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'London's earliest theatre' found in Whitechapel

The building is thought to have been built in 1567

The site of the Red Lion
© Archaeology South-East / UCL

'London's earliest theatre' has been discovered in Whitechapel.

According to members of Archaeology South-East, part of UCL's Institute of Archaeology, the venue has been discovered under a housing development in east London and may be a vital part of performance history.

Believed to be The Red Lion, the first "purpose-built theatre" of the Elizabethan era, the venue is expected to have been constructed in 1567 by John Brayne. Brayne and famous Elizabethan actor Richard Burbage would then go on to construct another theatre, called 'The Theatre', in Shoreditch in 1576.

Evidence of the Red Lion playhouse's existence was first found in a 1569 lawsuit, which described a "farme house called and knowen by the name of the Sygne of the Redd Lyon" where outdoor performances were held.

Land deeds from the late 17th century also suggested that a theatre had been built in Whitechapel, though only recently has the exact location been confirmed.

Last January excavations revealed "an unusual rectangular timber structure" featuring 144 surviving timbers. The Red Lion may be a vital part of explaining the development of theatre in the Elizabethan era, before the construction of the Globe or the Rose.

Historic England's regional director Emily Gee said: "This tantalising 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.

"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."

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