Our Winter Ride: PART III

Saturday, December 12


In case my last sentence in PART II didn’t help you locate our next stop it’s Shakespeare’s home where we headed. With all of the fame he engendered beginning during his lifetime, his hometown is a bit like an amusement park, albeit a tasteful and cultural one. And, we happily went along for the ride.

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This is the short and long of it…

Our first stop was his childhood home where his parents John and Mary lived, the largest one at that time on Henley Street. His father is painted as quite a wheeler-dealer who didn’t just make gloves but also bought and sold commodities and even became a Bailiff, the highest public office in Stratford. Shakespeare grew up here, the third eldest of eight children, and returned to this house with his wife Anne Hathaway for the first five years of their marriage.

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The house itself is quite small inside and included John’s glove-making workshop.

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We were fortunate to meet one of the guides who held court in the workshop. He thoroughly entertained us with stories of the house including the etymology of phrases deriving from ‘board’ (for example, the chairman of the board came about due to the leader of a meeting sitting in the chair at one end of a table comprised of a board atop a stand… other attendants would sit on benches on either side of the board table). We also learned about medieval architecture such as why many homes back then were so gloomy:  windows had shutters versus glass windows; and, the windows were opened to let smoke out, not air in, which is why they used to be called ‘wind holes’).

The guide must have liked our group for he followed us upstairs to the bedrooms where a prized stained glass window once hung. Now, it’s behind glass itself as it features visitors’ scratched names. He pointed out famous ones such as Tennyson’s and Sir Walter Scott’s. Unfortunately our photo didn’t highlight these names but here’s one of the window itself:

Large birth place window

I found myself fascinated by this guy’s tutorial on medieval architecture and the inhabitants. At times I felt I’ll not budge an inch this guide was so entrancing. I easily could have followed him around all day begging for more information on the how’s and why’s of these buildings, let alone any tidbits tossed out about the inhabitants.

William Shakespeare, like his father, was also quite a businessman. William did become famous during his time and used his fame to create wealth, one venture being converting part of his childhood home into the Maidenhead Inn (later the Swan and Maidenhead Inn) when his father died in 1601. Shakespeare’s eldest daughter Suzanne inherited it followed by her only child, Elizabeth, on her mother’s death.

Elizabeth, Shakespeare’s only grandchild (1608-1670), married twice but had no children; so, upon her death, her aunt, Joan Hart, Shakespeare’s only living sibling, inherited it.

For 250 years, until 1847, it remained in the Hart family. At that time a rumor sprung up that P.T. Barnum was planning on transporting the house to New York. He had toured England in 1844 with Tom Thumb and, during that time, also visited Stratford-on-Avon. Later he professed interest in purchasing Shakespeare’s home to add to his collection and show. A British group, including Charles Dickens, formed the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and raised enough funds to purchase it for £3,000 at public auction. Today the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust covers five homes associated with Shakespeare’s time in Stratford-on-Avon.

We left his home and walked down the crowded streets to the Harvard House.

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This home was rebuilt by Thomas Rogers in 1596 after a fire destroyed parts of Stratford. It’s one of the reasons it has a tile roof (versus thatch) and a fire escape hatch as delays have dangerous ends.

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A hook to pull thatch down off a burning roof:

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As a successful butcher and corn & cattle merchant, Rogers managed to build a substantial home, one we had all to ourselves as we climbed the stairs to deluxe rooms. Compared to Shakespeare’s home, the house seemed palatial with tall ceilings on the ground floor and some of the original paint decorating the plastered wattle (woven wooden lattices)-and-daub (animal dung, earth, clay and straw) walls.

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We also saw a 1570 wool and silk tapestry panel, probably used as a cushion cover. [Reminded us of Judy’s (Max’s sister’s) interest in weaving, hence a photo of it :)]

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The home also featured a rare stained glass decorated with some plants known at that time.

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If you’re wondering why it’s called the Harvard House:  Roger’s grandson John Harvard, married Ann Sadler and emigrated to Newtowne, Massachusetts Bay Colony, where he worked as a preacher and teaching elder. He died of tuberculosis in 1638. Before he died he wanted to contribute to the Colony’s fund to build a college, so he bequeathed £750 (over £3 million today) and his library of 250 books.

The powers that be honored him by renaming Newtowne “Cambridge” where John had attended university, and the new college “Harvard.”

A few blocks away we entered Shakespeare’s daughter Suzanna’s home where she lived with her husband Dr. John Hall.

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Now this felt luxurious compared to previous two homes. It was furnished from that time period including dish ware, paintings, even Dr. Hall’s pharmacy filled with jars that would have contained herbal remedies from their garden.

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Onward to Holy Trinity Church where Shakespeare was christened (1564), possibly married (1582) and buried (1616) along with his wife Anne (1556-1623). His three children, Suzanna (1583-1649) and twins Hammet (1585-1596) and Judith (1585-1662) were baptized here as well.

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Just a side note about his children, Suzanna was known for being clever. Her intelligence and marriage to a prosperous doctor (interestingly, his detailed medical records reveal he developed a treatment for scurvy made from asorbic-high, local plants and grasses over 100 years before remedies were widely known) created a rich life for herself and family.

Shakespeare’s only son, Hammet, and second daughter, Judith, were named after close friends of William’s, the local baker and his wife. Unfortunately, Hammet died at age 11 and Judith had a sad life thanks to her marriage to a local vintner, Thomas Quiney. They were excommunicated because Thomas didn’t obtain the necessary license to wed during Lent, and later he was charged and found guilty of carnal copulation. Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall. In short, Judith didn’t have the best of times and her tragedies also caused a lot of pain to her father, changing his will to protect Judith from her husband.

Back to the church… there is a wooden bust that is lauded as being the only true representation of Shakespeare since it was put in place during his wife and daughter’s lifetime. However, repainting of the bust over the years means the original painted features and details have been lost.

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The church also features a sanctuary knocker where someone could escape pursers for 37 days, similar to the one at Durham Cathedral.

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With it becoming twilight we hurried back to the car park (we had only put in three hours and were over by five minutes, but, as good luck would have it, no ticket was attached to our windshield). We drove just out of town to Anne Hathaway’s cottage. It was located in a beautiful garden setting that would have been a leasehold during her parents’ time.

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Here, Anne grew up, the eldest of eight children. What I found very unusual is she was eight years older than Shakespeare, which was rare for that time (and in today’s world, too). However, their fathers were both bailiffs at one time so possibly William got to know Anne when the families visited one another; and, who knows? Maybe he had a crush on the older sister Anne? Anyhow, she ended up pregnant, and William’s father had to quickly get the priest to shorten the posting of the bans to two weeks from the typical three. Susanna was born six months later.

During their marriage, as good luck would have it, William became wealthy first as a successful playwright and theatrical operator then as the writer and presenter of his own plays. However, there is no record of Anne visiting and living with William in London while he worked as an actor. She remained at Henley Street with her in-laws and later moved into New Place, one of the biggest houses in town, which Shakespeare purchased in 1596. This entitled Anne to a very comfortable lifestyle in Stratford.

We were welcomed by a young guide who relayed wonderful stories about the house and the Hathaways. Anne’s ancestors actually lived in the house until 1892 when purchased by the Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust mentioned above.

The guide told us the Hathaways use to give tours embellishing a bit. They claimed that a settle (high-backed bench) by the kitchen fireplace was where Shakespeare wooed Anne. They then would carve off a piece to sell as a souvenir. Others must have had a difficult time believing that for the bench still stands fairly intact, which just proves the better part of valour is discretion.

At least he must have walked on these original floors in the main part of the house (The guide told us folk have actually kissed the floor but Max opted for a less familiar touch.)

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Upstairs a four-poster bed could be where Anne was born as well as the ‘second-best bed’ bequeathed by Shakespeare to his wife. As the guide explained this isn’t as demeaning as it sounds because beds were a prized piece of furniture, with the best ones generally used for guests while the plainer ones would be the husband-and-wife’s, thus having more sentiment attached to it and more valuable to the surviving spouse.

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Perhaps William lulled Anne to sleep with a verse:  “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate”, then woke her in the morning whispering in her ear “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, rounded with a little sleep.” To which she may have responded “I have not slept a wink” due to his snoring.

If anyone would like a quick read about Shakespeare’s time, Bill Bryson’s SHAKESPEARE describes the setting in which this writer lived. As Bryson states, there is very little known about Shakespeare’s life, which wasn’t unusual back then (author Ben Johnson’s date of birth, names of parents, number of children is unknown, and architect Inigo Jones’ first 30 years on earth are a complete mystery). Instead of creating a cast of assumptions regarding this famous playwright’s life, Bryson provides the living background (from architectural to dietary) in which Shakespeare operated.

It was dark by the time we left for our B&B outside of town but we did catch a glimpse of the beautiful Hathaway gardens. Here I thought I like this place and willingly could waste my time in it.

Ahh, can one desire too much of a good thing? I think not.

Next, a prominent location for any solstice watchers.

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