Saturday, 24 September 2011

Where did William Shakespeare live in London?

The disputed 'Flower portrait' of William Shakespeare now believed
to date for the Nineteenth Century
Where did Shakespeare lodge in London? On 15 November 1597 the Petty Collectors [of Taxes] for Bishopsgate stated in their accounts the names of certain persons who had avoided, for whatever reason, payment of their taxes. Among the names for St. Helen's parish (Bishopsgate) was that of William Shakespeare, assessed five shillings on goods valued at £5, the assessment made in October 1596 and falling due in February 1597. So we can conclude that sometime before October 1596 Shakespeare was living in the St. Helen's parish of Bishopsgate, perhaps near the church which is still standing. What we don't know, however, is whether he paid his five shillings taxes.

Our next sighting of the poet was again through the tax collectors when he was assessed thirteen shilling and four pence on goods valued at £5, the assessment made on 1 October 1598. On 6 October 1660 the amount due was still outstanding, and the Court of Exchequer referred the arrears to the Bishop of Winchester who had jurisdiction in the liberty of the Clink, an area on the south bank of the Thames in the county of Surrey. So we can see that Shakespeare had migrated across the river, perhaps following his theatre which had also relocated about this time. In his accounts for 1600-1 the Bishop reported the amount collected from the names of persons referred to him, including, one images, William Shakespeare. So near the end of the decade, possibly in 1599, the dramatist had taken up residence in the liberty of the Clink in Southwark in the county of Surrey.

Winchester House, the residence in Southwick of the Bishop of Winchester.
From Hollar's View of London circa 1660
How long Shakespeare resided in Southwick is not known, but we do know that no later that 1604 he was back in the city of London residing in the house of a French Huguenot by the name of Christopher Mountjoy in Silver Street in the Cripplegate ward. Mountjoy made ornamental headgear and wigs, and he employed an apprentice by the name of Stephen Bellot. In November 1604 Bellot married Mountjoy's daughter Mary, and in 1612 undertook a civil action against his father-in-law over the amount he alleged he had been promised as his marriage-portion or dowry. On 11 May 1612 Shakespeare was called to testify, and in his deposition stated that he had known both parties 'as he now remembrethe for the space of tenne yeres or thereaboutes'. This indicates that he could have been lodging in Silver Street as early as 1602. He was also asked to state his present address which he gave as Stratford upon Avon. 

One further house in London associated with Shakespeare is the 'Blackfriars gate-house' which he purchased in March 1613 from one Henry Walker 'citizen and minstral of London'. However, the very day after the sealing of the deed he mortgaged the gate-house back to Walker, so the purchase appears to have been purely an investment.

(Silver Street circa 1570 is included in the 'Agas' map of London and can be viewed at address

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Mr Anonymous : Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604)

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford
by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger
"Here's one I wrote earlier, guv".  [Edward de Vere]
So Hollywood has a new 'Shakespeare' movie coming out. Well, well, nearly 400 years dead and still good for business! The latest well-hyped offering is titled Anonymous and is based on the life of the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere (1550-1604), whom the film hails as the ‘true author’ of Shakespeare’s plays. This is the also the view of a handful of crackpot Shakespearean actors and academics, though it may have been thought that the fact that de Vere inconveniently died before many of the plays had been written (Macbeth, The Winter’s Tale, Coriolanus, The Tempest) might have deterred them just a little.

One of the arguments they put forward against Shakespeare's authorship is that he did not attend a university and so would not have had the classical education needed to write the plays, many of which are based on stories from the Roman writer Ovid. But Shakespeare almost certainly attended Stratford Grammar School (the school records no longer exist, but Shakespeare's father was a town councillor and it was a 'perk' of all councillors that their sons were educated at the grammar school). They were called grammar schools because what they taught was Latin grammar, and once the boys had mastered the language all the lessons were in Latin. Among the books they studied was the works of - you guessed! - Ovid, and it is estimated that when the boys left the grammar school they would have had the equivalent of a classics degree from a modern university.

Shakespeare also seemed to reminisce on his grammar school days in his play The Merry Wives of Windsor, in which we see a boy, appropriately called William, being given an amusing Latin lesson by his Welsh school master, called in the play Evans. It is known that when Shakespeare was a boy there was indeed a Welsh master teaching at the grammar school.

Shakespeare's dedication in
The Rape of Lucrece to his
patron, the Earl of Southampton
De Vere was a minor poet and writer of song lyrics. Among his lyrics was Come hither, shepherd swain, which was published under his own name: Earle of Oxenforde. So if he published poems under his name, why not plays, too? It is contended by his supporters that the writing of plays was regarded as a lowly profession and certainly not one to which a man of noble birth could associate his name. But Shakespeare also wrote poems. Is it not strange that the earl should acknowledge his authorship of his own trivia, but not of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, which are regarded as poetic masterpieces?

The fact is that no one in Shakespeare's lifetime ever doubted that he was the author of the plays. Not the Stationer's Office, which approved books for publication; not the Master of the Revels, the booking agent for court performances of plays; not  his friends and partners in his theatre company; not rival dramatists, such as Ben Jonson, a man famed at the time for his learning and erudition (though like Shakespeare he had no university education). The authorship fashion only arose in the Nineteenth Century, over 200 years after Shakespeare's death, when the Victorians, in search of a national hero, lauded him as a universal genius and a man of family values (yes, it's a good joke!), indeed as a demi-god. But if you put someone up on a plinth in that manner then sooner or later someone's going to want to knock you off. The more so if there's money to be made (conspiracy theorists, publishers, film makers, Mein Herr academics, etc., etc., etc., etc.)

The film also casts de Vere as the incestuous lover of Queen Elizabeth, so it obviously has its tongue firmly in its cheek. But how many Oscars will it win, that is the question.