Let us suppose – as Geoffrey Marsh does in his TLS article of April 19 – that Shakespeare moved into the parish of St Helen’s Bishopsgate before 1594; and that he was staying in property owned by the Leathersellers Hall. It is exciting stuff. We can pin the elusive poet to a specific area for a five year stint or more, and the composition of certain masterpieces therein. But a riot of questions is prompted.
It is surprising that Marsh does not suggest how or why Shakespeare might have ended up staying with the Leathersellers. His father John Shakespeare, a glover, may well have had friends in London who lived with the Leathersellers, and would have had contact with the organisation himself. Older Shakespeare names are on the records. (I first heard this theory from Jerome Farrell who is the archivist at Leathersellers Hall today). It is a charming thought that Shakespeare’s friend and publisher Richard Field was also the son of a tanner, and that Christopher Marlowe was the son of a cobbler. We have much to thank the leather-workers for.
Marsh believes the move to St Helens was a mark of Shakespeare’s prosperity. However, with paternal help from professional connections, Shakespeare may have found modest accommodation in Great St Helen Street before he began accumulating serious wealth. I tend to imagine a writerly bolthole. For comfort he could retreat to Stratford or stay in the great houses of his distinguished friends, the Earl of Southampton, the Earl and Countess of Pembroke, et al. It could even mean he was based in St Helens for the better part of ten years. (His other London residencies were seemingly short-lived: Shoreditch in the parish of St Leonards; the Liberty of the Clink at Southwark in the parish of St Saviour’s; Silver Street in the parish of St Olave’s; and the Blackfriars Gatehouse in the parish of St Andrew by the Wardrobe).
Marsh’s supposition is that Shakespeare moved into the parish before the rebarbative Lord Mayor of London for 1594-95, John Spencer, who acquired Richard III’s former home of Crosby Hall. Spencer was a classic Richard III-style machiavel – in the flesh! – a ruthlessly self-aggrandising member of the mercantile elite. He personified civic antitheatricalism describing Elizabethan theatres as ‘places of meeting for all vagrant persons and maisterles men that hang about the Citie, theeves, horsestealers, whoremoongers, coozeners, connycatching persones, practizers of treason and other such lyke.’ As Sheriff of London in 1584 he wrongfully imprisoned three of the illustrious Bassano brothers, musicians of the court and the theatres. Enter Shakespeare’s neighbour from hell! No sooner had Spencer moved into the same parish as the genius of Elizabethan theatre than he began using his powers to clamp down on it.
However it is surprising that in a lengthy TLS article, Marsh does not mention the famous counter-attack. Shakespeare and his company The Lord Chamberlain’s Men were neither helpless nor ‘maisterless’. Their patron was one of the most powerful men in the realm, a privy councillor, and first cousin of Queen Elizabeth: Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon and Lord Chamberlain. In an amazing pre-emptive strike, Carey wrote a letter on Oct 8 1594, to the outgoing Lord Mayor Richard Martin, asking permission for Lord Chamberlain’s men to play within the city during the winter season. The object was twofold: 1) to find an indoor winter theatre; 2) to cement a deal in advance of Spencer’s mayoralty. ‘After my hearty commendations where my now company of players have been accustomed for the better exercise of their qualities, & for the service of Her Majesty if need so, require to play this winter time within the City at the Cross Keys in Gracechurch Street. These are to require & pray your Lordship the time being such as thanks be to god there is now no danger of the sickness) to permit and suffer them so to do.’
The ploy didn’t work. Spencer – no NIMBY – spent his year in charge and succeeding years trying to abolish theatre not only within the city but within the liberties and suburbs also.. His series of letters culminate in a demand for a ‘final suppressing’ of the art. Spencer, not Elizabeth, may have been the figure behind the line from Sonnet 66: ‘And art made tongue-tied by authority.’ Thankfully, playhouses began flourishing again after the antitheatrical nadir of 1597 and humanism defeated puritanism for the time being.
Finally, Marsh failed to mention another intimidating neighbour at St Helen’s. Henry Maunder appears in the same lay subsidies as Shakespeare and must have lived close to the poet. He is famous, or infamous, as the man who arrested Christopher Marlowe.