The Future of History

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Shakespeare's Crab

Bought from my local Tesco supermarket: an Old Ordnance Survey Map of the Vale of Evesham & Stratford, dating from 1892.

What caught my eye about this little map was the presence of a landmark - the so-called Shakespeare's Crab.  It is marked on the map about a mile outside the village of Bidford, on the road towards Stratford, very close indeed to Hillborough.

The story goes that the young Shakespeare and his mates were disposed to walk to Bidford one day and challenge a group known as the "Topers" to a drinking competition.  When they arrived, however, they discovered that the "Topers" had gone to Evesham Fair.  But they were invited to drink with another group, this one known as the "Sippers".  Even this proved too much for the Stratford lads, who drank so heavily that, on the way home, they all fell asleep under a crab apple tree on the wayside.  The next morning, Shakespeare's friends were eager to pit themselves against the "Sippers" again.  They roused young Shakespeare who, rather than heading back into Bidford to resume the drinking match, composed an impromptu epigram on the surrounding villages:

Piping Pebworth, dancing Marston,
Haunted Hillboro', hungry Grafton,
Dodging Exhall, papist Wixford,
Beggarly Broom, and drunken Bidford.

Frankly, I've never believed that this little rhyme was made up by Shakespeare.  And when we find that the earliest known use of the word "Toper", meaning a heavy drinker, came from 1661, we have to query the factuality of the legend of Shakespeare and the Crab-tree.

What fascinates me about the legend is that, as with so many local traditions regarding the Bard, it might be a polished and prettified account of something more intriguing.

For a start, Shakespeare's Crab is just a field or two away from Hillborough Manor.  In previous posts, and of course in Who Killed William Shakespeare?, I have suggested that Will Shakespeare's first Anne - Anne (or Agnes) Whateley - was a resident of Hillborough Manor.  This is indeed what local lore remembers: Shakespeare's "White Lady", his jilted lover, eked out her existence as a sorrowful recluse in the secluded manor house which belonged to a man with whom Shakespeare would later do business.

What is more, I have argued that Shakespeare fell in love with Anne ("Agnes") Whateley when he was recovering from an accident, as he seems to have indicated in his poem, A Lover's Complaint.  Anne, I believe, was a sort of unofficial or "underground" nun, serving the local Catholics in much the same way that her brothers, John and Robert, served as secret priests in their hometown of Henley in Arden.  Essentially, Anne Whateley nursed the young Shakespeare back to health.

It is worth noting that the marriage licence issued by the Bishop's court at Worcester to allow William Shakespeare to marry Anne Whateley referred to Anne as being "de Temple Grafton".  Hillborough Manor is indeed in the parish of Temple Grafton, the manor of which belonged to the Sheldon brothers of Beoley (there is a very important Shakespearean connection there, involving a skull, and the surname Whateley is much associated with Beoley and its church).  The vicar of Temple Grafton at the time was John Frith, "an old priest and Unsound in religion".  Frith's main interest in life, it would seem, lay in curing injured or diseased hawks.

My theory goes, then, that sometime in 1582, when Will was eighteen, he suffered an accident and was taken to the Catholic safe house of Hillborough Manor, a short distance downriver from Stratford, to recuperate.  His nurse on this occasion was the "sacred nun", Anne Whateley of Temple Grafton, who fell for the winning ways of the young poet.  They arranged to marry, but Shakespeare found himself dragooned into marrying another local woman, Anne Hathaway of Shottery.

The "accident", I always suspected, was the result of violence.  For the first part of 1582, young Shakespeare was on the run, hiding out (probably at Earl's Common in Worcestershire) and avoiding the government crackdown on Catholics who were suspected of having trafficked with the Jesuit priests, Father Campion and Father Persons.  By the late summer, though, he was back in the Stratford area, where he got Anne Hathaway (and possibly Anne Whateley) pregnant.

If Anne Whateley was a Catholic, as were most of her family, then Anne Hathaway was almost certainly Protestant, her father and brother expressing rather puritanical inclinations in their wills.  In the light of this, it might be worth reconsidering those twin gangs, the "Topers" and the "Sippers", especially as the word "Toper" does not seem to have been in use at the time.

A toper is a heavy drinker.  A sipper is someone who drinks one sip at a time (and yet, somehow or other, Shakespeare and his friends lost their drinking match against the "Sippers").  Could it be that these innocent-sounding names - "Topers" and "Sippers" - have been substituted for something else?

Let us suppose that the legend really recalls a kind of gang warfare - something along the lines of the deadly rivalry between the Capulets, and their retainers, and the Montagus, along with their retainers, which is dramatised in the opening of Romeo and Juliet.  Those two families are, respectively, Protestant (the Protestants wore little black caps in church) and Catholic (the Montagu family, from which Shakespeare's patron, the Earl of Southampton, was descended, were notable Catholics).  The gang warfare between those two tribes reflects the situation in and around Stratford during much of Shakespeare's lifetime.  It should be remembered that Richard Quiney, Shakespeare's "loving good friend and countryman", the mayor of Stratford and father to Shakespeare's future son-in-law, was murdered in Stratford by thuggish members of the puritanical Greville family in 1602.

In addition to the Greville gang, there were Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote and his men.  The Lucys and the Grevilles deliberately made life very difficult indeed for anyone tarred with the "papist" brush, and it is not too difficult to imagine Shakespeare and his little gang having various run-ins with either mob - the Grevilles or the Lucys.  Any such sectarian violence would not have reflected too well on the Bard, and so his battles with the Lucys and the Grevilles were remembered, a little more bucolically, as hard drinking competitions with groups known as "Topers" and "Sippers".

That may or may not have been so.  But I find it intriguing that young Shakespeare was long said to have taken shelter, while very much the worse for wear, under a crab-tree a mere stone's throw from Hillborough, where I have argued that young Shakespeare was patched up after an "accident".  He was already torn between two different sorts of gang - the Catholics, which included his own family and the "sacred nun", Anne Whateley, and the Protestants, including the woman he was destined to marry.  In that regard, "Sippers" might refer to Catholics, who sipped communion wine, while "Topers" might be a code word for Protestants, who showed contempt for the Catholic mass.

Of course, if Shakespeare had taken a fall, or been knocked on the head, he might have seemed a little drunken when he was found sprawled beneath the crab-tree.  I know of at least one scar, running immediately above his left eyebrow, which was there for much of his life, and which caused his left eyebrow to droop somewhat.  He also referred to his lameness in his poems, and so we have to entertain the possibility that he was so badly beaten at one stage that he spent the rest of his life with a limp and a pronounced facial disfigurement.

Finally, I find it interesting to note that the word "crab" can mean to criticise or to grumble, or to do something which spoils something else - the term originally having been used of hawks fighting (from the Middle Low German krabben).  John Frith, the "old priest" of Temple Grafton, was renowned for setting the broken bones of hawks.  And the inn where Shakespeare and his mates are alleged to have suffered at the hands of the "Sippers" was known as the Falcon.

The hawks in question were surely troublemakers.  Like today's "hawks", they went looking for a fight.  Their enemies were rivals in religion and local politics.  And Shakespeare, it would seem, took a pasting.  He had to be nursed back to health nearby at Hillborough, where his "White Lady" fell in love with him.  But he bore the scars for the rest of his days.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Revealing Shakespeare

Last Thursday (20 March) I gave a paper at Goldsmiths College, University of London.  The subject was "The Faces of Shakespeare".  And I enjoyed it immensely.

Here's how the Goldsmiths website reported one of the key elements of the talk: the unveiling of the newly-discovered "Wadlow" portrait.

Monday, 17 March 2014

My Writing Process (blog tour)

I was "tagged" to take part in this blog hop by the wonderful Margaret Skea, whom I have known since the Authonomy days, and who posted about her writing process on her own blog last week.

Margaret passed on to me the four questions that writers are invited to answer as part of this blog tour.

So, here goes ...

1. What am I working on?

Right now, I'm finishing one project and starting another.  The Grail; Relic of an Ancient Tradition has been occupying my time now since January 2013.  I was looking to do something of a follow up to The King Arthur Conspiracy, partly because I had been doing some more research - especially into the location and circumstances of Arthur's last battle - and partly because I wanted to address some of the (very minor) objections to Artuir mac Aedain having been the original Arthur of legend.

Thanks to Trevor Greenfield of Moon Books, I was given the opportunity to write The Grail in an unusual way.  Each month, from January to December 2013, I would write a chapter, which would then by uploaded onto the Moon Books blog.  That meant that, each month, I would send my draft chapter to my associate, John Gist, in New Mexico, who would read it and comment on it for me, and I would visit my friend Lloyd Canning, a local up-and-coming artist, to discuss the illustration that would accompany the chapter.  There would be a final rewrite, and then I'd submit the chapter and the image to Trevor at Moon Books.

It was a long process, and an odd one (I wouldn't normally submit anything less than a complete manuscript).  I've spent the last couple of months revising the full text and adding a few more illustrations.  And, well, it's about finished.  John contacted me from the States last night to say that he had read through one of the more recent drafts of the full thing and he really liked it.  It's not all about the distant past - there's a lot about how our brains work, and how a certain type of mind tends to ruin history (and other things) for everybody else.  That type of mindset seeks to prevent research into figures like Artuir mac Aedain so that the prevailing myth can be maintained.  The same type of mindset will cause us no end of problems in the immediate future, and the book ends with something of a prediction.

Coming up ... Sir William Davenant.  I published a piece on The History Vault, a couple of days ago, about Shakespeare's Dark Lady.  It could be read as a sort of introduction to my biography of Sir William Davenant.  I've only just signed the contract for the Davenant book, and it's due to be handed in to The History Press in June 2015.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

History for me is an investigative process.  I lose patience very quickly with historians who do nothing more than repeat what the last historian said.  It's a major problem: a consensus arises, and woe betide any self-respecting historian who challenges that consensus.  But the consensus is often based, not on historical facts, but on a kind of political outlook.  It tends to be history-as-we-would-like-it-to-be, rather than history-as-it-was.

There are similarities with archaeology.  Dig down anywhere within the Roman walls of the old city of London and you'll hit a layer of dark earth.  This was left behind by Boudica when she and her Iceni warriors destroyed Londinium in about AD 60.  But if you don't dig down far enough, you won't find that layer.

Too much history - certainly where Arthur (and the Grail) and Shakespeare (and Davenant) are concerned - gets down as far as one layer and stays there.  In the case of Arthur, that layer is the 12th century; with Shakespeare, it's the late 18th century.  In both instances, that's when the story changed.  New versions of Arthur and Shakespeare arose, reflecting the obsessions of the particular era.  When historians dig down to that layer, and report on what they've found, they're not writing about Arthur or Shakespeare - they're writing about what later generations wanted to think about Arthur and Shakespeare.

You have to go down further.  Otherwise, you're just repeating propaganda.

I'm also a bit fussy about how my books read.  That's my dramatist background, I reckon.  But I read a great many books - history, mostly, of course - and too many of them are, frankly, boring.  I seek to write exciting, accessible history that has been more diligently researched than the norm.  I don't seek to shock, but real history often is shocking.  Maybe that's why so many historians prefer to keep telling the "consensus" story.

3. Why do I write what I do?

The work I do now started because I was intrigued and inquisitive.  The familiar legends of Arthur are all well and good, but I was more interested in the man who inspired them - who was he? what made him so special?  And the same with Shakespeare - how did a Warwickshire lad become the greatest writer in the English language?  (My own background is not too different from Shakespeare's.)  And what was the inspiration for the character of Lady Macbeth.

I'm still intrigued and inquisitive, but over the years I've found myself more and more determined to see justice done - to right the wrongs of the past.  Those wrongs are perpetuated by historians who don't ask questions.  And that's a betrayal, not only of the actual subjects (Arthur, Shakespeare) but also of the reader today.  It's a kind of cover-up, designed - I believe - to reshape the past so that it justifies certain policies today.  If you're a monarchist, for example, or an old-fashioned imperialist, you're going to want to believe that Queen Elizabeth I was marvellous.  And then you're going to have to believe that Shakespeare thought she was marvellous.  Which means that you'll have to turn a blind eye to what was going on during her reign, and to the criticisms which Shakespeare voiced.  Before you know it, you're ignoring the facts altogether in order to write a history that supports your own prejudices.  I can't believe how often that happens.

Both Arthur and Shakespeare were killed, and their stories were subsequently written up by their enemies.  Their real stories are much more interesting - and they deserve to be told.  If we cling to the myths, we allow demagogues to dictate our history to us.

4. How does my writing process work?

Well, it's not quick.  The research can take years.  Then there are usually a number of false starts.  Fortunately, I tend to have some sort of agreement with a publisher, these days, so when I say I'm going to write something, that means I have to get on with it.

I'll start at the beginning, with the long, slow process of getting words down on the page (it's long and slow because I have to go hunting for the information before I put it down).  But I always have a carefully worked out structure in my mind, and day after day a kind of rough draft takes shape.  It's usually fairly messy, and at some point I'll stop and go back to the start, smartening it up and giving myself enough momentum to plough on and get a few more chapters drafted.

After that, it's an ongoing process of revision (never less than three drafts).  For several months, I'll be revising the early chapters while I'm still drafting the later ones.

I have to work pretty much every day.  For a finished manuscript of, say, 100,000 words, I'll expect to write anything up to 500,000 words, which will be sifted and boiled down to fit the appropriate length.  I'll keep going back and revising different sections, here and there, and often, in the latter stages, I'll rewrite the chapters out of sequence (partly to keep them all fresh).  Then there's endless, obsessive tinkering, as I fuss over every full stop and comma.

The King Arthur Conspiracy took seven months to write (and rewrite).  Who Killed William Shakespeare? took nine months, and then some for the illustrations.  The Grail took me a year to write (a chapter a month) and another 2-3 months to revise (with illustrations).  With Sir William Davenant I want to create something special, so that'll take ages.

There are two things I couldn't do without.  One is coffee.  The other is my fantastically loyal, supportive and organised wife, Kim.


I now get to tag a couple of authors who will pick up the baton and run with it, and I've chosen two great writers who are part of the Review Group on Facebook.  I'll let the first introduce herself:

I’m Louise Rule, my first book Future Confronted was published in December 2013, and I am now researching my next book, the story of which will take me travelling from Scotland to England, and then to Italy. I am on the Admin Team of the Facebook group The Review Blog which I enjoy immensely.

Louise's blog can be found here.

My other chosen successor on this blog tour is Stuart S. Laing.  Stuart writes about Scottish history - his posts on the Review Group Blog covering fascinating moments in Edinburgh's past are a joy to read, but it's his historical novels - the Robert Young of Newbiggin Mysteries - which really deserve attention.

Stuart's blog can be found here.

Finally, it remains for me only to thank Margaret Skea for inviting me to take part in this hop.  And to thank you, dear reader, for perusing my musings.


Saturday, 15 March 2014

White Lady, Dark Lady

Sorry.  I've been a terrible blogger.  But I haven't been idle.

Last month, the excellent History Vault website published my article about Shakespeare's White Lady.

This month, the follow-up piece has just been posted.  So, with thanks to The History Vault, I'm proud to bring you ...

The Dark Lady!

And let's not forget my illustrated talk coming up at Goldsmiths, University of London, this week, about The Faces of Shakespeare.  Believe me, there's some interesting (and maybe even startling) material in this, so if you happen to be in London on the evening of Thursday, 20 March, why not come along?  It's free.

If you can't make it, I'll let you know how it went.