I’m outside the As You Like It café on Henley Street in Stratford, two doors up from the entrance to Shakespeare’s birthplace, sitting with a cup of hot pale tea in my hands, its steam drifting listlessly upwards, fading into nowhere. Before me, uneaten, sits a slice of white half-warm toast buttered just too late to melt. The town is for the moment quiet; shops are opening or just open.
Down the street are the restored 19th-century gables, dark oak frame and plaster frontage, the colour of baked cream, of the buildings where, somewhere, Shakespeare was born a day or two before his baptism at Holy Trinity church on 26 April 1564. Soon the tourists will be gathering, some massed together in whorls and clusters, others strung unsteadily along the street. I’m not one of them, I tell myself.
But, of course, I am. I’ve unfolded a crisp new Ordnance Survey map; all roads seem to raise points of interest.
Henley Street is the epicentre of Shakespeare’s England; paths – unknown and known – radiate out from here through Stratford and then off beyond the town’s once elm-marked limits. In the late 16th century Henley Street itself rolled north-west past Bishopton towards the Saxon church of St Peter on bare risen land at Wootton Wawen. A pre-Christian burial mound lay in the churchyard behind; across the road to the south was Puck’s Dyke, the medieval name for the old earthworks by the ford on the river Alne. The village had not brought luck to its recent owners: the second and third Dukes of Buckingham were both executed for treason, in 1483 and 1521 respectively. Shakespeare would dramatise both: the former in Richard III and the latter in Henry VIII. (Another owner, Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk, met an identical fate in 1554.)
Beyond Wootton Wawen, the road, treacherous in winter, snagged north to Henley-in-Arden, its long, wide high street sheltered to the east by a steep and tree-lined ridge on which once stood the de Montfort castle of Beaudesert, already abandoned and decayed to nearly nothing by the late 16th century. The de Montfort’s great deer chases, which swept in a wide arc around the north of the town, shaped from the old oak forest of Arden, had lately been disparked, its pales dismantled.
The vast gloomy forest itself had once stretched nearly 30 miles south from Watling Street towards the banks of the Avon, its purlieus trimmed to the east and west by the Fosse Way and Icknield Street; the Romans had been content to contain it, but in the millenia since their departure the trees had given way to pasture and tillage. Nevertheless, it was still heavily wooded, ‘for the most part thicke set with woods, and yet not without pastures, corn-fields, and sundry mines of Iron,’ wrote the antiquarian William Camden.
Today, little woodland here rises above the level of rough brakes and thickets, fraying along the neat modern lines of the fields or tucked into obscure corners in the folds of the hills; only scraps of the old shadowy greenwood remain, like May’s Wood and Bannam’s Wood, to the south and south west of Henley. Which is not to say that some in their shape are not very old: Austy Wood, east of Wootton Wawen, is unchanged since the Saxons hedged and defined it before the Norman Conquest.
Closer to Stratford, and a mile or so either side of the Henley road, lay the family homes of Shakespeare’s mother and father. Mary’s was at Wilmcote to the west and John’s on the hill at Snitterfield to the east. I was keen to see the church of St James the Great at Snitterfield, wrapped in hedges and trees at the apex of the hill, having read that its great east window held stained glass memorials to four Anglo-Saxon saints. For some reason, I thought they might be medieval. They are late Victorian.
Turning back towards Stratford, however, I realised that the village holds a commanding view over the flatlands skirting the Avon west to where the Vale of Evesham disappears into the bright and hazy distance. Stratford itself is mostly hidden behind the Welcombe hills, but directly beneath are the fields of Ingon, where Shakespeare’s paternal uncle lived.
I went out to Shottery, too, the home of Shakespeare’s wife to be, Anne Hathaway. It’s even closer to home; now more or less swallowed by Stratford’s sprawl, it lay a mile or so to the west across the cornfields. I can’t say that it’s particularly exciting; but the wider sense of Shakespeare’s young world is nonetheless palpable. None of these places were much more than an hour’s walk from the house where Shakespeare grew up. It was all comfortable, small, local.
And yet, true as that might be, there were also horizons beyond the flat basin of the Avon. The other main road out of Stratford to the north, for instance, led first to Warwick, then past the Earl of Leicester’s castle at Kenilworth, its lake and chases, to end, after a long day’s travel, passing through Coventry’s impregnable rust-coloured walls at Greyfriar’s Gate, abutting an already ruined Franciscan Friary. (Then as now, only the friary’s sharp octagonal tower survived.) Coventry had been one of the five richest cities in England in the 1400s, but the slump in the cloth industry had pitched it into a century-long decline. Warwick had long been in Coventry’s shadow economically; it, however, remained poor, having ‘no trade to be reckoned of’ in the 1570s.
Shakespeare’s father John was a glover, selling his wares beneath the high cross in Stratford on market day each Thursday. The town’s preponderance of leather and wood-working trades reflected the surrounding landscape, but the principal industry was malting: perhaps a third of the significant householders undertook their own, according to a survey of 1598, much to the distress of the poor, since the malsters bought up corn that would otherwise be made into bread.
Malting notwithstanding, however, Stratford’s wealth was in trade, not manufacture. According to Shakespeare’s neighbour and friend Richard Quiney, the town’s commercial reach extended through Shropshire and into Wales, and as far north as Lancashire and Cheshire. With such facts in mind, it is no surprise that John Shakespeare was a glover and a money-lender, landlord and wool-dealer besides.
John’s business interests took him over the county border – certainly into Worcestershire, Oxfordshire and Wiltshire and perhaps elsewhere too. No doubt John talked of his travels; but it’s not pressing the evidence too either much to wonder if his eldest son did not sometimes walk or ride out with him. John’s dealings could have taken the two of them many places, but some of his journeys, at least, seem certain.
One was the three-day journey south over the wide, ancient pre-Roman track known as the Ridgeway – which cut across England from the Dorset coast to the Wash – and down over the chalk, sheep-studded slopes of the Kennet valley to Marlborough, a town which clung stubbornly to its pre-Reformation folk customs and rituals, as late as 1578 paying 13s. 8d ‘for a gallon of wine and gunpowder at the Lord of Misrule’s coming’.
Another journey took them south-east through treeless fields, pastured or rich with corn, to Banbury, which, contrariwise, was specifically rebuked by the Privy Council in 1589 for its attempts to ban local May games and other summer rites. ‘You Banbury cheese!’ Bardolph shouts to Slender in The Merry Wives of Windsor; it’s not meant as a compliment.
Shakespeare certainly seems to have known the Cotswolds well. At the range’s north eastern edge lies Barton-on-the-Heath, like Coventry perhaps a day’s travel from Stratford on foot, high above the standing stones at Rollright straddling the Oxfordshire border which were thought by some – among them Michael Drayton, a fellow Warwickshire poet and almost exact contemporary of Shakespeare – to be ‘a witnesse of that day we wonne upon the Danes’.
Even today Barton-on-the-Heath is barely big enough to be called a village, a few dozen houses gathered around the 12th century church of St Lawrence: a thread of pale gold stone, the colour of cropped wheat, stitched into the seams of the fields. Shakespeare’s aunt Joan – one of his mother Anne’s seven elder sisters – lived here with her husband Edmund Lambert; two of William’s siblings were named after them. Shakespeare shoe-horned a reference to Barton-on-the-Heath – along with the miniscule hamlet of Wincot, further back towards Stratford – into the frame-play of The Taming of the Shrew: it’s where Christopher Sly, the sometime bearward and tinker – and full-time drunk – hails from.
Shakespearean chronology is an imprecise art, at best. But The Taming of the Shrew is certainly one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays. A version of it appeared in print in 1594, with a title-page tying it to the already defunct troupe of players attatched to the Earl of Pembroke; it most likely belongs to the year or two around the turn of the previous decade.
It’s tempting, of course, to see the play as a Stratford, or immediately post-Stratford piece. The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare dismisses such ideas as sentimental. Perhaps; but, then, all biography is inherently sentimental. And, since the precise references would have been meaningless on a London stage, Shakespeare presumably either put them in for his own satisfaction, or the amusement of another, more local audience. Either possibility takes us away from the metropolis.
It is striking too that the brief English Induction is not simply rural, but also contrives to bring together the two of the principal venues at which travelling players appeared: an inn and the household of a wealthy local landowner. Moreover the play features one of the few sympathetic portrayals of travelling players presented on the Elizabethan stage, arguably even at the expense of the Lord, given that he initially mistakes them for ‘noble gentlem[e]n’.
Shakespeare would return in his work to the high wild hills of the Cotswolds, too, and in particular its western limits, which are explicitly described in Richard II. The words are those of a man who has travelled its rough uneven ways: the terrain, says Bolingbroke, ‘Draws out our miles and makes them wearisome’. It’s possible, in fact, to pinpoint where Bolingbroke, Northumberland and Harry Percy are standing in this scene: as Caroline Spurgeon long ago pointed out, it’s a wooded ridge a few miles west of Stinchcombe Hill, near Dursley, from which, through a ‘tuft of trees’ as Percy describes it, you still can see Berkeley Castle below.
Stinchcombe crops up again in Henry IV Part 2, together with nearby Woodmancote (pronounced Woncot) since this part of Gloucestershire is vividly sketched as the home of Justice Shallow. Shakespeare knows it well enough to get family names right; the Perkes and Visor he associates with the villages respectively can both be found in contemporary records. And he knows, too, that red wheat, known as Lammas wheat, was sown on the Cotswold hills at the first sign of rain in August: ‘shall we sow the hade land with wheat?’ asks Davy; ‘With red wheat, Davy,’ replies Shallow.
While the particularity of the facts inspires a very precise, narrow sense of locale, it does not imply, I think, that rural England was atomised, its small, precise cultures existing solely in their own small orbits. Shallow had lived in London, of course, having been a student at Clement’s Inn, one of the old Inns of Chancery by Temple Bar where Fleet Street meets the Strand. (There is no record of lawyers at Clement’s Inn before the late fifteenth century, but I’m not sure that kind of historical accuracy concerned Shakespeare all that much.) He had played Sir Dagonet, the fool, to King Arthur in an archery exhibition at Mile-End Green, the kind of custom that only exists now in footnotes and fleeting references such as this.
But Shallow’s England, like Shakespeare’s, extends beyond the poles of his home town and the capital; he has friends in Staffordshire and Windsor, of course, but business dealings yet further afield. He is interested in the tumult and trading at both Hinckley fair – outside Coventry and just off Watling Street – some 70 miles north-east of Stinchcombe, and also the great horse fair at Stamford in Lincolnshire, 40-odd miles further east on the road to Norfolk. The latter reference has sometimes been taken as a mistake on Shakespeare’s part, implying that Shallow lives in Lincolnshire in Act Three but Gloucestershire in Act Five; it’s an assessment that has its basis, I would argue, on an assumed parochialism in 15th-century England that did not, in fact, exist.
Our sense of the country and its culture is greatly diminished if we ignore the mercantile trading networks, and in particular the innumerable fairs, often but not always woven into the pattern of holy days that littered the calendar, throughout the country. William Harrison, writing in 1587, lists 396 of them, and his list is not comprehensive. Traders were drawn to the fairs, which might last a week or more, not merely from all over the country but also from all over Europe; there is some evidence, too, that touring players would plan their routes to target the attractively large, time-and-cash-rich audiences which the fairs offered.
It’s easy to forget how deeply pre-modern English politics – in its widest sense – was written into the landscapes. The centuries of history that brought England to the Elizabethan moment left their mark not only in castles and other architectural expressions of power, but were also memorialised in place names, in ballads and tales, in folk memory, in civic and religious rites. John Shakespeare’s patron saint was the Anglo-Saxon St Winifred. Her shrine at Holywell in North Wales was a popular pilgrim’s destination well into the 17th century; Henry V made the pilgrimage from Shrewsbury on foot in 1416.
But images of Anglo-Saxon saints adorned the Guild Chapel in Stratford and other churches like that of Wootton Wawen. Saint Wulfstan, the last Anglo-Saxon bishop, was born at Long Itchington, fifteen miles or so north-east of Stratford. As bishop of Worcester, Wulfstan submitted to the Normans while also attempting to articulate and preserve an older English culture; Wulfstan would be King John’s spiritual patron. John himself was – and is – associated with the ruined castle on the western edge of Kineton, less than ten miles south-east of Stratford.
Just north of Warwick on the road to Kenilworth, perhaps ten miles north-north-east of Stratford, is Blacklow Hill, where on 19 June 1312 Guy of Warwick beheaded Piers Gaveston, the corrupt favourite of Edward II; ‘the Black dog of Arden is come to keep his oath that you should one day feel his teeth,’ Guy said, spitting back the nickname that Gaveston had given him. A 19th-century monument marks the spot today. This Guy of Warwick is not to be confused with the legendary figure of the same name whose hermit’s cave, at Guy’s Cliff, lies just south of Blacklow Hill. Despite being accepted by Tudor historians such as Holinshed and Stow as a contemporary of Athelstan’s in the early 10th century, this Guy seems to derive from an Anglo-Norman romance from some three hundred years later.
Still, it was a story everyone knew. ‘Concerning Guy of Warwick, of whom there go so many prety tales,’ wrote Camden, ‘I neede not to speake: seeing every man may read of them in the common Chronicles.’ Among the more popular and fantastic elements Guy famously defeated Colbrand, a Danish giant, in battle at Winchester, thereby saving England from the Danes; ‘I am not Samson, nor Sir Guy, nor Colbrand/To mow ’em down before me,’ says the Porter’s Man in Henry VIII. A similar trope is evident in Hocktide plays, such as that presented before Elizabeth I at Kenilworth in 1575, which celebrated the defeat of the Danes on 13 November 1002.
The point is not that Shakespeare thought of such things when he wrote, or was inspired to write, his histories; that would in any case be unprovable and, even if not, somewhat trite. The point is rather that political, regional and national history was more than the stuff of dry chronicles and academic squabble: it was there in family and civic fealties, in the land and how it was apportioned; it bled into everything. It had an immediacy that was more than mere context, a physical and emotional reality to which people were sensible in a way in which we ourselves cannot be in a settled, centralised modern state.
Perhaps this is obvious, but I think it needs restating: histories that are long cold and forgotten to us were not so in late Tudor England. Historians were discovering and articulating a national story for the first time, one which both emphasised the continuities of English culture and history from before the Conquest, but which also stressed the Elizabethan moment, with its religious settlement and increasingly centralised government – embodied in the iconic figure of Gloriana, Astraea, Elizabeth herself – as an assertion of stability and peace and justice after centuries of civil war and dynastic conflict.
NOTE: If you enjoyed this post, you might also be interested in my other posts on Shakespeare and the Elizabethan theatre.