Shakespeare’s friends in the North.

Friends in the North.
Shakespeare in Lancashire.

“What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen, what old December’s bareness everywhere”.

December 1580 and Lancashire shivers under an icy mantle of bitingly cold, bleak weather, an east wind bringing plummeting temperatures and blizzard conditions.

After the day’s heavy snowfall, the late afternoon is clear and frosty with big stars beginning to shine over the silent, white fields.

Candles flare in the windows of Rufford Hall, a large timber framed manor house near Ormskirk, home to the aristocratic Hesketh family.

It is Christmas Eve and the great house is being made ready for celebrations that will last until Twelfth Night. The kitchen is a hive of activity, oxen slowly roasting on revolving spits, hand turned by perspiring, red-faced servants. On the Hall’s stone flagged floors, the long oak tables are ready for the feast and behind the exuberantly carved wooden screen at the rear of the hall, the players can be heard tuning voices, violins, virginals, flutes and tabors ready for an evening’s entertainment of drama, music and dancing, singing, tumbling, dumb-shows and noise, duels and wrestling, of pageant and poetry, of witches, fairies, ghosts and goblins.

Outside the house, the tenant farmers and their families, whose livelihoods depend upon the Lord of the Manor, Sir Thomas Hesketh, move slowly through the white landscape, sometimes stopping to beat their hands on their chests and stamp their feet in an effort to keep warm. Luckier ones, wearing every item of clothing they can find, huddle together on carts pulled by shire horses crunching through the snow, their warm breath condensing into icy droplets as they haul logs destined for the open fire of the Great Hall.

Icicles hang inside the Manor’s bedrooms but the “Dyninge chamber” must be kept warm for the coming celebrations.

On the low-lying fields, once marshland, a shepherd huddles in a rough shelter watching over his master’s flock.

A red nosed milkmaid slithers and totters along carrying pails of frozen milk to the kitchen.

Crows perch silently in the bare trees and herds of deer, unable to forage, clatter gingerly across the hard ground towards the house, hoping to be fed scraps by hand from wicker baskets held by excited, pink faced children.

In the 16th century Britain was experiencing a little “Ice Age,” when even the widest rivers froze solid for weeks on end and became venues for, “Ice Fairs.” Tented villages to have a grand day out at before returning to the warmth of the great Hall to be entertained by the players and the musicians at banqueting tables groaning with festive fare.

Then as the night grew on, clustering together for warmth and companionship round the open fire, not daring to venture alone up the dark staircases and along the dimly lit passageways. Spooky places, whose atmosphere could creep into one’s “sinful” heart and fill it with a mixture of apprehension and terror. A state easily achieved when the Catholic concepts of purgatory and hell were held to be absolute truths and drummed into you in childhood

A Tudor house like Rufford—now open to the public and owned by the National Trust—is bound to accumulate its fair share of “ghosts” and things that go bump in the night and the Old Hall is no exception.

A door that will never keep open or shut, the sound of a spinning wheel, an axe, a cry, a sigh, a footstep or, worse still, a rattling of chains.

A “Grey lady”, haunts Rufford. Nay, even Gloriana herself, Queen Elizabeth the First has been known to make a bejewelled appearance. There have certainly been enough creepy carryings-on to attract the producers of the paranormal TV series, “Most Haunted.”

Now, whether “Spirits” are doomed to walk the night, bringing with them airs from heaven or a fiery blast from hell, is a matter for conjecture.

Certainly, if you’re inclined to believe in these things, hanging about at cock crow on Rufford’s mossy lawns only to hear sounds of lamentation and regret as hordes of wandering ghosts troop miserably home to their wormy beds, is probably not a good idea.

I mean, how many hard luck stories are you prepared to listen to?

Personally, I wouldn’t mind my having my ear bent a bit if I could be absolutely certain of cracking a mystery that has haunted me for some time. A sensible spectre might be able to solve it once and for all. Male or female, I don’t really mind. In any case, gender might not matter once one has shuffled off this mortal coil. I don’t think I’d be too scared. In fact, I wouldn’t mind if my informant had a certain presence, no self-respecting ghost should be without one but I don’t want to waste time having to put up with a load of sorrowful, self accusatory wailing and remembrance of things past, when I have a couple of simple questions to ask before Aurora’s beams start to tint the topiary squirrels on Rufford’s elegant lawns and the ghostly wandering turns into a stampede as the moaning Minnies all rush home before sunrise.

First question.

“Rufford Hall, your starter for 10. Were you alive and around the old Hall in 1580? A thumbs up will do, please don’t nod your head, it might have been removed in the 16th century and could easily fall off again.”

If a quivering grey thumbs-up is offered, then on to the second question.

The Biggy.

What used to be called, the $64,000 question until “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” came along.

“Did William Shakespeare really live and work at Rufford hall?”


“No, no. Shake—speare. William Shakespeare. Became a playwright and…. please stop worrying about the lengthening shadows and what looks like a tint of orange beginning to kiss the dew drops.”

“Shakeshafte did. William Shakeshafte. I used to call him little Willie, really annoyed him. I always found him a bit sensitive. Wrote sonnets, that kind of thing. Not very good in my opinion. He was here all right, friends in high places, if you know what I mean? Him and, Fulk Gyllome. Good actor, Fulk, couldn’t tell him from a woman once he had a dress on. I wonder what happened to him? Look, I’m sorry but I must dash, I’ve got to be under six foot of loam in the next five minutes or the wife will be giving me the cold shoulder. Shakeshafte, that’s who you need to be looking for. Merry Christmas to you. It’s back to darkness and the burning lake for me. At least it’ll be a lot warmer than here. Lancashire, eh? Why couldn’t I have died in the Bermudas? Anon, anon and all that. See you sooooooon!”

It’s at this point that I normally wake up in a cold sweat.

As you can see, the question is, was it the young William Shakespeare who lived and worked at Rufford Hall in 1580 or was it William Shakeshafte? Aye, there’s the rub must give us pause.
He could, just as easily, have used dozens of other variants of his family name. The Elizabethans weren’t as pedantic as we are about spelling and regional variations abound as they wrote out of the sound of their own dialects.
He could have been, Sakspere, Schakosper, Schackspere, Saxper, Schaftspere, Shakstaf, Chacksper or even, Shasspeere.
In Stratford alone, documents of the period show twenty different and separate spellings.

If you haven’t come across the story before, here are the bare bones of it.

It would appear that the 16-year-old Shakespeare, whose family had fallen on difficult times, almost certainly linked to their Catholic connections, was recommended by his Stratford schoolmaster, John Cottam, a Lancashire man from Tarnacre, to teach or help teach the children at Hoghton Towers, a fortified manor house near Preston, ancestral home of the noble Hoghton family, probably as an “usher,” an assistant.

That the young Shakespeare was a teacher of some kind is affirmed by the 17th century gossip, John Aubrey, who wrote, “Shakespeare had been, in his younger years, a schoolmaster in the country.”
Aubrey claimed to have heard this from a man whose father, a well-known actor, had worked in Shakespeare’s own London Company in Shakespeare’s lifetime.

Leaving home at that age might well have been an emotional experience, reflected perhaps in a scene from, “Two Gentleman of Verona” where Launce, laying the dust with his tears, describes a tearful family farewell that had his grandma and his mother weeping, his father wailing, their maid howling, even the cat wringing its hands.

Another member of the Hoghton family he was to join up north was called, Alexander and lived at nearby Lea Hall.
Alexander kept a company of players and in his will left his stock of “play-clothes” (costumes) and all his musical instruments to his brother, Thomas or, “If he did not choose to keep players, to Sir Thomas Hesketh of Rufford Hall” and he added, “And I most heartily require the said Sir Thomas to be friendly unto Fulk Gyllome and William Shakeshafte, now dwelling with me and either to take them into his service or else help them to some good master, as my trust is, he will.”

Hoghton also left 40 shillings each to Gyllome and Shakeshafte, a considerable amount, perhaps £5000 in today’s earnings.

Could Shakespeare really have lived and worked in Lancashire before he became famous in London?

The answer is more than likely, yes.

Many scholars now agree that there is a strong case that the young Shakespeare, using his grandfather’s surname–common at that time in Lancashire—and his family’s Catholic connections, lived, worked and travelled around the county, first as a schoolmaster and then probably as a player, starting at Houghton Towers, moving on to Lea Hall and Rufford and later on joining the household of a greater and more theatrically influential family, the earls of Derby, one of whom, Lord Strange, kept a company of players whose skills were to take them to London.
It is at least possible that this youthful acquaintance with Strange’s professionally ambitious players was made in the north of England by 1581.
It is certainly true that the principal players of Lord Strange’s Men, as they were known, Will Kempe, Thomas Pope, John Heminges, Augustine Philips and George Bryan, later formed the core of the London company which the mature Shakespeare would come to be associated with, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.
Intriguingly, there still exists a copy of “Holinshed’s Chronicle’s” a history book used extensively as a source by Shakespeare in some of his plays, that is annotated in what looks to be his own handwriting. A book that was jointly owned by the Hoghton and Hesketh families.

Young William’s stay in Lancashire proved fruitful over the years. They probably didn’t call it networking then but that’s what he seemed to be doing, benefiting from his Catholic connections.
The Rufford link pops up again when the highly successful Shakespeare and four colleagues started to build the Globe Theatre in London. Acting as an important trustee for them was a goldsmith by the name of, Thomas Savage. Savage was not only a native of Rufford but he was related, by marriage, to the Hesketh family.
By 1582, the 18-year-old Shakespeare had left Lancashire and returned to Stratford where, on a summer’s day he met a farmer’s daughter, “more lovely and more fair,” perhaps? The 26 years old, Ann Hathaway. By November they were married. Six months later, their daughter, Susanna was born.
One would like to think that they were able to wet the baby’s head by using some of the 40 Lancastrian shillings lovingly left to young William Shakeshafte by Alexander Hoghton, one of his many friends in the North.


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