The Globe Theatre was built in 1599 and was the home of William Shakespeare’s work; however, it was built of timber and a thatched roof. Within the theatre there were three tiers of wooden balconies and benches for the audience to sit on.
The Globe was home to many props that were used day to day within each play and this included a canon that was installed near to the thatched roof in the ‘Gods’. The cannon was loaded with gunpowder and wadding and used to create dramatic effect or in battle.
On 29th June 1613 the cannon was used during a performance of Shakespeare’s King Henry VIII to singal Henry’s arrival at a Masquerade ball at Cardinal Wolsey’s home. Sparks from the cannon fire landed on the roof and a fire quickly broke out and spread across the theatre, at first the audience ignored it believing it to be a part of the performance but eventually they all evacuated from the theatre leaving through two sets of doors, the main entrance and also an exit door.
There were no reported deaths or serious injuries but it was noted that one man’s breeches caught on fire and had to be put out with a bottle of ale.
There were two eyewitnesses to the Globe fire. First Sir Henry Wotton wrote in a letter dated 2nd July 1613 wrote;
“… I will entertain you at the present with what happened this week at the Banks side. The King’s players had a new play called All is True, representing some principal pieces of the reign of Henry the Eighth, which set forth with many extraordinary circumstances of pomp and majesty even to the matting of the stage; the knights of the order with their Georges and Garter; the guards with their embroidered coats, and the like: sufficient in truth within awhile to make greatness very familiar, if not ridiculous. Now King Henry making a Masque at the Cardinal Wolsey’s house, and certain cannons being shot off at his entry, some of the paper or other stuff, wherewith one of them was stopped, did light on the thatch, where being thought at first but idle smoak, and their eyes more attentive to the show, it kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the ground. This was the fatal period of that virtuous fabric, wherein yet nothing did perish but wood and straw, and a few forsaken cloaks; only one man had his breeches set on fire, that would perhaps have broiled him, if he had not by the benefit of a provident wit, put it out with a bottle of ale.”
A second eye witness, Mr. John Chamberaine, wrote in a letter to Sir Ralph Winwood on 8th July 1613;
“The burning of the Globe or playhouse on the Bankside on St. Peter’s day cannot escape you; which fell out by a peal of chambers, (that I know not upon what occasion were to be used in the play,) the tampin or stopple of one of them lighting in the thatch that covered the house, burn’d it down to the ground in less than two hours, with a dwelling-house adjoining; and it was a great marvaile and a fair grace of God that the people had so little harm, having but two narrow doors to get out.”
The eye witnesses disagree on how long it took the theatre to burn to the ground but it is clear that within two hours of the roof catching on fire the Globe was no longer standing.