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Shakespeare and the First World War


Shakespeare took a sabbatical last year. More precisely, I took time away from Shakespeare Comic books to write a book about National Trust properties and the First World War. Having sent a proposal to the publisher in December 2012, I met with a commissioning editor in January, had a follow-up meeting with the National Trust in February and began preliminary work straight afterwards. For the first few months of 2013 I continued to spend time on a new colour edition of Macbeth, but from May I was lost in warfare, visiting more than forty NT properties and making contact with many others.

During my researches, I had expected to come across men like Virginia Woolf’s Septimus Warren Smith in Mrs Dalloway who ‘went to France to save an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare’s plays and Miss Isabel Pole walking in a green dress in a London square.’ Yet if any carried pocket editions of Shakespeare or consoled themselves under fire by reciting Sonnet XV they didn’t mention it in letters. Instead, the correspondence I came across was mostly characterized by observations on the weather and thanks for parcels of cake and cigarettes.

Shakespeare was elusive. He made a fleeting appearance in my visit to Rufford Old Hall, but other than that the only connection I unearthed was tangential, in the death of Arthur Greg on April 23, 1917. The son of a wealthy textile manufacturer at Quarry Bank Mill, Cheshire, Arthur had enlisted while at Oxford in 1914 and wrote to his parents from France the following year, This is a dirty and barbarous life. The sight of the first charge on Hill 60 was terrible. Hardly a man survived the storm of the shell and machine gun fire… The constant close contact with death makes me think deeply. I long to be home away from these sights and sounds.’

Later, in May 1915, he was severely injured in the jaw. Of his injury he wrote, ‘I went down like a log and was next aware of a loose, horrid and disconnected feeling about the lower part of my face… At one time I thought I should not live as I was bleeding so furiously. I thought it a pity that one more so young should have to go.’

Having recovered from his wound, Arthur transferred to the Royal Flying Corps in September 1916 and after elementary training found himself posted back to France in early 1917. By then, the RFC was losing twenty air crew every day and the average life expectancy of a newly arrived pilot was under a fortnight. Arthur was to exceed this by just eight days. He was posted to 55 Squadron on April 4 and on St George’s Day took part in a bombing raid which left at 3.50pm.

The raiders were attacked by a formation of German fighter planes, one of which was believed to have been piloted by Herman Goering.  Arthur was shot down and killed. His younger brother, Robert was killed in France the following year, having been at the front for barely a few days. Arthur was twenty-two when he died, Robert was nineteen. Three days after his death, Arthur’s fiancée, Marian Allen, wrote one of several sonnets to him. Part of it reads,

Like golden may-flies, dancing in the sun

With glittering wings and shining bodies, they

Have with the dawn their joyous dance begun

Light of heart and true of heart, and gay…

If with the dusk then falls a glittering one,

Beautiful in death as life, no less,

One pair of golden wings forever gone

Another heart in England knows distress.

But other golden wings will carry on

And flit & pass & die as they have done.

That Arthur was killed on the anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth and death provided a tenuous link with the bard. Slightly more substantial ties were to be found at Rufford Old Hall, in Lancashire. The hall was built in about 1530 by Robert Hesketh and apart from the occasional spendthrift his descendants seem to have lived quietly and married well for generations. Few family members appear to have come to public attention apart from the third Lord Hesketh who in 1972 started a motor racing team with his friend Anthony ‘Bubbles’ Horsley and with driver James Hunt managed to win the Dutch Grand Prix in 1975 before settling back into the Hesketh tradition of comfortable obscurity.

The hall is a beautiful half-timbered building with later wings added in 1661 and the 1820s. It is particularly noted for a huge, free-standing screen of bog oak, carved with finials, coats of arms, traceried panels and an angel with six fingers. Described by architectural historian Nickolaus Pevsner as being of ‘an exuberance of decoration matched nowhere else in England’ and the only known example from the first half of the 16thcentury, it would have screened the hall from its kitchens beyond.

It creates a natural theatrical space, with the coal black bog oak as a crazy backdrop and space for performers to enter and exit either side. And there is a belief that Shakespeare performed here as a young man. Evidence for this derives from the fact that his last teacher at Stratford Grammar School, John Cottam, came from Hoghton in Lancashire. This establishes a link with the county, reinforced by the finding that in 1581, Alexander Hoghton of Lea Hall, near Preston, referred in his will to one ‘wilim Shakeshaft nowe dwellynge with me’. This was made in reference to a bequest of musical instruments and ‘playe clothes’ to Sir Thomas Hesketh.

The theory that ‘wilim Shakeshaft’ was a seventeen year old Shakespeare is based on a series of conjectures – that James Cottam recommended the boy as tutor to Alexander Hoghton, propped up by the knowledge that Lancashire was a Catholic stronghold (Thomas Hesketh was made a knight at the coronation of Queen Mary in 1553) and the supposition that Shakespeare’s family had Catholic sympathies. It is further bolstered by the coincidence that one of the Globe’s trustees and backers, Thomas Savage, was from Lancashire and married to one of the Heskeths. There is also the likelihood that Shakespeare spent part of his early manhood as a jobbing actor and thus might have been amongst the ‘Hesketh Company of Players’.

By 1585 it is thought probable that he had joined Lord Strange’s company of actors which is said to have included Will Kempe and Richard Burbage. When Strange inherited the Earldom of Derby in 1593, the troupe became known as Derby’s Men, performing Titus Andronicus and the Henry VI trilogy. As it happens, Fernando Strange had been Lord Lieutenant of Lancashire and Cheshire and was thought to have Catholic tendencies. In 1594 he was approached by Richard Hesketh on behalf of Catholic exiles who wished him to claim the throne, based on descent from Henry VII’s younger daughter. Strange declined and handed Hesketh to the authorities who was then tortured and executed, perhaps persuading the family to keep out of public affairs for another few hundred years. Strange himself died shortly afterwards, thought to have been poisoned.

Whether Shakespeare was mixed up in any of this is unproven. There are several tantalising leads, but it all turns on the identity of ‘wilim Shakeshaft’ and Shakeshaft was a common Lancastrian name – the Preston guild records of 1581 even mentioning one John Shakeshaft, a glover. All we can be certain of is that he must have been doing something between leaving school (though we don’t even know for sure he attended school) and his arrival on the London stage. The only definite records we have relating to him at this time are of his marriage to Anne Hathaway in 1582 and the birth of Susanna in 1583 and Judith and Hamnet in 1585. Everything else is speculation, which of course merely encourages people to speculate.

What took me to Rufford Old Hall wasn’t Shakespeare, but a doll. Not on public display, I was aware of it through an inventory sent me by the National Trust. It is part of the Trust’s vast, unseen collection, much of it not even catalogued. Retrieved from an attic and presented in a cardboard box, wrapped in tissue paper, the doll was dressed in the uniform of a First World War army officer.

It was an intriguing object, and clearly not a factory made product. For one thing, the body had once belonged to a child’s doll, the lips being cherubic and unsoldierly and the blonde locks roughly cropped short, but still of unmilitary length. The uniform, though, had been made of beautifully stitched felt. There was also considerable attention to detail with regimental badges on the lapels, braided cuffs, Sam Browne belt, puttees and peaked cap.

Yet who made it and why? It could not have been played with by a child, since the doll’s condition was immaculate, the colour pristine. Above all, the monocle had been delicately sewn into place and would not have survived a moment’s rough handling.

Might it have been made to raise funds for the war effort? Perhaps. A more romantic explanation suggests it could have been made as a lover’s talisman. The monocle may provide a clue, since these were not regulation issue – the doll representing a specific individual rather than a generic soldier. If so, then making it would have filled lonely hours and focused thoughts on the young officer it embodied. What then became of him, or the person that converted the plaything from peace to war?

Nothing is known. The staff at Rufford Old Hall were unaware who made it or why or when it had entered the collection. Without information and with no usable photograph, the doll was left out of the book. Instead, it was wrapped again in tissue paper, placed back in its box and returned to the attic. It may well rest there for another hundred years.

The Country House at War is published by National Trust Publications and is available through NT shops, booksellers and online (£15).


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