I wish I could say this was the case with me. It could be that it is just that I do not recognise something as new when I read about it or see it, so imagine my surprise when I read that Shakespeare may have first performed some of his most famous plays, not in London, but Lancashire.
I write this when momentum seems to be gathering for the saving of Burnley’s well-known, but much neglected, Victoria and Empire Theatres.
Neither of these were around when Shakespeare was working but he may have spent some time in Prescot, which the Independent describes as a “small hilltop town near Liverpool”.
The newspaper goes on to point out that, in Elizabethan times, the Prescot Playhouse was the only purpose-built indoor theatre outside of London. Coming from a theatrical family, I pride myself on my knowledge of the history of the theatre but was not aware Prescot held that distinction and neither did I suspect the first performances of William Shakespeare’s Richard III and Love’s Labour’s Lost may have taken place there.
Both these plays contain tributes to the Stanley family and the Independent says it is possible they were first performed at the Prescot Playhouse or nearby Knowsley Hall, now the home of the Stanley Earls of Derby.
However, I would point out that, though I have no problem with Prescot as a possibility, I think Knowsley may be unlikely as, in the late 16th Century, the Stanley’s main residence was at Lathom. Knowsley was on the Lathom estate but it was not until the early 18th Century that Knowsley became the great house it is today.
It is also worth adding that the Stanleys obtained their earldom in 1485 when, decisively, they supported Henry Tudor at the battle of Bosworth Field against Richard III. As you will know, the victory was Henry’s so the story of the fall of Richard III, being told locally, was a subject of which the Stanleys would have approved.
The connections do not end there. One of the London-based acting companies, for which it is known Shakespeare wrote, was Lord Strange’s Men. Lord Strange was Ferdinando Stanley. His company was based in London where it usually hired one of the theatres on the South Bank, or performed for the owner of such a building, but, in 1592, Lord Strange’s Men left plague-stricken London for what we now call Merseyside.
Lord Strange succeeded his father as Earl of Derby in 1593, when the company became known as Lord Derby’s Men, but the new earl held the title for only a year when he died in mysterious circumstances. He was considered, on his mother’s side of the family, a possible heir to the ageing Queen Elizabeth I but his religion was a concern to some at Elizabeth’s Court and it has been suggested he may have been poisoned. After Ferdinando’s death, his company of actors was renamed the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, for whom Shakespeare also worked.
The connections between Shakespeare and Lancashire have been debated for many years. Although his birth place at Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, is not disputed, it is thought he may have had family connections with Lancashire. It is known one of his teachers at Stratford Grammar School, John Cottam, was one of several Jesuit-trained teachers from Lancashire. John’s brother Thomas was a Catholic priest.
The Cottams were tenants to the de Hoghtons of Hoghton Tower and Lea Hall, near Preston, and, in a will of 1581, made by Alexander Hoghton of Lea, there is a reference to one William Shakeshafte, mentioned as “now dwelling with me”. This might not seem all that significant until it is realised Shakespeare’s grandfather, Richard, spelled his surname this way, rather than “Shakespeare”.
If we examine Alexander’s will, it can be seen he was very interested in the theatre. “Instruments belonging to music” are mentioned as are “all manner of play clothes”. Alexander leaves small pensions to William Shakeshaft and Fluke Gyllone. He also asks that, if Thomas Hoghton of Brynescoules, his brother, is not interested in the musical instruments and stage costumes, they go to Sir Thomas Hesketh of Rufford. Alexander, pleads that Sir Thomas should also take Shakeshafte and Gyllone into his service.
The Hesketh family seat is Rufford Old Hall and, in recent years, it has been claimed that, for about six months in the early 1580s, Shakespeare may have stayed at the house. The National Trust, which now owns the premises, is keen to exploit any Shakespeare connection and argue the Great Hall in the building may have been converted quite easily for theatrical use.
The de Houghtons of Hoghton Tower also claim connections with Shakespeare. They too say part of their house may have been used to stage his plays when Shakespeare was in Lancashire. This can be fortified by the possibility Shakespeare may have worked there, not as an actor, which indeed he became, but a teacher.
Ben Johnson said William Shakespeare understood Latin because, as a young man, he spent time as a schoolmaster “in the country”. It is understood part of Hoghton Tower was a school for Catholic boys in the latter part of the 16th Century and, it may be Shakespeare worked there, adopting the northern spelling (Shakeshafte) of his surname at the time. Of course, there is much speculation Shakespeare remained a Catholic. The change in his surname may have diverted away any suspicion he was a Catholic.
If Hoghton Tower was a school (a sort of seminary for the Catholic priesthood) a connection with the Burnley area can be made. It has long since been thought High Whittaker, a house between Ightenhill and Higham, was also a secret seminary for boys wishing to become Catholic priests. The Towneleys will have known what was going on. They were already familiar with the Heskeths and de Hoghtons and it is likely they knew the Stanleys.
Of course, a lot of this is speculation. It all started with the news - it was news to me – that Shakespeare may have performed some of his plays in Lancashire. There is just over a decade between the will of 1581 and Lord Strange’s Men arriving in Prescot but both are too interesting to ignore.