Shakespeare’s Grand Tour (pt1)

1 – The Stanleys

Most people on the planet have heard of William Shakespeare, England’s finest poet & the writer of a sequence of such brilliant plays, they shall remain in the human consciouness for an eternity.  One of the great pleasures of his story is that he rose, barely educated, from a Warwickshire backwater, to become the greatest genius of the land & a permanent fixture at the royal court. More than any other man the Swan of Avon has helped to forge the English identity, his natural & creative genius improving & modernizing our language; while at the same time he invented, fermented & cemented a theatrical tradition still thriving to this day.




Since his death in 1616, his fame has grown exponentially, resulting in a vast amount of Shakesperean literature,  which in these our common days has become a mighty & fractious battleground. Leo Daugherty postulates, ‘that most of the “warfare” emanates from scholars and critics deeply entrenched in ideology far more than in commitment to good evidence.’  The main field of operations for this warfare surrounds an academic world has shook their head in disbelief at this rise, often declaring it must have been some university-educated nobleman who had written the plays. This has seen the disintegration of the ‘Stratfordian’ Shakespeare, & the promulgation of a series of candidates to whom has been deflected more than a century of critical scholarship. Contenders include Christopher Marlowe, despite the fact he was stabbed to death in 1593, & Edward De Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, who died in 1604. The latter is also placed by Francis Meres alongside Shakespeare as being among the great writers of the age…in the same breath!

The best for Comedy amongst vs bee Edward, Earle of Oxforde, Doctor Gager of Oxforde, Master Rowley, once a rare scholler of learned Pembrooke Hall in Cambridge, Maister Edwardes, one of Her Maiesties Chappell, eloquent and wittie Iohn Lilly, Lodge, Gascoyne, Greene, Shakespeare, Thomas Nash, Thomas Heywood, Anthony Mundye, our best plotter, Chapman, Porter, Wilson, Hathway, and Henry Chettle.

Each of the guys above represents a different candidate for Shakespeare

Despite Shakespeare’s growing fame, hardly anyone bothered to ascertain any of the actual details of his life. The first proper attempt was made in the 1660’s by John Aubrey, who included a short gossipy biography of Shakespeare in his ‘Short Lives.‘ Another five decades would pass before somebody else tried to flesh out Aubrey’s work; the future poet-laureate, Nicholas Rowe (1674-1718), who had taken on the task of ‘modernizing’ Shakespeare into the English language of his day. Combining Rowe & Aubrey gives us the bare bones of our historical Shakespeare, a scrappy handful of unlikely anecdotes into which we can stitch a few ‘official’ details such as christening records, legal affidavits & his Will.


Will Shakespeare's Will
Will Shakespeare’s Will


One of the enduring Shakesperian conundrums concerns the period 1585-92 – the so-called ‘Lost Years’ – a lengthy academic wilderness which tells us nothing about the man – he might as well have been on the moon! All we know is that at the beginning of the 1585 he seems to be a simple family man in Stratford, but only seven years later he is setting London alight with the first blasts of his amazing plays.  The occasion was the first performance by Lord Strange’s Men of ‘Henry VI,’ at the Rose theatre, on the 3rd March 1592. Takings for the performance were £3 6sh 8p, which outdid Christopher Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, played in the Rose the previous week, by almost a full pound. Shakespeare was now the star & darling of the London literary scene, but what journey had he made from Stratford for him ever to have done so?  Of this conundrum, Bill Bryson writes, ‘There is not a more tempting void in literary history, nor more eager hands to fill it.’

The answer to this mystery, I believe, must lie in his earliest plays, for poetry should be seen as a reflective mirror which stores certain biographical details of a poet’s life. Like all art, poetry grows naturally out of accumulated materielle, to which is added an invidual poet’s personality & technique. Their creations should be seen as the fragrant flowers of a bush, the roots of which are buried deep under the earth. By following these roots to their sources of nourishment, we can slowly create a picture of the poet’s unseen life, the one that lives beneath the surface. Skimming through the title pages of the plays, one soon notices that many are set on Continental Europe, & in particlar Italy. It makes sense that a great poet such as Shakespeare should have visited the land of Virgil, Dante, Petrach  Tasso, for it is the Italian influence that raises English poetry to its highest pitch, as when Robert Browning sang, ‘Open my heart and you will see / Graved inside of it, ‘Italy!

In his Italian plays, Shakespeare shows a curious attention to both topographical & cultural detail, which has led a number of scholars to claim he actually visited the country. In response, most other academivs highlight the unlikeliness of this actually happening; Shakespeare was of yeoman stock, & could not have possibly afforded the incredible cost of an extended European adventure. These ‘Grand Tours’ were partaken only by the very rich, in particular young aristocrats wanting to complete their education by visiting foreign ‘academes,’ & basking in the natural beauties of the Continent; whether it be the delights of scenic scenes, or the bosom of some pretty Latino damsel. To appease both camps, the logical conclusion would be to place Shakespeare in the company of one of these young aristocrats. This naturally leaves us looking for someone who;

(i) Toured the continent between 1585 & 1592…

(ii) Is connected to the young Shakespeare

There is one wealthy traveller in particular who fits the bill, William Stanley, the Sixth Earl of Derby, who in his early twenties conducted a European tour between 1585 & 1587. Most scholars suggest that Shakespeare moved to London about the year 1588, which fits in perfectly with Stanley’s time frame. There is also the fact that the first company of players ever connected to a Shakesperean play were the ‘Lord Strange’s Men,‘ named after Ferdinando Stanley (a.k.a. Lord Strange), William Stanley’s elder brother! The theatrical tradition flowed powerfully through the Stanleys, at whose family seat in Liverpool, Knowsley House, were performed a great many plays by the touring companies of Elizabethan England.


William Stanley
William Stanley


Connecting  William Stanley to Shakespeare begins in the Stratford Grammar School where our young Will would have studied. In 1579, when Shakespeare was turning 15, a new headmaster took over the school, a certain John Cottam, whose family rented a  Lancashire property at Dilworth in Ribchester, a few miles NE of Preston.  The owners of said property were the Hoghtons of nearby Hoghton Tower, of whom a certain Alexander made a will which mentions a ‘William Shakeshafte.’

Item. It is my mind and will that the said Thomas Hoghton of Brynescoules my brother shall have all my instruments belonging to music, and all manner of play clothes if he be minded to keep and do keep players.

And if he will not keep and maintain players then it is my mind and will that Sir Thomas Hesketh knight shall have the same instruments and play clothes.

And I most heartly require the said Sir Thomas to be friendly unto Fluke Gyllome and William Shakeshafte now dwelling with me and either to take them into his service or else to help them to some good master as my trust is he will

Spears have long wooden shafts right, & the two names could well represent the same person. Honigmann notes that in the Court rolls of College St Mary Warwick (1541-42), the poet’s grandfather, Richard, ‘seems to be both Shakstaff and Shakeschafte, as well as Shakspere …in the Snitterfield manor records.’ If this is so, the young Shakespeare would have entered the service of Alexander Houghton before 1581, & with one of the legates of Alexander Houghton’s will being Stratford grammar school’s headmaster at that time, John Cottam, we gain excellent background support for Shakespeare’s relocation to Lancashire.

Oblique support for the Shakespeare-Hoghton connection comes through John Weever’s Epigrammes (1599), in which the poet ingratiates himself with a literary clique centred upon Thomas Houghton’s brother, Sir Richard, & also dedicates this delectable sonnet to Shakespeare.

Honey-tongued Shakespeare, when I saw thine issue
I swore Apollo got them, and none other,
Their rosy-tainted features clothed in tissue,
Some heaven-born goddess said to be their mother.
Rose-cheekt Adonis with his amber tresses,
Fair fire-hot Venus charming him to love her,
Chaste Lucretia virgine-like her dresses,
Proud lust-stung Tarquine seeking still to prove her:
Romea-Richard; more, whose names I know not,
Their sugred tongues, and power attractive beauty
Say they are Saints, although that Sts they show not
For thousands vows to them subjective dutie:
They burn in love thy children Shakespear let them
Go, wo thy Muse more Nymphish brood beget them.


John Weever
John Weever


The Epigrammes also include an elegy on the death of the death of Ferdinando Stanley, whose family owned another stately seat called Lathom Hall, just to the south of Rufford Old Hall, the seat of Thomas Hesketh. That Shakespeare was taken on by  Hesketh has no official record, but a family tradition dating to at least 1799 says that he acted at Rufford Old Hall. The Hesketh’s extremely close proximity to the Stanleys provides us with the vital link between that great northern family & Shakespeare.  There is a record in 1587 of ‘Sir thomas hesketh plaaiers,’ in the Earl of Derby’s Household Book, performing at Knowsley, which shows the Hesketh’s providing entertainment for the Stanleys. The household books are lost for the early 1580s, but it is tempting to imagine the Stanleys being struck by Shakespeare’s prodigious talent, & inviting him into their private circle.



By January 1585 I believe Shakespeare was included in the great entourage which accompanied the 4th Earl of Derby (William Stanley’s father) on his visit to Paris where he would give the French King the Order of the Garter.  There are several manuscripts extant which contain a list of the leading members of the entourage, one of whom was a steward called Thomas Arderne – the cousin of Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arderne! During the visit to France, Thomas Arderne was accompanied by two un-named ‘staff,’ one of whom could well have been Shakespeare. Not long previously,  earlier in January 1585, Shakespeare’s twins, Hamnet & Judith were born, whose entry in the Church records sees the moment when Shakespeare’s ‘lost years’ truly begin. Yet, as these coming blogposts shall prove, the lost years are very much anchored in the doings of the Stanley family, beginning with the 4th Earls visit to France.

Elias Ashmole, in 1672, wrote, ‘on the 26th of January, the Earl, with his Train, passed from London to Gravesend, where taking Post-Horses they rid to Sittingborne, and from thence to Dover.‘  A German traveller at the time, Paul Hentzner, describes the castle built by Hwenry VIII which still dominates the town to this day.

Upon a rock, which on its right side is almost every where a precipice, a very extensive castle rises to a surprising height, in size like a little city, extremely well fortified & thick set with towers, and seems to threaten the sea beneath, Matthew Paris calls is the door & key of England. The ordinary people have taken it into their heads that it was built by Julius Ceasar

That Shakespeare saw Dover with his own eyes can be discerned from his accurate description of Samphire-gathering as found in King Lear, as in, ‘halfway down hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade.’ Samphire is a local delicacy of Dover, a fleshy plant which grows on the cliffs. Gerard’s ‘Great Herbal’ (1597) says of the delicacy, ‘the leaves kept in pickle and eaten in salads with oil & vinegar is a pleasant sauce for a meat.’

The entourage contained over 250 men –  & would have needed a number of ships to transport them across the English Channel. Shakespeare must have been inspired by the moment, & his memory of the embarking fleet could well have been the inspiration for a segment of Henry V, which describes the ‘well-appointed king…’

Embark his royalty; and his brave fleet
 With silken streamers the young Phoebus fanning:
 Play with your fancies, and in them behold
 Upon the hempen tackle ship-boys climbing;
 Hear the shrill whistle which doth order give
 To sounds confused; behold the threaden sails,
 Borne with the invisible and creeping wind,
 Draw the huge bottoms through the furrow’d sea,
 Breasting the lofty surge: O, do but think
 You stand upon the ravage and behold
 A city on the inconstant billows dancing;
 For so appears this fleet majestical
(HV – 3-chorus)


The Embarkation at Dover (1545)
The Embarkation at Dover (1545)



As Shakespeare crossed the English Channel, he would have gazed wide-eyed with wonder as the Earl’s fleet shot across the choppy green waters to France. Beyond the now ever-dwindling white cliffs of Dover, the England Shakespeare was leaving behind is recorded in a despatch found in the Venetian archives, written in 1585 by Giovanni Francesco Moresini, the Venetian ambassador to Constantinople.

The true description of England & its present State. The circumference of the island of England is 3,500 miles. It is most powerful in its infinite number of warlike inhabitants. It has thirty-nine counties full of cities, forts & villages. In the City of London alone there are three hundred thousand warriors always ready. It is rich in all kinds of fruits, & in mines of silver, tin, copper, lead, iron, sulphur, saltpetre. That part which does not feed horses or other beasts, yields crops or metals, so that there is no part of it impossible for mans use. All kinds of animals abound, noble horses, bulls, chiefly because there are no wolves, sheeps with wool like silk, from which they weave cloth of all sorts. The workmen are able masters of every craft. There is great abundance of rabbit skins, leather of bull, calf, sheep, lamb, & goat skin, which not only supplies Europe but also Asia, Africa, & America. England owns many islands, among them Ireland, but little smaller than England itself. And in short England is independent of other countries though they cannot do without her. In England, the present Queen, Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, has reigend twenty-six years, may god preserve her. Her revenue is six millions in gold, apart from the expenses of her court which are paid by the country. At her command she has one hundred & thirty thousand armed men, from twenty to fifty years old. She is in alliance with all the Princes of the true Christian religion, of which she is the head. She has a fleet more powerful than all the other Princes of Christendom, so strong that one must see it to believe it.

The people are naturally brave, indomitable, & valorous in war. They attack the foe with such ardour thay they usually come out not dead but victorious. They are impatient of injuries & revenge them fiercely. They religiously keep their treaties & highly honour their allies. Their judges are most learned & full of sound judgements, they take no bribes. The nobles & gentlemen are affable, & delight in arms & the liberal arts; the people best friends to their friends, cruel foes to their foes; & all obey the Queen, so that on her command they would go to death without a word.

It seems nothing much has really changed since then…


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