Shakespeare in London

Shakespeare’s life in London has always intrigued me. It’s 400 years since he died this weekend. I know something about the man, less about his work, although I enjoy regular visits to the Globe. Where was he, where did he live, eat, drink? The Tudor city is gone, but you can draw together many glimpses of late 16th century London that brings you closer to him. The first thing to look at is the Agas map, a wonderful detailed map of London from an oblique view from the south. Created 25 years before Shakespeare arrived in London, there are certain things missing such as theatres, but on the whole it is a great reference. You can plot his London life on it.

Numerous organisations own copies, and you can view the map online on their websites. I recommend the Map of Early Modern London – It has some great annotations and you can search by category.

Shakespeare first moved to London in the late 1580s and probably lived in the Shoreditch area close to the Curtain Theatre. This is a presumption, as there is no direct evidence for it, but we know he worked at the Curtain with Babbage. Shoreditch offered cheap accommodation and many actors lived there. The foundations of the Curtain have recently been uncovered.

On the Agas, just look north of Bishopsgate, or Buffhops Gate (remember, a Tudor “s” looks like our “f”). It’s difficult to say exactly where it was. The Map of Early Modern London website has it located right up in Shoreditch.

Parish of St  Helen's
The Parish of St Helen’s on the Agas Map

The first real piece of evidence for Shakespeare living in London points to the parish of St Helen’s, Bishopsgate. It was a small parish, as many of them were, but would have been bustling with activity and people. Along with business, trade and manufacturing, there were plenty of court-yard inns where plays were performed as part of the regular entertainment. His lodgings were between Bishopsgate and St Mary Axe. You can see S Elen on the Agas. It was just south of that.

Come the mid-1590s, Shakespeare moved out of the City to Paris Gardens in Southwark. The area was outside of the City’s jurisdiction, so much “frivolity” went on there and was a place of disrepute.  There was gambling, bullbaiting, bearbaiting, inns on every street, brothels (the Winchester Geese), all sorts of crime and of course the theatres. People in the City would make their way to Southwark for an evening’s entertainment. The theatres were not places of culture and high society. Far from it. There are many reports of cut purses operating in the “pit” of the theatres and of lewd behaviour during the final jig. Southwark was a place for cheap lodgings and excellent for actors.

The next few years saw much success and money coming Shakespeare’s way. In the mid-1590s he purchased one of the largest house in in Stratford-upon-Avon as his family home. This is where his wife and children lived, while he continued to lodge in London. He would have spent time between the two places, as well as being on tour from time to time. Perhaps this is a reflection of his relationships and distinctions between work and home. Perhaps his theatre life-style was not compatible with that of family and was best to keep the two separate.


By 1602, he was moving up in the world and lodging with Christopher and Mary Mountjoy. The houses on the Agas look generic and are representations rather than actual. We can get an idea of Tudor buildings from the Victorian Society for Photographing Relics of Old London. The buildings that survived the Great Fire of London were destroyed in the 19th century as part of redevelopments. Slums were being cleaned up, the older, rotting, unhealthy buildings were making way for new hygienic ones. The Society photographed such buildings, streets, and views, giving us a snapshot of the Tudor London. You can look at these photographs on the Royal Academy of Arts and the British Library’s websites.

Left, a house in Bishopsgate recorded by the Society for Photographing Relics of Old London. Right, the Mountjoy’s house on the corner of Sylver Street and Muggle Street.

You can also view folders of these photographs at the Bishopsgate Institute and the London Metropolitan Archives. Although, saying the buildings on the Agas are generic representations, the Tudor buildings in the Society’s photographs looks very much like them, with the gabled rooves and plain walls.

From this point, Shakespeare’s presence in London reflects his upward projection in society. In 1613 he finally reached the level of property ownership in London and bought a house in Blackfriars. The exact location we do not know, but roughly speaking it was in the area of the Cockpit in Ireland Yard. The deeds to this purchase are in the LMA and have on them one of Shakespeare’s six known signatures.

I have not mentioned the areas through which he walked, London Bridge, the many theatres he was involved with and places he performed in. All of which can be seen on the map, except of course, the theatres. What were his main routes through the City? Did he have a regular commute to work? Did he walk along the river to take in the views, or the sunsets? Did he venture to the docks to see and meet the various merchants from across the world?

I’ve looked at all this from my home using online sources and the odd book. But if you wanted an afternoon in London following Shakespeare, then take a copy of the Agas. It’s surprisingly easy to plot the streets and major buildings onto a modern map.


2 thoughts on “Shakespeare in London

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s