Shropshire's remarkable connections with Shakespeare are fascinating
November marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of Shakespeare's ‘First Folio’, seven years after the death of the bard. The ‘First Folio’ is arguably the greatest work of English literature, and without it, much of Shakespeare’s work would have been lost forever.
It is not extensively known that there are several connections between Shakespeare and the county of Shropshire.
Tim Ashton, who lives at Soulton Hall, one of those connections, has done detailed research into those links - even that Juliet may have been a Shropshire woman with a scandalous marriage - and says he would like to see more made of the importance of Shropshire in many of Shakespeare's plays.
Sir Rowland Hill, believed to be the Sir Rowland of As You Like It is his forebear.
Tim is passionate about keeping theatre alive and during the pandemic gave it a safe, open air home at Soulton with highlights including performances by the National Youth Theatre.
With acknowledgement and thanks for scholarly support from in his research to James D. Wenn and Christine Schmidle, Tim sets out here the connections he says could bring a huge cultural and economic boost to Shropshire.
"The connections between Shakespeare and Shropshire are extensive, though they are not as well known in the county as they should be, and this important anniversary provides a timely opportunity to highlight some of them.
"The setting of the last two acts of Henry IV, Part I, the play that introduced the celebrated character Falstaff to an adoring audience, is the Battle of Shrewsbury. The town of Shrewsbury has another claim on Shakespeare, following research by Maggie Love which established that performances of The King's Men took place in the town between1603 and 1605 whilst London was being ravaged by plague. They were paid £30 to perform in the town and Maggie’s belief is that Shakespeare was in that tour.
"Another history play, Richard III makes reference to the arrest of Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham in 1483 in in Act IV, scene iv. This genuine historical event happened at Lacon, just outside Wem, where the unfortunate rebel was arrested in a ditch disguised as a farm labourer having been betrayed by Ralph Bannister for £1000. Earlier in the same play (Act II, scene ii), Ludlow features as the location from which the Princes in the Tower should be brought as Richard III plots to seize the crown. "
Tim says As You Like It has huge connections with not only Shropshire and its border, but is his family home Soulton Hall.
"There are excellent reasons to link that play with our county: not least because the parts of Shropshire south of the A5 - better known to Tudors as Wattling Street - are traditionally inside the Forest of Arden, the play's setting.
"If attention is focused on Sir Rowland Hill of Soulton Hall (d. 1561) who published the Geneva Bible in 1560, the case becomes more compelling. The Bible Hill published is the main edition Shakespeare uses and is known to have quoted extensively from.
"Beyond this, study of Hill’s rural headquarters at Soulton, along with knowledge of his remarkable arts patronage and philanthropy, yields a more direct link to Shakespeare. The play As You Like It is based on a text called Rosalynde, (1590), the work of Thomas Lodge Jr.
"The family of the writer of this source book held the manor of Soulton and transferred it to Hill, and, intriguingly, Shakespeare explicitly changed the name of the hero of that play to ‘Old Sir Rowland’ from ‘John’ in the source book.
"The country house expert James D. Wenn of Byrga Geniht Ltd. has established that the configuration of Sir Rowland Hill’s architectural project at Soulton is explicitly derived from the theatrical spaces of classical antiquity, which underlines that courtly and theatrical activity were already embedded in Shropshire’s culture a generation before Shakespeare was born.
"A number of prominent local families in the Tudor period are known Shakespeare patrons and muses, with a lot of these connections running through the parish of Hodnet. These include the Vernon, the Stanley, and the Sidney families, as well as the Devereux dynasty (Earls of Essex) and the Wriothesley dynasty (Earls of Southampton), and the Herbert dynasty (Earls of Pembroke). This renaissance circle was at the heart of the world of both Shropshire and Shakespeare.
"One person in this smart set stands: Elizabeth Wriothesley (née Vernon) of Hodnet. Some associate her – and the scandalising circumstances of her marriage – with the ‘Dark Lady’ of the sonnets, while others have gone as far as to link her with the character Juliet in Romeo and Juliet.
"Meanwhile, at St Bartholomew's Church in Tong, the Stanley Monument is inscribed with epitaphs said to be specially written by Shakespeare."
Tim points our that generally, the town of Shrewsbury (and Shrewsbury School under its foundational headmaster Thomas Ashton in particular) created an important national cultural engine for amplifying the attention and use of drama in statecraft and education.
"This was so important to the Elizabethans that Elizabeth I undertook to make a personal visit to the town to watch drama there staged by Ashton, only turning back because of plague. Before and after Shakespeare’s time the town dedicated 100 acres of Kingsland to the staging of drama, going as far as to see the guilds of the town constructing elaborate arbours for these entertainments. Into the Restoration period the town continued this nationally prominent activity, and was famous for never banning a play.
"As the world celebrates one of its most important literary figures, now is a fitting time for Shropshire to reassess the extent of its claim on incubating the circumcises and personalities that gave rise to the extraordinary gift to human culture that William Shakespeare represents."
Tim Ashton is set to give a public lecture “Who is Old Sir Rowland?” in the City of London in January and then on February 20in the Church of St. Peter and Paul, Wem.