16 – KNOWSLEY HALL
Roundabout late October 1587, Stanley & Shakespeare would have boarded one of the Levant Company ships & set off home for England. In the Garland, we are told that he went directly to Greenland, before returning to Lathom Hall. It seems rather a large jump, from Constantinople to the Arctic, without popping into England on the way up, so it makes sense that this particular strata of the Garland can be put down to a separate Stanley tour.
In the age of Elizabethan sail, Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind had a top speed of 8 knots, about 9.2 mph. With London lying 3627 nautical miles from Constantinople, the journey would have taken 19 days of unbroken sailing. Slowing down the ship to the speed of a merchant vessel, perhaps 4 or 5 knots, & the journey would have taken just over a month. It is in this voyage that Shakespeare should have gained knowledge of the Bay of Portugal (todays Bay of Biscay), an unusually deep body of water that would have been unsoundable by the plumbing methods of Shakespeare’s time.
ROSALIND: O coz, coz, coz, my pretty little coz, that thou didst know how many fathom deep I am in love! But it cannot be sounded: my affection hath an unknown bottom, like the bay of Portugal. (As You Like It 4:1)
During the tedium that a sea-voyage entails would have been a perfect time for Shakespeare to compose poetry, & as they sailed home, perhaps even sharing a bed, I believe Shakespeare penned the following sonnet to Stanley.
To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,
Such seems your beauty still. Three winters cold
Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride;
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turned
In process of the seasons have I seen;
Three April pérfumes in three hot Junes burned,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.
Ah yet doth beauty, like a dial hand,
Steal from his figure, and no pace perceived;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion, and mine eye may be deceived.
For fear of which, hear this, thou age unbred:
Ere you were born was beauty’s summer dead.
If Shakespeare met Stanley in Lancashire at Christmas 1584, then the 12 seasons mentioned as passing – including the three Meditarranean ‘hot Junes’ – beginning with that of Winter 1584-85, would mean the sonnet was composed at the end of Autumn 1587.
According to the ‘Household Books’ of Knowsley Hall, the seat of the earls of Derby, Stanley was ‘home’ in December 1587. A ‘household book,’ would record the toings & froings of visitors to the estate, most of which are lost. However, one miraculously survived the ravagings of time, & it gives us information for 1587-89 – the very period in which Shakespeare is returning to England with a Stanley. It never mentions him by name, at this point in time he would have still been considered a peasant I guess, but there are several entries which suggest that Shakespeare was present.
The Earl of Derby had even built a private theatre at Knowsley, which survived until 1902 as ‘Flatiron House.’ Richard Wilson writes, ‘The Elizabethan playhouse at Knowsley, near Liverpool, remains one of the dark secrets of Shakesperian England. Very few commentators are aware of even the existence of this theatre, built by the Stewards of Henry Stanley, Earl of Derby, on the site of his cockpit, some time in the 1580s.‘ I believe that this was Shakespeare’s first theater, of which Rowe writes; ‘it is at this Time, and upon this Accident, that he is said to have made his first Acquaintance in the Play-house. He was receiv’d into the Company then in being, at first in a very mean Rank; But his admirable Wit, and the natural Turn of it to the Stage, soon distinguish’d him, if not as an extraordinary Actor, yet as an excellent Writer.’
It makes sense for the young William Shakeshaft to have been connected to this theater, then caught the eye of Stanley – who I’m thinking enjoyed the young boys a bit too much (hence Shakespeare calling himself ‘old’ in the sonnets despite only being in his twenties). On the 17 December 1587, the Book tells us that Stanley arrived at Knowsley from Chester, one week before christmas eve. He would have cut a dashing image – 25 years old, fully tanned & full of exciting takes form the continent. He also would have had with him his great friend – & possible lover – William Shakespeare. The young bard was 23, fresh from a Grand Tour, & flush with the creativity that would soon manifest itself in some of the greatest plays the world has ever seen. I also believe that as he arrived at Knowsley, in his knapsack would have been the manuscript copy of his first plays. I believe that one of these, perhaps Titus Andronicus, was performed that Christmas at Knowsley by Thoms Hesketh’s Players, the very same troupe that Alexander Houghton had ‘given’ William Shakeshaft a few years previously;
On fryday my Lord the earle came home from cowrte & the same night came my Lord bushoppe, mr stewarde mr recyver mr foxe, on satureday Sir Thomas hesketh plaiers went awaie, & the same day me Edwards halsoll, mr Houghton of houghton & many strandgers came to knowsley
So entering 1588, the year of the great Armada, in the North of England at least, the name of a brilliant young playwright was being switrled around the dinner-tables. The first offering from the mind of England’s greatest bard have just been shown at Knowsley, & one of the audience, Ferdinando Strange, William Stanley’s brother, must have been impressed – it was time the Stanleys dragged this boy to London.