An American friend has just asked, in this very free form Shakespeare and London blog, what it is like doing the research itself, in the backrooms and the stacks of great libraries? A worthy digression, I think, about real life in London, past and present, and the hunt for Edmund Shakespeare or his brother. Although I first heard about Edmund’s tombstone in St Saviour’s church from a schoolteacher in a pub up in Clapham, and had already started a pretty bogus novel, perhaps that search really began in earnest when I heard a London lecture by Professor Alan Nelson from Berkley University, talking to a small audience in that church about the St Saviours Token Books. Then another to his theatre students down in the lecture hall at the modern Globe reconstruction, explaining how to use the main resources – the London Metropolitan and the National Archives. So talking of the detective work around wills especially, mostly held in the National Archives, among all those pipe rolls and government documents, but also giving that name of the place Edmund Shakespeare was in 1607, the Vine Tavern on Maid Lane in Southwark. I should say that from start to finish in that search though I have found the academics mostly pretty uncooperative, and of course there is a competition that surrounds everything to do with Shakespeare. Alan Nelson is doing his own biography of the bard for the 2016 anniversary, but I do think he might have been more forthcoming, as might others, especially James Shapiro’s UK publishers. Perhaps anyone on the hunt for the bard succumbs to that twinge of paranoia or jealousy that infected that American couple, the Wallaces, who unearthed the Mountjoy Court case early last century and the Silver Street story, but came to believe the British Establishment were spying on them and trying to steal their work. To add a semi psychic twinge to the Wallace’s peculiar talents, perhaps needed in the imagining of any past, they returned to Texas during the oil rush determined to strike black gold and did exactly that.
But so I set off, in my little Gold Peugeot, to the main centre of the work done, the London Metropolitan Archive in Clerkenwell. Like every area in London proper, visiting that much changed part of the city of course has its own place in the jigsaw, because scrubby and little-streeted Clerkenwell, with its rough market and emergent cappuccino shops, its modern Turkish immigrants or its Roumanian dominated strip bar, was in Shakespeare’s day the Clerk’s Well, where clerks, scribes and limners settled and Dutch and Flemish immigrants probably ended up in brothels too. There were other major wells, like The Bridewell, Hanwell and so on. Those limners later morphed into the printers and booksellers who especially congregated around St Paul’s Cathedral and Paternoster Row, and modern St Paul’s, with Wren’s proud dome, as opposed to the wood steepled church, of course still looms up now and then among the constuctions. The idea of wells though, in a City once famous for its clean and pure springs, as Peter Ackroyd says, became as redolent in my head as the 212 parish churches that defined both the development of London and the creation of Reformation records too, or as important as the river itself. So the topography of the place became vital, passing streets like Bowling Green Alley, among so many in London echoing that popular sport, once played out in open fields, as eagerly as archers practiced at Newington Butts, or falconers hunted on the Morefields . Like visiting the still working pub on the corner of Cowross and Turnmill Streets, near to Smithfield market, which was once George Wilkin’s brothel tavern, where the young Mary Mountjoy stayed with her lover Stephen Bellot. That would have been in a near rural district outside the now vanished City wall and Smithfield was both a market and a place of popular burnings. Then there is that original remnant of a wattle and daub Elizabethan tenement building, through the arch approaching the very ancient St Bartholemew’s Church, just down the road, that once also had a spittal, or hospital.
Where I was coming from became just as important too, living in Lambeth, in a little flat on Gilbert Road in Kennington, that just happened to have the name of another of Shakespeare’s brother’s – Gilbert. Richard was the other. Kennington, with it’s Dog House pub, probably on the site of one of the old dog houses that surrounded London, once on lands of The Black Prince and where Sir John Fastolf, who fought at Agincourt and that echo of Jack Falstaff, owned land as well as a tavern, the Boar’s Head, in Southwark. I got to know much more about the area in the light of the Shakespeare research. For instance that Lambeth was once the Lamb’s Bath on the river, or that the little market street ‘Lower Marsh’, like ‘Upper Ground’ in Paris Gardens, testified to the effective swamp land this was South of the unembanked river, haunt of cutpurses and gypsies. Hence on Maid Lane too the Globe theatre had been ‘forced out of a marish’ in 1599, or a marsh, as Ben Jonson records in his long poem The Exacration Against Vulcan. Of course the astrologer Simon Foreman also lived in Lambeth, marrying in St Mary’s, beside Lambeth Palace, now the modern Garden Museum. But right at the end of Gilbert Road, turning into Renfrew Road and running into Kennington Lane, the search also began for another lost Elizabethan theatre, the wooden playhouse in Newington Butts, where Shakespeare may have played. On Kennington Lane the names of some ugly Council Estates, like Othello and Brutus Court, testify to its presence, perhaps in the circle that is now a garden, although a mile from the river down Newington Causeway it proved too far out, which is why Henslowe cashed in by building The Rose on Maid Lane. The most likely source of any extant records or clues was at its local church too, St Mary’s Newington, there being nothing in the Metropolitan Archive, which still has a thin sliver of medieval curtain wall looking especially incongrous on Kennington Park Road. A vicar I had befriended told me that Giles Frazer had taken over there, the Cannon who resigned at St Paul’s over the Occupy London protests, but whether he had become too much of a celebrity, was too busy, or thinks Shakespeare and the players unimportant to the plight of the modern urban poor, he never got back to me. That modern poverty is of course much in evidence, especially around the Elephant and Castle, that rather swamps the lost area of Newington Butts.
The London Metropolitan Archive itself though is in an unremarkable little street in Clerkenwell north of the river, faced by a large deconsecrated church and a playground, once a plague burial ground, I think. Through the glass door, once you’ve pressed the button, and have signed in with the usually polite but disinterested security guard, up you go, see-through plastic Metropolitan bag in hand, to deposit any closed bags in the locker room. Much the same process and security as in the British Library, where I spent a great deal of time too, reading their copy of Frances Meres’s book, or learning more of Kit Marlowe. The place is modern, efficient and helpful, and the sourcing is done on a row of computers, mostly, or via the shelved parish record catalogues. Your hand written order chits are then slipped into the order box, to await delivery in the glass sided and temperature regulated reading room beyond. Pencils and sharpeners in hand you then await the thrilling delivery of those buff boxes, filled with vestry minutes, token books, wills, covenants, scraps of semi-legible medieval paper, hand drawings, or leases, to unfurl them on the reading tables, open delicate volumes on large v-shaped foam reading mounts, keep the tomes open with heavy lead book snakes, or fall fast asleep. I admit I have never been very good with libraries, easily distracted, keen to flirt, hungry for discoveries that take a long time, Yet when Shakespeare is in the frame, or that particular period, there is a very special thrill getting your hands on original Elizabethan paper. As Alan Nelson pointed out of the Token Books, which are just like long restaurant menus, bound with breaking linen threads, all hand written lists of Southwark locals and purchases of Communion Tokens, paper far long-lasting than anything we would produce today, often with particular watermarks. Summoning up images of that first paper mill on the Thames that saw its founder knighted by the Queen, as the establishment have always knighted captains of industry. This was the very beginnings of the printed word though.
So what are you exactly holding there, as you search for that golden moment that never comes, the sight of an unknown record of Shakespeare, or his brother Edmund? Well, the loose leafed vestry minutes from St Saviours, for instance, are often single or double folds of paper, scratched with fading black ink, often with the minute instincts of the accountant or secretary and hard to read. But so the thrill begins of seeing those words on the covers of the Token Books, that are already numinous places in your head – “Ye Liberty of the Clink, “Ye Libertie of Bankside, “Ye Liberty of Paris Gardens.” Then there is the variable spelling, especially of names, the accounting of pounds and pence, L an i, and the Elizabethan confusion with f, ff, and s. At first too you have no idea who these hieroglyphs refer to at all, until, screwing up your eyes and your brain too, an english sentence suddenly pops out and firms up in your mind- “To the widowe Bradshawe”, “paid to the bishop to bringe water from the Thames in their cartes” – “A forenoon toll of ye greate bell“, “Paid to the sexton for the burning of mens bones“. Lives, love, commerce, the past, the church, begin to echo in your head, flicker like candle light, and just for a moment the jigsaw becomes clear, until it is lost again in a maze of broken pieces. Depending too perhaps on whether or not you believe in ghosts, or trying to get to some harder truth, the conjunction of realities and falsehoods that makes any life, it can be both depressing and even frightening sometimes doing that lonely research. Take for instance the year 1603, five years before Edmund Shakespeare’s little tragedy, when Queen Elizabeth I finally died, I think in March, after standing for hours on her feet. As with the death of King James, meaningfully or not, plague hit London very hard that year, and its echo is held in the St Saviour’s Burial Register. That, like some of the Token Books, is too fragile to be released into the eager hands in the Reading Room and so is on microfilm now. But look at that year patterned on a scrolling neon screen, a patient etherised upon a table, and you will get an astoundingly dark taste of that time. I believe the average monthly mortality rates in the parish of Southwark were something like 80 deaths, nasty, short and brutal enough, but in May that “Suma Mensis” rises to something like 200, then around 350, to over five hundred by July. So the agonising litany unfolds, in a year that took the player and original Globe sharer Will Kemp too – “A man in the street”, “A servant dropped by the wall”, “A woman in ye Church yard” “A Gentleman”, “A boy”, “A girl” “A stranger”.This was Shakespeare’s real and very dangerous London and remember that Southwark, across the river and outside London wall, was only one Parish among those 212. By October the tally has climbed to over 850 dead and then, the next month, it suddenly dips again. What lets you really touch it across the centuries though, gives the sense that that great church of St Saviours had become almost besieged by the dead, is the physical sigh of relief you can detect in that unknown vestryman’s hand, as below the list of the fallen a scrolling line trails off down the page. The plague had finally broken, taking over 100,000 lives across London, and it also shows that although some believed it was a visitation by God, or the ‘foul miasma’s’ of the brothels, bear pits and theatres, these people must have known that it had a pathology. You sigh and look out of the window at a winter night, or leaves coming on the trees, and wonder what it all signifies, or if it is a tale told by an idiot.
That’s the dark stuff though, compared with the fun of the hunt, and those moments of greater satisfaction. The egg on the face moment of thinking I had found a reference to a Ben Jonson play in the ‘records’ of Cure’s College, the accumulating data of the centuries, the fascinating snippets about a death ‘in sui felo’, a suicide at the house at Bank End that was overturned in such a rowdy liberty because it would have meant a daughter did not inherit when her father drowned in the river, the approach to the local poor shown in a payment “to send a woman out of the Parish“, and the real thrill of linking the Vine Tavern where Edmund died, to the founding of that local fraternity at St Margaret’s Church on Long Southwark, in the reign of Henry VI, and its ownership by John Le Hunte, Edward Hunt Esquire’s ancestor. There is another very remarkable thing you of course learn at the London Metropolitan Archive too, as you chat to the staff about the Guilds structures in London, the 12 great Livery Companies, or who might have fallen into what parish, and in what particular Ward, as a group of uneager schoolboys arrive to try something else with the computers, or a lone figures plods away at their own family history. Namely that before Henry VIII’s shattering Reformation itself there simply are no records, apart from a scrap of a document from the Magna Carta period referring to the rights of a Man. In that sense Shakespeare’s or the Tudor age is a kind of beginning of modern time, in that crowding but still deeply rural and wooden London, and in the municipalization of us all. Nothing ever so certain as Death and Taxes! In the restructuring of the Church into parishes too and the very founding of Parish Registers of christenings, weddings and funerals, in the suring up of Sir Names, so often based on trades, once called The Mysteries, in the all-consuming account of daily expenditure, and in the move from the fable and the chronicle to the conception of modern history and sociology. Then of course there is that secularisation of theatre, or players, the explosion of printing, literature and poetry and of course the man of the moment and all time, Shakespeare, with his strange, eventful histories. A man who knew so well how both the records and people lie, or veil, but that the real history is the history of the human heart, mind and soul.
David Clement-Davies January 24th 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 a Wikipdia photgraph of Shakespeare’s Stratford will, written in the classic ‘secretary’ hand, not Shakespeare’s but a scrivener’s, but with his signature at the bottom.