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The Bankside district of the Southwark borough of Greater London is situated on the south bank of the Thames River between Blackfriars and London Bridge. Described as one of England’s oldest settlements, the district’s earliest distinction was as a strategic military base. However, by the early modern period, Bankside lost its relevance as a military site and instead gained notoriety for its theatres, brothels, and other types of entertainment enjoyed by both the common and nobility classes (Brandon and Brooke).
Bankside’s military value prior to the sixteenth century is attributed to its strategic location across the Thames River from what was to become the city of London. In approximately 50 A.D., during the reign of Emperor Claudius, Roman soldiers built a bridge across the river. This bridge was situated about fifty yards east of the present London Bridge, and the southern entrance became known as Southwark (Brandon and Brooke). Rebel forces frequently occupied the area in succeeding centuries. William I, for example, destroyed Southwark in 1066, and barons rebelling against Henry III occupied Southwark in 1264 (Brandon and Brooke). The rebel Jack Cade, whose militia of armed commoners challenged the British medieval warrior elite, camped in Southwark in 1450 while leading a tax revolt (Bohna 364, 571).
By the sixteenth century, Southwark, and in particular the area of Bankside, was known for entertainments rather than for battlements. These entertainments included bear-baiting [and] brothels (Mills). In his Poems with the Muses (1638), for example, Elizabethan poet Thomas Randolph says he will send for a whole coach or two of Bankside Ladies, and wee will be Ioviall ! (Randolph 47). The area’s bawdy reputation made it fertile ground for the growth of public theatres which stood cheek-by-jowl with the brothels (Weis 129). Philip Henslowe, who owned a Bankside brothel named Little Rose, also owned the Rose Theatre, built in 1587 (Weis 236).
Perhaps the most famous Bankside theatre is the Globe, built in 1598-1599. The Globe was the primary home of Shakespeare’s acting company, and where many of his plays premiered. John Stow reports the destruction of the Globe by fire in 1613: and vpon Saint Peters day1 the Globe on the banckside was burned (Stow sig. 2M3v). The Globe was then rebuilt with the same groundplan, and hence the same size and shape, as the first (Egan 1). River taxis transported theatregoers from the north side of the river to Bankside theatres, which could hold up to 10,000 guests (Weis 252). Remains of both the Rose and the Globe theatres were excavated in 1989, and both theatres were reconstructed in the 1990s (Egan 2). They continue to host performances today.
In addition to the patrons from across the Thames, Southwark citizens, including at least one prisoner, also enjoyed the Bankside theatres. The Clink, a Bankside prison built on to the western side of the palace of the Bishop of Winchester in the twelfth century, was known to have lax security. Weis says [t]here is even a record of one Catholic priest, Father Thomas Leak, frequenting the Bankside theaters on day release while serving his sentence (Weis 236). The Clink housed prisoners until 1780 when it was burned to the ground by rioters on the day Lord George Gordon presented a petition to repeal the Catholic Relief Act in London (Haydon).
Bankside is mentioned in a variety of genres of early modern English literature. In Ben Jonson’s comedy, Bartholmew Faire (1631), for example, Bartholomew Cokes reads aloud a playbill describing [t]he ancient moderne history of Hero, and Leander, otherwise called The Touchstone of true Loue, with as true a tryall of friendship, betweene Damon, and Pithias, two faithfull friends o’the Bankside? (Jonson sig. L1r). In James Shirley’s play, The doubtful heir (1652), the prologue offers this disclaimer: ALl that the Prologue comes for, is to say, / Our Author did not calculate this Play / For this Meridian; the Banckside, he knows, / Are far more skilfull at the Ebbes and flows / Of water, than of wit, he did not mean / For the elevation of your poles, this scene (Shirley sig. A3r). John Taylor’s last voyage (1641) mentions Bankside in his journal entry for July 20:
I with my two men and a brace of boyes were embarqued with a Scullers boate first from London, and within halfe a quarter of an houre after, I past from my house neare the Beares Colledge on the Banckside, I tooke leave of some friends, and had a flagge advanced as a token of my publike departure; but some enemies gave out that I was Runne away, who I doe know (since my returne,) to be a crew of malicious Vermin (Taylor sig. A6v)
In the Faires in England entry of The Owles almanacke (1618), the author predicts A Fare on the Bankside when the play-houses haue two penny tenants dwelling in them (Dekker). These are a few of many references to Bankside in both fiction and non-fiction texts of the early modern period.
Bankside’s historical identity as a center of entertainment continues to the present day, and it is known now for visual arts as well as stage plays. In 2000, the Tate Gallery of Modern Art, England’s first national museum dedicated solely to modern art, opened in a refurbished, decommissioned Bankside power station near the reconstructed Globe Theatre (Vaizey 53). Though Vaizey described the museum as an ambiguous symbol for a millennial Britain about to embrace the future, she says Bankside may be London’s new Left Bank (on the right) (Vaizey 53).
View of Bankside, including the Globe and the Bear Garden, by Wenceslaus Hollar. Image courtesy of the Folger Digital Image Collection.
View of Bankside, including the Globe and the Bear Garden, by Wenceslaus Hollar. Image courtesy of the Folger Digital Image Collection.
Conjectural view of Bankside by C. Walter Hodges. Image courtesy of the Folger Digital Image Collection.
Conjectural view of Bankside by C. Walter Hodges. Image courtesy of the Folger Digital Image Collection.


  1. Celebrated 29 June. (KL)


Cite this page

MLA citation

Jackson, Jana. Bankside. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 7.0, edited by Janelle Jenstad, U of Victoria, 05 May 2022,

Chicago citation

Jackson, Jana. Bankside. The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 7.0. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Accessed May 05, 2022.

APA citation

Jackson, J. 2022. Bankside. In J. Jenstad (Ed), The Map of Early Modern London (Edition 7.0). Victoria: University of Victoria. Retrieved from

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Provider: University of Victoria
Database: The Map of Early Modern London
Content: text/plain; charset="utf-8"

A1  - Jackson, Jana
ED  - Jenstad, Janelle
T1  - Bankside
T2  - The Map of Early Modern London
ET  - 7.0
PY  - 2022
DA  - 2022/05/05
CY  - Victoria
PB  - University of Victoria
LA  - English
UR  -
UR  -
ER  - 

TEI citation

<bibl type="mla"><author><name ref="#JACK5"><surname>Jackson</surname>, <forename>Jana</forename></name></author>. <title level="a">Bankside</title>. <title level="m">The Map of Early Modern London</title>, Edition <edition>7.0</edition>, edited by <editor><name ref="#JENS1"><forename>Janelle</forename> <surname>Jenstad</surname></name></editor>, <publisher>U of Victoria</publisher>, <date when="2022-05-05">05 May 2022</date>, <ref target=""></ref>.</bibl>



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