From a passage by Mark Twain:
“That beauty which is England is alone; it has no duplicate. It is made up of very simple details, just grass, and trees, and shrubs, and roads, and hedges, and gardens, and houses, and churches, and castles, and here and there a ruin, and over all a mellow dreamland of history. But it’s beauty is incomparable and all it’s own”.
It is a happy circumstance that the small town which may be described as the heart of England should be set in such rich but homely scenery as that of “leafy Warwickshire”. It would not, perhaps, be easy to determine who first applied the epithet “leafy” to the county, but it is so happily descriptive, that one rarely thinks of the name of Warwickshire without the addition; and so, also, it is difficult to think of Stratford-upon-Avon without thinking of it as Shakespeare’s Stratford. Citizens of the place may be able to think of it as a kind of town entity, but for others it is a background to one of the worlds greatest men, to the supreme poet and dramatist whose genius commands the homage of the whole civilised world. It is a background full of beauty and of deep interest, a little conventionalized, maybe, from being a show-place. Few can be those people “with souls so dead”, to use Sir Walter Scott’s familiar phrase, as to be unmoved by wandering about spots associated with the greatly admired great.
The majority of visitors from afar reach Stratford-upon-Avon by railway, and the entries from the railway stations are perhaps those which give the least favourable first impression of the town. Especially is this the case with that from the Great Western Station, on the Alcester Road, leaving which, we find ourselves in a broad road, with the large general Hospital on our left, then new red-brick villas, and then flat-fronted, low, unpicturesque houses and shops rising from the foot walk. We have to pass along a road of strangely varying width, and might go right across the town from west to east – the one road having five names, Alcester Road, Greenhill Street, Wood Street, Bridge Street, and Bridge Foot – and come out on Clopton Bridge over the Avon without having any idea that we had passed through anything more than a quiet, comfortable market town of a kind not uncommon in the English Midlands.
A glance at the shop windows, with their in-numerable picture-postcards and varied souvenirs, would have shown that the town was other than it seemed. A little way on our left we should have passed the central shrine of this centre of many shrines – the birthplace of William Shakespeare – while a glance to the right down the High Street, which branches off at the point where the narrowest part of our highway of Wood Street becomes the broad Bridge Street, would give glimpses of some more of the older buildings of the town. When our traveller, whom we have presumed to be ignorant of the significance of Stratford, came to Clopton Bridge, looking downstream he would see a striking building by the waterside – a building of red brick and white stone, a building of high-pitched green-slated roof and many turrets and small gables. Such a building, in such a town, would surely pique our traveller’s curiosity, and he would find on enquiry that it is the Shakespeare Memorial. Beyond, further down the river, he would see the spire of Stratford Church rising from amid trees – the church in which Shakespeare is buried – and he would surely wish at one to linger in and about the town that had at a first glance appeared to have little that was especially attractive.
Clopton Bridge itself may well detain us. It is a fine stone structure of many arches, with low parapets, over which we have delightful scenes up and down the course of the soft-flowing Avon, the windings of which give us but short views of the water, while the low-lying meadows are backed by the greenery of Warwickshire’s ever-present trees. Looking downstream, towards the Memorial and Church, we see the old bridge is close-neighboured by another one of red brick, built for carrying a disused railway, and said to be one of the earliest of our railway bridges, a fact which may lessen our impatience at its obstructing the view downstream, and also for obstructing our view of the fine old bridge when we look upstream from the playing-fields on the left bank of the Avon.
Here it may be said that an old-time Stratford clergyman derived the name of Avon from a “British word, aufona, with them signifying as much as fluvius with us”. The river was spanned by an old wooden bridge, across which unsupported tradition says that Queen Matilda led her troops; but this was removed by one of Stratford’s more notable citizens and replaced by the current stone bridge, iron plates on which record its building and its repairing and widening in the early part of the last century. Until the widening there stood on it a stone pillar with the following sufficient story: “Sir Hugh Clopton, Knight, Lord Mayor of London, built this bridge at his own proper expense in the reign of King Henry ye Seventh”.
To the Avon we shall return. Going eastward again by Bridge Foot and Bridge Street, that we may visit the shrine associated with the memory of one who is not only Stratford’s, but England’s most famous son, we pass up the wide Bridge Street, and find the way forks on either side of plain white, many-windowed bank premises. The left road is Wood Street, by which we came from the railway station. The right is Henley Street, a short thoroughfare, two-thirds of the way along which we reach a neat and very picturesque timbered and gabled house rising, as most of the houses do in these older Stratford ways, straight from the street. This is “The Birthplace”. On either side of it is now garden ground, preserved open that the shrine may be less liable to any danger from fire, from which the town thrice suffered severely during the lifetime of Shakespeare. On the last of these occasions – July. 1614 – no fewer than fifty four dwelling-houses were destroyed, so that it is no doubt largely to those fires we owe it that there are not more of the Tudor buildings standing. Fortunately, among those spared are those most interesting.
To gain admittance to the house the necessary ticket must be obtained at the cottage immediately to the east, the office of the Trustees and Guardians of Shakespeare’s Birthplace. Though brick-fronted and much altered, this cottage was standing in the poet’s time, his neighbours there resident being of the name of Horneby.
The Birthplace itself is one of the chief shrines of the town, a place annually visited by many thousands of people from all over the world. From it’s small rooms, it’s tiny irregular staircase, we may easily imagine how comfortable citizens lived in the spacious days of great Elizabeth; in the fine collection of documents and books, signatures, mementoes, and curios, we get glimpses more directly personal to Shakespeare himself, his family, and the people whom he knew. Upstairs we are in the very room in which, on April 23rd, 1564, the poet first saw the light. Here generations of visitors scrawled their names, in accordance with a bad old habit to which Thomas Carlyle, Sir Walter Scott, and Charles Dickens fell victims. Now the autograph record of those who visit the house is duly kept in a visitor’s book provided for the purpose.
It is not possible for anyone gifted with imagination to be in these rooms unmoved – rooms in which the poet was born, in which he passed what we may well believe was a happy childhood, from which he went to the Grammar School about a quarter of a mile off, and from which he went a-courting a mile across the fields to Shottery. Of intimate knowledge of Shakespeare’s personality we may have but little, of the story of his life much may be surmise, but, here, at least, we can feel that we see rooms much as he saw them, though in place of the simple furnishings of Tudor times we have in some of the rooms the omnium gatherum of a museum. It is a museum full of interest to the student of Shakespeareana, and tempts the visitor to linger over the sight of copies of books which the poet himself might have read, over his and other old signatures to legal documents, over the celebrated “Ely” portrait of Shakespeare, over pictures, plans, and other relics of bygone Stratford-upon-Avon.
Little as we know of the details of Shakespeare’s life story, the history of his birthplace, from possessor to possessor, is fortunately complete from the time of his birth up to the purchase of the house by the nation in 1847. It is true that there have not been wanting theorists who have sought to prove that his birth did not actually take place here, but circumstantial evidence strongly supports the belief that it did. Here his father, John Shakespeare, lived, and here carried on his business of wood stapler and glover. The immediate surroundings have changed with improving conditions, for in the sixteenth century the elder Shakespeare was fined for keeping a muck-heap outside his street door! Now Henley Street is a neat and pleasant thoroughfare, though modernity is marked by a motor garage a little to the west, and passing along the street on a Saturday evening I have noticed, if not an ancient, certainly a fish-like smell from a fried-fish shop nearly opposite the Birthplace, while from the end of Henley Street have come the strains of a Salvation Army hymn. Even in Stratford men cannot live on sentiment.
Passing out at the back door of the house, we are in a garden, the guardians of which have made it a peculiarly interesting one by planting in it representatives of all flowers and trees named by the poet in his works. Here, during a September visit, I have found “the pale primrose” in full bloom, and here, earlier in the summer, are to be seen a beautiful display of those “oldfashioned flowers” and herbs which flourish unfadingly in the words of Ophelia and of Perdita:
“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance: pray you, love, remember: and there is pansies, that’s for thoughts…. There’s fennel for you and columbines: there’s a rue for you: and here’s some for me: we may call it herb of grace o’ Sundays: O, you must wear your rue with a difference. There’s a daisy: I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died”.
For you there’s rosemary, and rue, these keep
Seeming and savour all the winter long….
Here’s flowers for you;
Hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram;
The marigold that goes to bed wi’ the sun,
And with him rises weeping:… daffodils,
That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty; violets dim,
But sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes,
Or Cytherea’s breath; pale primroses,
That die unmarried ere they can behold
Bright Phoebus in his strength, a malady
Most incident to maids; bold oxlips, and
The crown-imperial; lilies of all kinds,
The flower-de-luce being one.
All these flowers of the poet’s – flowers to which he has attached epithets now familiar as themselves – will be found in the neat little garden at the back of the Birthplace. Passing through it in to Henley Street again, we retrace our way to the bank building, and thence, following the route which the schoolboy Shakespeare must have passed, sometimes perhaps –
with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school –
we go in to the short High Street, at the further end at which we see projecting the simple ugliness of the Town Hall, and beyond the grand old Guild Chapel.
Before getting so far, however, there are places to arrest our attention. Just short of the Town Hall on our right – those with a sense of humour will in passing have observed smilingly the Shakespeare Restaurant, kept by one Bacon! – is a projecting timbered building worthy of more than a momentary glance. It is a beautiful specimen of a Tudor dwelling, with its richly carved timbers, its bulging upper floors. This is known as Harvard House, because it was the home of Katherine Rogers, the mother of John Harvard, founder of the famous Harvard College at Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is an interesting fact that as Shakespeare had gone, according to tradition, from Stratford to Southwark, so Katherine Rogers, his neighbour in Warwickshire, should have married a Southwark man. It suggests that there may have been some special reason for drawing the Stratfordians who went to London to the town at the southern end of London Bridge. This attractive old house, architecturally one of the gems of Stratford, has recently and most fittingly been converted into a rendezvous for the American visitors who form a goodly proportion of those who make the pilgrimage to Stratford. Picturesque outside, the interior, with its old-world furnishings, is also well worthy of inspection.
Nearly opposite to the Rogers-Harvard house is the undistinguished, not to say wholly unworthy, Town Hall, built a hundred and fifty years ago, and illustrating the beginning of one of the least pleasing periods in English architecture. On the northern end, facing up High Street, is the statue presented by David Garrick at the conclusion of the famous “Shakespeare Jubilee” of 1769. Within the Hall are some interesting pictures, including Gainsborough’s portrait of Garrick.
Next door to the Town Hall is the Shakespeare Hotel, part of which is the “Five Gables”, a picturesque timbered building, the lower portion of which consists of shops. The rooms in this hotel have long been notable as being named, frequently with peculiar felicity, after Shakespeare’s plays. Thus the bar – parlour is “Measure for Measure”, the coffee-room is “As You Like It”, and so on.
With that lavishness in the naming of streets which cannot fail to strike a visitor, we find that High Street ended at the Town Hall, and already we are in Chapel Street, with the handsome stone tower of the old Guild Chapel a short way ahead. A little beyond the “Five Gables”, and also on the left, at the corner of Chapel Street and Chapel Lane, we reach the site of “New Place”, the house which Shakespeare purchased in his prosperity, and in which he died on April 23rd, 1616. The house passed immediately before reaching it, New Place Museum, is known as Nash’s House from having been the home of the first husband of Shakespeare’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Hall – Thomas Nash, who is not to be confounded with the Elizabethan writer of the same name.
The site of the house and the garden are fenced from the road by a low wall, surmounted by an ornate iron railing, in the decoration of which the initials “W. S.” and the poet’s and town arms are included. The railings are somewhat uglified by being picked out with gilding. A little way down Chapel Lane, at the foot of which is the Memorial, is the entrance to the pleasant and well-kept garden attached to New Place. Here a mulberry stump is described as scion of that tree long associated with Shakespeare. Hare to be seen are a pillar from the ancient Town Hall, a sculpture from before the old Shakespeare Gallery in Pall Mall, and a large stone on which are engraved verses in honour of the poet by Richard Jago. The mulberry tree planted by the poet attracted so much attention on the part of visitors when interest in Shakespeare awakened in the eighteenth century, that the un-Reverend Mr. Gastrell, who then owned New Place, “damned himself to everlasting fame” by cutting it down; and he carried his despicable vandalism further still when, a few years later, in consequence of a quarrel with the Corporation in the matter of rates, he had New Place demolished, after which he fittingly retired altogether from the town of Stratford. The mulberry tree was acquired by a local tradesman, who made of it many momentoes for Shakespeare lovers – indeed, he is accused of having made far more souvenirs than the genuine timber could have supplied. Drinking at the great Festival from a cup made of the famous tree, Garrick sang his own words:
Behold this fair goblet, ‘t was carved from the tree
Which, O my sweet Shakespeare, was planted by thee;
As a relic I kiss it, and bow at the shrine,
What comes from thy hand must be ever divine.
All shall yield to the mulberry tree,
Bend to thee,
Matchless was he
Who planted thee;
And thou, like him, immortal be!
Of Gastrell an indignant writer said many years ago: “The rabid old gentleman who destroyed Shakespeare’s mulberry tree, and in an impotent fit of bilious rage pulled the poet’s last abode to the ground, quited Stratford amidst the general execration of it’s inhabitants. This wild mischief could only have been the work of eccentricity on the very verge of madness. We pity the poor wretch capable of an act so unfeeling and senseless; for though it was, we know, the constant visible presence of the Deity which hallowed the bulwarks of Sion, and fortified her walls with salvation, ten thousand vivid recollections sanctify the deserted dwellings of the truly great, endear their earthy abodes, and hallow their relics to the hearts and imaginations of posterity.”
New Place, which had been originally built by Sir Hugh Clopton in the time of Henry the Seventh, was purchased, altered, and given its lasting fame by William Shakespeare in 1597. Before becoming the property of Mr. Gastrell, of infamous memory, it had returned to the possession of the Clopton family, and under the famous mulberry another Sir Hugh entertained Garrick, Macklin, and other notables in 1742.
When Shakespeare’s daughter, Susannah Hall, was still living at new place – she died there in 1649 – there came the troubles of the Civil War, and hither Queen Henrietta Maria came on her way to join Charles the First at Oxford in 1643, and she made her stay at New Place, as being presumably the chief residence of the town. Prince Rupert, too, was here, and for a time the quiet town was a centre of military activity, with about 5000 troops quartered in it. A year earlier the town must have been in a fine flutter of excitement, with the Battle of Edgehill taking place less than a dozen miles away. One historian says: “At this period the Queen took up her abode for about three weeks at New Place, Stratford, while Mrs. Shakespeare resided there.” The writer was evidently confusing the poet’s wife and his daughter, for Mrs. Shakespeare had died twenty years before. Stratford did not go unscathed in these troubled times, for one of the Clopton Bridge arches was destroyed, and the old Town Hall was blown up – a pillar from it, as has been said, is to be seen in the New Place garden.
Divided by the width of a turning from the site of New Place is the beautiful old Guild Chapel of the Holy Cross, and immediately beyond it is a long range of fine timbered buildings, comprising the Guild Hall, the Grammar School, and almshouses for twenty four old people. Somewhat plain inside, it’s ancient mural paintings obliterated, it is as fine specimen of fifteenth-century architecture that the old Chapel claims attention. From its tower at morning and evening during the winter is still heard the clanging of the curfew bell. Here it is supposed that Shakespeare attended public worship, as there used to be a pew in the Chapel attached to New Place.
This connection of the house with the Chapel possibly dated from the time when Sir Hugh Clopton resided there, as he was a great benefactor to the edifice, rebuilding the nave and tower. On the south side of the Chapel is the entrance to the old half-timbered Guild Hall and Grammar School – the latter being above the former. This building is supposed to have been erected about the end of the thirteenth century by Robert de Stratford, presumably for the brethren of the Holy Cross. Shakespeare associations are everywhere about us. In the great schoolroom, with open timbered roof, he is supposed to have received his education; in the Guild Hall below, it has been suggested, he may have been present when companies of stage players are known to have given their performances during the time that his father was Bailiff of the town. In the pleasant enclosure at the back of the Guild Hall we see another timbered building, known as the Pedagogue’s House. With these old buildings on either hand, and the ancient Chapel in front of us, we have the corner of Stratford that is perhaps least changed of all since Shakespeare’s time, a true coup d’oeil of Tudor England.
That Stratford Grammar School – formed certainly as early as 1424, and re-established by Edward the Sixth in 1553 – was an educational centre of some importance in the time when Shakespeare was a boy, may be gathered from the fact that the headmaster was allowed “wages” of twenty pounds a year, a circumstance which made it likely that the best men available were sure to be obtained for the post, seeing that the ordinary headmaster of the time – as at Eton – had only ten pounds. This being so, it is likely that the poet’s education was probably a better one than early theorizer’s about his life were inclined to think. An inscription marks the place at which what is supposed to have been Shakespeare’s desk stood; and it has been suggested that if – as that snapper-up of unconsidered biographical trifles, John Aubrey, records – Shakespeare was for a time a schoolmaster, it may have been here in the school in which he had been educated. It is a pleasant conjecture, but nothing more. The desk is now at the Birthplace.
Next to the Guild Hall comes a similar but somewhat lower range of half-timbered, red-tiled buildings, the Guild Almshouses, for twelve old men and twelve old women – almshouses which are described as being among the oldest and most interesting in England. The fronts of these picturesque fifteenth-century dwellings were long plastered over; but the care with which Stratford guards it’s many ancient relics has been extended to them, and the fine timber framing has been newly and properly made plain. Continuing south – the street has become Church Street from from when we left New Place – we soon turn downwards to the left into what is known as Old Town, where Dr. Hall, the poet’s son-in-law, lived, and so reach the second of the chief Shakespearean shrines of Shakespeare’s town – the church in which he is buried.
Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, is probably one of the most widely known, by pictorial representation, as it is assuredly one of the most beautiful of our churches. It’s tall spire, rising amid trees, as viewed from the meadows on the farther bank of Avon, has been represented in many paintings and in photographs without number. As we approach it from the town it is perhaps less impressive than as seen, in its cathedral-like proportions, from the left bank of the river. The approach from the road is by a short avenue of limes – “a sedate and pleasing shade”. Old elms that stood near the porch were cut down in 1871, and their wood was turned into momentoes, as that of “Shakespeare’s Mulberry Tree” had been more than a hundred years earlier.
If Stratford Church was not the burial-place of Shakespeare, it would be worthy of a visit as one of the most beautiful, as it is probably in part one of the most venerable of Midland churches. There was a church here when “Domesday Book” was compiled, but no vestige of that earlier structure remains. Sufficient antiquity is, however, claimed for Holy Trinity, for the tower is supposed to have been erected shortly after the Conquest, and the rest of the fine cruciform edifice to have been built during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Though there are many monuments of interest in the church – notably to members of the ancient Clopton family – it is in its memorials of Shakespeare and his kindred that it is attractive to the great majority of visitors, for the son of the sixteenth-century Bailiff of Stratford has become the town’s focal centre, so that it’s old benefactor and his family are of comparatively small interest. But of Sir Hugh Clopton, who built the beautiful bridge across the Avon and who owned the”Great House” (later the New Place of Shakespeare), only conjecture can point to his resting-place, and even so it is but few who trouble to enquire as to the good knight’s resting-place. It is Shakespeare’s grave and monument, and the graves of his people, in which most visitors to the church are interested. These will be found at the eastern end of the beautiful chancel. On the north wall there, near the altar, is the famous half-length figure of Shakespeare himself, with quill in hand, as in the act of writing. It is set, as it were, in an entablature with the poet’s arms and crest above, flanked by a couple of boyish figures. This monument, the work Gerard Johnson, was erected some time between the poet’s burial in 1616 and the issue of the First Folio edition of his work in 1623, as we learn from a reference made to it in the latter year. From the fact that it was erected soon after his death – and there can be little doubt by members of his family – it may well be accepted as giving us the likeness of Shakespeare nearest to him in the habit as he lived. The figure was coloured, and in 1748 John Ward, grandfather of the Kembles, had the tomb repainted and repaired from the profits of his company’s performance of “Othello” at Stratford, thus giving, as it were, a posthumous “benefit” to the great poet. In 1793 Edmund Malone obtained permission to paint the bust white, and white it remained until 1861, when the whitewash was removed, and the old colours, as far as they were traceable, restored. Fortunately an old historian of Stratford had described its original appearance: “The eyes were of a light hazel colour, and the hair and beard auburn. The dress consisted of a scarlet doublet, over which was thrown a loose black gown without sleeves. The upper part of the cushion was of a green colour, and the lower of a green colour, with gilt tassels.” Beneath the effigy of the poet is the following inscription:-
IVDICIO PYLIVM, GENIO SOCRATEM, ARTE
MARONEM, TERRA TEGIT, POPVLVS MAERET,
Stay Passenger, why goest thou so fast?
Read, if thou canst, whom envious Death hath plast,
Within this monument; Shakespeare with whome
Quick Nature dide; whose name doth deck ys Tombe
Far more then cost but page to serve his witt.
OBIIT. ANO. DOI. 1616
AETATIS 53. Die 23 AP.
Within the chancel rail is the actual grave of the poet, under a stone inscribed with the famous lines traditionally said to have been penned by Shakespeare himself to prevent the removal of his remains to the charnel house, which was long attached to the church, and contained a vast collection of human fragments. This charnel house was only taken down in 1800. It is also said that to prevent the likelihood of anyone’s risking the curse, the grave was dug seventeen feet deep. The lines run:
GOOD FREND FOR IESVS SAKE FORBEARE,
TO DIGG THE DVST ENCLOASED HEARE:
BLESTE BE YE MAN YT SPARES THES STONES,
AND CVRST BE HE YT MOVES MY BONES.
It was not until 1694 that these lines were said to have been written by Shakespeare himself. The tradition, it may be surmised, arose from the use of the words “my bones”, for it is not easy to believe that the great poet really did write such doggerel. It may well be that he had expressed horror of the custom, in accordance with which graves were redug, and the bones of their old occupants removed to the charnel house to make room for new tenants, and that his family had his wishes put into the lasting form, in which they are now familiar. Between Shakespeare’s grave and the north wall, on which is the monument, is the gravestone of his wife, on which their son-in-law, Dr. Hall, is supposed to have written the Latin memorial lines that follow in inscription: “Here lyeth Shakespeare, who depted this life the 6th day of August 1623 being of the age of 67 yeares”. On the other side of Shakespeare’s grave are the graves of Susannah Hall (1649), of her husband Dr. John Hall (1635), and of their son-in-law (1647). The inscription placed on Susannah Hall’s gravestone is worthy of quotation, because it suggests that, “witty above her sex”, she may have inherited some of her great father’s qualities, and also because it has been thought that possibly the lines may have been written by her daughter Elizabeth (later Lady Barnard), the last of Shakespeare’s direct descendants:
HEERE LYETH YE BODY OF SVSANNA WIFE TO: