Theatre historians have only recently understood the historical importance of the so-called ‘four city inns’ (two providing indoor playing spaces, and two outdoor yards), which were not refurbished inns, but rather inns that happened to also put on plays. Located within the City limits, the inns offered performance spaces for the early acting companies until all were closed by the Privy Council – the legal enforcer of Elizabeth’s court – in 1594.
The Bel Savage off Ludgate Hill near St Paul's, was used by a variety of companies, but most notably after 1583 by Elizabeth’s own players, the Queen’s Men, with its famed extempore clown Richard Tarlton. It is safe to say that playing had begun at the Bel Savage by 1576, and we know that the Bull off Bishopsgate Street was presenting plays by 1578, with the Bell taking up plays in 1576 at the Bell Inn Yard, off Gracechurch Street. Likewise, the Cross Keys Inn, close to Bell Inn Yard, was certainly staging plays by 1579 (we know James Burbage attended a performance there that year). James Burbage would have known all four of these venues well as competitors to his Theatre.
Recent scholarly work has demonstrated that it was the Cross Keys and the Bell that were used as indoor venues, while the Bel Savage and the Bull put on plays outside in their coaching courtyards. This suggests that the Queen's Men would have used two theatres at any one time owing to seasonal differences.
Furthermore, because we now know that the Lord Mayor managed to get the Privy Council to ban all use of the city inns for playing in 1594, this suggests that all of the companies then had to use the suburban theatres north and south of the river, such as the Theatre and the Rose.
Although Stephen Gosson's Playes Confuted does not mention the four inns in the quotation below, his text is revealing about the culture of playgoing at the time of the early playhouses. As Gosson states:
‘In the playhouses at London, it is the fashion of youths to go first into the yard, and to carry their eye through every gallery, then like ravens, where they spy the carrion thither they fly, and press as near to the fairest as they can... they give them apples, they dally with their garments to pass the time, they minister talk upon odd occasions, and either bring them home to their houses on small acquaintance, or slip into taverns when the plays are done.’
Furthermore, in his The School of Abuse, Gosson had this to say about the Bel Savage:
‘The two prose books played at the Bell Savage, where you shall find never a word without wit, never a line without pith, never a letter placed in vain; the Jew and Ptolome, shown at the Bull . . . neither with amorous gesture wounding the eye, nor with slovenly talk hurting the ears of the chast hearers.’