William and Richard

We said goodbye to Hungerford on Friday and began our journey to York. The skies had gone grey again and threatened to rain. But that didn’t deter us from two requisite stops: Stratford-upon-Avon to visit William Shakespeare and then on to Leicester to visit one of his most famous villains, Richard III.

All the world’s a stage

When my mother found out we were only spending a few hours in Stratford she said we weren’t giving it near enough time. As usual, mother was right.

In 1564, John Shakespeare, glove maker, and his wife, Mary, had a son, William who grew to become the most distinguished playwright and poet the English language has ever known.  200 years after he died it became popular to question whether this mere  glover’s son could possibly have written the great works attributed to him and advanced a number of theories around the true authorship of Shakespeare’s works.  But during his lifetime no one questioned his identity and it’s more likely that the theories were an attempt by the elite to discount the talent of one so low born. Ultimately, though, who cares? It’s the works that matter. Someone penned those plays and poems, and that person is known to history as “Shakespeare.”

Stratford is a very walkable town, but there is a lot to see. We picked the three most important sites and as it was spent longer in the town than we meant.  With more time, taking in a Shakespeare play would be a must. But we did manage to tour the house where Shakespeare was born, the Church of the Holy Trinity where he was baptized and buried, and the childhood home of Anne Hathaway, his wife.

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Birth – The Shakespeare house

Marriage – Anne Hathaway’s cottage

William was 18 and Anne was 26 when they got married in a bit of a rush. Their daughter, Susanna, was born six months later.

The Anne Hathaway cottage is about a mile from Stratford City Centre, in what was the neighboring village of Shottery. The real reason to visit it is the stunningly beautiful gardens that surround the well conserved Tudor cottage.

Burial – Church of the Holy Trinity

Shakespeare was not just buried here.  He was baptized here and was active in the church all his life.  His wife and daughter are buried next to him.  The epitaph engraved in stone (and recreated for legibility) is one reason his body has never been exhumed and moved to Westminster.

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Determined to prove a villain

We left Stratford and made our way to our next stop, Leicester Cathedral, to visit the new tomb of Richard III.

One of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters was the scheming hunchback with the withered arm who murdered his nephews and stole the crown. Richard III. Usurper. As literature it is brilliant, but the history is shaky.  History  is written by the victors and the victors, in this case, were the Tudors.  Henry VII, having defeated Richard at the battle of Bosworth, needed to solidify his very weak claim to the throne.  So he married Elizabeth of York, Richard’s niece and daughter of Edward IV, and set about painting Richard as a murdering usurper.   Most of what we ‘know’ about Richard III came from a biography written by Sir Thomas More, close associate of Henry VIII.

History is beginning to take a more balanced view of Richard, driven, in part, by the discovery of his remains under a car park in Leicester in 2012.  There is still much no one knows about Richard, and it is true that his nephews, the erstwhile Edward V and his younger brother, Richard, disappeared after being declared illegitimate and secured in the Tower of London.  Did Richard have them killed? It’s certainly possible. Maybe even probable.  But there is absolutely no evidence one way or the other. He didn’t need to kill them to be King (they had already been removed from the line of succession) and there were others who had as much reason, if not more, to want them dead.  (Henry VII for one.) It’s doubtful we’ll ever know.

In any case, Richard, was in many ways a successful King, bringing legal reforms during his short reign aimed at protecting the common people. He was beloved in the North and mourned when he died. My guess is that he was no saint (he was a Plantagenet, after all), but neither was he the devil that history has made him out to be.  (He was definitely not a hunchback and had no withered arm!) It’s a story that intrigues me, partly because it is so ambiguous. History is a slippery bloke – hard to grab a hold of.

As mentioned, they found Richard’s remains in 2012 beneath a parking lot in Leicester, where he had been lying for 500 years. After the Battle of Bosworth his body was buried beneath a priory which eventually disappeared under the modern city. He was reinterred in March of this year in Leicester Cathedral.  Good or evil (or, more likely, somewhere in between) he finally has a tomb fit for a King of England.

Richard III Tomb
Richard III Tomb
Richard III statue
Richard III statue

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