficult to answer if ownership is viewed in terms not merely of the possession of real estate, but also factors such as the ability to make a profit from it and the responsibility of maintaining it. The Burbages did not have control of the Blackfriars and its profits between 1596 and 1651. Instead, the playhouse was leased out to individuals or groups who paid a yearly rent, first Evans in 1600, then the consortium headed by Richard Burbage himself in 1608. Unlike the 1600 lease, the 1608 lease ran its full...


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