Ian Drury - Sheil Land Associates Ltd. - 52 Doughty Street - London WC1N 2LS

Monday, 8 March 2010

Decisions, Decisions

Okay, no blog post for a week or two (had a birthday to deal with, amongst other things). And now, I'm torn ...

Do I blog about some of the fantastic Shakespearean places I've visited with the Divine Kim over the last couple of weekends?

Or do I write something about some workshops I've done for SCRIPT, a terrific agency based in the West Midlands dedicated to helping writers in film, TV, radio, etc.?

Oh, decisions, decisions ...

Places then (workshops sometime soon). My birthday - 28 Feb. The Divine K said, 'Where do you want to go?' We'd had a busy weekend anyway, with a surprise birthday party for somebody else, then a day-long workshop and a family event, so I thought we'd keep it simple. Visit Huddington, then head over to some friends of ours in Throckmorton.

Huddington Court is surely one of the loveliest houses in England. It's a half-timbered manor house with a separate private chapel, a moat, beautifully landscaped gardens (not huge, but just lovely) and a footpath which leads through a copse, past the lake which feeds the moat and alongside the moat beside the house to the summer house at the end of the garden. When I grow up, I want to live there.

Queen Elizabeth visited Huddington in 1584. I suspect that a young Will Shakespeare might have visited two or three years earlier. But the house's real claim to fame is that it is where three brothers involved in the Gunpowder Plot lived, and where the plotters spent their last night as they tried desperately to escape.

The quiet beauty of the place prompts reflection. You see, having studied Shakespeare and the Gunpowder Plot for years now, I find I don't really believe in the Gunpowder Plot. That is to say, I'm not quite sure what really happened, but I'm damn sure it wasn't what the government made it out to be. Rather, it was a fake plot, at least in part, engineered and/or manipulated by the government with one purpose in mind - to destroy Catholicism in England.

At Huddington, you get a glimpse of Shakespeare's world - and a sense of something under threat, hated or coveted by powerful 'new men' enough for them to murder, massacre and malign as many as they needed to in order to possess or destroy.

At Bordesley Abbey, that feeling became stronger. We went there yesterday (Sunday), after dropping our daughter's boyfriend off in Bromsgrove.

Bordesley Abbey is no more than a few ruined remains. Once, it was a grand church and monastic complex, but all that was destroyed in the 1530s. Such beauty, such magnificence ... and such utility, such a settlement created to provide food, alms, shelter, knowledge and support. Destroyed.

Shakespeare must have despised the people who ordered the desecration of such places. He may even have had family connections with Bordesley Abbey (a Roger Shakespeare, buried in 1558, was thought to have been 'the old monk of Bordesley'). And a legend attached to Bordesley concerning the folklore figure of Herne the Hunter was transplanted by Shakespeare to Windsor Great Park in his 'Merry Wives of Windsor' in 1597. Herne (or Horne) was also the name of the priest-hunter who had terrorised a local Catholic chaplain, the last abbot of Westminster. So maybe Shakespeare was trying to make a point. But, if so, English thickos chose only to think that Herne the Hunter was something to do with Windsor, and not that Herne was the Reformation in action.

From Bordesley, it's a mile as the crow flies to one of the prettiest churches I've ever been to. Beoley seems to be a prosperous little village close to the Worcestershire/Warwickshire border. That affluence is reflected in St Leonard's Church - beautifully preserved - and its surprisingly popular churchyard. Didn't get to look inside the church (there was a service of baptism taking place), but checked out the exterior masonry.

According to the vicar of Beoley in the 1880s, Shakespeare's skull was hidden in the private vault beneath the Sheldon Chapel in St Leonard's Church. There was supposedly a way into the vault from the outside through a broken ventilation grille, back in 1799. I think I could see where it would have been.

Huddington, Bordesley, Beoley - these are all local places, seldom if ever mentioned in biographies of the Bard. And yet they all have something to tell us about him - even if the story of his skull is a bit weird (although I've researched a great deal of the Rev. Charles Jones Langston's tale, 'How Shakespeare's Skull was Stolen and Found', and discovered that much of it is verifiable).

And continually, there is that question of the state of England, with a vicious, sly government of men on the make and two monarchs whose personal preference for Protestant beliefs meant that the country as a whole had to agree or face dreadful penalties. The abbey at Bordesley was razed to the ground, the land sold. Huddington was privy to secrets concerning the Gunpowder Plot - whatever that was. And Beoley ... why should Shakespeare's skull have ended up in the private vault of a defiantly Catholic family - the Sheldons - with whom he shared various links?

I'm lucky to be able to wander round these beautiful places, but they do make me wonder why there is seldom if ever any mention of Catholicism or the Reformation in discussions of Shakespeare. Explore his world, and you can't escape those issues. So why do the so-called experts keep ignoring, overlooking or sidelining the matter? (and yes, Germaine Greer - that includes you!)

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