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London Becomes Rome

Episode 18 of 20

In his object-based history of Shakespeare's world, Neil MacGregor of the British Museum surveys the triumphal arches created for James I's entry into London in 1604. From May 2012.

Neil MacGregor, former Director of the British Museum, continues his object-based history. Taking artefacts from William Shakespeare's time, he explores how Elizabethan and Jacobean playgoers made sense of the unstable and rapidly changing world in which they lived.

With old certainties shifting around them, in a time of political and religious unrest and economic expansion, Neil asks what the plays would have meant to the public when they were first performed. He uses carefully selected objects to explore the great issues of the day that preoccupied the public and helped shape the works, and he considers what they can reveal about the concerns and beliefs of Shakespearean England.

Programme 18. LONDON BECOMES ROME - A set of designs for the Coronation Procession of James I reveals the extent of classical knowledge amongst Shakespeare's audience.

This programme was originally broadcast in 2012.

Producer: Paul Kobrak.

Available now

15 minutes

London's Triumphal Arches

Date: 1604  

Size: H:268mm, W:231mm  

Made in: London  

Made by: William Kip  

Material: Paper  

 

On 15 March 1604, almost a year after he had been crowned, King James I's royal procession made its triumphal way through London. The intervening period had been marked by the great plague of 1603, but now, with the disease abated, the city was safe once again for crowds to gather.

 

And what a sight these crowds would see. Across the City of London, seven towering triumphal arches stood 90 feet above the peering crowds. Each one was highly decorated with adornments representing seven different regions of the world. Combined, these magnificent arches transformed London into ancient Rome, and King James I became its 'conquering Caesar', guaranteeing peace and prosperity.

 

Evidence of these elaborate and remarkable displays of street theatre survives in a book published in 1604 called The Arches of Triumph, a sort of souvenir guide of the day.

 

This object is from the British Museum

 

British Museum Blog: Description of the Arches by Ruth Levis, British Museum

Quotations

'But now behold, In the quick forge and working-house of thought, How London doth pour out her citizens: The Mayor and all his brethren in best sort, Like to the senators of th'antique Rome, With the plebeians swarming at their heels, Go forth and fetch their conquering Caesar in'  

Henry V, prologue to Act 5

Background

  • These arches were built for the royal procession of James I in 1604 (several months after his coronation due to the plague outbreak)
  • The procession route was from the Tower of London, through the city, to Temple Bar
  • Stephen Harrison, a 'Joyner and Architect' was the man behind the arches' creation, along with his team of over 250 craftsmen
  • The arches would have spanned entire London streets - between approximately 40 and 70 feet across
  • The passage through which King James I came was 12 feet wide and 18 feet high

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