Vic Keegan’s Lost London. 5: the Swan Theatre

Vic Keegan’s Lost London. 5: the Swan Theatre

Of all London’s lost memories this must be one of the lostest. As you come out of the wonderful new Blackfriars station on the southern side of the river, you will see on your right a big office block. You can see the other side of it as you emerge from the Tate Modern.

There is no plaque there, but this was the site of the Swan Theatre, the biggest of of Elizabethan times. Opened in 1574, it had room for up to 3,000 people, more than any dedicated theatre in London today and larger than the more famous Globe and Rose theatres 500 or so yards away along the riverbank. As London’s population was barely 200,000 during that period, this means that a large proportion of Londoners would have been regular theatre customers.

It is because of the Swan that we have the only sketch of what an Elizabethan theatre actually looked like. It was drawn by a visiting Dutchman, Claes Visscher, and has become the template for thinking about how other contemporary theatres looked (see below).

The Swan was situated in an ancient estate called Paris Garden which was a “liberty” and therefore outside the jurisdiction of the City. It was a seedy place situated close to Holland’s Leaguer, the most notorious brothel in the country. It had its own drawbridge, which was pulled up when occasion demanded.

In 1597 the Isle of Dogs, a play by Ben Jonson and Thomas Nashe, was put on at the Swan, leading to their arrest for staging seditious material. No record of the text exists today. Shakespeare must have lived nearby, because in 1596 a restraining order was served on him and others by someone who feared that “gentle” Shakespeare might be putting his life at risk.

Nothing remains of the Swan because the office block was built before archaeological surveys were made compulsory. Paris Garden, once owned by Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife, has also disappeared – except for a street named after it.

All previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London are here.

Categories: Lost London

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