The connections between Shakespeare & the Earls of Derby
Dating back to the 1590s the Earls of Derby and Prescot had unique ties to Elizabethan drama and the iconic playwriter William Shakespeare. Prescot is believed to have been the site of the only purpose-built Elizabethan theatre outside London, built in 1595.
In the late 1500s, the 5th Earl of Derby, Ferdinando Stanley, also known as Lord Strange, was patron of an acting company called ‘Lord Strange’s Men, which was the most important group of players in Elizabethan England during the late 1580s and early 1590s. Six of the leading actors in Lord Strange’s company included – Edward Alleyn, George Brian, Augustine Phillipes, Thomas Pope, John Heminges and William Kempe, who alongside Shakespeare later formed the core of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men at the Globe in London. Shakespeare wrote many of his most famous plays for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and then for The King’s Men but beforehand he had already established his career as a playwright, working with most of the same actors, when they were part of the 5th Earl’s company of players.
Known for being a patron of drama, Lord Strange lived in Knowsley Hall, where Strange’s Men are also known to have performed. It is highly likely that the young Shakespeare would have then gained experience of Lord Derby’s very large household.
‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is believed to have been performed for the first time at the 6th Earl’s wedding at the Royal Place of Greenwich in front of Queen Elizabeth I.
Shakespeare North Playhouse
During late Elizabethan times, Prescot was home to the first freestanding, purpose-built indoor playhouse outside of London until at least 1617. It would have been used by touring acting companies that were visiting Knowsley Hall and other nearby locations.
Prescot will again become home to Shakespeare North Playhouse when it opens in July 2022. The 470-seat theatre is a replica of the Cockpit-in-Court, designed for Charles I by architect Inigo Jones at Whitehall Palace in 1629. The development has been funded by Knowsley Council, Liverpool City Region Combined Authority and the Treasury costing an estimated £30m.
The Playhouse will complete the “Shakespearean triangle” made up of London, Stratford-upon-Avon and Prescot.
Knowsley Hall are proud to have received several prestigious awards.