Brand new research has finally pinpointed where the world’s most famous playwright William Shakespearelived in London in the 1590s, the time he was writing plays such as Romeo and Juliet. Geoffrey Marsh, theatre historian, Director of the V&A’s Department of Theatre and Performance and co-curator of the game changing David Bowie Is exhibition has made the astonishing discovery after years of meticulous research.
Marsh’s quest began a decade ago when the foundations of The Theatre, which predated The Globe as Shakespeare’s workplace, were discovered in Shoreditchin 2008. His thoughts turned to where exactly Shakespeare was living in London when his plays were performed at this earlier playhouse, originally built in 1576.
It was previously known that Shakespeare lived in the parish of St. Helens, now near to Liverpool Street Station as his name was listed there as a tax payer in 1597/98. However, the location of his home during the 1590s has never been identified – until now.
The Company of Leathersellers, the guild that organisedthe Elizabethan leather trade owned a large part of the parish Shakespeare resided in. This took Marsh to their extensive archives where almost 500 years later the Leathersellers had, remarkably, preserved a record of their tenants stretching back to the 1550s. Marsh realisedthat in these papers could lay critical information – the answer to the mystery.
The records are often difficult to decipher, schematic and tricky to interpret. Spelling is erratic with names often spelt different ways in the same documents. Marsh however identified that amongst the Leathersellers’ tenants in 1598 were John Prymme/Pryn and John Robinson the Younger, who appear immediately above Shakespeare’s name in the 1598 tax record. Cross-referencing different types of records, suggested the individuals were listed in order of the location of their homes.
Marsh was able to pinpoint where these two lived, next to John Hatton, the Clark of the Leathersellers. All the evidence points to Shakespeare occupying an adjacent property or possibly sub-letting rooms in this cluster of properties which overlooked the churchyard of St. Helens.
Geoffrey Marsh said, “The place where Shakespeare lived in London gives us a more profound understanding of the inspirations for his work and life. Within a few years of migrating to London from Stratford, he was living in one of the wealthiest parishes in the City,alongside powerful public figures, wealthy international merchants, society doctors and expert musicians. The merchants had connections across Europe and the doctors were linked to the latest progressive thinking in universities in Italy and Germany. Living in what wasone of the power locales of London would have also enhanced Shakespeare’s status as he developed his career, sought a family coat of arms and planned to buy an impressive and expensive house in Stratford.”
Mr. B. Brown, Warden of the Leathersellers, said, “We are delighted that this information has come to light. The Company has carefully maintained its St. Helens properties for 476 years to help fund our charities. Our company livery hall, was recently rebuilt on the original site acquired in 1543. We always remember that Shakespeare’s father was a glover in Stratford-upon-Avon and would have spent his life working with leather. As a child, William would have been steeped in the culture of buying, preparing, cutting and stitching leather.”
Photos1. The original 1598 St. Helens tax record, listing John Robinson the Younger, Prymme/Pryn and William Shakespeare (National Archives)2. The original 1598 Leatherseller rent record listing John Robinson the Younger and John Prymme/Pryn(Leathersellers Company Archive)3. Agas’ Map of London. Bishopsgate detail showing location of William Shakespeare’s Lodgings‘Copperplate’ map of London, c. 1553-59, showing St.Helen’s church with the graveyard, well head and gatehouse to the west (left) marked S: Elen. In the 1590s, Shakespeare was probably living somewhere in the row of buildings to the north(above). Although a unique record, this map should only be seen as a rough sketch, not an accurate representation of every building. (London Metropolitan Archives, City of London) (Collage: the London Picture Archive ref 32261)4. Goad Insurance Plan Vol III. Goad fire insurance map of 1886 showing the St. Helen’s area. It shows how many of medieval and Elizabethan house plot boundaries survived until the last century. St. Helen’s Churchyard, its graveyard and its gatehouse have remained constant features of the area’s topography for 500 years. (London Metropolitan Archives, City of London) (Collage: the London Picture Archive, ref34534)