Shakespeare Wos ‘Ere

Historians aren’t certain that William Shakespeare was born on St George’s Day 1564, although he was baptised on 26 April that year, what we do know that he died on this day 405 years ago.

For several years of his life, Shakespeare’s home was London, although we don’t know where most of them are, there are a couple where we have proper documentary evidence.

1592:

William Shakespeare first moves to lodgings in London

1593:

Now lodging somewhere in Bishopsgate

1596:

Now lodging somewhere in the parish of St. Helen’s in Bishopsgate

1599:

Now lodging somewhere on Bankside, near the Globe Theatre

And that’s not the current Globe Theatre, which is too near the Thames. Back then a row of theatres ran slightly further back, within the ‘Liberty of the Clink’, an ancient enclave whose laws permitted entertainments banned a few streets away.

The site of the original Globe can be found by crossing Southwark Bridge and then taking steps down immediately beyond the large office block, before reaching the traffic lights.

Information boards on Park Street, which runs parallel to the Thames and below Southwark Bridge Road, reveals that the site lays before you, beyond the railings, within the protective realm of a block of flats. The limit of the Scheduled Ancient Monument area is defined by a change in the cobbles, with a late Georgian terrace plonked straight across the middle of it, because nobody back then cared about heritage.

The Globe had burnt to the ground in 1613, ignited by a cinder during a performance of Henry VIII, and only a few minor archaeological traces remain. It’s believed that Shakespeare might have lived in a house adjacent to the theatre, but that’s mere speculation, and nobody knows precisely where.

1604:

Shakespeare now lodging in Cripplegate

By this time, he’d already written most of his classics like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet and Othello, perhaps in response to his increased reputation he moved back north of the river and rented lodgings in the City.

His landlord was Christopher Mountjoy, a French Huguenot refugee and a maker of ladies’ ornamental wigs in the elaborate Elizabethan fashion. We’d know none of this was it not for a family dispute following the marriage of Mountjoy’s daughter Mary to his apprentice Stephen Belott. When a promised dowry failed to materialise in full, Bellot took Mountjoy to court and Shakespeare was called as a witness. His words, in this case, weren’t particularly useful, but modern scholars were bequeathed a rare example of his handwriting as a result, and also a precise address. The Mountjoys’ house was situated on the corner of Silver Street and Monkwell Street, on the boundary between the wards of Farringdon and Cripplegate.

The catch is that neither the house nor either of the streets still exists, the house disappeared in the Great Fire, and then the local area was wiped from the map again during the Blitz. Pretty much the whole of Cripplegate was consumed, and the street pattern substantially remodelled during the erection of the Barbican estate. The location lies just outside this modern development, either underneath or fractionally to the south of London Wall, which despite its name is another modern interloper on the A-Z. Head to the section east of the Museum of London, close to the actual remains of the actual London wall on Noble Street. The best clue to the precise site of the Bard’s lodgings is St. Olave’s church, a small place of worship whose churchyard abutted the street corner in question. This was also destroyed in World War II, but its footprint remains as a tiny garden, with a raised lawn and a footpath winding through, and an old stone bowl which might be a font or maybe a birdbath, it’s hard to be sure. The City has erected a plaque by a bench to confirm the Shakespearian connection, using the usual convention of ‘Near Here’ to confirm there’s no remaining wall to properly attach it to. If you’re planning on getting up close and maybe taking a photo, best hope there isn’t a modern-day Romeo and Juliet canoodling on the bench when you visit. But if it’s free, take a seat and look around you at the lofty offices and high walks, and try to imagine that Macbeth and King Lear were likely written right here.

1613:

Now with property in Blackfriars

With more than a third of London’s adult population watching live theatre every month, Shakespeare had become a wealthy man he had retired to a fine house in Stratford but was now rich enough to be able to buy a second property here. Maybe it was his bolthole in the capital, maybe simply an investment or a holiday home, there isn’t even enough documentary evidence to prove he ever stayed the night. Whatever the reason, when he bequeathed it to his daughter he left us one of only six confirmed signatures still in existence today.

The best guess is that the property may have occupied the north side of Ireland Yard where it joins St Andrew’s Hill, which is where the City of London have placed another blue plaque.

Things would have been a lot busier around here in early Jacobean times, not least because of the Blackfriars Theatre where Shakespeare’s troupe played out the winter months. These days the bypassed quadrant of backstreets to the south of Ludgate Hill goes mostly unnoticed except by those who work here, which is a shame because it’s almost quaint in parts. It’s also easier here than at the Barbican to imagine our greatest playwright stepping out from home… until that fateful day exactly 405 years ago when Will’s will suddenly become important.

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