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James Burbage


Dec 16, 2021

James Burbage (1530–35 – 2 February 1597) was an English actor, theatre impresario, joiner, and theatre builder in the English Renaissance theatre. He built The Theatre, the first permanent dedicated theatre built in England since Roman times.

16th-century English theatre impresario

James Burbage
Born c. 1531
Died 1597 (aged about 66)
  • Actor
  • theatre impresario
  • joiner
  • builder
Known for Building The Theatre
Spouse(s) Ellen Burbage (nee Brayne)

. . . James Burbage . . .

James Burbage was born about 1531, probably in Bromley in Kent. He was apprenticed in London to the trade of joiner, and must have persevered through his apprenticeship and taken up his freedom, as in 1559 he was referred to as a joiner twice in the register of St Stephen’s, Coleman Street. He was also one of the greatest at the craft of carpentry, which gave him an advantage at his start of theatrical management later in his life.

Burbage took up acting and was the leader of Leicester’s Men by 1572. Burbage had various talents, e.g. an actor, builder, and theatre owner; he was heavily involved in groups concerning theatre. He was said to be a theatre professional “who bridged the gap between late-medieval drama in London and the flowering of the great Elizabethan Theatre.”[1] Burbage was described as handsome in appearance, charming in manner, honest, tactful, and witty by Sir Robert Dudley, patron of Leicester’s Men.[2] Another professional acquaintance depicted James as more motivated by commerce than by art because of his dependency on financial success. He also was the father to one of Shakespeare’s personal friends, Richard Burbage, who played all the great roles in Shakespeare plays.

Burbage married Ellen Brayne, the daughter of Thomas Brayne, a London tailor and sister of his later business partner John Brayne, on 23 April 1559. They were settled in St. Leonard’s parish in Shoreditch by 1576, with residence in Halliwell Street or Holywell Lane.[3]

Cuthbert Burbage, the elder son, followed in his father’s footsteps as a theatre manager, while the younger son, Richard became one of the most celebrated actors of his era. He showed his talents alongside Shakespeare, both being co-owners of the Globe Theatre.

James Burbage was buried in Shoreditch on 2 February 1597. He was buried a few hundred yards from St. Leonard’s church, which is the burial ground for many other actors from this era. He died intestate (without a will). Having previously given his Blackfriars property to his son Richard and his personal property to his grandson Cuthbert, his widow presented an inventory valued at only £37. He died right before the lease expired on the Theatre, so after his passing his son Richard, rebuild a theatre across the Thames river and called it the Globe Theatre.

Ground plan of The Theatre

In 1576, Burbage and his partner John Brayne decided to create a new, permanent stage for London acting groups. It was one of the first permanent theatres to be built in London since the time of the Romans.[4]

Brayne was Burbage’s brother-in-law and was considered a wealthy man.[5] It was his investment (and the mortgage Burbage took out on the lease of the grounds) that allowed The Theatre to be built, with the two sharing the profits equally.[6] Financial difficulties led Burbage and Brayne to stage plays in the building before construction was complete; the proceeds from these plays helping to finance the building’s completion.[7]

Despite partnering with John Brayne, the lease of The Theatre’s site was signed by Burbage alone on 13 April 1576, to begin on 25 March 1576.[8] Since Burbage owned the lease, he also received rent money for properties on the site. Under this lease, he paid roughly £14 a year. The exact builder of The Theatre is unknown, though a likely candidate is James Burbage’s brother Robert, who was a carpenter.

In 1594, a Privy Council order created the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and gave it exclusive rights to play in the City of London at The Theatre.[9]

. . . James Burbage . . .

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. . . James Burbage . . .