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.

1 comment:

  1. Extraordinary! I have found this so interesting, especially as I have not heard of Shakespeare's Crab before or the story around it. Great blog Simon!