Shakespeare and Chester

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The year 1580 saw a spectacular show in the portentous earthquake and blazing comet that marked the year. Published shortly afterwards, Francis Shakelton’s "Blazing Star" warns of "dissolution of the Engine of this World". Shakelton warned of "the Decay of Nature", a concept that became widespread in the 17th century, sanctioning the use of art and science to amend, improve, or replace natural processes. There was a spectacular nova in 1572, another comet in 1577 and another Supernova in 1604. In the ninth episode of James Joyce's Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus associates the appearance of the 1572 supernova with the youthful William Shakespeare, and it has been argued that this supernova is described in Shakespeare's Hamlet, specifically by Bernardo in Act I, Scene i: "Last night of all / When yond same star that's westward from the pole / Had made his course to illume that part of heaven / Where now it burns,". Peter Roberts, proctor of the Consistory Court of St. Asaph, noted in his Cwtta Cyfarwydd: "Md' that in the moneth of November 1618 a strange blazing starre appeared and was seene in the east about vi of the clock in the morning with a long taile upwards towards the weast." The same comet had intrigued James I and after consulting mathematicians from Cambridge he prophesied the outbreak of the Thirty Years' War and the collapse of the Stuart dynasty. It was a time of portents and marvels.

Bishop Lloyd's House, which turns up in this story, is on the Millennium festival trail.

The Chester Mystery Plays are filled with portents and prophecy. These follow a standard religious pattern: a prophecy is made, which later comes "true" and this is then used to justify the truth of as-yet unfulfilled prophecies relating to the future. Following the banning of the Chester Plays 1575 the theatre became intensely regulated under the Master of the Revels. Control over theatre gradually became extended, particularly under Edmund Tylney and the Office acquired the legal power to censor and control playing across the entire country. This increase in theatrical control coincided with the appearance of permanent adult theaters in London. Every company and traveling troupe had to submit a play manuscript to the Office of the Revels. Shakespeare and his contemporaries were forbidden (by official injunction) from staging religious or Biblical content explicitly.

Two possible connections have been proposed between the Mystery Plays and Shakespeare:

  • the first is that Shakespeare was at least aware of the Mystery Plays, either at Chester or elsewhere and may have been influenced by them;
  • the second is that the author of the "Shakespeare plays" was not the historic Shakespeare but someone associated with Chester;

This article reviews the history of events in and around Chester during the period of the Shakespeare history plays, then explores the evidence for linkage between the Shakespeare plays and Chester. Possibly the only historical character who has generated more theories about his actual identity than Shakespeare is "Jack the Ripper" and one of the few things we can be certain of is that "Will" and "Jack" are not the same person.

Shakespeare's History Plays

The striking of a clock in Julius Caesar illustrates how Shakespeare's plays do not pretend to be accurate history. Even his English History Plays contain some clear changes from what actually happened. Before looking for any possible links between the history plays and Chester, these history plays may be summarised as follows:

King John
John and Arthur of Brittany - would you trust your stepson with this guy...
  • King John receives an ambassador from France who demands (with a threat of war) that he renounce his throne in favour of his nephew, Arthur, whom the French King Philip believes to be the rightful heir to the throne. John argues with the Pope and is excommunicated. John orders Hubert to kill Arthur, but Hubert cannot. John attempts to extract gold from monasteries. Arthur dies (possibly murdered). John is poisoned by a monk. The English swear allegiance to Henry who becomes a boy king in 1216. The play was written c. 1596 and is set 1200-1216. Popular representations of John first began to emerge during the Tudor period, mirroring the revisionist histories of the time. The anonymous play "The Troublesome Reign of King John" portrayed the king as a "proto-Protestant martyr", similar to that shown in John Bale's morality play "Kynge Johan", in which John attempts to save England from the "evil agents of the Roman Church". Shakespeare follows these previous depictions and creates a quite anti-Catholic work, but messes with history significantly.
Edward III
  • Edward III (written c. 1596) compresses a very long reign and telescopes history to achieve this, leaving out actual historical characters and creating many anachronisms. It seems that around 40% of the play was written by Shakespeare, the rest possibly by Thomas Kyd, John Jowett and others. It is particularly anti-Scots, for which it was censured at the time of its first performance. It was not included in the first publication of Shakespeare's works, which was published after the Scottish King James had succeeded to the English throne in 1603.
Richard II - deposed, imprisoned in Chester (with tales of a huge hidden treasure possibly hidden at Beeston).

These "early" history plays are followed by the first four plays of the Henriad:

Richard II
  • Richard II (written c 1592) spans only the last two years of the king's life, from 1398 to 1400. A dispute between Henry Bolingbroke, the son of John of Gaunt, and Thomas Mowbray, the Duke of Norfolk is to be resolved by a tournament. At the last minute, Richard stops the contest: he banishes Mowbray for life, and giving in to pleas on behalf of Bolingbroke, commutes his son's banishment to six years. When John of Gaunt dies Richard confiscates his estate. Bolingbroke, resenting the confiscation of his inheritance, returns to England where his army is enthusiastically welcomed by the English, led by Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland. The play ends with the rise of Bolingbroke to the throne, marking the start of a new era in England. The play is the first part of a tetralogy, referred to by some scholars as the Henriad, followed by three plays concerning Richard's successors: Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2; and Henry V.
Henry IV (parts 1-2)
  • Henry IV (written c 1597) has usurped his cousin, Richard II, to become King of England. News comes of a rebellion in Wales, where his cousin, Edmund Mortimer, has been taken prisoner by Owen Glendower, and in the North, where Harry Hotspur, the young son of the Earl of Northumberland, is fighting the Earl of Douglas. Prince Hal spends all his time in the London taverns with disreputable companions, particularly one dissolute old knight, Sir John Falstaff. Hal is reconciled with the king. The King’s army triumphs over the rebels. The king dies and Hal becomes Henry V.
Henry V - shot in the face at Shrewsbury, so only shown in profile beacuse of the scars.
Henry V
  • Henry V’s father Bolingbroke (Henry IV) was never able to rule comfortably because he had usurped Richard II. On his succession King Henry V is determined to prove his right to rule, including over France. The French are defeated, with heavy losses, whereas the English losses are light. Henry returns to London in triumph before making peace with the French king. The play was written c 1599.

The second four plays of the Henriad were written earlier than the preceeding set of four:

Henry VI (parts 1-3)
  • Henry VI (written c 1590) opens in the aftermath of the death of King Henry V. The lords select red or white roses, depending on whether they favour the House of Lancaster or that of York. The country descends into Civil War. Richard of Gloucester begins his campaign to remove all obstacles in his path to the throne by murdering King Henry VI who is a captive in the Tower of London. Henry prophesies Richard’s career of villainy and his future notoriety. Sir Thomas More's History of Richard III explicitly states that Richard killed Henry. However, another contemporary source, Wakefield's Chronicle, gives the date of Henry's death as 23 May, on which date Richard is known to have been away from London. King Henry VI was originally buried in Chertsey Abbey; then, in 1484, his body was moved to St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, by, of all people, Richard III.
Richard III - died in battle (the last English monarch to do so - "Bought and Sold" by the treason of the Stanley's, then possibly maligned by their decendants.
Richard III
  • Richard III (written c 1583) starts as Richard, Duke of Gloucester, determined to gain the crown from his brother, the ill Yorkist King Edward IV. He organises the murder of his brother George, Duke of Clarence, whom he has had imprisoned in the Tower of London. Richard places the young sons of Edward in the Tower and consolidates his power. The king dies and Richard is proclaimed king. The young princes are murdered in the Tower. Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, the heir to the Lancastrian claim to the throne, makes war on Richard and defeats him becoming Henry VII.
Henry VIII
  • Henry VIII married to Katherine for twenty years, decides that the marriage is not legal because she is the widow of his brother, and it is therefore incest. The new Archbishop of Canterbury has a plot hatched against him by Wolsey’s secretary, Gardiner, who is tried and executed for treason. Henry has a daughter, Elizabeth, by Anne Bullen. Cranmer christens her and makes a speech foretelling a noble rule for Elizabeth and a glorious period of history during her reign. The play was written c 1613 - one of the last plays.

In summary, Shakespeare's history plays follow "real" history to some extent but, mess around with the details. Sometimes this might be because the author did not have accurate sources, in other cases it may be simply to create a more dramatic story. Timelines are often compressed bringing events much closer together in the plays than they were in reality.

Richard II, Henry IV and Chester

Shakespeare was living in the reign of Elizabeth I, the last monarch of the house of Tudor, and his history plays are often regarded as Tudor propaganda because they show the dangers of civil war and celebrate the founders of the Tudor dynasty. In particular, Richard III depicts the last member of the rival house of York as an evil monster ("that bottled spider, that foul bunchback'd toad"), a depiction disputed by many modern historians, while portraying his successor, Henry VII in glowing terms. Shakespeare made use of the Lancaster and York myths, as he found them in the chronicles, as well as the Tudor myth. The 'Lancaster myth' regarded Richard II's overthrow and Henry IV's reign as providentially sanctioned, and Henry V's achievements as a divine favour. The 'York myth' saw Edward IV's deposing of the ineffectual Henry VI as a providential restoration of the usurped throne to the lawful heirs of Richard II. Writing plays about political subjects was always a problem in Elizabethan England, so a good choice for real history would be the Lancastrians and Yorkists who came along before, and were defeated by, the Tudors. Even so, it might still be possible to cause offence, for which the penalty could be beheading, so any author needed to be cautious.

Chester 1399-1424

The Chester Mystery Plays were originally associated with the Corpus Christi procession. Some hold that the feast of Corpus Christi was proposed by Thomas Aquinas to Pope Urban IV (1261-64), in order to create a feast focused solely on the Eucharist. Others note that Thomas Becket (1118–70) was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury on the Sunday after Pentecost (Whitsun), and his first act was to ordain that the day of his consecration should be held as a new festival in honour of the Holy Trinity. Whatever it's origins, the feast is liturgically celebrated on the Thursday after the first Sunday after Pentecost in the Western Christian liturgical calendar.

The first possible reference to the Corpus Christi procession in Chester is an inauspicious one - a record of 1399 describes a terrible brawl which broke out between the members of the guilds of the Weavers, Shearmen, Challoners (blanket-makers) and the Walkers (fullers) against their apprentices, outside the guild church of St Peter. 1399 was the last year of Richard II's reign, who had taken the title of "Prince of Chester" for himself in 1398 and was known for his "Chester Guard" - he was soon to be deposed and imprisoned briefly at Chester Castle. In 1424 a further Corpus Christi riot came just after a supposed "royal visit" by Henry VI (then still a child) - it was a time of great political instability: Henry was the youngest person ever to succeed to the English throne, at the age of nine months on 1 September 1422, the day after his father's death. The period between these two riots is covered by the first four plays of the Henriad.

Thomas of Woodstock - Justicar of Chester gets his collar felt. Thomas of Woodstock's murder plays a prominent part in the opening scene of William Shakespeare's play Richard II.

As regards Chester, Richard II visited in 1387 and found the town greatly impoverished with a ruined bridge over the Dee. He made his "favourite" Robert de Vere Justice of Chester. De Vere did not last long and was replaced after a rebellion the following year. Unrest in Chester continued for many years. Richard formed a notorious "Chester Guard" and also errected Chester to a principality with himself as "Prince of Chester". In 1399, while Richard II was away on a military campaign in Ireland, Henry Bollingbroke, later Henry IV, landed in Britain after exile and took Chester without a fight. He stayed at Chester for a few days and then captured Richard II who was briefly imprisoned at Chester Castle. Richard's treasure was reputedly hidden somewhere near Chester (often cited as down the well at Beeston Castle - England’s deepest medieval well).

The Rise of the Stanleys

The Stanley family became powerful during this period. Sir William de Stanley was Master-Forester of the Forest of Wirral and was notorious for his repressive activities. His son, John Stanley led an expedition to Ireland on behalf of de Vere and King Richard II to quell rebellion. In 1389, Richard II appointed John justiciar of Ireland, a post he held until 1391. He was heavily involved in Richard's first expedition to Ireland in 1394–1395. However, on his return to England, Stanley, who had long proved adept at political manoeuvrings, turned his back on Richard and submitted to Henry IV of England. Stanley's fortunes were equally good under the Lancastrians. He was granted lordships in the Welsh marches, and served a term as lieutenant of Ireland. In 1403 he was made steward of the household of Henry, prince of Wales, (later Henry V). Unlike many of the Cheshire gentry, he took the side of the king in the rebellion of the Percys. He was wounded in the throat at the Battle of Shrewsbury. On the 16th September, not two months after the battle, the Prince appointed Sir John Stanley to be keeper of the county of Chester, and to resist the malice of the Welsh rebels round about. In 1405 he was granted the tenure of the Isle of Man by which had been confiscated from the rebellious Henry Percy, 1st Earl of Northumberland. In this period he also became steward of the king's household, and was elected a Knight of the Garter. In 1413 King Henry V of England sent him to serve once more as lieutenant of Ireland.

It has been suggested that John Stanley was the as-yet unidentified "Gawain Poet". The Garter motto "Honi soit qui mal y pense" appears at the end of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the poet exhibits a detailed knowledge of both hunting and armour. Scholars identify the poet's dialect as that of north-west Staffordshire or south-east Cheshire. Several scholars have attempted to find a real-world correspondence for Gawain's journey to the Green Chapel. The Anglesey islands, for example, are mentioned in the poem. They exist today as a single island off the coast of Wales. In line 700, Gawain is said to pass the "Holy Head", believed by many scholars to be either Holywell or the Cistercian abbey of Poulton in Pulford. Holywell is associated with the beheading of Saint Winifred. As the story goes, Winifred was a virgin who was beheaded by a local leader after she refused his sexual advances. Her uncle, another saint, put her head back in place and healed the wound, leaving only a white scar. The parallels between this story and Gawain's make this area a likely candidate for the journey.

In 1403 Sir Henry Percy ('Hotspur'), lately justice of Chester, stayed in the city and raised the standard of revolt there, where former kings men and veterans of the Cheshire Guard still resided by the hundreds. Percy formed an alliance with the Welsh rebel, Owain Glyndŵr. Before they could join forces, Hotspur was defeated and killed at the Battle of Shrewsbury as he raised his visor to get some air (he was wearing full plate) and was hit in the mouth with an arrow.

The single most intriguing event taking place before the Battle of Shrewsbury was the defection from the royal army (and therefor from the Kings' Peace) of Hotspur’s uncle the Earl of Worcester just days before the battle was fought. The impact militarily, on paper at least, was significant, the Earl of Worcester bringing 1,000 men, mostly archers and lightly armed men of foot, over to Hotspurs rebel army. After Percy's defeat one of the quarters of his body was sent to Chester, together with the heads of Sir Richard Venables and Sir Richard Vernon. Chester was not wholly on the side of the rebels as the mayor and the constable of the castle were present at Shrewsbury in the king's retinue.

The future (then sixteen-year-old) Henry V (Prince Hal) was also struck by an arrow which became stuck in his face "to a depth of six inches". Over a period of several days John Bradmore, the royal physician, treated the wound with honey to act as an antiseptic, crafted a special tool to screw into the broken arrow shaft and extract the arrow. The operation was successful, but it left Henry with permanent scars and explains why the one remaining contemporary portrait (see below) shows only the left side of his face. Legislation of 1403, vigorously supported by the mayor of Chester, denied any arms to the Welsh - except a knife to eat with. It is from this time that the Shoot the Welsh story comes from In the weeks following the Battle of Shrewsbury the insecurity of both the new dynasty and some of the city authorities (i.e. those who had been on the King's side at the battle) was demonstrated in the instructions issued by Prince Henry in response to further defections in north Wales. On September 4, 1403, he wrote to the Mayor, Sheriffs and Aldermen of the City of Chester, who were required to impose a curfew upon all Welshmen visiting Chester, and to ensure that they left their arms at the city gates and did not gather in groups of more than three; all Welsh residents were expelled and any who stayed overnight were threatened with execution. Apparently, the actual wording was that: "all manner of Welsh persons or Welsh sympathies should be expelled from the city; that no Welshman should enter the city before sunrise or tarry in it after sunset, under pain of decapitation.". William de Venables, constable of Chester, with the steward and others of the prince's household took the field with the armed forces of Cheshire to resist an imminent invasion by Owain Glyndŵr.

The succession of the English crown through the female line from Henry VIII's sister Mary leads to Ferdinando Stanley. Ferdinando had a place in the line of succession to Elizabeth I according to the will of Henry VIII, after his mother, whom he predeceased. His sudden death led to suspicions of poisoning amid fears of Catholic plots to overthrow Elizabeth.
The Death of Henry V

The sudden death of Henry V, in 1422, from what may well have been drinking water while in France, led to civil war in England. The Wars of the Roses were fought between supporters of two rival cadet branches of the royal House of Plantagenet: the House of Lancaster, associated with the Red Rose of Lancaster, and the House of York, whose symbol was the White Rose of York. Eventually, the wars eliminated the male lines of both families. The power struggle ignited around social and financial troubles following the Hundred Years' War, unfolding the structural problems of bastard feudalism, combined with the mental infirmity and weak rule of King Henry VI which revived interest in the House of York's claim to the throne by Richard of York. Historians disagree on which of these factors to identify as the main reason for the wars. Chester was on the Lancastrian side. In 1450 Sir Thomas Stanley (then Justice of Chester) called upon to supply troops to support the Lancastrians. In 1455 he mobilized a large force from Cheshire to help the Lancastrian cause, but arrived late for the Battle of St Albans (22nd May). In 1459 he turned up late for the Battle of Blore Heath.

Although relations with the crown cooled and (not least from the election of a Welsh mayor) there seems to have been much sympathy with Wales in Chester. Prior to his return, the Stanleys had been communicating with the exiled Henry Tudor for some time and Tudor's strategy of landing in Wales and heading east into central England depended on the acquiescence of Sir William Stanley, as Chamberlain of Chester and north Wales, and by extension on that of Lord Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby himself. On hearing of the invasion, Richard III ordered the two Stanleys to raise the men of the region in readiness to oppose the invader. However, once it was clear that Tudor was marching unopposed through Wales, Richard ordered Lord Stanley to join him without delay.

According to the Crowland Chronicle, Lord Stanley excused himself on the grounds of illness, claiming that he was suffering from the 'sweating sickness', although by now Richard had firm evidence of the Stanleys’ complicity. After an unsuccessful bid to escape from court, Lord Strange (George Stanley) had confessed that he and his uncle, Sir William Stanley, had conspired with Henry Tudor. Richard proclaimed him as a traitor, and let it be known that Strange’s life was hostage for his father's loyalty in the coming conflict. Indeed, Richard allegedly issued orders for Strange’s execution on the battlefield at Bosworth Field, although in the event these were never carried out. The failure of Lord Stanley, to come to the aid of King Richard III at Bosworth contributed to King Richard's defeat. Lord Stanley, who was by then married to the future Henry VII's mother, Margaret Beaufort, is given a major role in Shakespeare's Richard III. George Stanley's son was Thomas Stanley, 2nd Earl of Derby.

The "Stanley" sucession

Events now conspired to set up a complex succession problem. Henry Tudor had two sons, the eldest of which (Arthur) died young leaving the younger son to become Henry VIII. Henry had a sister Mary. Three of Henry's children ruled England: Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth. Henry VIII's Third Succession Act granted Henry the right to bequeath the Crown in his Will. His Will specified that, in default of heirs to his children, the throne was to pass to the children of the daughters of his younger sister Mary Tudor, Queen of France, bypassing the line of his elder sister Margaret Tudor, represented by the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots.

Ferdinando Stanley - at one time second in line to inherit the crown, then died "in a sea of vomit" and his body was so corrupted that even wrapped in lead none could approach it.

Edward VI confirmed this by letters patent. In June 1553, Edward VI wrote his will, nominating Jane Grey and her male heirs as successors to the Crown, in part because his half-sister Mary was Roman Catholic, while Jane was a committed Protestant and would support the reformed Church of England, whose foundation Edward claimed to have laid. The will removed his half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, from the line of succession on account of their illegitimacy, subverting their claims under the Third Succession Act. After Edward's death, Jane was proclaimed queen on 10 July 1553 and awaited coronation in the Tower of London. Support for Mary grew very quickly, and most of Jane's supporters abandoned her. The Privy Council of England suddenly changed sides and proclaimed Mary as queen on 19 July 1553, deposing Jane. Her primary supporter, her father-in-law the Duke of Northumberland, was accused of treason and executed less than a month later. Jane was held prisoner at the Tower and was convicted in November 1553 of high treason, which carried a sentence of death—though Mary initially spared her life. However, Jane soon became viewed as a threat to the Crown when her father, Henry Grey, 1st Duke of Suffolk, got involved with Wyatt's rebellion against Queen Mary's intention to marry Philip II of Spain. Both Jane and her husband were executed on 12 February 1554. Mary was the queen of England and Ireland from July 1553 until her death. She is best known for her aggressive attempt to reverse the English Reformation, and was succeeded by Elizabeth.

According to the will of Henry VIII, Margaret Clifford (Ferdinando Stanley's mother) was in line to inherit the throne of England. Upon the death of her mother, Margaret became seventh in line. However, both her cousins Lady Jane Grey and Lady Mary Grey died without issue, and their sister, her other cousin, Lady Catherine Grey, died without the legitimacy of her two sons ever being proven (this was later established but only after the death of Elizabeth I). Margaret quickly moved up to becoming the first in line to the throne but died prior to the death of Elizabeth I. The legitimate and legal heir of Elizabeth I was now Anne Stanley, Countess of Castlehaven (the marriage of Lady Catherine Grey having been annulled, and her children declared illegitimate, by Elizabeth I).

The links of the "Stanley Succession" to Chester need to be seen in context. William Stanley lived in his later years at Chester, but he was never in the actual line of sucession. Stanley Palace was never the main home of the Stanley's: that was Lathom House near Manchester. The stone-built castle known as Lathom House, built by the Stanley family in 1496, had eighteen towers, and was surrounded by a wall six foot thick and a moat eight yards wide, its drawbridge defended by a gateway tower. In the centre of the site was a tall tower known as the Eagle Tower - that was a far more impressive building than Stanley Palace.

William Shakespeare

The "official" version is that William Shakespeare (bapt. 26 April 1564 – 23 April 1616) was an English poet, playwright, and actor, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's greatest dramatist. Shakespeare was born and raised in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire. At the age of 18, he married 26 year old Anne Hathaway, with whom he had three children: Susanna and twins Hamnet and Judith. The consistory court of the Diocese of Worcester issued a marriage licence on 27 November 1582. The next day, two of Hathaway's neighbours posted bonds guaranteeing that no lawful claims impeded the marriage. The ceremony may have been arranged in some haste since the Worcester chancellor allowed the marriage banns to be read once instead of the usual three times, and six months after the marriage Anne gave birth to a daughter, Susanna, baptised 26 May 1583.

The Chandos portrait is the most famous of the portraits that may depict William Shakespeare (1564–1616). Painted between 1600 and 1610, it may have served as the basis for the engraved portrait of Shakespeare used in the First Folio in 1623. It has not been possible to determine with certainty who painted the portrait, nor whether it really depicts Shakespeare. However, the National Portrait Gallery believes that it probably does depict the writer.

Sometime between 1585 and 1592, Shakespeare began a successful career in London as an actor, writer, and part-owner of a playing company called the Lord Chamberlain's Men, later known as the King's Men, for which Shakespeare wrote during most of his career. Richard Burbage played most of the lead roles, including Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. Formed at the end of a period of flux in the theatrical world of London, it had become, by 1603, one of the two leading companies of the city and was subsequently patronized by James I. The Lord Chamberlain's Men were formed out of Lord Strange's Men comprising retainers of the household of Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange. It is not certain to what extent Shakespeare was involved with Lord Strange's men.

Strange's Men appear to have begun a provincial tour in May 1593, after the London theatres were closed due to plague. Only some fragments of documentary evidence enable us to glimpse parts of it. In early May, they were in Chelmsford, Essex. Later in the summer they visited Sudbury and Faversham. In July, they were in Southampton. In July and August, they headed west to Bath and Bristol. They then turned north and visited Shrewsbury, from where they may have gone on to Chester and York. In December, they were in Leicester and Coventry before they returned to London. Ferdinando Stanley died in April 1594.

The touring company could not have seen the mystery plays because they were last performed in 1575. The crucial dates are 1569 (the last performance of the York cycle - Shakespeare would have been 5), 1575 (the last performance of the Chester cycle - Shakespeare would have been 11), 1576 (the prevention of an attempt to perform the Wakefield cycle), and 1579 (the last performance of the Coventry cycle - Shakespeare would have been 18). However Shakespeare could not have seen any Old Testament material at Coventry as since the 1530s it had consisted of only ten pageants covering exclusively New Testament material from the Annunciation to Doomsday. There is in fact no hard evidence that the Coventry cycle ever contained any Old Testament episodes and, if it had done so, it had certainly ceased to do so by the time of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare included in his plays more child roles than did his contemporaries. Children in Shakespeare's world often exist as figures in someone else's play; as royal pawns in adult power games they are the often the fragile vessels of dynastic ambition. Their deaths can by mysterious as with Arthur in King John or Mamillius in the Winter's Tale. Children are murdered in MacBeth, Richard III and threatened with death in Henry V. The fate of children in Shakespeare offers a view of English history as a tragedy of failed succession, a viewpoint which could politically trouble triumphant Elizabethan providentialism. But there is also a personal angle. Sometime in the spring or summer of 1596 Shakespeare must have received word that his only son Hamnet, eleven years old, was ill. Whether in London or on tour with his company he would at best have only been able to receive news intermittently from his family in Stratford, but at some point in the summer he presumably learned that Hamnet’s condition had worsened and that it was necessary to drop everything and hurry home. By the time the father reached Stratford the boy—whom, apart from brief visits, Shakespeare had in effect abandoned in his infancy—may already have died. On August 11, 1596, Hamnet was buried at Holy Trinity Church: the clerk duly noted in the burial register, “Hamnet filius William Shakspere.”

The play "Hamlet" illustrates very well how Shakespeare was influenced by earlier works. The immediate source of Hamlet is an earlier play dramatising the same story of the Danish prince who must avenge his father. No printed text of this play survives and it may well have been seen only in performance and never in print. References from the late 1580s through to the mid 1590s testify to its popularity and to the presence of a ghost crying out for revenge. There is general scholarly agreement that the author of this early version of Hamlet was Thomas Kyd, famous as the writer of the revenge drama, The Spanish Tragedy. This play did survive in print and was a huge theatrical hit in the late 1580s and 90s, delighting the contemporary taste for intrigue, bloodshed and ghostly presences. However Kyd and Shakespeare were only the latest spinners of an age-old yarn originating in the ancient sagas of Scandinavia. It was written down in manuscript form in the twelfth century by the Danish scholar, Saxo Grammaticus, in his Gesta Danorum and it finally found its way into print in 1514. It is the story of the murder of a Danish ruler by his brother (Fengi = Claudius), swiftly followed by the marriage of the widowed queen (Gerutha = Gertrude) to the murderous brother, the assumed madness of the dead king's son (Amleth = Hamlet) and his voyage to England during which he alters the letters bearing his death warrant, and his return to avenge himself upon his father's killer.

At age 49 (around 1613), he appears to have retired to Stratford, where he died three years later. Few records of Shakespeare's private life survive; this has stimulated considerable speculation about such matters as his physical appearance, his sexuality, his religious beliefs, and whether the works attributed to him were written by others.

The Shakespeare authorship question is the argument that someone other than William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the works attributed to him. Anti-Stratfordians—a collective term for adherents of the various alternative-authorship theories—believe that Shakespeare of Stratford was a front to shield the identity of the real author or authors, who did not want or could not accept public credit.

Some of the anti-Stratfordian theories associate "Shakespeare" with an author who lived in or near Chester. The next section looks at the historical evidence for links between Shakespeare and Chester and the following section looks at the theories concerning one particular authorship candidate: William Stanley.

Shakespeare and Chester

There are some links between Shakespeare and Chester, but they are rather obscure as well as being rather odd. The possible connections to the Chester Mystery Plays is discussed below, but there are two other links that are worth noting:

The clock at St Peter

A new (perhaps the first) mechanical clock was made for St Peter in about 1585 by William Sampson, who appears to have also been a blacksmith and was awarded the freedom of the ciry in recompence. Curiously, there was also a William Sampson clockmaker of Stratford-on-Avon, who got into some kind of legal trouble at St Brides, London and needed surety for bail before the Queens Bench. The bail (£19) was apparently provided, in 1597, by one Gilbert Shakespeare (haberdasher), who is believed to have been the brother of the somewhat better-known William. It is impossible to say with any certainty that these two William Sampsons, both alive at the same time and both clockmakers, are one and the same person: see Clockmaker for more.

The Sonnets

Queen Dido may be portrayed on Bishop Lloyd's House in Chester, although that probably dates from c1615. Someone once put quite some effort into a carving that is hardly noticed today. There are some curious links between the play and the complex history of Queen Elizabeth I and her sometime suitor Robert Dudley.

Thomas Thorpe (or Thropp) (c. 1569 – c. 1625) was an English publisher, most famous for publishing Shakespeare's sonnets and several works by Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson. The 1609 quarto of Shakespeare's sonnets include a dedication to "Mr. W.H." whose identity has been much speculated upon. Geoffrey Caveney, an American researcher, has unearthed possible evidence to link the initials with William Holme, who had both personal and professional connections to Thorpe. Both possibly came from prominent Chester families, were publishing apprentices in 1570s London and had strong connections with theatres through publishing major playwrights such as Ben Jonson and George Chapman. The suggestion has been made that "W.H." is William Holme, and that this is the same William Holme who lived in Chester, or a relative, possibly the eldest brother of Randle Holme, another William, who died in 1607. This second William Holme was apprenticed to his uncle in 1581 and admitted to the London Stationers Company in 1589. See: Bookseller for more.

An even more obscure connection is the rather radical theory about a Richard Thropp of Chester is that he was actually a run-away Christopher Marlowe, who had escaped an assassination attempt (May 1593) in London (or faked it), and consequently assumed the identity of a real Thropp who remained in London. There is a good deal of speculation about Marlowe in various publications. The facts of his life are that he was born in early 1564, and active as a playwright from 1587, being patronised by Ferdinando Stanley. If Thropp arrived in Chester around 1635 he would have been far too old to be Marlowe. However given the connection between the Thropp of Chester and Thorpe of London there may be an interesting tale still waiting to be discovered. The one link between Marlowe and Chester that is on firmer ground is that one of Marlowes better-known works is Dido, Queen of Carthage (published 1594) appears related to a play performed in Chester in 1563 (see: Queen Dido for more).

Shakespeare and Mystery Plays

Links can be found between the wording of the Chester Mystery Plays and the works of Shakespeare. Some of the links are relatively clear and others are admittedly quite strained. It can be proposed that either Shakespeare's work arose out of a general theatrical background which included the Mystery Plays or that there was a specific input from the Chester Plays. Once again the crucial dates are 1569 (the last performance of the York cycle - Shakespeare would have been 5), 1575 (the last performance of the Chester cycle - Shakespeare would have been 11), 1576 (the prevention of an attempt to perform the Wakefield cycle), and 1579 (the last performance of the Coventry cycle - Shakespeare would have been 18 - and soon to be married "in haste").

While there are links between the works of Shakespeare and Chester/Cheshire, these may be co-incidence and might not stretch to the Chester Mystery Plays themselves. The "source" could be another Mystery tradition, such as York. Some examples are given below:

  • In the Shepherds play the otherwise silent Shepherd boys present gifts which include a bottle, a hood/cape, a pipe (as in musical instrument, possibly a Pibgorn) and a nut-hook. Shakespeare uses "nut-hook" twice: in Merry Wives of Windsor Act I scene I and in Henry IV Part 2 Act V scene IV). It is not clear whether the reference to a "nut-hook" is a reference to a bishop's crosier.
  • Twice in Shakespeare’s plays, Judas is described as treacherously greeting Christ with the words “All hail!” (Richard II, Act IV. sc. 1 - "DID they not sometime cry ‘All hail!’ to me, So Judas did to Christ: but he in twelve, Found truth in all but one" and Henry VI, Part 3, Act V. sc. 7 - "So Judas kiss’d his master; And cried—‘All hail!’ when as he meant—all harm"). This phrase does not occur in any version of the Bible available to Shakespeare (it was later introduced as Matthew 26.49 - the original having been something like "peace upon thee, rabbi") but it does occur in the York episode of the "Agony in the Garden" and the "Betrayal" (not in the Chester version), and Shakespeare’s repeated use of the phrase implies a familiarity with something popular and at the time non-biblical. Shakespeare uses similar language in MacBeth at a stage in the play where MacBeth has not yet become the anti-hero.

Shakespeare's Plays and Chester

Some of the plays have definite links to events in Chester/Cheshire:

King John (mid 1590's)
Prince Arthur and Hubert de Burgh

The parallel between the Abraham and Isaac play and Hubert's preparations to blind the young Arthur in King John has been noted by several scholars. Hubert is given direct orders by his "Lord" to maim a boy he has in some ways treated as a son. Maiming by blinding and possibly also castration was a recognised way of ensuring that a dynastic rival was not only incapable of ruling, but also incapable of producing heirs. It fell short of actual killing and therefore was not against the commandment against killing and was quite common in the Byzantine Empire.

The historic Arthur is of course connected with Chester, being the adopted son of Earl of Chester Ranulf de Blondeville, and named as heir by Richard I. The strange mixture of childish terror and quiet obedience which is found most strikingly in the Chester and Brome plays is certainly there in Shakespeare. One difference between the Shakespeare play and the actual history is the circumstance of the death of Arthur - Shakespeare has Arthur die jumping from the castle walls, whereas many historians believe that Arthur was actually killed, possibly by John himself. The play takes as it's subject a previous dispute between Rome and the English ruler: the only English monarchs to be excommunicated were Harold II, John, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The choice of John for a monarch in conflict with Rome is therefore forced on Shakespeare, which is somewhat unfortunate given that both Henry VIII and John consolidated their position through the death of an Arthur with a better claim to the throne.

A Midsummer Nights Dream (1595)

The rude mechanicals of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" may be a comic rendition of the artisan actors of the provincial mystery plays, including the talking ass of Balaam in the Chester Mystery Plays. It has been claimed that William Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night's Dream for the occasion of the 1595 wedding of Elizabeth de Vere and William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby. Elizabeth de Vere, Countess of Derby, Lord of Mann (2 July 1575 – 10 March 1627), was an English noblewoman and the eldest daughter of the Elizabethan courtier, poet, and playwright Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

Merry Wives of Windsor (c. 1597)

The earliest mention of Herne the Hunter comes from William Shakespeare's 1597 play The Merry Wives of Windsor. Officially published versions of the play refer only to the tale of Herne as the ghost of a former Windsor Forest keeper who haunts a particular oak tree at midnight in the winter time, the god of vegetation, vine, and the wild hunt, and is associated with the stag in rut each fall. The only link to the mystery plays is the reference to a "nut-hook" which is used in the sense that a beadle has a "catchpole". This may well have been a term in common usage.

Henry IV (c 1597)

The action of the Henriad follows the dynastic, cultural and psychological journey that England traveled as it left the medieval world with Richard II and moved on to Henry V and the Renaissance. Politically and socially the Henriad represents a progression from the heavy government of feudalism and hierarchy to the national state and scope for individualism. Alvin Kernan suggeted that in mythical terms it is "the passage is from a garden world to a fallen world". While that metaphor might be seen as linking it to the mystery plays it is a very common one and cannot be taken as establishing a link.

Hamlet (c 1600)

“Art thou there, truepenny?” is Hamlet’s question, directed at the “old mole” of a ghost in the understage cellarage of the Globe Theater, raises a question of the play: what is there, under the stage — Purgatory or Hell? This may have been based on the two-level wagons of the mystery plays. The portrayal of Herod was so "over-the-top" that it may have been referenced by Shakespeare in Hamlet (act 3, scene 2) where he mockingly coins the phrase "to out-Herod Herod" as an admonition to the players in the "play within the play":

  • O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumbshows and noise: I would have such a fellow whipped for o'erdoing Termagant; it out-herods Herod: pray you, avoid it.
MacBeth (c. 1606)

Shakespeare's porter from MacBeth says: "Knock, knock, knock!" - pretending he’s the gatekeeper in hell - "who’s there, in the devil’s name"? This is straight from the Harrowing of Hell in the Mystery Plays. Even more so because MacDuff (who was knocking) will be the eventual agent of MacBeth's destruction. In Macbeth Shakespeare portrays the sibylline figures from his source texts but transforms them into demonic figures - making them a parody of the Sibyll who advises Octavian in the Nativity play. Shakespeare acknowledges the power of prophecy to influence dynastic change, but shares the growing anxiety about prophesy in English culture. It is noted the Chester Plays contain significant references to prophecy. "By the pricking of my thumbs" occurs in the speech of the second witch, while the fourth boy in the "Shepherds" hands over a crozier-like "nut-hook" so that "Joseph shall not need to hurte his thumbs". The play features the murder of an innocent after the manner of Herod. Notably there is no suggestion that MacBeth has any children which might continue his line and at the outset of the play the Three Witches make no mention of his offspring (although they do mention those of Banquo).

Stanley Palace in 2014. The house has been extensively modified over the years with the north wing (the rightmost bay) having only been built in 1935. Stanley Palace was built in 1591 on the site of the former Black (Dominican) Friary as the town house for Sir Peter Warburton, a local lawyer and Member of Parliament. Despite what is said on some websites William Stanley probably never lived there.

The "Derbyites"

The "Shakespeare" canditdate most closely associated with Chester is William Stanley. So this section takes a closer look at him and the connections.

William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby, KG (1561 – 29 September 1642) was an English nobleman and politician. Stanley inherited a prominent social position that was both dangerous and unstable, as his mother was heir to Queen Elizabeth I under the Third Succession Act, a position inherited in 1596 by his deceased brother's oldest daughter, Anne, two years after William had inherited the Earldom from his brother Ferdinando Stanley, 5th Earl of Derby.

Ferdinando Stanley

Ferdinando Stanley, 5th Earl of Derby (1559 – 16 April 1594) was a supporter of the arts, enjoying music, dance, poetry, and singing, but above all he loved the theatre. He was the patron of many writers, including Robert Greene, Christopher Marlowe, Edmund Spenser, and William Shakespeare. Shakespeare may have been employed by Strange in his early years as one of Lord Strange's Men, when this troupe of acrobats and tumblers was reorganized, emphasizing the performing of plays. The troupe produced Titus Andronicus and the trilogy of Henry VI, Part 1, Henry VI, Part 2, and Henry VI, Part 3. Some of these plays may contain oblique references to the Stanley family's political position at the time. By 1590, Strange's was allied with the Admiral's Men, performing at The Theatre (owned by James Burbage, father of Richard Burbage). He was also associated with Leasowe Castle.

After his succession to his father's titles and estates in 1591, more reports of Roman Catholic plots on Ferdinando's behalf reached Burghley, particularly of a priest in Rome who had said of the new Earl of Derby that he "though he were of no religion, should find friends to decide a nearer estate [to the throne]". English rebels who had fled overseas sent a man named Richard Hesketh to urge Ferdinando that he had a claim to the crown of England by right of his descent from Mary, Queen Dowager of France, the second surviving daughter of Henry VII and a younger sister of Henry VIII. The Heskeths had once been retainers of the Stanley family and were also family friends (they also had links with Shakespeare). This is why Richard Hesketh was chosen to approach Derby about the matter that has come to be known as "the Hesketh Plot". Hesketh was an amateur alchemist and an aquaintance of both John Dee and Edward Kelly (both supposed alchemists). He was also Ferdinando's step-brother.

Ferdinando held two private meetings with Hesketh and then took him to London for further discussions with his mother, who had earlier been excluded from the Queen's court and placed under house-arrest for allegedly plotting against Elizabeth (by having a horoscope prepared to see when the queen would die - the astrologer got the axe). However, he finally dramatically rejected Hesketh's proposition with displays of scorn and indignation, even turning him over to Burghley (despite the fact that he had been told that should he not join the plot he would suffer a wretched death). Hesketh was interrogated and later executed at St Albans in November 1593 having implicated Ferdinando’s brother William in the plot. However, Stanley, who had hoped that his display of loyalty to Elizabeth would be rewarded, was shut out of the case and was marginalised. He was dismayed when the position of Lord Chamberlain of Chester was given to Thomas Egerton rather than himself, complaining that he was "crossed in court and crossed in his country". To add to the chaos several of Ferdinado’s servants had sought shelter in the household of the Earl of Essex after Hesketh's death and there was a suggestion that Essex also had a hand in Ferdinando’s soon to come demise.

The location of Stanley Palace shown on an old map of Chester from the Grosvenor Museum.

Leasowe Castle may have been built for Ferdinando Stanley in 1593, possibly (though this is disputed) as an observation platform for the Wallasey races which took place on the sands in the 16th and 17th centuries, and which are regarded as a forerunner of the Derby races. Ferdinando's brother William was described as a noted sportsman and is remembered as a keen supporter of the Wallasey races. At first the castle consisted only of an octagonal tower. This had become disused by 1700, and it became known as "Mockbeggar Hall", a term often used for an ornate but derelict building: the term "Mockbeggar Wharf" is still used for the adjoining foreshore.

He died in unexplained circumstances on 16th April 1594 having been taken suddenly and severely ill with vomiting. He is buried in Ormskirk. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography he asked his doctors to stop treating him as he knew he was dying (or perhaps because the treatments of his doctors were worse than the prospect of death). Due to the sudden and violent nature of his final illness, poisoning was widely suspected. He died what contemporaries considered a horrible death, in a "violent sea of vomit that was so putrified that no one would go near the body ‘till his burial". In Camden's Historie of Elizabeth (London: Fisher, 1630, Booke 4, p 65) it is stated:

  • "Ferdinand Stanley Earle of Darby… expired in the flowre of his youth, not without suspition of poyson, being tormented with cruell paynes by frequent vomitings of a darke colour like rusty yron. There was found in his chamber an Image of waxe, the belly pierced thorow with haires of the same colour that his were, put there, (as the wiser sort have judged, to remove the suspition of poyson). The matter vomited up stayned the silver Basons in such sort, that by no art they could possibly be brought againe to their former brightnesse… No small suspicion lighted upon the Gentleman of his horse, who; as soone as the Earle tooke his bed, tooke his best horse, and fled".

It appears that the reference to silver may have been included to suggest that the poison was arsenic, as arsenic solutions will discolour silver. Arsenic was available at the time: during the Elizabethan era, some women used a mixture of vinegar, chalk, and arsenic applied topically to whiten their skin. This use of arsenic was intended to prevent aging and creasing of the skin. However extreme thirst is also a symptom of arsenical poisoning and not found among Ferdinando's meticulously recorded symptoms. When he became ill he had just returned from four days of hunting and may have eaten poisonous mushrooms, which would also fit his symptoms, although they are rare at the time of year he died.

Had Ferdinando Stanley not died in 1594 then upon the death of his mother (1596) he would have been first in line of succession to Elizabeth (who died in 1603) and could have become King Ferdinando at the age of 44.

William Stanley in Chester

Stanley was educated at St John's College, Oxford. In 1582 he travelled to the continent to study in university towns in France and may also have attended Henry of Navarre's academy at Nérac. In 1585 he returned home but was once more sent to Paris as part of an embassy to Henry III of France. He then remained on the continent for a further three years of personal travels before returning home once more. He may have been accompanied on his travels by the young John Donne. During his travels, William Stanley is said to have led an adventurous existence, being involved in duels and love affairs and travelling in disguise as a friar while in Italy. He is supposed to have also visited Egypt, where he fought and killed a tiger, then going on to Anatolia, where it is claimed he narrowly escaped being executed for insulting the prophet Mohammed; he was supposedly released because a Muslim noblewoman wanted to marry him. According to the story, he turned her down, travelling on to Moscow and then to Greenland, from where he returned to Europe in a whaling ship.

William Stanley, Sixth earl of Derby (1561 – 29 September 1642), is believed by some to have written the plays of Shakespeare. He may have been present at the last performance of the Shepherds Play "before the Lord Strange and other notables" in 1577-8. Lord Strange's Men was an Elizabethan playing company, comprising retainers of the household of Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange (often wrongly pronounced "strang") and is connected with Shakespeare.

These colourful adventures are traceable to a popular ballad entitled Sir William Stanley's Garland, which exaggerates his three years away from England to "twenty one years travels through most parts of the world". This was recorded in 1800 and its contents published in 1801. There is no extant documentary evidence for these supposed adventures, but the stories were regularly repeated in 19th-century biographies of the sixth Earl

After his period of European travel, a long legal battle eventually consolidated William Stanley's social position. Nevertheless, he was careful to remain circumspect in national politics, devoting himself to administration and cultural projects. The upshot of the legal battle was a judgement that the Isle of Man, a possession of the 5th Earl, was forfeit to the Queen. However, the Queen ceded her right to it in recognition of the Stanley family's services. Stanley was granted Lathom and Knowsley, with other lands and estates in Lancashire, Cumberland, Yorkshire, Cheshire (Bidston Hall on the Wirral), Wales, and elsewhere, while Ferdinando's daughters received estates linked to baronies and the Isle of Man, but they sold it to their uncle, the 6th Earl, and his title to it was later confirmed by James I. A few years after the death of his wife (she died in 1627), when Derby was "old and infirm, and desirous of withdrawing himself from the hurry and fatigue of life" he assigned his estates to his son James, retaining an annuity of £1,000. He bought a house by the River Dee just outside Chester, where he lived in retirement until his death on 29 September 1642. It is now generally believed to be the structure known as "Stanley Palace", but may actually have been on the groves "by the River Dee just outside Chester" where he established a bowling green (see below). The minutes of the Chester Assembly for Friday, 22nd September 1626 record:

  • "William Earl of Derby petitioned to have in fee farm a piece of land by Deeside underneath St. John's on which he had built a chamber and enclosed the land. It was ordered that he should be granted his request on payment of 20s. a year rent at Michaelmas"

The riverside below St. John's church was corporation property and used as a public walk by 1717. In 1726 it was leased by the city council to Charles Croughton, an apothecary (under yearly rent of one pepper corn), who secured the river bank and planted an avenue of trees for the public benefit. Croughton had lately purchased the "Earl of Derby's house and garden near Dee" and wanted a grant of the ground between his garden wall and the river Dee in return. The petition is ZAF/51/109 in the archives:

  • "Petition from Charles Croughton, apothecary, stating that he had lately purchased the late Earl of Derby's house and garden near Deeside within the liberties of the city and praying a grant of the ground between his garden wall and the river Dee leaving a convenient footway through the same or, otherwise, liberty to bring his said garden wall in a direct line from the Bowling Green wall to the corner of the wall of the house of Easemont at the east end of his garden wall."

The wording of the lease was:

  • "Herbage and pasture of piece of ground near St. John's Church, beside the River Dee, from the corner of the Bowling Green house to the garden wall, now in possession of Andrew Kendrick, 187 yards long, with licence for Croughton to carry his garden wall on the north side of the said ground in a direct line from his summer house wall to the house of easement at the east end of the said ground. Croughton to make a fit public walk from north to south 7 yards by 2 yards and plant it with trees and not to enclose it at each end except with a turnpike"

The "bowling green house" was next to the bowling green which Stanley had set out.

James H. Greenstreet

William Stanley is one of several individuals who have been claimed by proponents of the Shakespearean authorship question to be the true author of William Shakespeare's works. Stanley's candidacy was first proposed in 1891 by the archivist James H. Greenstreet, who identified a pair of letters by the Jesuit spy George Fenner dating from 1599 in which he reported that Stanley was unlikely to advance the Roman Catholic cause, as he was "busy penning plays for the common players". Greenstreet argued that the comic scenes in Love's Labour's Lost were influenced by a pageant of the Nine Worthies "only ever performed in Stanley's home town of Chester" (he lived at Bidston Hall on the Wirral). A description of this survives from 1621 in the Cooper's records:

William Stanley sometimes said to be of Stanley Palace actually established the lower bowling green by the River Dee - and lived there. The green gave its name to "Lower Green Street" - now "Parkside".
  • "Order of our showe: First 2 woodmen with &c / St George fighting with ye dragon &c / (confused passage) / The 9 worthies in complete armour with crowns of gold on their heads / every one having his esquire to bear before him shield and penon of arms, dressed according to their lands were accustomed to be: 3 Israelites, 3 Infidels, 3 Christians &c / After them same to declare the rare virtues and noble deeds of the 9 worthy women / The 9 worthy women every one adorned after their country fashion, each one having her page before her bearing their armes."

The Nine Worthy Women were the female equivalent of the Nine Worthy Men. In one list the nine comprise three Pagan, three Jewish, and three Christian. The three Pagan women were Lucretia, Veturia, and Virginia. The three Jewish women were Esther, Judith, and Jael, and the three Christian women were Helena the mother of Constantine, Saint Bridget of Sweden, and Saint Elizabeth of Hungary. Other versions included female British leaders such as Boudica, queen of the Iceni, who led an uprising against Roman occupying forces; Æthelflæd, daughter of King Alfred, who fought off various Viking attacks; and Margaret of York, wife of King Henry VI, who led the Lancastrians in battle against Edward IV. The identity of the Nine Worthy Women in the Chester pageant is not known, but some of those listed above have connections with Chester: Æthelflæd re-fortified the city, Helena appears in the local legend of Saint Elen of the Hosts, and Margaret of York (Margaret of Anjou) visited Chester in 1453 and 1455.

Love's Labour's Lost is one of William Shakespeare's early comedies, believed to have been written in the 1590s for a performance at the Inns of Court before Queen Elizabeth I. In the play Ferdinand, King of Navarre, and his three noble companions, the Lords Berowne, Dumaine, and Longaville, take an oath not to give in to the company of women. They then become enamoured of a trio of women and attempt to impress them with an enactment of some of the worthies, which collapses into chaos. Clearly if Greenstreet is to be correct then Stanley must have seen the pageant in the early 1590's. The worthies are also mentioned in Henry IV, Part 2 in which Doll Tearsheet is so impressed by Falstaff's bravery in fighting Ancient Pistol that she says he is "as valorous as Hector of Troy, worth five of Agamemnon, and ten times better than the Nine Worthies". The Nine Worthies had not devolved to folk culture even in the seventeenth century, for a frieze of the Nine Worthies, contemporary with Shakespeare's comedy, was painted at the outset of the seventeenth century at North Mymms Place, Hertfordshire, an up-to-date house built by the Coningsby family, 1599. The frieze was only rediscovered in the 20th century after Greenstreet made his arguments.

James Stanley, the 7th Earl of Derby was imprisoned and tried at Chester Castle, almost escaped, and was executed at Bolton. He is said to haunt Stanley Palace, where he was arrested according to some accounts - other accounts have him being arrested near Nantwich.

Greenstreet attempted to develop his ideas in a second paper, but died suddenly in 1892, leaving his arguments incomplete. The theory was revived in The Silent Shakespeare (1915) by the American writer Robert Frazer, who concluded that "William Stanley was William Shakespeare". The idea was then taken up in France and was first advocated in scholarly detail when the Rabelais expert Abel Lefranc published his book, "Sous le masque de William Shakespeare: William Stanley, VIe comte de Derby" (1918).

Stanley and the Shakespeare Plays

As a general point, Shakespeare retired around 1613 and died in 1616, whereas Stanley lived until 1642. The 1632 "Second Folio" (second edition of Shakespeare's works), issued in that year, shows signs of careful revision that only the author himself might trouble to make: the text was modernized, e.g. by making the letters u and v correspond to two different sounds. Some changes were made to the texts. Revisions prior to the publications of the "First Folio" (1622) also indicate that they were made very late before publication. For example Richard III was also published in quarto form in 1622 and the subsequent First Folio version contains over 2,000 minor changes and 230 new lines, yet it also contains twelve printer's errors from the 1622 quarto, suggesting that whoever made the changes was working directly from that: Shakespeare had been in his grave for six years when the quarto came out.

The following arguments summarise the case for and against a link between Stanley and specific plays:

The arms of the Stanley family refer directly to their history as wardens of a royal hunting forest. They are also found in a variant form on the front of Bishop Lloyd's House in Watergate Street.
  • Love's Labour's Lost (1594-5): Greenstreet only identifies a mention of the worthies in a Chester midsummer pageant from 1621, after Shakespeare's death and well after the play was first performed - although the relevant Company Books, Mayor's Book and Assembly minutes are difficult materials to work with. There is apparently no earlier mention of the worthies at Chester in the records of early English drama. However knowledge of the worthies was circulating elsewhere in Shakespeare's time, although the evidence for this was lost until after Greenstreet's death. There is a link between Stanley and the "worthies" which does not involve Chester: Stanley's tutor Richard Lloyd had written a play - "A brief history of the acts and conquests of the nine worthies" - in 1584. Lloyd may have accompanied Stanley to Navarre in 1582, where the play is set, and it must be noted that a principal character in the play is "Ferdinand" - wheras Stanley's brother was Ferdinando. Educated audiences at the time would have been aware that the real world equivalent of Ferdinand could be Henry IV of France.
1506 - Sculpture at the Town Hall - Chester gets its reward for treason against Richard III? - Henry VII made the city a county in its own right, confirming the role of the major and sheriffs as the heads of the judiciary in Chester.
  • Richard III (1592-3): In his 2000 edition of the play for the Oxford Shakespeare, John Jowett argues that the play may originally have been written for Lord Strange's Men, but the author added some new material after it had passed to Pembroke's Men, a company which formed in mid-1592 and disbanded in September 1593. The patron of Strange's Men was Ferdinando Stanley, 5th Earl of Derby, a direct descent of Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby, a major character in the play. However the author altered much of his source material (Sir Thomas More's History of King Richard III) regarding this character, presenting him as far more heroic and honourable than does More. For example, the author has Thomas lead a battalion against Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field, when it was in fact his brother William who led them. The author does not mention William being at the battle at all. The murder of Clarence in Richard III occurred five years before the action of the play, and it is unlikely that Richard was responsible for it. Interestingly Richard III appears to be based on 'The True Tragedy of Richard the Third' (possibly by Edward de Vere) which describes Richard as "A man ill shaped, crooked backed, lame-armed, withal / Valiantly minded, but tyrannous in authority". Both playwrights’ depictions of the role of the Stanley family in the final months of Richard’s reign depart in similar ways from the relevant chronicle accounts. In the period following Richard’s usurpation, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, was attempting to gather support in France for his eventual invasion of England. Even though Richard III had appointed Thomas Stanley High Constable of England, he was suspicious of him because Stanley had married the widow, Margaret Beaufort, Henry Tudor’s mother, and was thus his stepfather. The chronicles report that when Stanley asked Richard if he might travel to his property to visit his family (but actually to prepare to support Henry Tudor’s invasion), Richard refused to allow him to go, and later changes his mind provided Stanley left his son George in court as a hostage. In both plays, this scene is dramatized similarly, beginning with Richard’s greeting of Stanley with the phrase “What news?”. In both plays, Stanley answers ambiguously. In True Tragedy, Richard persists with questions about Henry Tudor’s plans and his strength – to which Stanley replies that he knows nothing. Neither Richard’s surly rejection of Stanley’s assurances, nor his change of mind are supported in the chronicles. The sources agree that Thomas Stanley wanted to aid his stepson, the Earl of Richmond, against Richard, but was unable to do so openly for fear that Richard would execute his son George. They report that Stanley and Henry Tudor met in secret before the battle, but say nothing about what they agreed to.
The arms of the Stanley family as found on the front of Bishop Lloyd's House in Watergate Street in Chester.
  • Merry Wives of Windsor (1597): Falstaff is conned into dressing as "Herne the Hunter" - and the arms of the Stanley's feature stag horns, harking back to their origins as the Foresters of the Wirral. Stanley would have had any knowledge of royal hunting forests needed to write the play. There is a tenuous link to Chester - "Herne" could be derived ultimately from the same Indo-European root, *ker-n-, meaning bone or horn from which "Cernunnos" derives. A more direct source may be the Old English hyrne, meaning "horn" or "corner". Both have been associated with Heronbridge ouside of Chester through the "Cornovii". There are some links to Wirral in the Arthur/Gawaine legends.
  • "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (1595): It would have been difficult for Shakespeare to have seen the "Balaam" Mystery Play at Chester, but it would have been possible for Stanley to have seen it. A further link and a complication is that the play may have been written for Stanley's own wedding to a daughter of yet another candidate for the "real" author of the plays.
  • "King John" (1596): This is an anti-catholic play. John was one of four English monarchs to be excommunicated: Harold II, John, Henry VIII and Elizabeth. In 1190 Arthur was designated heir to the throne of England and its French territory by his uncle, Richard I, the intent being that Arthur would succeed Richard in preference to Richard's younger brother John. Arthur was the posthumous son of Geoffrey II, Duke of Brittany and Constance, Duchess of Brittany. His father, Geoffrey, was one of the sons of Henry II, King of England. Nothing is recorded of Arthur after his incarceration in Rouen Castle in 1203, and while his precise fate is unknown, it is generally believed he was killed by John. The pro-Stanley point in this play is that it was the will of the late king Richard that Arthur should succeed him, just as it was the will of Henry VIII that succession should go to the Stanley's and not to the Stuarts.
Henry VII with "Mona Lisa" smile - "Treason doth never prosper, what's the reason? For if it prosper, none dare call it Treason."
  • "The Henriad"(1596-99 and 1591-2): The Stanley's were very closely involved in the historical events behind this play. One theme which the author of these plays is that of succession to the English throne. Derby's ancestors are given prominent roles in the history plays, with John of Gaunt delivering Shakespeare's most famous patriotic speech. Derby studied law and was entangled in a fifteen-year lawsuit over the inheritance of ancestral holdings. In Richard III the Stanley's find the crown after Richard's death and crown Henry Tudor. Richard III was revised after Shakespeare's death: initially Oxford was only "First Lord" - wheras later he becomes a member of the family of Stanley's wife.
  • "MacBeth" (1606): Elizabeth I was the last of Henry VIII's descendants, and James was seen as her most likely heir through his great-grandmother Margaret Tudor, who was Henry VIII's elder sister. From 1601, in the last years of Elizabeth's life, certain English politicians—notably her chief minister Sir Robert Cecil — maintained a secret correspondence with James to prepare in advance for a smooth succession. In MacBeth, the three witches profess that Banquo's descendants will become kings. Shakespeare's source Holinshed portrays Banquo as an historical figure: he is an accomplice in Mac Bethad mac Findlaích's (Macbeth's) murder of Donnchad mac Crínáin (King Duncan) and plays an important part in ensuring that Macbeth, not Máel Coluim mac Donnchada (Malcolm), takes the throne in the coup that follows. King James was thought at the time to be a descendant of the real Banquo. The House of Stuart was descended from Walter fitz Alan, Steward of Scotland, and he was believed to have been the grandson of Fleance and Gruffydd ap Llywelyn's daughter, Nesta ferch Gruffydd. In reality, Walter fitz Alan was the son of Alan fitz Flaad, a Breton knight. However the play effectively wipes out Banquo's line with the murder of his child Fleance. According to a strict interpretation the play undermines the ancestry of James as it was then understood. There is doubt of the legitimacy of Edward Seymour, Viscount Beauchamp. James I regarded the Seymour line as legitimate, and based his own succession on his right by primogeniture, ignoring the Will of Henry VIII. One possible interpretation of MacBeth is therefore that it brings into question the validity of the Stuart sucession - although it does not point to the Stanley succession as a legal alternative.
  • "The Tempest" ()1610-11: Prospero is the rightful Duke of Milan but has been usurped, and seeks to restore the fortunes of his family through his daughter Miranda and Ferdinand. The name of the intended bridegroom may be a reference to Ferdinando Stanley and his potential claim to the English throne. In real life Ferdinando married Alice Spencer. Her husband died on 16 April 1594, and when his mother died two years later, Alice's eldest daughter, Anne became heiress presumptive to Queen Elizabeth I. Upon the Queen's death in 1603, however, the crown passed to King James VI of Scotland who was descended from Margaret Tudor, the elder sister of King Henry VIII, whereas the Stanleys were descended from his younger sister, Mary Tudor, Queen of France. The play contains two speeches which can be taken as a "retirement speech", either that of Shakespeare but also possibly that of Stanley finally giving up on his family claim to the crown. Notably, Henry IV of France, the probable source for Ferdinand in "Love's Labour's Lost", was assasinated in 1610, and another claimant to the English throne (Arbella Stuart) was imprisoned (she later died in prison).

Unless the works of Shakespeare are by Stanley, nothing of Stanley's work survives and it has been argued that this stands against Stanley being the author behind Shakespeare, especially as Stanley lived for longer than Shakespeare (who died 1616) and could have continued a writing career. However it is possible that with the death of Elizabeth (1603) and the succession of the Stuarts, Stanley had no longer any motivation to push for the Stanley succession argument - except for one final dagger from MacBeth and a farewell from the mouth of Prospero (1610-1611).

If arriving at Chester Station many visitors will walk down Brook Street (seen here looking back towards the station) which provides an interesting introduction to the architecture of Chester. The "Bowling Green" on the right has an interesting mural over the door showing Drake &Co playing bowls while the Spanish Armada invaded Protestant England. It is now the Catholic Social Club. On the far right can be seen a relic of WW2 an "EWS" Emergency Water Supply marker on the Bowling Green wall. In general the "half-timbered" buildings are more recent than the rest. On the left, the "Stanley Arms" opens the way to a complex story of Shakespeare and Chester, which curiously also involves Elizabeth I, and bowls.

Shakespeare and Bowls

William Stanley was evidenly very fond of the game of bowls. Not only did he have an enclosed bowling green at Chester, but he also had one at Bidston. Curiously Henry VIII declared that only the wealthy could bowl, passing a law that said the working class could only play bowling on Christmas Day, as part of the 12 Days of Christmas which was popular in Tudor England and was a general time of joy and rare frivolity for the working class. There are many allusions to this game in the plays. It was played with a small ball, and the pin, called the jack, or sometimes termed the “mistress” was what the players aimed at. In some early versions of the game, there was only one pin.

Plans of William Stanley's Bidston Hall showing the bowling green: the summerhouse is said to be "club" shaped because of the local story that the house was won and lost in a game of cards.

In "Troilus and Cressida" (iii. 2), Pandarus says: "So, so; rub on, and kiss the mistress": a bowl that kisses the jack, or mistress, is in the most advantageous position; hence “to kiss the jack” served to denote a state of great advantage. In "Cymbeline" (ii. i), Cloten exclaims: "Was there ever man had such luck! when I kissed the jack, upon an up-cast to be hit away! I had a hundred pound on't."

In Richard II, the Queen and her lady have a conversation which goes: "Lady: Madam, we'll play at bowls. Queen: "Twill make me think the world is full of nibs, And that my fortune runs against the bias": the bias, was a weight inserted in one side of a bowl, in order to give it a particular inclination in bowling. The opening where the weight was placed was sometimes called the “eye” which is the reference Stauton is making in King John when he says “ (ii. i): "on the outward eye of fickle France". As a result of references like these, "To run against the bias," became a proverb. In the "Taming of the Shrew" (iv. 5) Petruchio says: "Well, forward, forward! thus the bowl should run, And not unluckily against the bias." Also in “Troilus and Cressida” (iv. 5), the term ” bias-cheek” is used to talk about a cheek swelling out like the bias of a bowl, which is another colloquial reference to bowling.

The Stanley's are not only associated with the Shakespeare authorship question but have also been dragged into the question of authorship of "Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight", which appears to have been written in Cheshire Dialect during the time of Richard II (or shortly after). Whether there is a deliberate "political" message intentionally hidden in Gawain, or whether it just made use of tropes from its time remains undecided, but does contain references to the area around Chester where Richard II, who styled his court after that of the mythical KIng Arthur, had a major power-base (see: Royal Treasure).


The Stanleys had a lot to gain from a positive portrayal of their ancestors, particularly Thomas Stanley, in Shakesspear's plays. In truth the behavior of the Stanleys at Bosworth was described precisely by Richard the Third as "Treason, Treason, Treason.....". However the history plays read as if Richard was the pure villan. During Richard's reign, the historian John Rous praised him as a "good lord" who punished "oppressors of the commons", adding that he had "a great heart". In 1483 the Italian observer Mancini reported that Richard enjoyed a good reputation and that both "his private life and public activities powerfully attracted the esteem of strangers". As for Richard's physical appearance, most contemporary descriptions bear out the evidence that aside from having one shoulder higher than the other (with chronicler Rous not able to correctly remember which one, as slight as the difference was), Richard had no other noticeable bodily deformity. The near contempory historian John Stow talked to old men who, remembering him, said "that he was of bodily shape comely enough, only of low stature".

The Stanley's, with a big nod to their Manx associations, offer the crown to Henry Tudor on Bosworth Field.

Shakespeare ignores the role of Thomas’s brother, William Stanley, who intervenes, according to the chronicles, with "three thousand tall men" to win the battle for Richmond at the last minute. In fact, apart from a mention of him by Shakespeare in Act IV Scene 5, he ignores William Stanley altogether. In real history William Stanley was later executed: ten years after Bosworth he became involved in another plot (support of the pretender Perkin Warbeck), this time against the man whom he had helped to the crown. Warned in time, Henry had William Stanley seized, tried and beheaded. In the chronicles Richard is shown winning even the hand-to-hand struggle with Richmond, until Stanley’s forces turn the tide. On stage, Richard is shown losing the battle before he meets Richmond. Shakespeare's portrayal of the wife-murdering Richard persisted though historians are pretty convinced she died naturally of tuberculosis. Nor is he really thought to have contrived the deaths of her former husband, her father-in-law, or his own brother George, Duke of Clarence. Perhaps Richard's ghost was even tempted to get his revenge on Laurence Olivier who wins realism points for using real arrows, though this didn’t work out well. Olivier was trying to film an archer bringing down Richard’s horse, which had been fitted with padding to protect it from injury. Unfortunately, Olivier moved as the archer took his shot – and the arrow went straight through his leg. Apparently Oliver was such a pro that he made sure the scene was perfect before he submitted to the attentions of a doctor. Filming was not held up: Olivier had already been affecting that historically inaccurate limp on his left leg, and luckily that was the one that got injured.

The History Plays seem to paint the Stanleys in a far better light than actual history, but that in itself does not prove the case for Stanley being the actual Shakespeare author. The plays also downplay the characters of the enemies of the Tudors, particularly Richard III, but that again is not evidence of authorship. Two notable themes in other plays are King John going against the will of the previous king in not permitting Arthur to succeed Richard (as the will of Henry VIII was also disregarded, disfavouring the Stanley claim), and MacBeth wiping out his "rival" Banquo, from whom James I was then thought to have been descended. Both these can be seen as an attack on the validity of the Stuart sucession. None of these requires Stanley to be the actual author of the plays - he could simply have suggested these plot lines, perhaps with the help of a financial inducement - Shakespeare does seem to have become rich quickly. In two cases there are "Ferdinands" who are rulers, and these may or may not be based upon Stanley's brother. All of this can be explained by Stanley interference either prior to Shakespeare's death or in the preparation of the Folios. There certainly appears to be a good case for Richard III being modified to also enhance the positive role of the DeVere family (which William Stanley married into). As for input from Chester, it is difficult to sse how Shakespeare could have seen the Mystery Plays, although there are some potenial echo's of the Chester Cycle in the plays: for example the doorman in Macbeth, the seemingly unique reference to a "nut-hook" and the kiss of betrayal. Indirect references such as the costume of Falstaff and the arms of the Stanleys may be co-incidence.

The single course of stone at the base of this garden wall in Lower Green Street may be all that is left of William Stanley's retirement home in Chester.

If William Stanley was the author of the "Shakespeare" plays, and his intent was to bolster the position of the family in the succession then he was right to remain anonymous - his own mother was placed under house arrest for having an astrologer try to guess when the queen would die (and the astrologer was executed). Any association with a plot was a potentially lethal thing: in 1564 Elizabeth's Privy Council signed a "Bond of Association" designed by Cecil and Walsingham which stated that anyone within the line of succession to the throne on whose behalf anyone plotted against the Queen, would be excluded from the line and executed. In 1585 Parliament passed the Act of Association, which provided for the execution of anyone who would benefit from the death of the Queen if a plot against her was discovered. In other words even if someone else had started a plot the person who stood to benefit, even if completely innocent, faced execution. The Act was passed in March 1585, but is listed under 1584 because under the common law acts of Parliament took effect retrospectively from the beginning of the session in which they were passed, which in this case was 1584. When Fernando Stanley turned Hesketh over to Burghley he was exposing himself to enormous risk.

It is also worth noting that possibly the first play in the sequence may have been "The First part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster". This play may have a very early date: Robert Greene's (posthumous) pamphlet Greene's Groats-Worth of Wit (entered in the Stationers' Register on 20 September 1592) mocks Shakespeare as:

  • "an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his 'tiger's heart wrapped in a player's hide', supposes that he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you."

This parody of 3 Henry VI, 1.4.138, where York refers to Margaret as a "tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide!", proves that 3 Henry VI was well known by September 1592, which means it must have been staged before 23 June, when the government closed the theatres to prevent the spread of plague. As it is known for certain that 3 Henry VI was a sequel to 2 Henry VI, it is certain that if 3 Henry VI was on stage even earlier before June 1592. That is getting close to the beginning of Shakespeares first work as a playright. As the Henry VI plays begin the damnation of Richard III that could indicate that once the course of anonymity was launched upon it could not be put off, for though the prize was the crown, exposure would lead to the loss of the author's head.

Both Stanley Palace in Chester and Bidston on the Wirral are interesting places today. Stanley Palace is sometimes open to the public on heritage days and can be hired for events. Bidston Hill contains a number of ancient rock carvings, including that of a Sun Goddess, thought to have been carved by the Norse-Irish around 1000 AD. It is also the site of Bidston Windmill, built around 1800 and Bidston Observatory, owned by the Natural Environment Research Council - and part of the telegraph chain through Hilbre Island. Bidston Hall, built by William Stanley, is nearby. On the "Earl of Debry's Dee-Side" at Chester there is little to see, except perhaps some stones at the base of a brick wall beside what was once "Lower Green Street". These are where Croughton's house once stood as indicated by the Lavaux Map, and we know that Croughton's house was previously inhabited by the Earl of Derby. The house was apparently still there according to the 1815 Map of Chester, but does not appear in the 1853 "Balloon View" of Chester by McGahey (see: "Hermitage" for more on the history of this corner of Chester).

Perhaps somewhere yet to be discovered is the final evidence that will decide the "WS" question - be that William Stanley or William Shakespeare. There are undoubtedly links between the two, certainly enough to raise the question of whether Stanley was the actual author of at least some of the plays, if not a contributor of some plot elements. It could also be that the vital evidence lies hidden somewhere in Stanley Palace or at Bidston, but given the effort that has been spent looking for it, the conclusive proof is probably either well hidden, lost or, given the skill shown in the plays "hidden in plain sight". The plays, pageants, people and places around which this tale revolves are enough to keep the audience discussing the plot long after the curtain falls, which is all any writer could ask for.

The "Earl of Derby's Dee-Side" in 2019, seen from the Suspension Bridge in Chester. William Stanley's house by the river would have been in the middle of the image.

Related Pages

Sources and Links

  • The URL of Derby: an excellent website with arguments about Derby being Shakespeare (and the inspiration for this article);