Its well-preserved archaeology was discovered in 1989 during a routine exploratory excavation held in the interval between site clearance and re-development of an office block. The Rose became a major international news story, and the site attracted many thousands of visitors. A campaign to ‘Save the Rose’ and protect it from redevelopment was launched with enthusiastic support from actors (including the dying Lord Olivier, who gave his last public speech on behalf of the Rose), scholars and the general public.
The Rose – a brief history
When it was erected in 1587 the Rose was only the fifth purpose-built theatre in London, and the first on Bankside – and area already rich in other leisure attractions such as brothels, gaming dens and bull/bear-baiting arenas. The site chosen was near the Thames, on land relatively recently reclaimed from the river: the first firm reference to it occurs only in 1552, when it was described as a tenement with two gardens known as the Little Rose. In 1585 this was leased to Philip Henslowe, a shrewd local businessman and property developer, and in 1587 the theatre was built for him by the carpenter John Griggs. Relatively little of its history is recorded until 1592, when Henslowe started to use an account book he had inherited from his brother, and the year in which Henslowe’s step –daughter married the well-known actor Edward Alleyn. Alleyn now associated himself with the fortunes of the Rose and would in 1619, after a highly successful career, found the College of God’s Gift (now Dulwich College). Many of his and Henslowe’s papers survive there, including ‘Henslowe’s Diary’ (his account book). This not only gives details of his expenditure on the theatre building from 1592, but also of the plays subsequently staged there, of the audiences that whey attracted, and even of props and costumes. Together the Dulwich papers constitute a uniquely rich resource for the study of the Elizabethan stage, enabling us to establish the history of the Rose in far greater detail than that of any contemporary playhouse. From them we know that its repertory included Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Jew of Malta and Tamburlaine the Great, Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy and Shakespeare’s Henry VI part I and Titus Andronicus. The Rose’s success soon encouraged other theatres to be built on Bankside: the Swan in 1595 and the Globe in 1599. These rivals swiftly overtook the Rose. It appears to have fallen out of use by 1603 and had certainly been abandoned as a theatre by 1606. Soon it vanished from the map altogether.
Subsequent development up to the 1950s was sufficiently non-intrusive to permit a remarkably high degree of archaeological survival, despite the relatively insubstantial nature of the theatre’s construction; the marshy riverine site also assisted organic preservation. In 1988 part of the site became available for investigation following the demolition of a 1950s office block, Southbridge House. By May 1989 archaeologists from the Museum of London had uncovered some two thirds of the theatres ground plan (see photograph). This indicated that the Rose as built in 1587 was a relatively small, slightly irregular many side structure, based on the geometry of a fourteen-sided polygon. The chalk and stone foundations of its outer and inner walls survived, together with some sections of brickwork. The yard of the theatre had a mortar floor which sloped down towards the stage, presumably to allow audiences at the back an unobstructed view and to help drain what was a naturally wet site. The position of the stage was clearly marked and large timber box-drain that carried water away to its north had also survived. Remains of a tiled floor from a smaller separate building were found in the southwest corner of the site. This seems to have been an existing house mentioned in a catering contract of 1587, which the grocer John Cholmley planned to use as the basis of his catering operation. There was also evidence of substantial later alterations to the stage and the northern half other theatre, elongating the shape of the auditorium to a ‘flat oval’ in plan. Entries in Henlsowe’s account book (diary) that seem to relate to these works, and dated 1592, shows he spent £105 on the works. More than 700 small objects and finds were also found on the site, and are now housed in the Museum of London in various stages of conservation and display. They include jewellery, coins, tokens and fragment of the moneyboxes used to collect entrance money from the audience.
The remaining eastern third of the theatre’s ground plan could not be explored in 1989, since it was still occupied by the City of London’s Technical Services Depot. When Rose Court was erected over the theatre site, the dedicated basement space provided for the future display of the archaeology of the Rose was extended eastwards so as to incorporate the presumed area of the theatre itself (see plan). However, it did not include the original eastern boundary of the little Rose estate, which is located within the space between the eastern wall of the display space and the western side of the Southwark bridge approach ramp, inside the remaining area of the city’s Depot. A trial excavation carried out there in 2001 by the RTT with the co-operation of the City and funded by English Heritage revealed a portion of the original boundary ditch and suggested that the level of archaeological survival on this side of the theatre site up to and including the ditch is as complete and potentially as significant as the survival to the west indicated by the 1989 excavation. English Heritage is seeking to enlarge the perimeter of the Scheduled Monument to incorporate this area.
Currently the Rose can tell the visitor much about its life between 1587 and 1603. Red rope lights around the site indicate the size of the Rose, its courtyard or pit and the position of its two stages. There is a viewing platform from which these lights can be seen and a series of poster facts sheets which tell you much about not only the Rose, but about the area of Bankside which it occupied in the late 1590s and early 1600s.
The site today inspires actors and other artists just as it did over four hundred years ago and there are regular events and open days when their many talents can be put on show.