The Deed of Partnership in the Rose Playhouse (January 10, 1587) - Muniment 16

Muniment 16 (mun-1/016/01r)

Julian Bowsher and S. P. Cerasano

Henslowe and the Rose

Philip Henslowe was a successful entrepreneur who amassed a large property portfolio, largely in London’s Bankside, including residential and commercial properties such as playhouses, bear-baiting arenas, and inns. An extensive archaeological excavation uncovered the remains of one of these commercial properties, the Rose Playhouse, between 1988 and 1989. The evidence of fresh documentary research, undertaken to accompany the archaeological work, proves that Henslowe was not a ruthless, greedy and illiterate bully, as some historians have argued. Instead, he was an educated, cultured, and benevolent, but prudent, theatrical ‘angel’ who exerted great care in establishing, maintaining and managing this successful theatrical venue for the good of his employees, associates and customers, as well as his investors.[1]

Henslowe was born about 1555 and appears to have been in London by early 1576. He may have been in the Bankside area even before 1579, when he married Agnes Woodward at St Saviour’s church.[2] Muniments 86 and 87, dating from 1584, contain the first notification of his business interests in the area. As Muniment 15 (mun-1/015/01r) shows, in the following year, 1585, he bought the lease on 24 March of a plot in Bankside called the Little Rose Estate, the freehold of which was owned by the parish of St Mildred’s, Bread Street, London.

The estate straddled Rose Alley, then only a short stretch next to the river, and the lease documents describe a ‘cottage’ and a small ‘garden’ to the west of the alley and a much larger ‘garden’, stretching down to Maiden Lane, now Park Street, on its eastern side.[3] The description of the property was repeated through the whole series of deeds without change, as was common practice in series of property deeds at this time and later. The description was probably accurate at the time of the first deed but may have been already anachronistic by the time of Henslowe’s lease. Muniment 16, the ‘partnership’ document of 1587 (mun-1/016/01r) describes a building ‘at the southern end’ inhabited by one John Cholmley. This building, which was found in the excavations, is clearly illustrated in John Norden’s map of 1593 [4] in the south west corner of the plot. The same map also shows another building in the south east corner, although this was not uncovered within the limits of the excavation. However, another building just north of Cholmley’s House that appears to have been demolished just before the playhouse was built was also found in the excavations.

The other prominent features seen on Norden’s map are the ditches, or sewers relating to water, rather than waste, drainage, next to the site. The most prominent was that along Maiden Lane, but there were two either side of the Little Rose Estate that must also have served as property boundaries. Neither the ditch on the west--in the position of the later Rose Alley--nor the one on the east extended as far north as the river.

Henslowe leased the estate for nearly two years before he began building a playhouse there. Apart from rental income, it is not known exactly what he did there or how long he might have been thinking about building a playhouse. By the time that the famous ‘partnership agreement’ was signed on 10 January 1587, the playhouse foundations had been started. More importantly, Henslowe dug another east-west ditch to enclose a 94-foot square area at the southern end of the estate specifically as a playhouse site. Dimensions provided in the lease documents reveal that the ‘playhouse plot’ comprised just under a quarter of the area of the entire estate.

The new venture was generally referred to as ‘the playhouse’ and only later as the Rose, presumably deriving from the estate, the small stretch of alley and an earlier inn on the river bank. It is not known whether Henslowe or his friend and neighbour, the carpenter John Griggs, or someone else designed it, for there is no surviving building contract as there are for his later ventures, the Fortune and the Hope (Muniments 22, 49, 51, (mun-1/022/01rmun-1/049/01r(mun-1/051/01r). In fact the ‘partnership agreement’ between Henslowe and Cholmley in Muniment 16 is not a building contract but an agreement for what today would be termed a ‘catering franchise’.

Muniment 16 (mun-1/016/01r)

This ‘muniment’, a legal document composed for the purpose of detailing and preserving specific rights and/or privileges, is one of the few surviving manuscipts from the early modern period detailing a theatrical partnership. This attractive document is written in professional, ‘secretary’ handwriting, with a highly-embellished opening line. Slashes were made at the bottom of the document in preparation for a seal, but there is no evidence that a seal was ever appended. Its ornate form and its carefully-worded content suggest that this agreement was important to both parties.

This is the second of two copies, or, more specifically, it is the lower portion of a vellum sheet on which both copies would have been written. The first copy, originally located at the top of the sheet, would have been held by Cholmley. This second copy, which was Henslowe’s, notes that ‘Jones’ was the scrivener who prepared the document, and it is signed by ‘Edward Pryce’ who witnessed the agreement. John Cholmley endorsed the document on the verso (mun-1/016/01v): ‘By me, John Cholmley, grocer’, and near it Henslowe also inscribed ‘Jo: Chollmley’. Also mentioned in the deed is the builder John Griggs, who undertook the renovation of the playhouse five years later in 1592.

This muniment gives the basic details of the venture: the professional status of the partners, the dimensions the Rose site, described here as ninety-four feet square, ‘little more or less’, the fact that Cholmley already enjoyed the use of a tenement that was standing on the southern end of the Little Rose at the time the deed was drawn up, and the length of time that the agreement would be in effect--from the signing until mid-June, 1595. Cholmley was to pay Henslowe £816 in instalments over the course of eight and a quarter years, but not starting until 25 June, the feast day of St John the Baptist. This clearly shows that Henslowe had enough ready money to finance the bulk of construction costs himself. In return, Cholmley was to receive a half-share in the profits of the plays, and have exclusive right to the catering and victualling of the enterprise run from his house. Moreover, both men would be allowed to admit their friends to performances without charging admission fees. Henslowe would finance the construction of the playhouse, and pay all rents as of September 1587, suggesting that this was the target date for the Rose’s opening.[5] According to the deed, although Cholmley and Henslowe would share maintenance expenses of the playhouse thereafter, and throughout the period covered by the agreement, Henslowe appears to have financed all of the major expenses long before the playhouse was operable.

The agreement, therefore, represents an attempt to defray costs but indicates also that Cholmley certainly expected handsome financial returns for his outlay. Although the only other mention of Cholmley amongst the Henslowe-Alleyn papers after 1587 is an inscription of his surname on folio 1 of Henslowe’s ‘Diary’, there is no reason to assume that the victualling of the playhouse, or Cholmley’s annual payments, did not continue until at least 1595. Cholmley had effectively bought the victualling franchise in 1587, which would explain the absence of any ‘victualling income’ in Henslowe’s papers. The only question we might ask is what arrangements were made after 1595 for victualling the playhouse. Perhaps there was another such contract.

Evidence from the Excavations

Unlike a proper ‘building contract’, for example for the Fortune and Hope, the 'partnership agreement’ itself does not, in fact, provide any details at all on the construction or appearance of the Rose itself. The excavations, however, revealed two phases of building, the first of which we assume is the original playhouse put up in 1587. This was a simple regular fourteen-sided polygon comprising probably three tiers of galleries surrounding an open yard into which a stage projected from the north. There was no evidence that the stage had any cover. The area of galleries behind the stage was presumably occupied by the ‘tiring house’ and other management / actors' areas. The main entrance was from Maiden Lane to the south. Although there might have been another, private entrance, to the rear, in the north, there was no room for any other access, and no trace of anything interpreted as ‘external stair towers’ was found in the excavations.

The playhouse appears to have been used exactly as Henslowe and Cholmley specified in the ‘partnership agreement’: they would ‘permitte suche personne and personnes players to use exersyse [and] play in the said playe house’; further, it was to host any ‘playe or enterlude’. It was most likely a successful venture, judging from the fact that the excavations found evidence for some wear and tear and minor maintenance of the building during this period. But, contrary to some historians’ conjectures, there is no documentary or archaeological evidence whatsoever to suggest that the building was used for any form of baiting bears, bulls or any other type of animal.[6]

Henslowe began his famous ‘Diary’ (MSS 7, MSS-7/001r) in January 1592, so we have from this date a detailed knowledge of his expenditures and revenues for the Rose. Henslowe most likely kept accounts before this year, but they have not survived and although much has been made of such an absence, it should be remembered that no other similar accounts survive for any other playhouse of the period. One of the first entries in the ‘Diary’ is an account of what Henslowe had ‘layd owt a bowte my playe howsse in the yeare of or lord 1592’ (MSS-7/004r MSS-7/004v MSS-7/005r MSS-7/005v MSS-7/006r MSS-7/006v). This is an itemised expenditure of building materials and costs totalling over £105 whose purpose had never been fully understood; speculation ranged from repairs to rebuilding

However, the archaeological excavations revealed the answer as a partial rebuilding of the playhouse that we have defined as Phase 2. Essentially it was the northern, stage, area that was remodelled. The stage itself was rebuilt with more of a ‘thrust’ into the yard and, crucially, was now provided with a roof, or ‘cover’, held up by two columns. This also required the widening out of the galleries on either side to cater for sight lines from the upper galleries, creating a ‘horseshoe’ shaped building. There was a slight increase in the yard capacity, although the increase in gallery capacity cannot be known, as there is no information on the disposition of seating or access that might allow us to gauge what internal space was available for alteration.

Henslowe’s expenditure on building materials at the Rose in 1592 reveals his attempts to keep pace with the fashions of theatrical presentation. This was clearly a period of competition, for the Theatre in Shoreditch underwent 'further building and Reparacions’ at precisely the same time.[7] Further structural expenditure by Henslowe at the Rose in 1595 (Henslowe's Diary, MSS-7/002v) relates probably to alterations that may have been largely cosmetic (and are not apparent in the archaeological record), and made probably in reaction to the recently built Swan playhouse farther up the river.

Although Henslowe was clearly displaying a competitive spirit, the impetus for enhanced staging capabilities or special effects probably arose from his discussion with the playwrights and actors in terms of what was deliverable. There may have been a short cantilevered canopy over the first stage, but a permanent structure would undoubtedly allow descents on to the stage; for example, Henslowe paid for (new?) pulleys in 1602 (Henslowe Diary, MSS-7/116v). The addition of a roof may even have revealed a concern for the actors, although the cynical would say it was more likely Henslowe’s concern for their expensive costumes.

The cost of construction at the time was commonly offset by the re-use of building materials. Until inflation caused a reversal in the 19th century, material was a far more expensive component in a building project than labour. The clearest example perhaps is the second-hand timber, albeit from a former playhouse, used to build the Globe. The Fortune contract (Muniment 22, mun-1/022/01r) is specific in its order for ‘good stronge and substancyall newe timber’, and this may be an implied criticism of the re-used timber employed at the rival Globe the year before. Nevertheless, Henslowe did not have such qualms earlier when he built the ‘penthowsse shed’ by the back door of the remodelled Rose in 1592 out of ‘owld tymber' (Henslowe Diary, MSS-7/005v). Later, as its building contract makes clear, the Hope was to be largely constructed from re-used materials: that from the old bear garden and adjoining stable and more ‘olde tymber’ bought by Henslowe from a demolished property in Thames Street. Archaeological evidence from the Rose excavation found that recycled ship timbers were used and that the thatch was cheaper straw rather than good reed. Conversely though, the laths found were of good heartwood rather than sapwood.

Competition from the new Globe may have been one of the factors for moving operations to the Fortune in 1600. The Diary shows that the Rose was only used intermittently until 1603 and in that year Henslowe opened negotiations for a renewal of his lease of the Little Rose estate, due to expire at Michelmas 1605. He was told that the annual rent for the entire estate was to be increased almost threefold to £20 and that he would be required to spend 100 marks on the building.[8]

Henslowe responded that he would rather pull down the playhouse than accept such terms (Henslowe's Diary, MSS-7/114v). In fact, Henslowe’s interest in the Rose had diminished to such an extent that from October 1600 onwards he was continually fined by the Surrey and Kent Commissioners of Sewers for not maintaining the sewer ditch on Maiden Lane.[9]

By this time Henslowe was quite a wealthy man, but his boast to pull down the Rose was an empty one as he did not carry out his threat. The Rose was clearly still standing when the Sewer Commission revisited the site in January 1606, at which time it was back in the hands of St Mildred’s Parish. However, by April of that year, the Commission referred to the sewer ditch ‘by the Late playhouse in maidelane called the Rose’, which suggests that it had been demolished.[10]

The archaeological evidence suggests that rather than being wantonly demolished, the Rose was carefully dismantled, as would be expected, for the retrieval of building material. Very little brickwork or timber was left on the site, most of the latter being the re-used pieces noted above. It is assumed that the great amount of broken lath and plaster found in the Rose yard was material from the demolished stage roof. Such ephemeral material was unlikely to be salvaged for re-use, and such demolition was clearly associated with the parish’s plans for redevelopment of the site.

Both the Rose and the Fortune appear to have been popular and successful theatrical venues. In investing in these and other properties, Henslowe possessed undoubted business acumen. The elevated positions he attained at parish and court level testify to the esteem in which he was held. There is no evidence that he was not interested in the drama that he provided for thousands of London playgoers. Indeed, his genuine interest seems to be confirmed by such support being given to venues that were not nearly as economically successful as his animal baiting concerns.[11] His ‘Diary’ is full of accounts of loans to actors, playwrights, acting companies and tenants, and many of his tenants appear to have been associated with the Rose, at which there seems to have been a distinct, most likely ‘happy’, theatrical family.


1.See Julian Bowsher and Pat Miller, The Rose and the Globe - playhouses of Shakespeare's Bankside, Southwark: excavations 1988-1991 (London: Museum of London Archaeology, Monograph 48, 2009). Back to context...

2.Henslowe’s birth is derived from a note in Simon Forman’s papers; see S. P. Cerasano, 1993, 'Philip Henslowe, Simon Forman, and the theatrical community of the 1590s', Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol 44 (1993), 145-58. For other details of his early life see Cerasano, ‘Philip Henslowe’s biography’, Notes and Queries, 32 (1985), 66–72. Back to context...

3.Documents describing the estate are known from at least 1537, with further leases from 1574 (Muniment 8, mun-1/008/01r) and 1579 (Muniment 10, mun-1/010/01r). Back to context...

4.Detail of ‘London’ in John Norden’s Speculum Britanniae reproduced in R. A. Foakes, Illustrations of the English stage 1580–1642, (London: Scolar Press, 1985), p. 7. Back to context...

5.The opening of the Rose has been construed differently by various historians. In The Henslowe Papers (1907) W. W. Greg noted that Cholmley’s initial payment wasn’t due for six months following the execution of the agreement, from which he estimated that the playhouse would have been ready ‘about Easter 1587’ (p. 2). However, Easter fell on April 18th of that year, which is two months earlier than the six-month deadline specified; and also, amongst the terms laid out in the deed the first payment was due ‘One the feaste Daye of the Nativitie of St John Baptiste next Cominge’, which was traditionally celebrated on June 24th (roughly six months from the date that the document was signed). E. K. Chambers, in The Elizabethan Stage (1923), reassigned the opening of the Rose to sometime in the vicinity of Michaelmas (September 29th) 1587 (2:407) based on the sense that the bridges and wharves would have been mended before the theatre opened. It is worth noting that this would square with the timetable for the construction of the Fortune Playhouse in 1600, when the theatre was built outside of London during the early part of the year. Then, when the ground thawed and a foundation could be built, the playhouse was deconstructed and brought to London where it was reconstructed later in the year. Here too the precise date of opening is open to some discussion although many historians are inclined to set the opening date late in the summer or early in the autumn of 1600. (See R. A. Foakes’s introduction to Muniment 22, the Fortune contract, on this website: Back to context...

6.See Julian Bowsher, ‘The Rose and its stages’, Shakespeare Survey, 60 (2007), 36–48. Back to context...

7.C. W. Wallace, The first London theatre: materials for a history (Lincoln, NE: Nebraska University Press, 1913), p. 76; Herbert Berry, ‘Aspects of the Design and use of the First Public Playhouse’, in The first public playhouse: the Theatre in Shoreditch 1576–1598, ed. H. Berry (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1979), p. 32. Back to context...

8.This probably referred to running repairs and maintenance throughout the estate rather than the playhouse itself, which was not parish property. Back to context...

9.London Metropolitan Archives, SKCS/18, ff. 315, 388, 401v, 406v. Henslowe later avoided being fined by the Commission by claiming, rightly, that the property was no longer his; see SKCS/18, ff. 422v, 426v. Back to context...

10.London Metropolitan Archives, SKCS/18, ff. 436, 441. Back to context...

11.His only theatrical ‘failure’ was at the dual purpose Hope, which the actors left to the bears after only a few years of unsatisfactory cohabitation. Back to context...