The Red Lion was set up by John Brayne and his brother-in-law James Burbage, the same actor who would later build the Theatre in Shoreditch. It had a five-foot high scaffold stage which measured 40 x 30 feet. There may have been space for a trapdoor, and there was a curious 30-foot high turret, as well as galleries for some of the very first early modern theatre spectators. But even this material has only been in the public domain since 1983, when historian Janet S. Loengard discovered neglected legal documents revealing this information (it was an enclosed, walled construction – from the records of the Court of King’s Bench). From such legal documentation, we know that the playhouse was up and running before July 1567, but anything else is still an unfortunate mystery.
The first reference to playing in this area is when actors were paid to perform at Mile End on the 6th August 1501:
‘Item: to the players at Miles End, 3s 4d’.
Much later on in the century, on 15th July, 1567, John Brayne made the following complaint about the standard of the work of the carpenter who built the Red Lion theatre:
‘Court holden the 15th day of July 1567 ... by master William Ruddoke, Master Richard More, Henry Whreste, and Richard Smarte, wardens, and Master Bradshaw. Be it remembered that ... where certain variance, discord, and debate was between William Sylvester, carpenter, on the one party and John Brayne, grocer, on the other party, it is agreed, concluded, and fully determined by thc said parties, by the assent and consent of them both with the advice of the master and wardens above said, that William Buttermore, John Lyffe, William Snelling, and Richard Kyrby, carpenters, shall with expedition go and peruse such defaults as are and by them shall be found of, in, and about such scaffolds as he the said William hath made at the house called the Red Lion in the parish of Stepney, and the said William Sylvester shall repair and amend the same with their advice substantially as they shall think good. And that the said John Brayne on Saturday next ensuing the date above written shall pay to the said William Sylvester the sum of £8 10s lawful money of England, and that after the play which is called The Story of Samson be once played at the place aforesaid the said John shall deliver to the said William such bonds as are now in his custody for the performance of the bargain. In witness whereof both parties hereunto hath set their hands.’
The next year, we have another interesting document in which Brayne has further issues with the work:
'In Michaelmas term last past, John Brayne, citizen and grocer of London, came before the lady Queen at Westminster by Richard Heyywood his attorney and brought ... a certain bill against John Reynolds, citizen and carpenter of London, in the custody of the marshal, etc., of a plea of debt, ... which bill follows in these words.'
'... John Brayne, citizen and grocer of London, complains about John Reynolds, citizen and carpenter of London in the custody of the marshal of the Marshalsea of the lady Queen, before the Queen herself ... concerning a plea that he pay him 20 marks of the legal money of England, which he owes him and unjustly detains from him. That is to say, whereas the said John Reynolds on thc sevcnteenth day of June ... at London in the parish of St Mary of the Arches in the Ward of Cheap, London, by a certain obligatory writing sealed with the seal of the John Reynolds himself, hereupon shown in the court of the now lady Queen, the date of which is the day and year aforesaid, acknowledged himself bound and firmly obligated to the aforesaid John Brayne in the said 20 marks, payable to the same John Brayne whenever the aforesaid should be demanded. Nevertheless John Reynolds, although very often demanded, etc., has not yet paid the said 20 marks to the same John Brayne, but has so far altogether refused to pay them to him and still refuses to the damage of the same John Braync of £20, and the thereupon he brings the lawsuit, etc.'
'And now,... namely the Monday next after the octave of St Hilary in that same term, from which day the said John Reynolds has had leave to imparl the same bill and then to answer, etc., so the said John Brayne comes before the lady the Queen at Westminster by his said attorney as well as the said John Reynolds by his attorney, Hugh Russell, and the same John Reynolds denies force and damage at any time, etc. And he pleads the hearing of the said obligatory writing. And it is read to him, etc.; he also pleads the hearing of the endorsement of the same writing. And it is read to him in these words':
'The condition of this obligation is such that if the within bounden John Reynolds, his executors, or assigns, or any of them, at his or their proper costs and charges do frame, make, or build and set up for the within named John Brayne within the court or yard lying on the south side of the garden belonging to the messuage or farmhouse called and known by the name of the sign of the Red Lion (about the which court there are galleries now building), situate and being at Mile End in the parish of St Mary Matfellon, otherwise called Whitechapel without Aldgate of London, sometime called Stark's House, one scaffold or stage for interludes or plays of good, new, and well-seasoned timber and boards, which shall contain in height from the ground five feet of assize and shall be in length north and south forty foot of assize and in breadth east and west thirty foot of assize, well and sufficiently stayed bounden and nailed, with a certain space or void part of the same stage left unboarded in such convenient place of the same stage as the said John Brayne shall think convenient; and if the said John Reynolds, his executors, or assigns do make, frame and set up upon the said scaffold one convenient turret of timber and boards which shall contain and be in height from the ground, set upon plates, thirty foot of assize, with a convenient floor of timber and boards within the same turret seven foot under the top of the same turret, and that the same turret be in all places sufficiently braced, pinned, and fastened for the binding together of the same turret, and do also make, frame, and set up upon the top of the same turret four sufficient compass braces of good and well-seasoned timber, and that the same turret so to be made, framed, and set up be fully finished, ended, and workmanly done in all things accordingly before ... and also that the said scaffold or stage so to be made be fully finished, wrought and workmanly ended and done before the eighth day of July then next immediately ensuing without fraud or further delay: that then this obligation to be void and of none effect or else to stand and abide in full strength and virtue.'
'To which reading and hearing the same John Reynolds says that the said John Brayne ought not to havc or maintain his said action against him by virtue of the said obligatory writing, because he says that after the making of the said obligatory writing and before the said eighth day of July above specified in the said endorsement, that is on the first day of July he did well and workmanly construct, make, and build of new, well-seasoned timber ... of the same length, width, and height the structure called the scaffold specified in the said endorsement, and he was prepared to erect and put up the same structure at the said house called the Red Lion in the parish of Whitechapel to the size, form and effect of the said endorsement, but he says that finally the said John Brayne then and there impeded, disturbed and prohibited the same John Reynolds.'
'And finally the same John Reynolds says that he made, joined, built the said tower specified in the said endorsement well and workmanly in the size, length and height with the same four braces on the top of the same before specified in the said endorsement, namely on the twentieth day of June. And he erected the same tower over the structure called the scaffold according to the form and effect of the said endorsement. And this he is ready to prove, whence he demands trial if the said John Brayne should thereupon have or maintain his said action against him.'
'And the said John Brayne says that he ought not to be precluded from having his said action against the same John Reynolds by the things alleged by thc said John Reynolds as pleading above, . . . protesting that the same John Reynolds has not performed some things specified above in the said endorsement on his part to be performed. For plea the said John Brayne says he did not impede, disturb and prohibit the said John Reynolds to erect and put up the said structure in the size and form specified in the said bar as the said John Reynolds alleged in the pleading above. And he asks that it be inquired into by the country. And the said John Reynolds similarly, etc. Therefore let a jury thereupon come before the lady Queen at Westminster on the Wednesday next after the octave of St Hilary. And ... the same day is given to the said parties at the same place.'
The legal documents quoted above are available in English Professional Theatre, 1530-1660, edited by Glynne Wickham, Herbert Berry and William Ingram (Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 291-94.