Part VI

New place

Shakespearye Player: rough sketch for the proposed


Therefore Am I of an Honourable House

In the early days of May 1597, Shakespeare purchased one of the largest houses in Stratford. It was called New Place and had been erected at the end of the fifteenth century by the most celebrated former resident of the town, Sir Hugh Clopton. Its ownership set the seal on Shakespeare’s standing in the place of his birth. Its frontage was some 60 feet, its depth some 70 feet, and it reached a height of 28 feet. Shakespeare’s new house was made of brick upon a stone foundation, gabled, and with bay windows on the eastern or garden side. The topographer, John Leland, had called it a “pretty house of brick and timber,”1 and to the people of Stratford it was known as the “Great House.” As a boy Shakespeare had passed it every day, on his way to school, and it impressed itself on his imagination as a most desirable residence. It represented his childhood dream of prosperity. It was exactly the same spirit that persuaded Charles Dickens to buy Gad’s Hill Place in Kent; that house was for him, too, the measure of his childhood longing for success and notability. “If you work hard,” John Dickens had told his son, “you may one day own such a house.” These were perhaps also the words of John Shakespeare.

It was on the corner of Chapel Street and Chapel Lane, a commodious residence with its servants’ quarters at the front looking over Chapel Street; behind these was an enclosed courtyard and the main house. It was a prosperous, but not necessarily a quiet, neighbourhood. Chapel Street had many good houses, but Chapel Lane was squalid and malodorous; there were pigsties and common dunghills there, together with mud-walls and thatched barns. New Place itself stood immediately opposite the Falcon hostelry, and the local cheese market took place just outside the front door. Further down the street, on the other side of the lane, was the guild chapel and schoolroom where he had spent his early years. He had come back to the very site of his childhood.

He purchased the house and grounds for “sixty pounds in silver,” representing the first large investment he had ever made. In this he differed from his theatrical colleagues who tended to make their first investments in London property for themselves and their families. It is an indication that Shakespeare still readily and naturally identified himself with his native town; in London he remained, to use a Greek term, a resident alien. It may be doubted, however, whether he was really at home anywhere.

The deeds mention this sum of £60 but the complication of Elizabethan property negotiations is such that the actual cost was probably twice as much. Before Shakespeare bought it, however, the property had been described as “in great ruin and decay, and unrepaired, and it doth still remain unrepaired.” It was going cheap, in other words, and Shakespeare saw a likely opportunity for investment. According to a Clopton descendant Shakespeare “repair’d and modell’d it to his own mind.”2 He ordered stone to fulfil his vision. The building work must have been extensive, therefore, and almost instinctively found its way into the play he was writing at the time. In the second part of Henry IV there are three references to the building of a house, with its plots and models and costs.

It comprised at least ten rooms (there were ten fireplaces that were taxed at a later date), with two gardens and two barns; a later reference to two orchards may mean that Shakespeare and his family converted part of the gardens to more practical use. A similar if less spacious house, two doors away from Shakespeare’s dwelling, contained a hall, a parlour bedchamber, a “great chamber” and two other chambers beside a kitchen and cellar. Was there also in New Place a study, or perhaps even a library, for the master of the house? On this, of course, the public records are silent. But if Shakespeare now returned more often to Stratford, as some people surmise, then he would have required a place to read and to write.

He enlarged the garden by buying additional land and by demolishing a cottage. There were two ancient wells here, which can still be seen on the now empty site. Shakespeare was at ease in these surroundings, on his frequent or infrequent returns to Stratford. It is very likely that he owned a copy of John Gerard’s The Herball or generall historie of plantes, which was published in the year he purchased New Place. In that compendium of garden lore there is a reference to a blue-petalled speedwell that the Welsh called“fluellen.” Fluellen was the name he gave to the Welsh captain in Henry V. He is also supposed to have planted a mulberry tree in the garden, from which in later years an inexhaustible supply of wood was provided to cater for “tourist” items such as paperweights and walking sticks. If he did indeed plant a mulberry tree, he would have done so twelve years after the purchase of the house; in 1609 a Frenchman named Verton distributed young mulberry plants through the midland counties at the request of James I. There were also fruitful grape-vines here. A few years after Shakespeare’s death a local dignitary asked to be given from New Place “2 or 3 of the fairest of those budes on some few shutes of the last yeares vines.”

The two barns were used to store corn and barley although, in these years of harvest failures and short supplies, Shakespeare might be deemed guilty of hoarding such materials. The year of his house purchase was the fourth year of bad harvests, and the grain shortage was such that its price had risen fourfold. Shakespeare was always an astute businessman. Some historians have described him as one of the first “venture capitalists” in an emerging “market economy,” ready to trade in cash or credit, but this is perhaps too theoretical an interpretation for what must have been for him a sensible speculation. A few months after his purchase of New Place he was recorded as hoarding 10 quarters, or 80 bushels, of malt; this was no doubt used for the purposes of brewing by Mrs. Shakespeare or her daughters, but it provoked censure.

There is a curious story concerning the Underhills, a family of Catholic recusants from whom Shakespeare bought the house. William Underhill was a devoted Catholic who was often fined and “presented” for recusancy. He seems to have been forced to sell New Place as a result of debt, which again is testimony to Shakespeare’s business acumen rather than to any religious sympathy on his part. Two months after relinquishing New Place, Underhill died in mysterious circumstances; it transpired that he had been poisoned by his son and heir, Fulke Underhill, who was later executed for the crime. By strange chance a former owner of New Place, William Bott, was accused of murdering his daughter by poison on the premises; he gave her ratsbane, according to a witness, and she “swelled to death.”3 It can be surmised that Shakespeare was not superstitious about the possibility of unlucky or unhappy houses.

That house itself has long gone, having been levelled to the ground by a subsequent owner who was tired of unannounced visitors coming to his door and asking to view the surroundings of the late dramatist. But there survives one description from a small boy of Stratford in the late seventeenth century; he recalled “a small kind of Green Court before they entered the House … fronted with brick, with plain windows, Consisting of common panes of Glass set in lead, as at this time.”4 There are also some early eighteenth-century sketches, the work of George Vertue, who seems to be relying on the testimony of the descendants of Shakespeare’s sister. The principal drawing does indeed show a dwelling that might easily be described as the “Great House.” Certainly it was grand enough for Henrietta Maria, the wife of Charles I, to keep her court here for three weeks in the summer of 1643. We might see it at this time, and no doubt before, as a stronghold for monarchists. It should be recalled that Shakespeare was only thirty-three years old when he became the owner of this substantial property. His advance had been rapid indeed. New Place should be seen, then, in connection with the grant of arms to Shakespeare’s family. It was a way of demonstrating the dramatist’s gentility to his neighbours. It banished the normal associations surrounding a London player, and confirmed his status as one of the richest of Stratford’s inhabitants.

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