Erected in 1587, The Rose was only the fifth purpose-built theatre in London, and the first on Bankside. This was an 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. In 1585 the site was leased to Philip Henslowe, a shrewd local businessman and property developer, who in 1587 had the theatre built for him by the carpenter John Griggs.
Relatively little of The Rose’s history was recorded until 1592, when Henslowe started keeping an accounts book he’d inherited from his brother. This was also the year that Henslowe’s step-daughter married the eminent contemporary actor, Edward Alleyn. From then, Alleyn associated himself with The Rose and its fortunes.
Later in 1619, he founded the College of God’s Gift (now Dulwich College), where many of Henslowe’s papers and accounts have survived. The accounts book details his expenditure on the theatre building from 1592, but also of the plays subsequently staged there, of the audiences that they 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 other contemporary playhouse.
From the Dulwich papers we know that The Rose’s repertoroire 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.
The Rose’s 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 scholars, the general public, and many renowned actors (including the dying Lord Olivier, who gave his last public speech on behalf of the Rose).
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.
This indicated that the Rose as built in 1587 was a relatively small, slightly irregular 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.
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 fragments 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.
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.