Mr Beeston and the Cockpit: A Brief History of the Phoenix Theatre (1616 - 1666).

The Cockpit Theatre in Drury Lane was initially, as its name suggests, a venue for cockfights and animal baiting on the east side of Drury Lane at Cockpit Alley. As such, it was the first playhouse in the West End - an area now known as theatreland - so its importance cannot be overstated in the early history of British theatre. The venue, and it’s unscrupulous manager William Beeston, are also central in The Last Roundhead series, so I thought a brief history was in order.

In 1616, Christopher Beeston, William’s father and an actor with Queen Anne’s Men, converted the old building into an indoor theatre rather than the open rounds like the Globe and Swan in Southwark. It was a growing trend: Shakespeare’s company - The King’s Men - had already begun to perform indoors at the Blackfriars Theatre - a converted monkish refectory. This was not done for artistic reasons, but rather to provide an exclusive venue for the richer classes. Positioned close to Whitehall and the Inns of Court to attract lawyers and courtiers, and expensive enough to keep away apprentices and rougher elements of the London audience.

The rougher elements did not take kindly to such exclusivity. On Shrove Tuesday 1617, news broke that Beeston was moving the company to the new theatre. The London apprentices, outraged at the move, rioted at the proposed cost of entry, attacking The Cockpit. The theatre was burned and broken down, and one rioter was shot dead, leaving Beeston’s plans in tatters.

This event, more than anything else, emphasises the importance of theatre in Seventeenth

Century London as entertainment for the masses, rather than an exclusive pastime for the moneyed classes. Everyone went to the theatre, high and low, and the mixing of classes in a performance made the early playhouses raucous and loud. I doubt we will see a theatre price riot in London again, and many modern actors would probably not appreciate the interactive audience participation that was common in the Seventeenth Century. The insert from the Hollar Map of London shows the position of the Phoenix in the bottom left corner beside the Drury Lane name with large gardens at the rear.

One thing that can certainly be said about the Beestons - father and son - is that they were indefatigable in the face of disaster. Beeston elder had the building rebuilt after the Shrove Tuesday riot - hence the Phoenix moniker. There is some suggestion that the Jacobean architectural genius Inigo Jones was responsible for the new building, although it seems more likely to have been his protégé John Webb. The image above was once thought to be Jones’ design for the Blackfriars Theatre, however, it could be Webb’s original design for the Phoenix.

The rebuilt theatre proved immensely popular in spite of the apprentices objections, and outbreaks of plague. Whilst the company still played in the cheaper open air venues, the exclusivity of the Cockpit saw such luminaries as the Duke of Buckingham attend a performance in August 1628, only days before he was assassinated. The company was also renamed Queen Henrietta’s Men after the new Queen and The Phoenix thrived during the 1630s under Christopher’s management. It became particularly renowned for its company of boy actors - known as Beeston’s Boys - including Ezekiel Fenn (Ophelia in The Last Roundhead). Francis Lenton in The Young Gallant’s Whirligig had this to say about the playhouse and its rivalry with the even more exclusive Blackfriars thatre:

‘The Cockpit heretofore would serve his wit, But now upon the Friars stage he’ll sit. His silken garments, and his satin robe, That hath so often visited the Globe, And all his spangled, rare, perfumed attires, Which once so glistered in the torchy Friars, Must to the brokers. . . .'

Christopher Beeston’s death in 1637 saw the theatre pass into the control of his son William, however Beeston elder perhaps had some inkling of his progeny’s character flaws. William did not inherit financial control of the theatre, with his (rather young) stepmother being left with a third share as well as other investors (this is how Elizabeth Candy’s fictional investment in the theatre comes about in the Roundhead series).

In 1640, Beeston junior managed to get himself arrested after a performance of The Court Beggar by Richard Brome. The play deliberately satirised the Queen and her sycophantic courtiers. One of the sycophants - William Davenant - was given control of the theatre, whilst Beeston was incarcerated in Marshalsea Prison. It does also seem that Davenant had some financial involvement in the theatre before Beeston’s arrest, and his (self -proclaimed) theatrical genius made him ideal as the new manager.

Davenant was, however, too deeply involved in the political upheaval of the 1640s. In 1641 he was implicated in a plot to seize the Tower of London and release the imprisoned Earl of Strafford on the King’s behalf. It was a half baked idea that went disastrously wrong, forcing Davenant to flee to the continent charged with treason by Parliament, whilst also humiliating Charles I and hastening the breakdown into Civil War. William Beeston, newly released from prison, resumed control of the theatre in late 1641, but it was not to last.

In September 1642, with the outbreak of Civil War, London’s theatres were closed for the duration.

Parliament, wary of large meetings, and with an inbuilt puritan distaste for theatre in general, banned performances and any other 'unruly entertainments'. Most of the acting fraternity had already left London, and were joining up almost exclusively with the Royalist armies. Beeston did not follow them, remaining in London with his closed theatre. For the next eighteen years, in spite of the law, Beeston attempted to put on performances in the theatre. It was also used briefly as a schoolhouse although the evidence for this is scant.

In 1649, soldiers raided an illegal performance, arresting and imprisoning the actors, but by 1651 Beeston spent £200 refitting the theatre in the hope of restrictions on performances being lifted. The Cromwellian government was having none of it, and the Cockpit remained officially closed.

Under the pretence that music and opera was not really acting, William Davenant was permitted to put on licensed operas in the Cockpit in 1658 and 1659, and with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 the ban on playhouses was finally lifted. Beeston, typically, did not benefit much from the new regime’s tolerance. Davenant formed The Duke’s Company, and Thomas Killigrew reformed The King’s Company, and new purpose built theatres were created to house them. Whilst there were still some performances in the early 1660s (Pepys attended plays there in between 1660 and 1663).

In 1663, Killigrew's King's Company opened the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and The Cockpit was simply unable to compete with its new neighbour. Added to this was the creation of monopolies on legal plays which delierately shut the Phoenix and Beeston out. There is no mention of performances after 1665 and the Great Plague - and it was clear, even to Seventeenth Century observers, that the theatres had been a breeding ground for the pestilence so the newer buildings were preferred.

There is no mention of the building after the Great Fire (1666) although the flames did not reach Drury Lane, and it was probably pulled down in the rebuilding that took place afterwards. The building was located in the middle of the area bounded today by Drury Lane, Great Queen Street, Great Wild Street, and Kemble Street. The entrance to the theatre was in Cockpit Alley, which ran from Drury Lane to Great Wild Street; the present-day Martlett Court is off Drury Lane roughly opposite where the entrance to Cockpit Alley was.

William Beeston, impoverished and in his sixties, did not attempt a new company or theatre after the demise of the Cockpit. He was, however, the main source for John Aubrey’s brief life of William Shakespeare, and perhaps the first theatre manager to use scenery in a performance, so deserves some historical kudos. Although, given his particularly shady character, perhaps we should take some of what he told Aubrey with a pinch of salt.

The Last Roudhead is available Now!

The Deceitful Light (Book 2 of the Roundhead Series) will be published by Holland House Books in September 2017.


-Webb's design for the playhouse.

-Inset from the Hollar Map courtesy of BHO.

-George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham by Michiel J. van Miereveld.

-Wood cut of Richard Brome.

-Sir William Davenant from a portrait by John Greenall.

-Playbill courtest of the V&A.

-Map of London's Seventeenth Century theatres - the cockpit is on the far left.

All images in the public domain unless otherwise stated.

Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Me