Every city has its favoured centre of entertainment, and for a long time in London that was Southwark. In Tudor times, Southwark, including Bankside, was outside London’s city boundaries, and so beyond the control of the city elders. This made it a haven for prohibited activities, such as bear-baiting, bull-baiting, prostitution and unlicensed acting.
For centuries, London Bridge was the only permanent Thames crossing. So if you wanted to travel south from London, you had to go through Southwark. In the early medieval period, taverns to serve the tourist trade abounded and these, in turn, spurned London’s first red light district. It was only later that Southwark become the focus for theatre-goers.
The first purpose-built playhouse in London – known simply as The Theatre – was built by James Burbage in 1576, north of the river in Shoreditch. Ten more theatres opened outside the City during the remainder of the reign of Elizabeth I, including four in Southwark.
The Globe opened there in 1599, cementing Southwark’s reputation as the place to go for theatrical entertainment.
Although often considered William Shakespeare’s theatre, the Globe was built by the Lord Chamberlain’s company of players, later known as The King’s Men. As a member of the company, Shakespeare was merely a shareholder in the new Globe.
Alongside theatre, bear-baiting was a wildly popular Tudor pastime. Huge English Mastiff dogs would be let loose to attack a large bear that had had its teeth filed down and was chained to a stake in the centre of an open arena. Several dogs would be allowed to attack at once, until the bear tired. Bull-baiting with dogs was also common.
Bankside was the most famous place in England for bear-baiting, especially in the Paris Garden, now immortalised in the street bearing its name near the south end of Blackfriars Bridge. Baiting was only finally made illegal in 1835. Even then, one Member of Parliament argued that “the British constitution must stand or fall with the British bear garden”.
Another popular attraction was the Southwark Fair. It was established by King Edward VI in 1550 and held each year over three days in September until 1763.
Southwark’s entertainments were not popular with everyone. When the gallery of the arena in the Paris Garden collapsed in 1583, killing several spectators and injuring many others, the Puritans claimed it as a judgement of God, especially as it happened on a Sunday.
Royalty had mixed views on Southwark’s offerings. In 1503 Henry VII closed Southwark’s brothels and in 1519 Henry VIII ordered Cardinal Wolsey to purge London and Southwark of brothels and gaming houses. In 1546, Henry VIII again commanded that the brothels be closed, although this was overturned by his son Edward VI a few years later. Henry also forbade bull- and bear-baiting (although he gave permission for one of his own Yeoman to own a baiting pit). Unsurprisingly, both Tudor queens sought to punish sexual sins, but Elizabeth I was known to be very fond of bear-baiting, the bullring and cockfights.