The Young Shakespeare (12): Return to England


Discovering the fascinating truth

Of Shakespeare’s missing years


NOVEMBER 1587

Shakespeare Sails Home

The Grafton Portrait - Shakespeare as he looked on his return from the Continent

The Grafton Portrait – Shakespeare as he looked on his return from the Continent

In the noble houses of Elizabethan England, the ‘household book’ would record the toings & froings of visitors to the estate. The vast majority of these have been lost, but at Knowsley, however, one of these little diaries miraculously survived the ravagings of time, written down with meticulous energy by the Stanley steward, William Ffarington. Crucially, the book supplies us with information for the three-year period between 1587 & 1589, providing the precise date for Stanley’s return to Knowsley… December 1587. With the lunar eclipse recorded in one of Shakespeare’s Turkish sonnets occurring in September, we are given a three month window for Stanley to be freed from prison & to travel from Constantinople to Lancashire. Intriguingly, in one of Lorenzo Bernardo’s dispatches, we hear of an English Catholic gentleman who was acting quite suspiciously bout Constantinople in that very time period.

November 11th: An English gentleman arrived here on board the ships ‘Salvagna.’ He says he is a Catholic; that he left England at the end of May with the intention of going to Jerusalem, but on his arrival here he changed his mind, & after staying a few days he left for Patras, there to embark on board an English ship for England. This roused great suspicions, & I succeeded in keeping him under observation

Whoever that mysterious Catholic was, if he had been on the trail of Stanley he was too late; for he & Shakespeare were already scudding the sea-lanes home. In the age of Elizabethan sail, Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind had a top speed of 8 knots, about 9.2 mph. With the port of London lying 3627 nautical miles from Constantinople, the voyage would have taken about 19 days of unbroken sailing. Slowing down the ship to the speed of a merchant vessel, perhaps 4 or 5 knots, the same voyage would have taken just over a month. Ample time for Stanley to return to Lancashire by December. In, ‘The Travels of John Sanderson in the Levant,’ we read of the probable route taken from the eastern Meditterranean only a few months after Stanley, picking up the journey at Crete (Candia) in 1588. It took Sanderson 2 months to get to England, but he has several pauses such as the fortnight near the rock of Goletta.

The 23th January [1588] we weare ashore at an iland of[f] Candia, cauled Christiana^. The 25th we cast ancore at Caldarona. The 11th and 12th of Febrewary we passed betwene Sisilia and Malta. The 13th to Pantalaria. The 14th we weare in sight of Cape Bon one Barbarie side. The 15th we sawe Goletta, a rocke a little of[f] of Carthadge. The last of Febrewary we arived in Argier [Algiers]. Sett saile from thence the 2d of March. The 6th came in sight of Cape d’ Gatt.  The 7th at night we passed by Jebberaltare, and so throughe the Streyghts. Frome Suta [Ceuta] we weare espied, who shott  twise. In the morninge we had Cape Spratt [Spartel] about six leagues asterne. The 11th we weare as highe as Cape St. Vincent.  The 19th we weare even with Cape Fenister ; frome thence caped  [i.e. bore] NNW. The 22th, beinge Friday, we came to the soundinges; threwe the lead at night, and found 92 fathome.  Then we caped NE. and by E. The next day in the morninge we  found 70 fathom, and at none [i.e. noon] 55. The next day we  fell with Portland 3 , which was the first of Ingland we had sight  of. Then to the Downes, and so to Gravesend; frome thence in a wherry to Blackewale; so by land to London, the 29th of March 1588.

It is on this voyage that Shakespeare would have gained his knowledge of the Bay of Portugal (the Bay of Biscay), an unusually deep body of water that would have been unsoundable by the plumbing methods of Shakespeare’s time. Memory of the Bard’s time on the Bay can be found in As You Like It;

ROSALIND: O coz, coz, coz, my pretty little coz, that thou didst know how many fathom deep I am in love! But it cannot be sounded: my affection hath an unknown bottom, like the bay of Portugal

The long hours of tedium that a sea-voyage entails provided a perfect atmosphere in which Shakespeare could compose his poetry. As our two lovers drifted home, sharing, it is possible that Shakespeare found a serene moment to compose yet another sonnet of the series to his ‘Handsome Youth.’ There is one sonnet in particular that can be accurately dated to the Stanleyan Grand Tour.

To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,
Such seems your beauty still. Three winters cold
Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride;
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turned
In process of the seasons have I seen;
Three April pérfumes in three hot Junes burned,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.
Ah yet doth beauty, like a dial hand,
Steal from his figure, and no pace perceived;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion, and mine eye may be deceived.
For fear of which, hear this, thou age unbred:
Ere you were born was beauty’s summer dead.

If the twelve seasons mentioned begin with that of winter 1584-85, then it is the three Mediterranean ‘hot Junes’ of ’85, ’86 & ’87 which Shakespeare spent with Stanley that are meant. This means the sonnet was composed at the end of autumn, 1587, just as they were sailing home.


DECEMBER 1587

Stanley Spends Christmas in Lancashire

In the year of 1587 the plague came to the good folk of Lancashire. This was pterry bad, of course, but the return of our gallant & sun-bronzed adventurers cheered up the county, no end. Stanley would have cut a dashing image; 25 years old, fully tanned & bubbling with exciting tales from his travels – there were sea-battles, death-row prisons, duels, magicians & a sordid love triangle – its had everything really. There is an account made in that very year by William Harrison of how Stanley might have appeared to English on his return.

The usual sending of noblemen’s and mean gentlemen’s sons into Italy, from whence they bring home nothing but mere atheism, infidelity, vicious conversation, and ambitious and proud behaviour, whereby it cometh to pass that they return far worse men than they went out….. they have learned in Italy to go up and down also in England with pages at their heels finely apparelled, whose face and countenance shall be such as sheweth the master not to be blind in his choice

Might Stanley have even taken his great new friend Shakespeare with him to Lancashire. Our young bard was 23, fresh from a Grand Tour, & flush with the creativity that would soon manifest itself as some of the greatest plays the world has ever seen. It is no wonder that after travelling Europe in such a fashion that the young Shakespeare, verteux – as the French say – & amorous – as the French do -, would find his mind & spirit filling with so much poesis it would take years to spill onto the page. How it became such stellar poetry was down, of course, to his flowering genius, which surely was first nourished in the fertile bedsoil of the Stanleyan Grand Tour – a perfect start for a career of high genius. The dramatic continental output of the Shakesperean ouvre is, in all essence, a grand & brilliant creochisp of the Swan of Avon’s especial flight abroad. Some plays were being penned already, some may have only been a title with a few scraps of notes, some were yet to be born.

There seems an incredible dedication by Shakespeare to recording as many details of the Grand Tour is possible in his plays. As our party arrived at Knowsley, Shakespeare’s knapsack would have contained the manuscript copies of his & Stanley’s co-written plays, such as Titus Andronicus, & Pericles. These two might even have been performed that Christmas at Knowsley, when the Household Books record a visit by ‘Sir Thomas hesketh plaiers’ in December 1587;

On fryday my Lord the earle came home from cowrte & the same night came my Lord bishoppe, mr stewarde mr recyver mr foxe, on saturday Sir Thomas hesketh plaiers went awaie

This could well have been the performance that won the newly-emerging playwright his first laurels of appreciation. That the disembarkation of the flower-garlanded galleon that was England’s true bard occurred at Knowsley, introduces Stanley’s brother, Ferdinando Stanley, into the equasion. Taking the bardic baton from his brother, who had his education to continue, Ferdinando would drag our boy back to London, & into the realisation of his prenominate destiny.


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1588 SPRING

Shakespeare in London

On the 24th April 1588, William Shakespeare turn’d 24. He was now in the full prime of youth & beauty, bubbling with a particular propensity for sheer genius. As for his sexuality, falling in love with William Stanley seems to have had a hand in some kind of alteration, for it must be noted that from this moment on Shakespeare sires no more children, & would eventually leave his bequeath his wife their ‘second best bed’ in his will. The timing of his return coincided with an epoch of great national importance – the Spanish were assembling a huge fleet ready to sail up the channel in order to help ferry across the Channel a great army of invasion they were massing at the French coast.

The England the Spanish were aiming to attack was on the rise; possessing a fledgeling colony in America & mercantile interests across the globe. Just as it is today, London was both a thriving international sea-port & a cosmopolitan national capital. The city was fueled by such a melting-pot of culture, attracting the best of the provincial talents, that Elizabethan theatre would evolve into its capsules of dramaturgical, philosophical brilliance, helped no end by having the genius of Shakespeare in the mix. ‘He began early to make essayes at Dramatique Poetry,’ recorded Aubrey, ‘which at that time was very lowe; and his Playes tooke well. He was a handsome, well-shap’t man: very good company, and of a very readie and pleasant smoothe Witt.’


1588 SUMMER

Shakespeare Enters Thomas Watson’s Circle

Watson-WGB-242x300 Enter Thomas Watson. The English College diary at Douay records on October 15, 1576, ‘Dominus Watson went from here to Paris.’ Like Shakespeare, who also benefitted from the poetically-charged atmosphere of the English College, Watson would become a profound & prolific poet. In a verse preface to his Latin version of the Antigone (1581), he gives us a little gloss concerning his life;

I spent seven or eight years far from my homeland, and learned to speak in diverse tongues. Then I became well versed in Italy’s language and manners, and also thy our tongue and ways, learned France. Wherever I was wafted, I cultivated the Muses as best I could

Watson, born in St Olave Parish in 1555. There is a record for him studying at Winchester College in 1567, & when he supplied verses to Greene’s Ciceronis Amor (1589), Watson signed himself an Oxford man – which means that he studied at the that university at some point. This is confirmed by the Oxford antiquarian Anthony à Wood (Athenae Oxonienses 1691) who stated, “Thomas Watson, a Londoner born, did spend his time in this university, not in logic and philosophy, as he ought to have done, but in the smooth and pleasant studies of poetry and romance, whereby he obtained an honourable name among the students of those faculties.” One of these students could well have been William Stanley, who was 6 years younger than Watson & who studied at St Johns. William Stanley may also have met Watson in Paris 1582, as fourteen years afterwards, in 1596,  the anonymous author of Ulysses upon Ajax  describes a certain, ‘Tom Watson’s jests, I heard them at Paris fourteen years ago: besides what balductum play is not full of them?” 

It seems that Watson’s own time on the continent was a surreptitious escapade in Catholic scholarship. It is likely that he met the Italian Jesuit Metteo Ricci during this period, for a system of local memory training Watson would publish as a treatise in 1585 was identical to the one used by Matteo to wow the Chinese. In 1577 Watson was back in Douay, where we read ‘August: on the seventh day Master Watson, Master Robinson, Master Griffith, and some others left for England because of the riots.’ On this new return to England, Watson began living in Westminster, where he began to write poems for his ‘Passionate Century of Love’ (1582) – the first significant sonnet sequence of the age. These 18 line ‘sonnets’ were actually three comblended sestets – ABABCC – the form which Shakespeare would us for his Venus & Adonis. Indeed, in the Polimanteia (1595) a certain WC describes a ‘Wanton Adonis’  (Shakespeare had just published Venus & Adonis) as ‘Watson’s heyre.’  In addition, Watson’s 1585 Latin poem, Amyntas, ends with their heroes transforming into flowers (as in V&A), while Watson’s translation of Coluthus’ erotic Raprus Helenae (1586) may also have influenced the poem at some point before Shakespeare prepared it for printing.

By 1589 Watson had become the tutor to John Cornwallis, son of William, a high-ranking, yet Catholic, advocate of the Queen’s Bench. William Cornwallis described Watson as being able to, ‘deuise twenty fictions and knaveryes in a play, which was his daily practyse and his liuing.’ Watson’s own theatrical bent is confirmed in the Palladis Tamia of Francis Meres in 1598, which places him among such eminent company as Shakespeare, Marlowe, Drayton, Johnson & Kyd as being ‘our best for tragedie.’  Only one of Watson’s plays survives, from 1589, called ‘The Trewe Misterie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke’ with its obvious Shakesperean connotations.

That Shakespeare was actually Watson’s friend can be discerned thro’ analyzing a line in sonnet 32, the full text of which reads;

If thou survive my well-contented day,
When that churl Death my bones with dust shall cover
And shalt by fortune once more re-survey
These poor rude lines of thy deceased lover,
Compare them with the bett’ring of the time,
And though they be outstripped by every pen,
Reserve them for my love, not for their rhyme,
Exceeded by the height of happier men.
O! then vouchsafe me but this loving thought:
‘Had my friend’s Muse grown with this growing age,
A dearer birth than this his love had brought,
To march in ranks of better equipage:
But since he died and poets better prove,
Theirs for their style I’ll read, his for his love.

The key line is ‘march in ranks of better equipage’ which connects to a statement by Nash, in his preface to Greene’s Menaphon (1589) which expresses that Watson’s works, ‘march in equipage of honour.‘ Watson died in 1592, & if I am right, then this sonnet was written after that occasion, & when Shakespeare writes, ‘had my friend’s Muse grown with this growing age, A dearer birth than this his love had brought, To march in ranks of better equipage: But since he died and poets better prove, Theirs for their style I’ll read, his for his love,’ he is stating that tho’ better exist than Watson, the love he professes in his poetry is worth emulating.

download (1)

In the National Archives there is the Prerogative Court of Canterbury copy of the will of Sir William Cornwallis, from 1611, which tells us that he became owner of an enormous mansion known as Fisher’s Folly in 1588, on the site of the present Devonshire Square. Described as a huge structure with ‘gardens of pleasure, bowling-alleys and the like,’ it had up til then been in possession of the Earl Of Oxford, who made the place the, ‘headquarters for the school of poets and dramatists who openly acknowledged his patronage and leadership,’ a fertile breeding ground indeed. One person in the household was Cornelia Cornwallis, one of the younger daughters, who would eventually – in 1601 – marry Sir Richard Fermor of Somerton, Oxfordshire. His auntie, Anne(d.1550), had been the wife of William Lucy (d.1551), & thus the mother of Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote, Warwickshire, the very estate where the young Shakespeare was caught stealing deer!

In 1588, another of Cornwallis’ daughters, Anne, became the transcriber of a short anthology of sixteenth century poetry known as the Cornwallis-Lysons manuscript. This leather-bound quarto bears the large feminine signature, “Anne Cornwaleys her booke,” & contains an attribution to a certain WS. After coming into the possession of James Orchard Halliwell in 1852. He soon became convinced that one poem in particular would appear as Shakespeare’s in the 1599 collection of poems attributed to Shakespeare known as the Passionate Pilgrim.

Now hoe, inoughe, too much I fear; For if my ladye heare this songe, She will not sticke to ringe my eare, To teache my tongue to be soe longe; Yet would she blushe, here be it saide, To heare her secrets thus bewrayede. Cornwallis-Lysons

But soft; enough, too much I fear, Lest that my mistress hear my song; She’ll not stick to round me i’ the ear, To teach my tongue to be so long: Yet will she blush, here be it said, To hear her secrets so bewray’d. Poem XIX, The Passionate Pilgrim

The language, spelling & rhythms of the Shakespeare poem in the Cornwallis-Lyon possess an extremely similar ring to the language, spelling & rhythms of the poem attributed to WS in 1577, which I gave in an earlier post, but shall give again the first seven libes;

W.S. in Commendation of the author begins

Of silver pure thy penne is made, dipte in the Muses well
They eloquence & loftie style all other doth excell:
Thy wisedom great & secrete sense diffusedly disguysde,
Doth shew how Pallas rules thy minde, & Phoebus hath devisde
Those Golden lines, which polisht are with Tagus glittering sandes.
A pallace playne of pleasures great unto the vewers handes.
Thy learning doth bewray itselfe and worthie prayse dothe crave,

James Orchard Halliwell-Phillips had this to say about the comparison between the Cornwallis-Lyon & the Passionate Pilgrim stanzas;

In this (manuscript) reading, we get rid of the harsh and false metre of the third (printed) line, and obtain a more natural imagery; the lady wringing, her lover’s ear for betraying her secrets, being certainly a more appropriate punishment for his fault than that of merely whispering (to) him.

Invention has been racked to account for the utter disappearance of the poems of Shakespeare in his own hand. The Rev. Mr. Hunter, in his recently published New Illustrations of the Life and Writings of Shakespeare, ingeniously supposes that the last descendant of the Poet, Lady Barnard (granddaughter of the Stratford citizen) in her over-religious zeal, may have destroyed any writings that remained in her hands. Whatever cause it may be owing, it is a certain fact that, at the present time, not a line of (William Shakspere’s) writing is known to exist. In the absence of his (literary) autographs, any contemporaneous manuscript is of importance; and in this view the present (Cornwallis) one may justly be deemed a literary curiosity of high interest.

In conclusion, I may observe that during a search of ten years later extended to about fifty years and after a careful examination of every collection of the kind I could meet with, either in public or private libraries, the present is the only specimen of any of Shakespeare’s writings I have seen which was written in the sixteenth century. Scraps may be occasionally met with in miscellanies of a later date, but this volume, in point of antiquity, may be fairly considered to be unique in its kind, and as one of the most interesting illustrations of Shakespeare known to exist


1588 SUMMER

Shakespeare Gets To Work

download (2)Whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line Ben Johnson

His mind and hand went together: And what he thought, he uttered with that easinesse, that wee have scarse received from him a blot in his papers Preface to the First Folio

In 1588, Shakespeare began working on converting into theatrical gold dust all the materials he had collected on his travels. His mind would have been burgeoning with ideas; bubbling with a few rough sketches of scenes & storylines, & nibbled at by a number of drafted passages of poetic speech, for in the words of William Wordsworth, ‘poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.’ Samuel Johnson’s opinion of Shakespeare’s career path should also be taken into account;

He found the English stage in a state of utmost rudeness; no essays either in tragedy or comedy had appeared, from which it could be discovered to what degree of delight either one or other might be carried. Neither character nor dialogue were yet understood. Shakespeare may be truly said to have introduced them both amongst us, & in some of his happier scenes to have carried them to the utmost height. 

In 1588 George Puttenham entered his Arte of English Poesie at the Stationers’ Hall, published by Richard Field the following year, which Shakespeare was definitely familiar with. WL Rushton has identified over 200 literary links between Puttenham’s Arte & the works of Shakespeare, & there is one passage in particular that seems to be the Shakesperian manifesto;

There were also poets that wrote openly for the stage, I mean plays & interludes, to recreate the people with matters of disport, & to that intent did set forth in shows & pagaents common behaviours & manner of life as were the meaner sort of men, & they were called comical poets, of whom among the greeks Meander & Aristophanes were most excellent, with the Latins Terence & Plautus. Besides those poets comic there were others, but meddled not with so base matters: for they set forth doleful falls of unfortunate & afflicted princes, & were called poets tragical. Such were euripedes among the others who mounted nothing so high as any of them both, but in based & humble style, by manner of dialogue, uttered the private & familar talk of the meanest sort of men, as shepherds, haywards & such like


John Shakespeare – Our Poet’s Poppa

1588 SEPTEMBER

Shakespeare In Court

On Michalemas (September 29th), 1588, the Court of Common Pleas in London heard a case between William Burbage of Stratford and John Shakespeare, the poet’s father. The matter concerned was John’s remortgaged property at Wilmcote. Another John, surnamed Lambert, had taken on the property, but refused to pay £20 that he owed our poet’s father. In the Bill of complainant in Queen’s Bench case of Shackespere v. Lambert, William is named twice as his son.

What is fascinating about the case, is that of all the attorneys in London John Shakespeare could have chosen, he selected John Harborne, the son of William Harborne, the very ambassador in Constantinople where we had just placed William Shakespeare. Scholars have brushed over John Harborne, imagining there to be no relevance in the quest for the historical Shakespeare – that Harborne’s father was an ambassador in Constantinople would have been irrelevant, for the academic community has scoffed at Shakespeare’s presence in Italy, let alone Turkey.

Harborne was trained at Clement’s Inn, & he seems to be satirised as Justice Shallow in Henry IV Part 1, who is also said to have studied law at Clements. One passage in particular relates to our investigation

SHALLOW By yea and nay, sir, I dare say my cousin William is become a good scholar: he is at Oxford still, is he not?
SILENCE Indeed, sir, to my cost.
SHALLOW A’ must, then, to the inns o’ court shortly. I was once of Clement’s Inn, where I think they will talk of mad Shallow yet.

Where Justice Shallow refers to ‘my cousin William’ who was at Oxford and who ‘must then to the Inns of Court shortly,’ we gain a complete match for William Stanley, also an Oxford man, whose 1588 enrollment at Lincoln’s Inn supports his being a ‘good scholar.’


1588 AUTUMN

The Comedy of Errors

Our budding bard would have been inspired by the growing popularity of the theatrical profession; the likes of Thomas Kyd, whose Spanish Tragedy had just taken London by storm, & Christopher Marlowe, the writer of such fantastic pieces as Dido, Queen of Carthage, Tamburlaine the Great, & Doctor Faustus. The keen-eyed Shakespearean scholar, TW Baldwin, highlights allusions in the Comedy of Errors play to both the Armada & to Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, published in 1588. COE also contains a clever pun about France, ‘making war against her hair,‘ referring to the ‘War of the Three Henries’ fought between 1585 & 1589. The same passage also suggests the Spanish Armarda of 1588.

ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE Where France?
DROMIO OF SYRACUSE In her forehead, armed and reverted, making war against her heir.
DROMIO OF SYRACUSE Sir, upon her nose, all o’er-embellished with rubies, carbuncles, sapphires, declining their rich aspect to the hot breath of Spain, who sent whole armadas of caracks to be ballast at her nose.

Baldwin also points to a passage in the play which seems to describe Finsbury Fields, one of the sites of London’s public executions;

The Duke himself in person
Comes this way to the melacholy vale
The place of death & sorry execution
Behind the ditches of the abbey here

In the 16th century, Finsbury Fields were separated from Holyrood Abbey by ditches. Baldwin goes on to say, ‘It would appear that on Saturday morning, October 5, 1588, William Shakespeare attended the execution of William Hartley, seminary priest, in Finsbury Fields, near the Theatre & Curtain; & there received certain impressions which shortly afterward appeared, transmuted by the magic of his imagination, in the Comedy of Errors.’  

Posted on April 28, 2020, in The Young Shakespeare. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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