Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Burbage, James

BURBAGE, JAMES (d. 1597), actor, and the first builder of a theatre in England, is often stated to have been a native of Stratford-on-Avon. A John Burbage was certainly bailiff of the town in 1556, and a family of the name was well known there throughout the sixteenth century. But when James's son Cuthbert applied for a grant of arms in 1634 he claimed to belong to a Hertfordshire family. The theory of the Stratford origin of the family has been chiefly maintained with a view to confirming the apocryphal story that Shakespeare and Richard Burbage [q. v.] were schoolfellows at Stratford grammar school. James Burbage originally followed the trade of a joiner, and is often so designated in documents relating to his later life. The earliest mention made of him is in a patent dated 7 May 1574, authorising the Earl of Leicester's players to act in every part of the kingdom. Burbage's name heads the list. It is probable that he took part in the festivities at Kenilworth on the occasion of the queen's visit there in 1575. Leicester's company of players had been in existence since 1559, and although their names are given in no earlier document than that of 1574, Burbage had probably then been a member of the company for many years. On 13 April 1576 Burbage obtained from one Giles Allen a twenty-one years' lease of houses and land situated between Finsbury Fields and the public road from Bishopsgate and Shoreditch. Before the summer of 1577 Burbage had erected on part of this site the first building in this country specially intended for theatrical performances. Mr. Halliwell-Phillipps states that the building, which was of ‘wood and timber,’ stood a ‘little to the north of Holywell Lane, as nearly as possible on the site of what is now (1885) Dean’s Mews.’ It went by the name of ‘The Theatre,’ and the earliest reference made to it is in an order (dated 1 Aug. 1577) of the lords of the council forbidding the continuance of performances there until after Michaelmas, on account of the plague. Burbage erected a number of houses on part of the ground, but in the immediate neighbourhood of the theatre he left wide open spaces, and the building was usually reached by a path across Finsbury Fields. His son Cuthbert stated in 1635 that his father ‘was the first builder of play-howses and was himselfe in his younger yeeres a player. The Theater hee built with many hundred poundes taken up at interest’ (Halliwell-Phillipps, 406). The success of Burbage's enterprise was very great, and his profits were large from the first, although another theatre—the Curtain—was erected in his immediate neighbourhood very soon after The Theatre was opened. The puritan preachers warmly denounced the iniquities of these two play-houses for twenty years, and the corporation of London frequently petitioned the privy council to suppress them on the twofold ground that the crowds who assembled there were likely, in times of plague, to spread contagion, and that vicious characters made the theatres their daily haunts. On 28 July 1597 the council in reply to the lord mayor ordered the owners of The Theatre and the Curtain to ‘pluck down’ their houses. But the edict was not enforced.

In 1596 Burbage determined to extend his operations, or at any rate to make provisions against the termination of his twenty-one years' lease in Shoreditch. On 5 Feb. 1595-6 Sir William More of Loseley, Surrey, conveyed to him by a deed of fee ment part of a large house in Blackfriars, which Burbage resolved to convert into a playhouse to be called the Blackfriars Theatre. In November 1596 the neighhouring tenants appealed to the privy council to prohibit this conversion, but the appeal seems to have been unsuccessful, and the new Playhouse was soon afterwards opened. Meanwhile Burbage had been endeavouring to obtain a renewal of his Shoreditch lease for ten years, in accordance (as he stated) with the original agreement. He was willing, ‘in respect of the great proffitt and commoditie which he had made and in time then to come was further likelye to make of the Theatre and the other buildinges and growndes to him demised,’ to pay 24l. a year, i.e. 10l. more than he had previously paid. But Giles Allen, the lessor, stipulated that the playhouse should only be applied to theatrical purposes for another five years. This stipulation was contested by urbage, and he and his sons began a harassing lawsuit with Allen. But before the dispute had gone very far Burbage died (in the spring of 1597), and the suit was continued by his sons Richard [q. v.] and Cuthbert, to whom it seems certain that Burbage had made over the property by a deed of gift shortly before his death. Ultimately the fabric of The Theatre was removed from Shoreditch to the Bankside, either in December 1598 or in the following month, and reerected as the Globe Theatre. Thus the erection of the three chief Elizabethan playhouses was due to Burbage's enterprise.

Gusson in his ‘School of Abuse,' 1579, and his ‘Playes confuted’ (n. d.), mentions several plays, few of them now extant, that were performed at The Theatre under Burbage’s management. Other authorities prove that the old play of ‘Hamlet’ Lodge, Wits Miserie, 1596), and Marlowe's ‘Faustus’ (Blacke Booke, 1604) were part of his repertory. Tarleton, the comedian, seems to have made his reputation at The Theatre. The dramatic entertainments were occasionally exchanged for fencing matches.

Burbage married, before 1575, Ellen or Helen Braine, or Brayne, of London. His wife’s father appears to have advanced money for the erection of The Theatre, on condition that a moiety of the property and of the profits were assigned him. After Brayne’s death, Margaret, his widow and executrix, brought an action against Burbage in 1590 to compel him to carry out this contract. The suit lingered on or six years, and its result is not known. Burbage had a house in Holywell Street, Shoreditch. The registers of St. Leonard’s, Shoreditch, prove that he had three daughters: Alice (baptised 11 March 1575-6), Joan (buried 18 Aug. 1582), and Helen (buried 13 Dec. 1595). He had two sons, Richard [q. v.], the famous actor, and Cuthbert, who been persistently identified by Mr. Collier with Cuthbert Burby, a well-known printer and publisher of the time. The Stationers' Registers show, however, that this Cuthbert was the ‘son of Edmund Burbie, late of Erlsey, in the county of Bedford, husbandman’ (Arber, Transcript, ii. 127).

[Halliwell-Phillipps's Outlines of the Life of Shakespeare (1885), where most of the authentic extant legal documents renting to Burbage's purchases of property for theatrical purposes are printed at length, and where the dates of the erection of the playhouses are established for the first time; Collier’s Memoirs of the Elizabethan Actors (1846), pp. 1-15, which must be used cautiously; Collier's English Dramatic Poetry, (1879), iii. 258, where many misleading statements are made.]

S. L. L.