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Changing Hands, Changing Functions

Blackfriars was a Dominican monastery that commanded the western flank of the walled city, with extensive river frontage. After the dissolution of the monasteries, Blackfriars was repurposed for everything from aristocratic town homes to rehearsal (and later, performance) space for a children’s choir. Blackfriars also served as a warehouse for the Office of the Revels. In 1596, James Burbage bought the large hall where several medieval parliaments had met to establish an indoor theater.

As a former monastery, Blackfriars enjoyed certain legal “liberties” which kept it outside London’s jurisdiction, though it was inside the city walls.

Thomas Cawarden. Moneye payd for stuf at ye blakfriers. Manuscript, ca. 1540

Great Britain. Office of the Revels. Anno primo Edwardi vi ... Manuscript, 1547

Great Britain. Office of the Revels. Memorandum of costumes lent to the city of London. Manuscript, 10 February 1546/47

Beaumont. The knight of the burning pestle. London, 1613

Shakespeare. Othello. London, 1622

 After King Henry VIII appointed Sir Thomas Cawarden Master of the Tents and Revels in 1544, Cawarden established headquarters at Blackfriars. A list of “moneye payd for stuf” in the move includes one item that speaks to the desecration of the parish church of St. Ann’s on the property: a payment for carting “the great altar stone . . . to Blachynglye.” Bletchingly was Anne of Cleves’ country manor, where Cawarden was steward. When the Catholic Queen Mary came to the throne, St. Ann’s parishioners forced Cawarden to make restitution.


As a warehouse for the Office of the Revels, Blackfriars saw its share of extravagance. Two manuscripts shown above record, respectively, some expenses involved in moving items, and an inventory of items stored in Blackfriars. The expense account also gives a behind-thescenes look at the preparations for a royal coronation. A list of forty-six tailors begins on this page, some working “daies” and “nyghtes” to prepare for Edward VI’s coronation in 1547. Other charges in the manuscript have to do with the building and transportation over water of a “mount,” probably a parade float. Among the items being stored at the Office of the Revels at Blackfriars are loans to the City of London for Edward VI’s coronation procession. They include one long garment “blewe sarcenett [fine silk] fryngyd yelowe of yt self A cape purpull velvett fryngyd with golde.” Stephen Cobbe, George Todlowe, and William Mosyne are the citizens being entrusted with these loans.


Today, we know the name Blackfriars in association with the theater there. The Children of the Chapel Royal were the first actors in the Burbages’ Blackfriars. Francis Beaumont wrote The Knight of the Burning Pestle, a burlesque of romance and adventure, for them. It features a citizen grocer, his wife, and their apprentice, the kind of respectable citizens who attended plays at Blackfriars. But these citizens refuse to behave at the theater. Instead, they repeatedly interrupt and redirect the plot of the play. Beaumont calls attention to how easily the boundaries between actors and audiences are transgressed in London’s theaters.


Shakespeare’s complex tragedy, Othello, was written for the Globe, but it also played at the more intimate, and more expensive, Blackfriars. Othello was a black soldier in the Venetian republic, who has won the heart of an aristocratic lady. In its explorations of Othello’s place in Venetian society, the play insistently counterpoints dark against light, black against white. Before he kills his wife, Othello says, “Put out the light, and then put out the light.” The line may have sent a chill through Blackfriars’ candlelit spaces.

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