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One of the less succesful moments in the search through St Saviour’s records for Edmund Shakespeare, his immortal brother William and Southwark in general was when I stumbled on a payment in the London records “For Mr Jonson’s Book“. It came in an odd place though, namely the loose leaf records of Cure’s College, that little Southwark Alms house founded in 1588. You have to know the difficulty of reading those records, most especially deciphering variously spelled names, and gradually beginning to recognise them too, to understand why, as your eyes start to deteriorate or your pencil blunts in the London Metropolitan Archive, you can suddenly give into the tendency to convince yourself of a Eureka moment.

The first and real Eureka moment was when I had linked the lease of that tavern where Edmund Shakespeare very probably died in December 1607, The Vine on Maid Lane, directly to a local Southwark fraternity granted Livery back in 1460, The Brotherhood of Our Lady of Assumption, and given rights by the King at Westminster, Henry VI, to buy local land of up to Sixty Marks. That was a true window on the history of the entire area because it established the significance of St Margaret’s Church, in the middle of Long Southwark and right opposite the Tabard. Which linked lay church life to the growth of London and commerce in general, in a very louche area, famous for the Bishops of Winchester licensing those ‘Winchester Geese’, for bear and bull-baiting and later for its theatres too. Peter Avergne and John Le Hunte were two of those livery wearing church wardens who invested in both The Vine and The Axe on Maid Lane, in a riverside district of perhaps 300 inns by Shakespeare’s day. John Le Hunte is clearly the direct ancestor of Edward Hunt, Esquire, who by Elizabeth’s reign owned sizeable land in Southwark called ‘Hunt’s Rents’ and bequeathed the Vine tavern to his pregnant wife Mary, also in 1588. His will is up on line. From there many discoveries arose, from the appearance of ‘pleyers’ working for the church back in the 15th Century and performing around St Margaret’s Cross, to the story of the rebel Jack Cade. Who marched from Blackheath and sacked the City in the real beginning of the Wars of the Roses, and fought the Battle of London Bridge, meeting the Bishop of Winchester, William Waynflete, inside St Margaret’s. Cade and his men were staying just opposite at the White Hart Inn, a few doors up from the Tabard. The very catholic and originally Norman church of St Margarets was of course suppressed at the Reformation, and turned into a local compter prison. As the big church, St Mary’s Ovaries Priory, was renamed St Saviours and Bermondsey abbey was broken up too. The Tudor revolution had begun and Southwark was hit dramatically.

But there was a valid reason for my false Eureka moment over “Mr Jonson’s book”, which at the time I thought might be a payment for a lost play by Ben Jonson himself, perhaps the missing “Isle of Dogges”, because of the date of 1598, or possibly “Every Man in his Humour”. Though there are no extant records for the Globe theatre, and Phillip Henslowe’s account books remain the prime source for the period and the theatres, it was not so absurd to assume, in the ad hoc nature of early impresarios and payments from the bag in local churches too, that Henslowe’s hand had got in here somehow. After all Henslowe was both vestryman and warden of St Saviours, which he lived right next door to at the Bell, for several years with his son-in-law the great actor Edward Alleyn. Whose name appears with Henslowe’s on The Great Enqueste in James’s reign, when a scandal developed at the church over abuse of money for the poor. The other reason is those ancient papers for St Margaret’s, St Saviours, and Cures College too, are all bunched together in those buff boxes in the London Metropolitan archive.

Heart in mouth I turned to The Shakespeare Institute in Stratford and Professor Martin Wiggins, a Jonsonesque figure himself in his leathers and Doc Martins. Martin was encouraging at first, although it was tellingly the price of the payment, which I hadn’t written down properly, that raised the greatest question mark. He explained that plays of the period were worth £5 or £6, although Henslowe often gave advances of 20 shillings to writers, which is incidentally the same amount that was paid for Edmund Shakespeare’s funeral. True to any writer’s concern with money, fame and fortune though, as I sought for the book I was trying to write too, I rushed back to the archives only to discover that this payment for ‘Mr Jonson’s Book” was for a mere tuppence! On further eye-scrunching scrutiny of those often illegible papers, if on very good and thick Elizabethan paper, it turned out that this Mr Jonson was just a local scrivener, his little ‘book’ perhaps for copying something, or making an accounts book for the church, and my hopes were dashed.

Yet never be disheartened too easily in the search for such a fascinating period. This goodly scrivener became another of the local figures coming back to life along the river, characters dimly discernible through the veil of financial records, like the Sexton paid at a time of obvious plague “for the burning of men’s bones”, or one “Widow Bradshawe”, one of the local beneficiaries of a place at that alms house, Cure’s College, whose name appears repeatedly. With the likes of Henslowe himself, Ned Alleyn and lost Edmund Shakespeare, they help build a fascinating sociological history of Southwark and theatreland, much about London’s poor too, among whom the players moved constantly. As fascinating as the characters in the Token Books or Vestry Minutes, in trouble with local Constables for refusing to buy Communion Tokens, at various times of heightened religious tensions, or marked down for the number of women moving in with them. Or as the foul mouthed watermen and taverners along the river, among the Stewes, or the sudden occurence of new professions in the marriage and christening records of St Saviours; like shipwrights or a ‘Hansom man’, one of the first moving ‘taxis’, joined with the arrival in Southwark of printers and publishers called ‘men in books’. An odd tale for a blog, in an age when millions of words are spewed out onto the web every day, and so losing so much value, meaning and power. But I am still convinced that was an age as revolutionary to the world of thought, because of printing, reform and theatres, as the internet or the closing of the London Stationers office only as recently as 2005 is to the now.

David Clement-Davies January 22 2015

For writers in the Sixteenth Century it was hard to survive, books and plays often supported by private donations. We seem to have returned to that time, in some ways, so please realise that the research on Edmund Shakespeare and Southwark represents two years of unpaid work.  If you enjoy these blogs then and can afford to support Phoenix Ark Press, please donate below.  Many thanks.


The image is taken from Wikipedia and is a portrait of Ben Jonson.


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You can read some of the arguments about a Stratford vs supposed Oxford camp, around Shakespeare authorship, mostly in the comments under the post EDMUND SHAKESPEARE, THE EARL OF OXFORD, FALSTAFF AND THE HOLLOW CROWN, in William Ray’s and our notes. First little Phoenix Ark should declare an edge of ‘prejudice’ and that is all instincts here are towards Rowe, Aubrey and the ensuing Shakespeare tradition, of Stratford Will Shakespeare. Not as blind followers of any tradition though, and not without interest in other authorship ‘theories’. Then we would say that there is not a significant Oxford camp, in a theory dreamt up in the troubled 1920s and that any onus towards proving anything lies most assuredly there.

But if anyone starts to trumpet the research they do, Phoenix Ark want to suggest the value, even the singular importance of the Edmund Shakespeare story, in Southwark, to the debate. If a link can be made, and it has not been yet, between a London Hunt family, that owned The Vine in Southwark, where 27 year old Edmund Shakespeare was staying in 1607, (in the tenement rooms of one Edward Woodroofe, and perhaps his wife, probably at least, from the Southwark Cathedral Token Books) and the Stratford Hunts, it is at least suggestive. We tracked The Vine back to The Brotherhood of Our Lady of Assumption, linked to St Margaret’s Church, and founded under Henry VI, in the name of John Le Hunte, Peter Averne and others. But in a highly interconnected world, perhaps Shakespeare’s player brother, young and ultimately tragic Edmund, came to London to stay with people already known in Stratford. That has yet to be proved.

Southwark though, and especially St Olave’s Church, no longer there, but the spire of which is mentioned more than any other in Shakespeare’s plays (Ackroyd), also has strong Wessex ties. But there too, among many players and writers, is another actor in the Shakespeare family. Indeed the tradition of acting families was to emerge out of the Shoreditch, Southwark, and London circles. The significance of brothers in the plays is its own field of study, though echoes in fiction do not absolutely prove historical fact. But beyond any authorship debate, what is wonderful too are the vivid bits of evidence about lives and deaths in Southwark, so evocative of extraordinary times and a world that still raises marvellous passions.


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All cough in ink, all think what other people think,” Yeats

It is not the acceptance of the absolutes of ‘worthy’ scholarship or ‘establishment’ theory, even if Prince Charles did put his face on the Shakespeare Birthplace website in reply to Anonymous, upholding the very merry Shakespeare industry and RSC land, that makes an ‘attack’ on the Oxford authorship theory for Will Shakespeare important, but because it is an irritating sideshow. In fact, the supposed authority of the scholars on a Stratford Shakespeare can be just as irritating, since documentary evidence is so thin, and truths lost to the veils of time. Half of the reason for scholarly tentativeness seems to be you might get your head bitten off, but in terms of the supposed authority of established truth, of course Shakespeare has been reinvented and rediscovered for four hundred years. As history is a dialogue between past and present. So he has been co-opted as protestant path finder, a staunch monarchist, pure revolutionary, the voice of Brit propaganda, or simply the God of the word.

Perhaps that’s why it is important to resist received authority too, especially when setting out to make discoveries. When trying to present ideas on Edmund Shakespeare to one major publisher, and also bringing up the three signatures in the Catholic English college in Rome, the only comment was ‘they would say that, wouldn’t they?’ Because the Reformation itself still carries such deep echoes. But if a person’s ‘faith’ or lack of it can be a private and intimate thing, or should be, there is much evidence for Shakespeare’s involvement with prominent Catholics, as a society mutated from ‘Catholic’ to ‘Protestant’. So the ‘truth’ carries deep felt echoes and controversies, but is also defended so hotly because there is gold in them there hills. Though it is circumstantial, the residence in his last days of Edmund Shakespeare, Will’s youngest brother, living at The Vine in Southwark, ties into the London Hunt family’s involvement, under Henry VI, and the likes of Peter Averne, with the very Catholic Brotherhood of Our Lady of Assumption in Southwark. Perhaps the overriding point though is that Southwark itself is such a fascinating area and an absolute fault line for London politics and the Reformation too. It does irritate too, much as facts are a guide, when the new voice of American literalism swings onto the scene, if it loses Peter Ackroyd’s sense of the intrinsic mysteries of identity, creativity but above all a shifting English language.

St Margeret’s Church, where the Brotherhood began, was thrown down by Henry VIII and turned into a prison, and its parishoner’s transferred to the large St Saviours, previously St Mary’s Ovaries, now Southwark Cathedral. But at that Cathedral, five minutes walk away, there Becket had preached, there too Bloody Mary staged heresy trials against Protestants, and nearby at St Thomas’ ‘hospital’ they produced the first English language bible, in the form of the Vulgate. It lay on the Canterbury Road, real and metaphorical, running down towards the continent. It was filled with Protestant Dutch, many involved in the tavern-brewing business that swallowed up the district, but also notable for many years for Catholic dissenters, especially under the Jacobites. The Bishops of Winchester there were at the heart of Henry’s divorce and ensuing Reformation battles, but also excerised their power and protection in the liberties, until the Puritans and the Civil War closed them down in London, and the theatres too. So exactly the place, with it taverns, brothels and theatres, used but complained about by the City of London across the water, or local ‘respectable’ folk, to encourage the stews of free thought and creativity. A place to be wary of too. Evidence suggests Will did not live there all the time, in that ‘Domus et Aliorum’, also living in St Helen’s, at the Bishop’s Gate, Silver Street or Stratford, but he may have lived and worked there for ten years and more, and the place has been underestimated in its significance. Go back to the source, though the ‘source’ of Shakespeare’s mind and art is another thing, the different ‘countries’ he journeyed to, as is what we are really talking about when we talk of his ‘identity’. It was Bulgakov who wrote the life of Mr Moliere, Shakespeare’s only comparative rival in Paris, but doubting the easy validity of documentary biography, believed an artist had to inhabit an artist to get close. To do that with a mind like Shakespeare’s, through the currents of his time, can be a slightly dangerous exercise and you might do better just to enjoy the work!

Arguments can be followed in Shakespeare’s Brother, posted experimentally above.


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