The Future of History

Friday, 4 December 2015

Shakespeare's Skull - Latest

Working through the proofs of my Davenant book, "Shakespeare's Bastard", due out in February, and coming to the sections which deal with St Leonard's Church, Beoley, the Sheldon Chapel, and the "veritable skull of William Shakespeare" ...

It's been an interesting week, as far as "Shakespeare's Skull" goes.  The crypt in which it resides was opened up, this Tuesday, and the skull scanned by archaeologists from the University of Staffordshire.  All this was filmed for a Channel 4 documentary, due to be aired in April.

I didn't get to see the crypt, pictured above in a photo from circa 1939, so I didn't get to see the skull either.  But here I am, going through the passages on Beoley and the skull in Shakespeare's Bastard, and I turn to an endnote I made about Anthony Wood, an Oxford antiquarian who wrote about Sir William Davenant.

Anthony Wood's close friend and benefactor was "The Great Sheldon", Ralph (1623-84), whose grandfather (also called Ralph) built the Sheldon Chapel alongside the chancel of Beoley church.  It was in the elder Ralph Sheldon's funerary urn, deposited in a small ossuary adjoining the vault underneath the Sheldon Chapel, that the Reverend C.J. Langston apparently found the "veritable skull of William Shakespeare" in about 1884.

Wood attended the burial of his patron, "The Great Sheldon", which took place "in a vault situate & being under the Chappell of our Lady joining to St Leonards Church of Beoly".  Presumably, then, Anthony Wood saw the crypt, under the Sheldon Chapel, in which Ralph Sheldon was laid to rest.  Maybe he also saw Shakespeare's skull in there.

Although the Sheldon Chapel itself was built by the elder Ralph Sheldon in 1580, there is little to indicate when the crypt underneath it was constructed.  The assumption tends to be that the chapel came first, and at a later date - before 1684, the year in which "The Great Sheldon" was buried in it - the crypt was constructed underneath the chapel.  But is that necessarily the case?

The elder Ralph Sheldon appears to have built the Sheldon Chapel (or Chapel of Our Lady, as Anthony Wood seems to have thought of it) strictly for the use of his own family.  It was invisible from the road but accessible from the Sheldons' manor house nearby.  The Sheldons were Catholic, and no doubt wanted a chapel to worship in (the black marble altar table in the Sheldon Chapel was reputedly blessed by Pope Gregory XIII).  However, the law required everyone to attend a Church of England place of worship.  Cunningly, Ralph Sheldon created a chapel which would allow his Catholic family to appear to be attending an Anglican church, as the law required, without actually setting foot in an Anglican church.  They attended, rather, their own Catholic chapel, alongside the Anglican chancel.  Clever, eh?

But what if a priest had been celebrating Mass in the Sheldon Chapel?  What if the family had been in attendance?  Where would they hide in the event of a government raid?

The obvious answer would be - under the chapel.  Access to the crypt is by removing a couple of steps which lead up to the Sheldon Chapel (the chapel, like the adjacent chancel, being a fair deal higher than the body of the church).  Today, concrete steps lead up to the chapel, and these had to be removed to allow Arrow Media to film the skull inside the crypt this week.  Previously, the steps would have been stone or, more probably, wood.

Examples exist of priest-holes which were accessed via "false" steps in staircases.  A step or two would be removed, or swung on a hinge, to open up the secret entrance to the hiding place.  Steps would also have to have been installed to connect the main body of the church to the Sheldon Chapel, and so it would be reasonable to expect that these stairs could have been designed to "open up", allowing access to the secret vault underneath the chapel to those who knew about it.

So, if the G-Men suddenly appeared, surrounding the church and its Catholic chapel, any priest or celebrant in the Catholic chapel could quickly disappear into the vault beneath the chapel, and the pursuivants would find the chapel empty.

The vault is large enough to hold a number of people, possibly for quite some length of time.  It would need to have been somewhat more capacious than the average priest-hole if it might have to accommodate several celebrants, plus a priest, all at once.  Only later did the readymade crypt become a handy burial vault for the family that built it.

A gap in the wall of the crypt opens into the little ossuary adjoining it - the "bone-house" in which the skull which looks suspiciously like it might be Shakespeare's was "found".  This can be thought of as an additional hiding place - a cramped "priest-hole" of last resort, in which a small priest could hide if the entrance to the vault was discovered.  It could also have been a repository for all that Catholic paraphernalia (rosaries, vestments, prayer books, candles, etc.) which could not be safely hidden anywhere else.  Everything needed for an illicit Catholic Mass in the Sheldon Chapel would be stored directly underneath it, and if it all went wrong, the priest - and some of his flock - could hide in the vault till the priest-hunters had gone.

I suspect, then, that the crypt and the ossuary were constructed at the same time as the chapel above, but not as a burial vault.  They were hiding places.

Shakespeare's head, collected after his sudden death - probably by his first love, Anne Whately, whose relatives were supported by the Sheldons of Beoley, and whose family name appears in various parts of the church, including on a churchwardens' chest in the Sheldon Chapel - would have been taken to Beoley church because there was a safe hiding place under the Sheldon Chapel.  It would have joined those priestly items necessary to hold a Mass in the chapel above.

There could have been no safer or more sacred a place for such an extraordinary relic as the head of the Catholic martyr, William Shakespeare.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

I'm Not Going to Say "I told you so ..."

More than three years after The King Arthur Conspiracy was published, the British media have been all over this story (representative sample from The Guardian).

Apparently, a research team from the University of Reading have concluded that the monks of Glastonbury made up the story that King Arthur was buried there, and an awful lot more besides.

I said as much in The King Arthur Conspiracy (and, incidentally, in The Grail, published earlier this year).  So - vindicated!

Wonder what else the media will suddenly discover in the coming months, that I also wrote about a few years back ...

(Watch this space)

Heads Up: Shakespeare's Bastard

Just came across this on the Foyle's website.

Shakespeare's Bastard: The Life of Sir William Davenant by Yours Truly is now available for pre-order.  And it'll be published on my birthday!

That makes me strangely happy.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Shakespeare's Skull - Setting the Record Straight

The news broke on Sunday evening.  Could Shakespeare's skull have been found? Why Church ruling means we may never know ran the headline in The Telegraph.  Since then, the story has gone around the globe.

It came as a surprise, partly because those of us involved in the story have been keeping pretty quiet about how it's all going (hence the lack of blogging in recent months) and partly because it is, in fact, old news.

I was informed - by a TV producer - back in March that the Chancellor of the Diocese of Worcester had turned down our application for a faculty to remove the rogue skull in the ossuary beneath the Sheldon Chapel at Beoley for forensic analysis.  That judgement came after a consistory court hearing, paid for by the TV production company and held as a sort of appeal against the Chancellor's previous ruling, made some six months before, that we had no real grounds to justify the exhumation of the skull.

I'll come back to the Chancellor and his rulings in a minute.  The first question, I guess, is: why did the news suddenly break this weekend, when the decision to deny us the faculty was made months ago?

I can only suggest that it's because a TV documentary is about to go into production, with the story of the Beoley skull playing a part in that forthcoming documentary.  And, I suspect, somebody is out to scupper that documentary, and its findings, before the camera even starts rolling.

Some background: I first picked up a hint that Shakespeare's skull might not be in Stratford ten years ago.  After a while, I tracked down the story - and I've been working on it, one way or another, ever since.

Charles Jones was born in Alcester, Warwickshire, in 1837, the son of an attorney.  He grew up in Alcester, and the neighbouring parish of Wixford, and studied theology in Birmingham before taking holy orders.  By the 1870s, he was Rector of the small parish of Sevington, close to Ashford in Kent.

It was while he was in Sevington that, in 1879, he did two interesting things.  First, according to The Times of 26 September 1879, he changed his name, adopting his mother's maiden name of Langston.  Secondly, he published a story in the Argosy magazine, that October, under the nom de plume of "A Warwickshire Man".

Langston's extraordinary tale was entitled, "How Shakespeare's Skull was Stolen".  It described how a local doctor had been inspired by a conversation around the dinner table at Ragley Hall to steal Shakespeare's skull from the grave in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford.  This was apparently because Horace Walpole, the antiquarian, had offered George Selwyn MP 300 guineas if the latter could acquire the skull of Will Shakespeare for him during David Garrick's farcical Shakespeare "Jubilee" in 1769.  According to Langston, Dr Frank Chambers recruited three local ne'er-do-wells and stole the skull, but could not agree terms with Horace Walpole.  Chambers arranged for the skull to be returned to its grave, although the story ended with some doubt in the air as to whether this had actually happened.

Langston's story did not come out of nowhere.  There was something of an international debate raging at the time, initiated in part by Hermann Schaaffhausen, Professor of Anatomy at the University of Bonn, who in 1875 published a piece calling for Shakespeare's skull to be exhumed.  Others were equally keen to examine the skull of the Bard, principally to know what he looked like and to compare the skull with the supposed death mask of Shakespeare, which is now in the library at Darmstadt Castle.  Langston's story appears to have been a deliberate attempt to attract attention to the possibility that Shakespeare's skull was not in the grave at Holy Trinity Church after all.

Rev. C.J. Langston had to wait a few years before someone took the bait.  Then, in 1883, the Shakespeare scholar Clement Mansfield Ingleby published his own proposal to disinter Shakespeare's Bones.  In a footnote, Ingleby praised How Shakespeare's Skull was Stolen by "A Warwickshire Man" for its amazing "vraisemblance" - its likelihood, or believability.  All bar the concluding part of the story which, Ingleby felt, wasn't up to scratch.

C.M. Ingleby was rewarded with a letter from Rev. C.J. Langston, sent from the Vicarage at Beoley, Worcestershire, and dated 2 January 1884.  In this letter - a copy of which I have received from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. - Langston identified himself as the "compiler" of How Shakespeare's Skull was Stolen (thereby undermining the claims that "A Warwickshire Man" has never been identified) and added, "Further revelations are in progress which will probably set at rest this much agitated question."  That question being, should Shakespeare's skull be exhumed from his Stratford grave?

Langston was as good as his word.  Later that year - 1884 - he published an engaging booklet, price one shilling, which he entitled, "How Shakespeare's Skull was Stolen and Found".  The first part was merely a reprint of the story he had published in the Argosy, five years earlier.  The second part described how the narrator had finally tracked "THE VERITABLE SKULL OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE" down to a private family vault beneath a chapel in an "outlandish parish".  That chapel was the Sheldon Chapel, built in about 1580 by Ralph Sheldon on the side of St Leonard's Church, Beoley - the very church of which Langston was now the Vicar.

Langston's story is without doubt intriguing.  There were two important aspects, in particular, which struck me when I first read it.  They chimed with my own research into Shakespeare.  And so I resolved to dig a little deeper.

After several weeks spent combing through census records and the like, I had discovered that most of the individuals named in Langston's remarkably detailed accounts had been real people and were in the area during the period in which Langston's story was set.  These included some extremely obscure local personages - like the grave-robbers recruited by Dr Frank Chambers - and an ancestor of Langston's, Lieutenant Joseph Langston of the Royal Marines, who appears to have been a close friend of Frank Chambers's.  The places were real, and the people were real ... so could the story have been true?

Well, no.  I doubted it very much - and Langston himself was cagey about how much of his story was fact and how much was fiction.  All the same, a Church of England clergyman had, over the space of five years, published two halves of a minutely detailed and meticulously researched account of how Shakespeare's skull had been tracked down to the funerary urn which once held the viscera of Ralph Sheldon.  Ralph Sheldon, a wealthy Catholic, died three years before Shakespeare and was related to him by marriage, via the Sheldon-Throckmorton-Arden nexus of Catholic families in the Midlands.

It was only after I had started putting together the manuscript for Who Killed William Shakespeare? The Murderer, The Motive, The Means (The History Press, 2013) that I discovered, to my surprise, that there is a spare skull in the ossuary beneath the Sheldon Chapel at Beoley.  Better still, that skull had been photographed by Richard Peach for The Village, a local magazine, in September 2009.  Peach had been put onto the story by Morris Jephcott, a villager who now lies buried in Beoley churchyard.  Like others in the village, Jephcott believed the story of the skull to be substantially true.

When I first saw Richard Peach's excellent photos, my eye was drawn to two parts of the skull.  My research had already suggested that there should be some sort of damage or discoloration to Shakespeare's right forehead, just above the eye.  And then there is the evidence of the Droeshout and Chandos portraits of Shakespeare, which both show a distinct swelling on the outside edge of the left eyebrow.

Startlingly, there was an area of actual damage and discoloration clearly visible on the right side of the skull, above the right eye, and on the outside edge of the left eyebrow, where the bone is broken, jagged burrs poke out in the exact same spot where, in the Droeshout and Chandos images, there is clear evidence of a noticeable swelling or injury.

Over the next nine months, while I wrote Who Killed William Shakespeare?, I went back to the photos of the skull time and time again, comparing them with the death mask and portraits of Shakespeare.  I met Richard Peach and studied the photos he had taken of the skull in as much detail as I could.  Little by little, I spotted more distinguishing features and anomalies, linking the skull to the Shakespeare images, which I graphically illustrated in my book:

Such as the thin scar across the bridge of the nose on the death mask, which seems to correspond to a couple of small, triangular puncture wounds on the inside of the left eye socket.  It would appear that a sharp pointed weapon - a poniard - was driven into the eye socket here, forcing the left eyeball forward (hence the "wall-eye" look in the Shakespeare portraits);

Or the distinctive depression, high up on the forehead, very near the top of the frontal bone, which looks a bit like a crater on the skull and is clearly visible in the Shakespeare portraiture (including the so-called Davenant Bust of Shakespeare, which belongs to the Garrick Club, and the half-length effigy of Shakespeare in his funerary monument in Holy Trinity, Stratford, not to mention the Droeshout engraving in the First Folio, which replicates the depression very faithfully);

Or the strange jagged lines running down and across the cheeks of the death mask and the Chandos portrait (National Portrait Gallery), amongst others, which appear to show the damage to the cheekbones and maxilla (upper jaw) instantly visible on the skull;

And so on.  In March 2014, I was invited to give a paper on these matters, which I entitled, "The Faces of Shakespeare", at Goldsmiths, University of London.  That paper was later published in the university's GLITS online journal.

By then, I already knew that a television documentary company was looking into all of this, with a great deal of willing help and co-operation from the Vicar and churchwardens of St Leonard's, Beoley.  Plans were drawn up to extricate the skull and subject it to a range of scientific examinations, including radiocarbon dating and DNA analysis.  The application was submitted to the Diocese, with the full support of the church, for a faculty to remove the skull for laboratory tests.

Sadly, although the advisers to the Chancellor (chief legal officer) of the Diocese were rather in favour of the project, Sir Charles Mynors - the Chancellor himself - was sceptical.  As such, he was only doing his job, and I believe he did so as assiduously as anyone could want.  It would have been natural and proper for him to have sought the opinions and advice of leading Shakespeare experts.  And I have no doubt whatsoever that they gravely misled him.

I know of no one who has looked into Langston's story, researched it, and followed it through to an analysis of the skull identified by Langston as Shakespeare's.  No one.  Until, that is, I undertook that research myself, publishing the results in Who Killed William Shakespeare? and The Faces of Shakespeare (plus, I might add, in my forthcoming biography of Sir William Davenant, due out next February).  No one has ever looked into this.  Nobody from Stratford, to the best of my knowledge, has ever shown the slightest interest in Langston and his story or been moved - by curiosity, if nothing else - to inspect the skull.  No one.

Rather, the line coming out of Stratford has been consistent.  The experts don't want to believe the story, so they rubbish it.  They pretend that it's "folklore" (which it isn't), that the skull was returned to Stratford (which it wasn't), and that Langston only published his story to raise money for the restoration of the church (which doesn't stand up to reasonable scrutiny).  Indeed, there are reasons for believing that Langston made little if any impact with or money from his publication, and certainly not enough to repair his church, if a rather forlorn and desperate letter he sent to James Orchard Halliwell-Phillips in 1887 is anything to go by (I have a copy of that letter too - again, Langston identifies himself as the author of How Shakespeare's Skull was Stolen, only now he is living in Bath and looking for someone who will actually pay him for an article he has written entitled, Shakespeare in his cups.)

The point needs to be made: the Shakespeare experts have gone to quite extraordinary lengths to bury the story of Shakespeare's skull, written by a local clergyman with local knowledge.  It doesn't fit in with their idea of Shakespeare, so it must be ignored, ridiculed, rejected out of hand.  They have refused to look into it and they certainly don't want anybody else to go delving.  The very subject is taboo.

And I'm pretty sure that when Sir Charles Mynors, in all good faith, approached them for their expert opinion, they just showered him with their prejudices.  Which is not, in fact, expert opinion.  Truth be told, they've never bothered to research or investigate the story at all.  Ever.

And now, shortly before filming starts on the TV documentary, a story mysteriously appears out of nowhere in The Telegraph, and then all across the world, rubbishing the very idea that the story of the skull is anything other than "Gothic Fiction".  Sir Charles Mynors had found no evidence to link Shakespeare to the skull.  Of course he hadn't.  Because the Shakespeare fraternity had absolutely no idea that such evidence exists, and if they did, they certainly weren't going to let Sir Charles know about it.

The last thing they want is for someone actually to study the skull, forensically, and compare the idiosyncrasies of the skull - all those dinks and dents and breakages - with the portraits of Shakespeare.  Still less to compare the skull's DNA with a sample taken from one of the descendants of Shakespeare's sister.  You'd think, if they were so sure of themselves, they'd say, "Why not?  Go ahead!  You'll be proven wrong."  But that's not what they've done.  Rather, they've tried to obstruct a legitimate investigation.

There is evidence linking Shakespeare to the skull, be it Langston's painstakingly researched (if somewhat fictionalised) accounts, the visible similarities between the skull and the Shakespeare portraiture, or the links between Shakespeare and the Sheldons, whose funerary vault his skull apparently shares.

Or how about this?  The story began, so Langston claimed, with Horace Walpole's offer to George Selwyn MP of 300 guineas in return for the skull.  Horace Walpole was in a better position than most to know that Shakespeare's skull was not in Stratford but underneath the Sheldon Chapel at Beoley.  Walpole's "intimate friend" and neighbour in Twickenham - he jokingly called her his "wife" - was Lady Browne, born Frances Sheldon, in Beoley.

There is also the matter of why Rev. Charles Jones chose to change his name to Charles Jones Langston just as his first instalment of the story was going to press.  Could it have had something to do with the fact that, shortly after Shakespeare died in 1616, his "cousin", Thomas Greene, promptly resigned his post as steward and town clerk of Stratford-upon-Avon?  The man elected to replace Greene as town clerk was one Anthony Langston.  On 18 August 1619, this same Anthony Langston witnessed a deed by which Shakespeare's old friend and colleague, Henry Condell, conveyed some property in Worcestershire to Edward Sheldon of Beoley.  Was Rev. C.J. Langston seeking to highlight his ancestral link to Anthony Langston, town clerk of Stratford and a man who had a connection with both the co-editor of the First Folio and the son of Ralph Sheldon, in whose funerary urn Shakespeare's skull was allegedly found?

The Chancellor's judgement that no evidence exists to justify the proper forensic examination of the Beoley skull was wrong.  Not his fault, though.  He was misinformed or misguided by those very experts he had turned to for advice.

The same experts who, I suspect, are now trying to undermine the TV documentary about these things by letting the world know that we have been debarred from running DNA tests on the skull and so the case might well never be proven.

One really needs to ask - what are they so afraid of?

Friday, 29 May 2015

Shakespeare and the Ear of Corn

Well, it was pretty big news.  The face of Shakespeare discovered on the cover of The Herball, published in 1597 by John Gerard.  Certainly set the Twitterati a-flutter.

Do I think it's Shakespeare?  Truth be told, it's a bit difficult for me to apply my acid tests for determining whether a portrait is of Shakespeare or not.  The "dent" at the top of the forehead isn't visible, being hidden behind a laurel wreath and what looks like a curly fringe, and the left side of the face is so densely shaded that it's hard to tell if there's any drooping (ptosis) of the left eyebrow (a condition which Shakespeare appears to have passed on to his son).

That said, I think Mark Griffiths' arguments about the image are fascinating and fairly compelling.  And there may be a good reason to suspect that the image is indeed that of Shakespeare - not least of all on the basis of what he is holding.

The "Fourth Man", as Griffiths calls him, is a full-figure portrait of a rather handsome chap wearing some sort of Roman costume.  In his right hand, he holds (raised) a fritillary, which Griffiths convincingly relates to the "purple flower ... chequered with white" in Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis (1593).  In his left hand, the Fourth Man holds (lowered) an ear of sweetcorn.  Griffiths suggests that the appearance of this plant was inspired by the lines:

Oh let me teach you how to knit again
This scattered corn into one mutual sheaf.

from Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus (published in 1594).  But that connection seems a little tenuous to me.

Griffiths does point out that the ear of corn which the Fourth Man (Shakespeare) is holding was an American crop.  The botanist John Gerard, who wrote The Herball, and with whom Shakespeare might have collaborated (hence the inclusion of his image on the frontispiece), had apparently grown and harvested maize.  This could only have happened, of course, after a few samples of maize had been brought back to Britain from America.  And this is why I think the image might indeed be of William Shakespeare.

In Who Killed William Shakespeare? I suggested that the 21-year old Shakespeare actually went on an expedition to Virginia in 1585.  This would have been shortly after his twins, Hamnet and Judith, were born, and so we are into the period known as his "Lost Years".  Shakespeare needn't have travelled as a mariner; Sir Richard Grenville, who commanded the expedition, liked to have music played loud and raucously when he was dining.  Shakespeare might have joined the expedition, then, as a musician.

The flagship, lent by Queen Elizabeth to Sir Walter Raleigh for the Virginia expedition, was the Tiger.  Years later, the Tiger crops up in Shakespeare's Macbeth.  The experiences of the colonists appear to have informed The Tempest, while the sea storm which very nearly wrecked the Tiger on the Virginia coast recurs in such works as Twelfth Night and The Winter's Tale.

There are other hints that Shakespeare might have been on that expedition.  Ben Jonson couldn't help satirising Shakespeare's acquisition of a coat of arms, joking in Every Man Out of his Humour (1598) that the "essential Clown" should have chosen for his motto, "Not without mustard" (Shakespeare's actual motto was Non Sanz Droict - "Not without right").  The "Not without mustard" line was in fact borrowed from the satirist Thomas Nashe, who wrote of a young tearaway caught up in a sea storm and threatened with shipwreck, begging the Lord to save him and promising never to eat haberdine (dried salted cod) ever again.  When the crisis had passed, the "mad Ruffian" added, "Not without mustard, good lord, not without mustard."

I've since discovered another piece of evidence.  In Shakespeare Rediscovered (1938) Clara Longworth, Comtesse de Chambrun, referred to a letter, dated 20 December 1585, which was sent to Queen Elizabeth I.  The letter was signed, "Your Majesty's loyal and devoted true servant, W. H."

W. H. is, of course, one of the great Shakespearean mysteries: the Sonnets were published in 1609 with a dedication to "the only begetter" of the sonnets, "Mr W. H."  In Who Killed William Shakespeare? I argued (after Phillips and Keatman) that "W. H." were the initials of William Hall, and that "Will Hall" was the codename used by Shakespeare whenever he did the State some service.

(Back to Thomas Nashe - who threw "brave Hall" into a pantomime he wrote for the amusement of the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1592, at the same time as "Will Hall" was being paid for services rendered to the archbishop's priest-hunter, Anthony Munday, and Shakespeare was collaborating with Munday on The Book of Sir Thomas More.)

The letter sent to Queen Elizabeth by "W. H." in December 1585 therefore pushes the existence of this mysterious figure back to the beginning of Shakespeare's "Lost Years" period.  The letter writer described himself as a "man of judgment and action neither decrepit in body or in mind and whose present necessities crave to be provided for".  He complained that he had been blackballed or blacklisted by men of superior rank.  This all fits in with Shakespeare's biography, for the Shakespeares had been persecuted in Stratford by the more obsessive Puritans in the area - the Lucys and the Grevilles - not least of all because of their Catholic connections.  In marrying Anne Hathaway, whose family seem to have been Puritan, Shakespeare was making something of an effort to appear "honest" (in the Puritan sense of the word).  But he would still have been under suspicion and, indeed, the letter to Queen Elizabeth does mention certain "Papists" who were good patriots all the same.

The key element in the letter concerns the advice "W. H." presumed to give to her majesty regarding the planting of colonies in Virginia.  The Tiger had returned to London, after depositing the first hapless settlers in Virginia, just two months before the "W. H." letter was written.  And Shakespeare ("W. Hall"), as I have suggested, went on that expedition.  So he would have had some idea of what he was talking about when he wrote to Elizabeth I about colonising Virginia.

Which brings us back to the sweetcorn held by the Shakespeare figure on the cover of Gerard's Herball (1597).  Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis had been a huge success, so it would make sense that the totemic flower from that poem - the fritillary - was pictured in his right hand.  The not-entirely-realistic Roman costume would have established Shakespeare's stage credentials (as well as, perhaps, his Roman Catholic connections).  The ear of maize, however, needn't relate to Shakespeare's theatrical career or his poetry at all.  Its presence in the image might simply have recalled the fact that Shakespeare was one of the very first Englishmen to set foot in Virginia.  He had sailed there on the Tiger in 1585.

The sweetcorn is held downwards, as if to suggest the act of planting.  The planting of colonists in Virginia had been the whole point of the 1585 expedition, and the author of the "W. H." letter to Queen Elizabeth in 1585 also discussed the matter of planting colonies in Virginia.

In that respect, the ear of corn held by the Fourth Man on the cover of The Herball might be one of the best clues as to the Fourth Man's identity.  He was William Shakespeare, alias Will Hall, the man who went to Virginia in 1585 and, we can assume, brought some maize back with him.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Review of "The Grail"

Well, there's already been an encouraging comment - I suppose you could call it an endorsement - on The Grail: Relic of an Ancient Religion from the all-round Arthurian expert John Matthews:

"A brisk rattle through the well-worn paths of the Grail and King Arthur.  Some challenging new theories, applied with a kind of relish reminiscent of Robert Graves, make this a fascinating book."

I'd call that praise.  And now, this new review has just been published on the Radical Goddess Thealogy blog. 

Definitely worth a read!

Friday, 3 April 2015

Breaking the Mother Goose Code

A strange conversation on Facebook, the other day.

Somebody I sort of know had put up a post demanding that we all boycott Cadburys because they're selling "Halal Easter eggs".

Now, the idea of halal chocolate was a new one on me, so I thought I'd check it out.  What had actually happened was this: Cadburys had put up a page on their website, indicating which of their many products are "halal certified".  In other words, it's essentially dietary guidance - a bit like listing which Cadburys products are "Suitable for vegetarians".  There was nothing "halal" about any of it, just a page letting Muslims know which Cadburys chocolate bars and so on are okay for them to eat.

I pointed this out.  But, no, that wasn't good enough.  Because, apparently, Easter eggs are Christian and so, by making them "halal" Cadburys were pandering to the Islamists and helping to sell Britain downriver.

So I came back - no religious text, to the best of my knowledge, refers to chocolate eggs and no religion has a monopoly on them (let's face it, God neglected to let most of the world know that chocolate even existed until comparatively recently).  But I was wrong, it seems, because the word Easter in front of "eggs" makes them Christian, and exclusively so.  And I was apparently attacking my friend's religion, which was a big No-No.  And that's when I explained that "Easter" comes from "Eostre", a pagan goddess - which explains the eggs, bunnies, chicks and other Eastery thingies.  There's no "Easter" in the Bible, only Passover.

And there endeth the Facebook friendship.

Which brings me to the subject of this post.  I was very keen to read Jeri Studebaker's Breaking the Mother Goose Code - How a Fairy-Tale Character Fooled the World for 300 Years, partly because it looked interesting, and partly because my theatrical hero - Joey Grimaldi, King of Clowns - appeared in the first modern pantomime, Harlequin and Mother Goose; or, the Golden Egg, which did great business when it hit the stage at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, in December 1808.

I wondered - just wondered - whether Jeri Studebaker might mention the Mother Goose pantomime in her book.  And I was not disappointed.  Jeri had done her homework.

The first part of Breaking the Mother Goose Code really does focus on the character of Mother Goose, drawing attention to the similarities between this alternately beautiful and grotesque figure and certain ancient European mother-goddesses, especially Holda-Perchta.  The second half takes the argument further, beyond Mother Goose herself, to examine the ways in which so-called "fairy tales" function as a kind of oral memory of the time when Goddess worship was widespread (and largely uncontested), and how these fairy tales - especially when shorn of their latter-day accretions - can be thought of as shamanic journeys and/or magical rituals and spells.

The idea, overall, is that patriarchy is a fairly new phenomenon.  And it's a stinker.  Whenever and wherever it appears, it pursues a sort of scorched earth policy.  But people - whole populaces - don't just alter everything they believe overnight because an angry man tells them to.  Those pre-patriarchal belief systems were natural and hardwired into our collective psyche.  In the face of barbaric violence and blanket intolerance, the old ways lived on - surreptitiously - and did so, partly, through the transmission of fairy tales.

I like this idea.  Mainstream history has been rather naughty, I feel, in taking such a dismissive and lofty attitude towards "folk" history (local legends, place-names, fairy tales).  Just because these things weren't written down till a late stage, doesn't mean that they don't provide us with important glimpses of ancient knowledge.  The Australian aboriginal sang the world back into existence with his song-lines, re-making the landscape by telling its stories, long before the White Man arrived to tell him he'd got it all wrong, and then make a slave of him.

Jeri Studebaker's research for this book is ample and impressive.  She really knows her subject and has gone into it in great depth, producing a book that is both readable and stimulating.  Hard facts mingle with interesting theories and speculations.  And nowhere, I feel, is Jeri at her best more than when she is taking a wrecking-ball to patriarchy.

The differences between patriarchy (recent, bloody) and pre-patriarchal societies (been around for ever, generally equitable and non-violent) are brought out in such a way as to illustrate, not only what a disaster patriarchal structures have been for the species and the planet, but what we lost when we allowed our more natural societies to be steamrollered by the maniacs of patriarchal thinking.  So many lives lost.  So much wisdom lost.  So much damage done.

In fact, Studebaker doesn't belabour this point, but chooses her examples carefully, citing experts in these matters.  Her argument - that fairy tales like Mother Goose represent a sort of quiet resistance, a continuation of pre-patriarchal values in a time of patriarchal thuggery - grows, little by little, from her near-forensic analysis of Mother Goose (Holda-Perchta) herself to the wider world of fairy tales and their magical methodology - until, in my case at least, I was convinced.  Strip away the Disneyfication, and fairy tales really can take us back to a pre-patriarchal age of equality and possibilities.

For an illustration of how disgusting and despicable patriarchal thinking can be, one has only to consider that online run-in with my "friend" over the matter of halal chocolate eggs.  The intolerance, the ignorance, the "I can attack anybody's religion if I choose, but nobody can attack mine!" attitude (even though nobody was actually attacking her Christian faith) and that vague sense of a call-to-arms, a sort of "Let's have another crusade" subtext, are all indicative of patriarchal thinking.  It is crude, divisive, and usually ends in tears.

Mother Goose and her fellows, as Jeri Studebaker shows in her rather wonderful book, can show us that it doesn't have to be like that.  The Golden (Easter) Egg has nothing to do with Christianity, and those who squabble over it - "I can have it, you can't!" - are infantile and deluded.  The Egg was delivered by Mother Goose, the Eternal Feminine, and we can all have it, if we're prepared to play the game.

Click here to go to the Moon Books page for Breaking the Mother Goose Code.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Gods of the Solar Eclipse

Naughty me.  I should have posted this a couple of days ago.

It's a post I wrote for the Moon Books blog, timed to coincide with last Friday's eclipse.

Click here to read it: Gods of the Solar Eclipse.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Mind Body Spirit

Just because you haven't heard a lot from me lately, doesn't mean I've not been busy.

Quite the reverse, in fact.  Interesting research trips to Oxford and Bristol for my biography of Sir William Davenant (nearing completion), lecturing at the University of Worcester, Shakespeare Tours and Ghost Tours in Stratford-upon-Avon, and a new project which I'm not going to tell you about.

But - hold your horses, folks, because it looks like there might be a fair few blog posts in the offing.  The Grail is out, later this month.  Indeed, a correspondent in Washington State has already posted a photo on Facebook showing his pre-ordered copy, which arrived by post today.  So it's kind of out there already.

And here's my first guest blog post on the subject, courtesy of the wonderful Mind Body Spirit Magazine.

More to come ...

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

The Grail ... coming soon!

The Grail ...

Paperbacks delivered to the warehouses.  Ebooks with the distributors.

Only a month till publication date.

Sunday, 4 January 2015


Hello, Happy New Year, and welcome!

It had occurred to me to write up a review of 2014 and the various things that happened last year - from publishing my first university paper on The Faces of Shakespeare to the publication, in September, of Naming the Goddess, in which I have an essay (tweet received this morning from Michigan: 'Loved your essay in "Naming the Goddess"! Great perspective.:)', plus appearances at Stratford Literary Festival and the Tree House Bookshop, lecturing at Worcester University and being a tour guide in Stratford-upon-Avon, completing The Grail; Relic of an Ancient Religion and writing Shakespeare's Son ('The Life of Sir William Davenant'), and so on.  But I didn't get round to it.

Instead, I'm going to preen myself a little over this, which my wife found online a day or two ago.  Seems there's to be a rather interesting-looking course on the 'Renaissance of the Sacred Feminine', to be held at Avebury in Wiltshire (good location!) this coming August.  Details can be found here.

If you click on the link and scroll down to the bottom section - 'Avebury/Wiltshire Reading List' - you'll see that the last entry concerns my King Arthur Conspiracy book.  Alternatively, I'll save you the bother by copying what they wrote:

The King Arthur Conspiracy: How a Scottish prince became a mythical hero
By Simon Andrew Stirling
First discovered during the Scotland adventure, this book is an indispensable read for anyone interested in the Arthur/Merlin/Avalon motif.  All the latest research.  It will expand your view beyond the emphasis on Glastonbury and Tintagel.

Now, seeing that made me feel really chuffed.  It also made me want to get in touch with the organisers and tell them that, actually, all the latest research is probably best found in The Grail, due out in March, but that it was very kind of them to say those things about The King Arthur Conspiracy (and might help with a few book sales), and if there was anything I could do to contribute to their intriguing course in August they had only to ask.

Didn't get round to doing that, either.  Although there's still time.

For the meantime, we're holding our breaths and crossing our fingers over the Beoley skull.  With any luck, there'll be some scientific investigation of that particular item before too long.  Maybe even a TV documentary.  I'll keep you posted.

And my Davenant book is coming on apace.  New discoveries about Shakespeare's relationship with Jane Davenant.  All good clean fun.  The manuscript's due to hit the editor's desk at the start of June.

There's another project in the wings, which I'll mention more about if things keep going smoothly.  All in all, 2015 has a very exciting feel about it.  I hope yours does, too.