The afternoon was drawing to a close and the chill of early spring was settling over Stratford-upon-Avon as we made our way back towards the car. There were still many things we would have liked to see, but, with the small dog waiting patiently for our return, they would have to wait for another visit. But, there was a church at the end of the street we were crossing and, for some reason, we both felt we ought to take a look. You just never know what you might find and the place, even from a distance, looked as if it might be interesting.
It was certainly in the right part of town. We passed a good many Tudor buildings covered in carvings…and a few Victorian counterfeits too, but we also found the site of William Shakespeare’s house, New Place, right next door to the church. New Place was built in 1483 by Sir Hugh Clopton, and it stayed in the family for eighty years until it was sold to a tenant to raise the marriage portions of that generation of ladies. Shakespeare bought the house in 1597, for the sum of £60, from William Underhill II, a lawyer of the Inner Temple, who was murdered two months later by his son and heir.
Shakespeare died at New Place in 1616 and the house passed to his daughter and then his granddaughter, eventually returning to the Clopton family. In 1702, John Clopton remodelled or rebuilt the house and it eventually became the property of the Reverend Francis Gastrell. Plagued by tourists, even then, in 1756, Gastrell destroyed a mulberry tree in the gardens that was said to have been planted by the Bard himself. There was a public outcry, his windows were smashed, his taxes increased and Gaskell was forced to leave both the house and the town.
Nothing now remains of the house itself, though the site has been transformed into a garden that has become a place of pilgrimage for lovers of Shakespeare’s works. Archaeologists have explored the site, finding, amongst other artefacts, the controversial clay pipe containing traces of tobacco, camphor and cannabis, a substance used in the Elizabethan era for clothing, nautical items and for medicinal purposes. The find caused much speculation as to the ownership of the pipe and whether its contents were medicinal or recreational, but in truth, it cannot be specifically dated to the Bard’s occupancy of the house.
The garden was closing as we reached it, and although I know that the upkeep of these historical buildings and sites is extortionately expensive, I found the inscription upon the gate a little ironic, given the hefty entrance fee and the only photo I could get was a brief glimpse over the hedge.
New Place was the second largest property in the town and in a prime position, being right next door to the Guild Chapel and the Guildhall and school Shakespeare is thought to have attended as a boy. This too was closed, but it was still an amazing sight to see the whole street still almost as it was in his day…apart, perhaps, from the paving and tarmac of the streets.
We had seen the place where Shakespeare ended his days, we were looking at the church and Guildhall that abuts the school where he spent his youth. We would pass his birthplace on the way back to the car. A life in reverse, going back in time as we moved forward.
There has been a school at the site since the early thirteenth century and, during Shakespeare’s time, the Grammar School of King Edward VI was the only school around. No records exist to give definitive proof that young William attended the school, but it is probable, given his father’s prominence in the life of the town and the fact that the boy would have been entitled to a free place in the school.
If indeed Shakespeare attended the school, he would have done so from age seven to fourteen and would undoubtedly have attended the chapel next door. I had to wonder if that meant the lad had really enjoyed his childhood and schooling, given that he had chosen to buy the house next door…
The house on Henley Street that is reputed to be his birthplace is only a few minutes walk away and that one is still standing. Although, once again, there is no direct proof that this really was the place he was born, there is ample circumstantial evidence. His father, John Shakespeare, was fined for leaving a pile of muck outside his house in 1552. It is known that he was renting the house at first, then was able to buy it. Although the wattle and daub building looks rather higgledy-piggledy today, it would have been a substantial home at the time and reflects a certain affluence. As the house remained in the family until it passed to William’s daughter, it is almost certain that it was here the Bard was born.
There is only so much that we can know about any life… even the rich and famous leave only a fragment of themselves to history, and Shakespeare was neither as he grew. His childhood is, for the most part, a mystery, yet as with any artist, much might be gleaned about the private man by reading between the lines of his work.
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
~William Shakespeare: As You Like It
As we poked our cameras through the bars of the gate of the house on Henley Street, a red-breasted robin sang from the clipped holly and gentlemen in Elizabethan dress declaimed the words of the Bard. But, before we saw his birthplace, we still had a chapel to visit. Surprisingly, the doors were open and there were the most intriguing carvings on the porch…