Episode 13: Chaucer and Shakespeare’s London

Globe Theatre, London Shakespeare

Last Updated on February 19, 2024 by Marian Jones

Britain’s two greatest authors, Chaucer and Shakespeare, both lived and worked in London for most of their lives. This post covers a little about them and their work, focussing particularly on the places you can visit in London today which they knew or where they are remembered. As ever, there is much more information on the podcast, especially on the background of the two writers and on the London they each knew. Each left behind a detailed picture of London in their era, that is the 14th century and the reign of Queen Elizabeth I respectively.


Chaucer was born in about 1340 and died in 1400, a Londoner all his life who held key positions at court and at Westminster Abbey and knew the city through and through. His was the London of the plague years, a London centred around the Tower and St Paul’s, the riverside and the market stalls of Cheapside. His most famous work, The Canterbury Tales, shows a real cross section of his society as the twenty companions journeying to Canterbury include a knight, a yeoman – or country man – a prioress, a merchant and a poor Oxford clerk.

You can ‘find’ Chaucer in London today, at the Tabard Inn in Talbot Yard just off Borough High Street where a blue plaque marks the ‘Site from which Chaucer’s pilgrims set off in 1386’. The original inn is no more, but the square remains, an ancient part of lawless Southwark known in Chaucer’s time for drunkenness and crime, for bear baiting and cock fights. Chaucer is buried in Westminster Abbey where the monument erected 150 years after his death describes him as the ‘Father of English Poetry’. In 1559 the poet Edmund Spenser requested that he should be buried near Chaucer and so began the tradition of ‘Poets’ Corner’ where today there are tombs and memorials for over 100 writers.


Shakespeare (1564-1616) was born in Stratford-on-Avon, but left for London to make his way in the theatre. He became well-known as an actor, then a shareholder in the Kings Men and a theatre-owner after he opened the Globe Theatre. There’s much more detail on all of this on the podcast.

the globe theatre

When the lease for a theatre Shakespeare owned in Blackfriars was not renewed, he and others sold shares in a new company, bought land in Southwark, then dismantled the theatre in the dead of night, moved the pieces across the river and rebuilt it. There was room for 3000 ‘playgoers’, ‘mostly groundlings’ who stood in the empty central space, plus those who paid for places on the tiered wooden benches. The all-male company often put on two plays a day, opening with Henry V. There was no curtain and very little scenery, but the atmosphere was raucous. Food was sold during performances, pickpockets and prostitutes worked the crowd and the audiences yelled out their thoughts with no inhibitions.

There is more on the podcast, including the fire of 1613 which meant the theatre had to be rebuilt and the opposition of the Puritans which led to it being demolished in the 1640s. You can visit the site of the original Globe Theatre in Theatre Courtyard near Southwark Bridge, where you’ll find a plaque and some information panels explaining that 15 of Shakespeare’s plays premiered there. Also, of course, you can visit Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, built as far as possible like the original and opened in 1997. There’s a programme of plays every summer, as well as an excellent museum where you can learn all about Shakespeare and the London and theatre of his time.

shakespeare in southwark

Southwark Cathedral dates from 1106 and it’s thought that Shakespeare attended services there. Inside, you’ll find an effigy of him and a stained- glass window featuring scenes from his plays. On April 23rd every year – the day Shakespeare was both born and, 52 years later, died – a service is held. A sprig of rosemary is placed in the hand of his statue, ‘for remembrance’ as Shakespeare himself wrote and actors play out scenes from the plays and read some of his verse.

The George Inn in Stoney Street was built in 1676, so more than 50 years after Shakespeare’s death, but on the site of a previous inn which Shakespeare knew. It is the last galleried inn in London and gives a good idea of the space in which actors performed before London’s theatres were built. Shakespeare certainly watched and acted in plays in venues like this.

more shakespeare in London

Middle Temple Hall was built in 1572 and was the setting, in February 1602, for the first recorded performance of Henry VI Part One. Shakespeare must have known this hall, in fact he knew the whole area, including Inner Temple Garden. This secluded spot is where he set the scene in the same play in which two earls are discussing who has the right to the throne and each pluck a rose – one white, one red – in a gesture which references their later conflict in the Wars of the Roses.

Churches which Shakespeare knew include St Giles-without-Cripplegate, where his nephew is buried, and St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, which was close to where he lived at one time and so he almost certainly worshipped there. St Mary’s Aldermanbury was another church near his home which he must also have known. It was destroyed during World War II, and just the garden remains – there you’ll find a bust of Shakespeare. He is buried in Stratford-on-Avon, but there is a fine memorial to him in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Listen to the POdcast

Reading suggestions

Chaucer by Peter Ackroyd
The Canterbury Tales A Re-telling by Peter Ackroyd
Globe: Life in Shakespeare’s London by Catherine Arnold
Elizabeth’s London by Liza Picard

links for this post

The Tabard Inn
Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre
Southwark Cathedral
The George Inn

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