Shakespeare’s Grand Tour (pt 2)

2 –  France & Flanders


Henry, the 4th Earl of Derby, & his epic train landed at Calais from Dover on the 1st February. Let us from now on assume that Shakespeare was part of the Earl’s vast retinue, perhaps as a musician or even an actor. In that very same year, the Earl of Leicester travelled to the continent with a similarily vast retinue, among whom were a large number of entertainers, including a young Will Kemp, one of the most famous Shakesperian actors. Stribrny writes; ‘When the Earl of Leicester landed in Flushing in 1585, as commander of the English forces supporting the Dutch Protestants against the Spanish rulers of the Catholic part of the Netherlands, his entourage was enriched by several musicians & fifteen players, including the famous comedian Will Kemp.‘  Traveling with such a troupe of players indicates that the English nobility might have used them to put on performances for their noble hosts. Although there is no record of this happening in France, several despatches did record the story of the Earl’s visit to the French court, as in;

7th February – The Earl of Derby… is coming to bring the Garter to this king. He has disembarked at Bolounge with a great following of English nobles, & is to be lodged, & apparently splendidly entertained, by the kingBernardino de Mendoza

 21st February – The Earl of Derby arrived at Saint Denis. He was sent by the Queen of England to bear the garter to the most Christian king. Lord Derby stayed two days at St Denis, & on the third day he took the roads with all his company, which consists of two other lords, fifty gentleman, & others to the number of two hundred - Giovanni Dolfin

The Louvre
The Louvre


It would have been a bit like the Elizabethan version of Burnley Football Club’s 1960 excursion to play Stade Rheims in the 1960-61 European cup (theyd won the league the previous May). Once in Paris, the Earl & his party took up residence at the Louvre, & amazed the French nobility with the extravagance & magnificence of his embassy. On the 28th February, the garter was finally given to Henri III, when Elias Ashmole, in his Institutions, Laws & Ceremonies of the most Noble Order of the Garter (1693) writes, ‘On the day of Installation, there hath from ancient time been accustomably prepared, a very sumptuous & noble Feast.’ It was during the ceremony that Henry would have read out the following announcement from his Queen to the King of France.

Elizabeth, by the grace of god, Queen of England, France, & Ireland, Defender of the Faith, etc, To all those to whom these presents shall come, Greeting. Forasmuch the right high, right excellent, & right mighty Prince, our right dear & right well beloved Brother, & Cozen, the most Christian King, Henry of France, as well for his right great nobility gifts & virtues singular, wherewith God had endued him, the renown whereof is dispersed & divulged throughout, & that the more to argument & establish the good amity & intelligence which is between us & our said good brother, he hath been not long since by us & our fellow brethren the Knights & Companions of our Order of the Garter, in our Castelle Windesore assembled, chosen Knight & Companion of the Same Order, in place there vacant. We willing & desiring affectionately the Same Election to take its due effect & perfection, give to understand, that We, trusting in the fidelities, discretions, & diligence of our right dear & well-beloved cozen, the Earl of Darby, Knight & Companion of our Said Order… & we give them power, authority, & especial charge to go unto our said Good Brother, & to present & give him from us the Garter, Mantle, & other ensigns by us presently sent unto him, with all the ceremonies & Solemnities due & accustomed
The young Shakespeare should have been blown away by the experience, his ears filling with the florid language & sickly pomp & circumstance of the court. A moment of epiphany, during his creative career all but one of his plays (the merry wives of windsor) would be set in a courtly environment. He would also have wondered at the sheer extravagance of the Earl of Stanley, but probably did not realise that the great northern Lord was pretty much doing the whole thing on bills of credit. He was skint by Paris, of which Sir Edward Stafford writes to Walsingham, ‘at their coming to town they had not a hundred crowns left, & no other provision.’ Barry Coward writes, ‘the cost of post-horses, carts & carriages, a fraction of the earl’s total expenses in 1585, amounted to £463 15s.’  As we shall discover in later posts, the Earl’s need for money would have the most profoundest effect on the world’s greatest literature. A temporary measure was supplied by the French king, for Bernardino de Mendoza writes;

15th March – The Earl of Derby has left, having been feasted in an extraordinary way by the king, who gave him a buffet of plate worth 4,000, crowns

William Stanley did not return with his father to England, but instead embarked on a tour of the continent which would last the best part of three years, memories of which would linger long in the ballads of Lancashire. Of these northern ditties, the 1767 ‘Memoirs… of the Honorable House of Stanley,’ writes, ‘this County (especially) gives us many large Accounts, as well as in Story, as in song, & frequently make themselves merry therewith.’

Evidence will soon show that Shakespeare was firmly ensconced by his side; perhaps they had developed a personal bond of friendship, or had Lord Strange recognized his artistic talents & suggested this promising youngster should accompany his brother an an educational trip to the continent. Such a moment of liberating freedom may have been remembered by Shakespeare when he wrote;

Believe me, sir, had I such venture forth,
 The better part of my affections would
 Be with my hopes abroad. I should be still
 Plucking the grass to know where sits the wind,
 Peering in maps for ports and piers and roads. (MOV 1-1)


John Donne
John Donne

What inclines me further to believe that Stanley conducted this tour of Europe in order to enrich the artistic sensibilities of himself & Shakespeare’s, was the identity of another member of his party. This just so happens to be a teenage John Donne, a leading member of the poetic pantheon of Elizabethan England. Dennis Flynn noticed his name among the gentlemen waiters who traveled to France in the Earl’s retinue, & suggests, ‘Jasper Heywood & his sister, Donne’s mother, seemingly conspired to get him out of harms way by arranging this trip to the continent as a member of the ambassador’s retinue.’  According to Flynn, Donne did not return to England, but two years later  turns up in the Earl of Derby’s household once again, of which Flynn remarks that, ‘since Donne did not return to England with the Earl in March 1985, the most plausible explanation for his turning up later in Derby’s household is that at some point he joined the Earl’s son William Stanley on the continent.’




Flynn also places the 13 year old Donne at the 1585 siege of Antwerp by the Duke of Parma, remembered in a set of ‘Latin Epigrams’ that reflect, ‘Donne’s presence at the siege… during a period datable by their contents to April or May 1585.’  Perhaps thet were there to gain an education in military affairs, where despite the tensions between England & Spain, their Catholic background & Stanley’s noble breeding would have ensured a friendly reception from the Duke of Parma. Interestingly, Thomas Hesketh’s kinsman, Richard, was also fighting at the Siege of Antwerp, on the side of the Spanish. He was a close friend & confidente of William Stanley, & would later forge a plot to get Ferdinando Stanley onto the throne of England, with Spanish assistance. Instead, the family promptly handed over to the authorities, where just before execution he berated the Stanleys & ‘cursed the time he had ever know anie of them.’





Between Paris, where the party was staying in March 1585, & Antwerp, where they were in April/May, lies the famous thick forest of Ardennes,the scene of some of the greatest miltary struggles of the second world war. The forest turns up in of Shakespeare’s play, As You Like it, where the Forest of Arden is set in a duchy of France. In this play Rosalind dresses up as a boy called ‘Ganymede,’ a figure from classical mythology who gets abducted by Jupiter in the guise of an eagle, a motif which appears on the very badge of the Stanley family! The same play also contains a wrestling match at a tournament, which may connect to Thomas Aspen’s description of William Stanley’s travels in his Historical Sketches of the House of Stanley (1877), when Stanley ‘ took laurels in many of the chief tournaments.’




The sketch then tells us Stanley; …subsequently proceeded to Spain, where he was challenged by a Spanish nobleman to single combat. In the first encounter the Spaniard succeeded in wounding Sir William on his right arm, and causing him to fall to the ground, but he was soon upon his feet again. In the second round the Spaniard aimed three deadly blows at the wounded Englishman, but they were all skillfully averted, and Sir William gave his adversary a thrust on the right breast, inflicting a severe wound, and causing him to reel to the ground. Blood flowed freely, and the friends of the 0Spanish nobleman counselled his withdrawal from the contest, but he was too enraged to heed their advice, and in the third encounter rushed at Sir William with the force of desperation, but the blows were successfully parried, and the representative of the house of Stanley once more secured the crown of victory by inflicting a second wound on the breast of the Spaniard, and thus effectually disabling him. Sir William next visited Italy, where he assumed the garb of a mendicant friar for the purpose of gaining information and the more readily getting through the country. Afterwards he proceeded to Egypt, and with the assistance of a native guide, went to reconnoitre the River Nile. Whilst on their journey, a large male tiger suddenly appeared from behind a thicket, and with a hideous howl came rushing towards them. Sir William had two pistols, and discharged one as the tiger was making a spring at them. Unfortunately he missed his aim, and it was only by dexterously stepping aside that he eluded the grasp of the ferocious brute. Before the animal had time to take another spring, Sir William drew a second pistol, discharged the contents into the tiger’s breast, and as it reeled drew his sword and killed it. After paying a visit to Palestine, he journeyed to Turkey, and had a narrow escape of becoming a victim to the bigotry of the followers of Mahommed. In a discussion with one of the Paschas he defended Christianity and the Bible, and denounced the religion propounded in the Koran as false and deceptive. He was arrested for “blasphemy against the religion of Mahommed,” and after being kept a long time in a filthy and dismal prison, a date was fixed for his execution, but a lady interceded on his behalf, and three days before the appointed time he was liberated.

In my next post we shall look at the main source of the above adventures, & show how many locations all along the route were used by Shakespeare as scenes for his plays.


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