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

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Digging Shakespeare

A chance to volunteer on the archaelogical dig taking place at Shakespeare's last home. What do we think about that? Should I go for it?

Of course I should. As you walk along Chapel Street in Stratford at the moment, large panels prevent you from looking over the wall at New Place into the dig that's going on there (although an open-top bus tour seems to give you a good view as you go by). But to be in there, as part of it, rummaging among the foundations ...

The house only seems to have been known as New Place after Will Shakespeare bought and refurbished it in 1597. Before that it was the Great House, a 'pretty house of brick and timber' built a hundred years earlier by a local worthy and onetime Lord Mayor of London.

Royalty stayed there in 1643, in the form of Henrietta Maria, the Catholic queen-consort of King Charles I. The Queen was a guest of Will's daughter, Susanna.

In 1756, a preacher, the Rev. Francis Gastrell, was living there. Outraged at the number of visitors and passers-by who wanted to see a mulberry tree in the New Place grounds, which supposedly had been planted by Shakespeare himself, the reverend took an axe to the tree.

The very next year, a mysterious document was discovered hidden away among the rafters of the roof in the house where Will Shakespeare grew up. It proved to be a handwritten copy of a Jesuit Last Testament and Will of the Soul, signed by Will Shakespeare's father.

In the meantime, Gastrell had a few of his windows broken by people angry at his felling of the Shakespeare mulberry. Finally, in 1759, he freaked out altogether and demolished New Place brick by brick.

The town seemingly did nothing to stop him. Whether a lone preacher could destroy a three-storey house on a busy street without anybody noticing, or whether (as seems much more likely) he had a substantial mob to help him, the town bided its time and then sent him packing. He was marched out of town accompanied by booing crowds, and a local bye-law was passed forbidding anybody with the surname Gastrell from ever living in the town again.

Like so much of the Shakespeare story, we are usually expected to accept that Shakespeare's final home was simply destroyed by an angry clergyman - and that's that. Whatever you do, do not draw any conclusions from that astonishing act of vandalism, least of all that there may have been some sectarian issues hanging around the memory of Will Shakespeare.

Whatever you do, do not imagine that a Protestant preacher destroyed a part of our national heritage because of its Catholic associations with our national poet. No, no, do not think that. It's just one of those things, okay? And maybe we shouldn't have mentioned that Jesuit will. Don't want anybody getting any ideas, do we?

But as a way of getting just that little bit closer to the Bard, what could be better than sifting through the soil of his demolished house?

Of course, I'm not actually working on my Shakespeare book just now. I'm sweating away on my Arthur book. But Stratford's just a few minutes away. Shame it's not Arthur's grave I could get to in a few minutes. Heigh-ho ...

(PS: Hi, Shayne!! Great to see you! I'll get some blog links organised soon, I promise.)

1 comment:

  1. Oh, yes, you should! A hands-on approach to your research.

    But yes, I can imagine the pull of Arthur's grave...