Archaeologists Unearth Traces of What May Be London’s Oldest Theater

Experts identified the Red Lion’s location using details from two 16th-century lawsuits

Red Lion theater
Excavations of the Red Lion, thought to be the oldest theater in London, also uncovered two nearby beer cellars. Courtesy of Archaeology South-East / UCL

Excavations in east London have uncovered the city’s first purpose-built theater: the Red Lion.

Archaeologists discovered the rectangular structure, made up of 144 surviving timbers, in January 2019, reports BBC News. They identified the structure as the Red Lion based on two lawsuits from 1567 and 1569. The first of these mentions “the red lyone,” while the second details “a farme house” with an outdoor stage of specific dimensions.

“After nearly 500 years, the remains of the Red Lion playhouse, which marked the dawn of Elizabethan theatre, may have finally been found,” says University College London archaeologist Stephen White, who directed the excavation, in a statement. “The strength of the combined evidence—archaeological remains of buildings, in the right location, of the right period—seem to match up with characteristics of the playhouse recorded in early documents.”

In the Red Lion’s heyday, it hosted performances on a 5-foot-tall stage that measured 40 feet by 30 feet—comparable to Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall stage, which is 44 feet wide and 25 feet deep.

The medieval theater started out as a farmstead that sold beer. Excavations revealed two buildings that served as beer cellars, keeping drinks cool at a time when beer went bad much faster than it does today, historic buildings specialist Michael Shapland explains in the statement.

In addition to the theater and cellars, the team unearthed beakers, bottles and tankards, according to BBC News. The scale of the find, as well as the vessels’ design, suggests the Red Lion served patrons well into the 18th century.

The stage’s builder, John Brayne, is an “unsung hero” and “godfather” of Elizabethan theater, White tells CNN’s Jack Guy.

Brayne worked as a grocer, but he recognized the value a theater would bring to the farmstead. The Red Lion’s stage was a prototype—and likely the first purpose-made theater. According to the 16th-century lawsuits, the scaffolds around the stage were “substantial,” and the venue offered outdoor seating.

Per the statement, the entrepreneurial financier based another playhouse, the aptly titled Theatre in Shoreditch, on the Red Lion’s design. Built in 1576, the Theatre later hosted plays written by a young William Shakespeare.

“This tantalizing find follows the exciting recent discoveries of The Theatre and The Curtain playhouses in Shoreditch, and of the Boar’s Head in Aldgate, which together have immensely improved our understanding of the beginnings of English theatre,” says Emily Gee, Historic England’s regional director for London and the South East, in the statement.

Gee adds, “We will continue to work closely with the developer to interpret these archaeological remains and display them so the public will be able to understand them within the finished development and appreciate the rich history of this site.”

The Red Lion’s wood timbers were in a dire state when the archaeologists found them. White predicts that if the excavation had been conducted ten years later, the beams would have been unrecognizable.

White tells CNN, “The fact they survived at all is nothing short of a miracle.”