English theatre has a historically tumultuous relationship with authority, particularly the undivided church and state.
Various notable works, such as Middleton’s A Game At Chess, were banned for reasons of political or moral outrage throughout the Jacobean and Elizabethan periods, and in 1644, Oliver Cromwell stopped the government beating about the bush and banned all theatre, and closed all the playhouses. With this in mind, the reputation of St. Leonard’s Church as “the actors’ church” is rather surprising.
Erected on the location of a Norman church whose first recorded Vicar was practicing in 1185 (with evidence of an Anglo-Saxon church earlier still), St. Leonard’s was quite near to The Theatre at New Inn Yard. This theatre was home to the first productions of many of Shakespeare’s now legendary plays. To this end, many of Shakespeare’s company and contemporaries must have considered St Leonard’s a natural resting place. The list of players in the medieval graveyard buried under the current crypt includes James Burbage, founder of The Theatre, and his son Richard, Shakespeare’s ally and an actor with the honour of having been the first to play tragic heroes Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello and Romeo.
Restored from near collapse in the 1990s, after a century of war and occasionally destructive attitudes towards preservation, today the Church plays host to a succession of theatrical productions and music nights, continuing its association with the creative community.