Edward Alleyn and Philip Henslowe

The career of Richard Burbage’s greatest rival Edward Alleyn was built on two crucial partnerships with the playwright Christopher Marlowe and the entrepreneur Philip Henslowe.


While it is Richard Burbage we remember now as the greatest Elizabethan actor, in his own time he always came second to his greatest rival, Edward Alleyn whose own career as the Elizabethan theatre’s most renowned actor/entrepreneur was predicated on two crucial partnerships — as an actor with Christopher Marlowe and as an entrepreneur with Philip Henslowe. (see Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare)

A natural tragedian, a tall, striking man, with piercing dark eyes and a booming voice, Edward Alleyn was born to play Marlowe’s tragic anti-heroes. And just as Marlowe was a great model and innovator in the writing of plays, Alleyn was a model and innovator in acting technique and character interpretation.

Edward Alleyn was born in London in 1566, the youngest son of an innkeeper. His father died when Edward was four years old. Some time later his mother married John Browne, a haberdasher with connections to the theatre. Both Edward and his older brother John became child actors, but while John left to follow his father’s profession, Edward made his career in the theatre. Alleyn began his working life touring the provinces and by the age of seventeen was a member of the Earl of Worcester’s Men, from which company he was recruited to the newly formed Lord Admiral’s Men in 1585. The role of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine cemented his position as London’s most successful actor. (See The Elizabethan Playing Companies)

After Tamburlaine the Great, Alleyn went on to star in the leading roles in many of Marlowe’s plays: The Second Part of Tamburlaine the Great, Doctor Faustus, The Jew of Malta and The Massacre of Paris. Despite Marlowe’s unsavoury reputation after his reported death in a tavern brawl, Alleyn carried on his legacy and continued to perform his plays until his retirement. (see A Fateful Day in Deptford)

By 1591 Edward Alleyn and his brother John, who had joined Edward as his business manager, had fallen out with the Burbages and therefore lost access to The Theatre. (see The Burbages: First Family of Theatre) It may have been the need to find a secure venue that led Alleyn into a partnership with the owner of The Rose playhouse, Philip Henslowe.

Originally from Sussex, where his family had interests in mining and smelting iron ore, charcoal-burning, tree-felling and timber-milling, Philip Henslowe moved to London in the late 1570s while in the employ of the Bailiff to the Viscount Montague who had property in Southwark. Henslowe married his employer’s widow Agnes Woodward and with her he acquired substantial wealth and two stepdaughters. A shrewd businessman, Henslowe built on that wealth with investments in a wide range of enterprises, including dying, trading in goat skins, starch-making, pawn-broking and money-lending and investments in property including inns, lodging houses and brothels.

Despite the dubious moral nature of some of his investments, Henslowe himself was always respectable, serving in his local parish as vestryman and church warden, as well as governor of the local grammar school and eventually achieving court offices under both Queen Elizabeth and King James.

Among his many property ventures was the purchase of land in Southwark, on the south bank of the Thames, a garden plot between Bankside and Maiden Lane, where in 1586 he began building a playhouse called The Rose. Originally the playhouse was built in partnership with a grocer, John Cholmley, but by 1592 he was no longer in the picture for reasons unknown.

We do not know how the association between Henslowe and Alleyn began. Perhaps it was the coincidence of their reciprocal needs — Alleyn’s for a playhouse and Henslowe’s for a partner who knew the theatre business. However it began, their partnership was sealed on October 22, 1592, when Edward Alleyn married Henslowe’s stepdaughter, Joan Woodward. Thereafter the bond between Henslowe and Alleyn was that of father and son.

Reconstruction of the Fortune playhouse, drawn by Walter Godfrey in 1911 based on the builder's contract
The Fortune playhouse

As a result of his falling out with the Burbages, Alleyn had parted ways with the Lord Admiral’s Men and became the leading player with Lord Strange’s Men. It was with this company that he took up residence at The Rose playhouse in February 1592. (See The Troublesome Reign of James Burbage – Part 3 ) Most likely in preparation for this event, The Rose had been substantially extended and renovated, its stage enlarged and topped with a new turret. Lord Strange’s Men remained in residence until the playhouses were closed in June that year due to social unrest and then the plague. In 1594, when the plague had finally abated, Alleyn rejoined the newly reconstituted Lord Admiral’s Men who then became The Rose’s resident company.

In 1598 Edward Alleyn retired from the stage, but returned to it, it is said, at the personal request of Queen Elizabeth herself, or it may have been to launch the family’s latest venture, the construction of a new playhouse to the north of the city, a virtual replica of The Globe called The Fortune which opened in 1600. Following the Queen’s death, Alleyn retired from the stage permanently in 1604, while, however, maintaining his business partnership with Henslowe.

By 1613 Alleyn was wealthy enough to purchase the Manor of Dulwich (a village south of London) together with its extensive estates. From then on Alleyn devoted himself and his fortune to charitable works. Having missed out on an education himself, he applied much of his wealth to the founding of Dulwich College where his and Henslowe’s papers are still preserved, including Henslowe’s Diary, the most famous original document of the Elizabethan theatre.

In 1592 Philip Henslowe picked up a notebook bequeathed to him by his late brother John, turned it over and began to jot down details of his daily business transactions, most crucially his income and expenditure regarding The Rose. Whatever his part in the day to day running of the playhouse before this date, his entries in the notebook begin around the time Henslowe went into partnership with Alleyn and it would be fair to say that without this partnership, the document may not have been written and certainly not preserved.

While this is not the diary which gives the notebook its name, or even the account book it is generally taken for, the value of this messy notebook is immeasurable as a detailed record of the workings of an Elizabethan playhouse. It is largely through this document that Henslowe’s name has come down to us as the most well-known entrepreneur of the Elizabethan theatre. (See The Secret of Henslowe’s Diary)

Philip Henslowe died in 1616, leaving most of his assets to Edward Alleyn. Alleyn’s wife Joan Woodward died in 1623 and within a few months Alleyn married Constance Donne, the twenty-year-old daughter of the poet John Donne. Alleyn died only three years later in 1626.


© Pauline Montagna 2015



R.A. Foakes and R.T. Tickert (edited by) Henslowe’s Diary, Cambridge University Press (1961)

A.D. Wraight, Christopher Marlowe and Edward Alleyn, Adam Hart (1993)



Back to Top