The crowd cheered with delight as King Henry VIII entered to the deafening blast of a canon.
There was no ball in the tube, it was only for effect. A great plume of smoke was ejected in a spectacular shower of sparks that reached high into the sky. Flaming bits of wadding floated down on the dazzled spectators. Some of the thicker pieces, however, landed on the rooftops and sat there smoldering. The play continued for another fifteen minutes before the first shouts of “Fire!” sounded in the theatre.
It was a tragedy waiting to happen. The entire building was constructed of aged timber. There were only two stairways leading up from the pit to the three tiers of thatch-roofed galleries.
The theatre was jammed to capacity with over 1,500 people.
There was only one exit.
At first, only those sitting in the balconies scrambled to their feet, making their way through the maze of benches. Those below moved with purpose but still maintained a semblance of order. As the fire leaped from section to section though, the smoke began to billow, and panic set in. Shouts and screams filled the air.
There was a bottleneck at the gate as the crush of people began to run for their lives.
Somehow, every single soul escaped from the inferno. The last to stumble out was a drunken stagehand. He fell to the ground with a bottle of ale in his hand, his pants on fire. A nearby Samaritan pried the bottle loose and extinguished the flames with the contents.
The structure burned to the ground in two hours.
On June 12th, 1997, when William Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre was reconstructed for the third time, it would be the first London building allowed to have a thatch-roof in nearly three-hundred and fifty years.