Before the magnificent Hive was erected in Worcester, the county records were stored in a fairly nondescript building near the County Council offices. We went there several years ago to hunt down a 450-year-old will.
The eight-and-a-half page ‘Last Testament of John Whateley of Henley in Arden’ was brought out to us. No white gloves, no rules – just don’t doodle or blow your nose on the document. We settled down to decipher the cramped script, and there it was: a reference to ‘Agnes my daughter’!
Back in those days, the names Anne and Agnes were used interchangeably (the ‘g’ of Agnes was not pronounced). So Agnes, the daughter of John Whateley, would also have been known as Anne Whateley.
William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway in 1582 (in her father’s will, she was named ‘Agnes’). But only the day before two Stratford farmers rode to Worcester and laid down a substantial bond to ensure that young Will did marry ‘Anne Hathwey, maiden’, the bishop’s court at Worcester had issued a special licence allowing him to marry ‘Annam Whateley de Temple Grafton’.
|Will of John Whateley|
We eventually returned the document to the desk, where my wife couldn’t resist asking if anyone else had wanted to see John Whateley’s will. When the staff looked nonplussed by this question, Kim – my wife – excitedly announced that the will identifies an Anne Whateley, the name of William Shakespeare’s original choice of bride.
Quick as a flash, a man zoomed across the room to assure us that the ‘official line’ had been established by Samuel Schoenbaum, who wrote that ‘Anne Whateley’ had been a historical accident, a mere slip of the clerical pen. I ushered Kim out of there, highly amused at the thought that an ‘expert’ on the subject was referring us to the words of a scholar while ignoring the evidence in front of his own eyes.
For the record, Agnes Whateley’s brother – George Whateley – lived in Stratford-upon-Avon, a few doors away from the Shakespeare household. He served on the Stratford Corporation with Shakespeare’s father. So there is a strong chance that Will Shakespeare would have known of Agnes Whateley of nearby Temple Grafton.
The point, though, is this: there is an ‘official line’ on the subject of Anne Whateley. Which is, she didn’t exist. Even when you point out that an Anne Whateley with Shakespearean connections was named in her father’s will, she continues not to exist. Because somebody once said so.
Since my book Who Killed William Shakespeare? The Murderer, the Motive, the Means was published a few weeks ago, one question has been put to me by several journalists – ‘Historians and Shakespeare experts have scoffed at the idea that he was murdered. What do you say to that?’
To which I have responded – ‘Okay, so let them tell us what really happened, then.’
Only one written account of Shakespeare’s death survives. It was noted down by the newly-installed vicar of Stratford in 1662, and it relates that Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton had a ‘merry meeting’, at which they ‘drank so hard’, it seems, that Shakespeare caught a ‘fever’, from which he died shortly afterwards.
It took forty-six years for the story of Shakespeare’s ‘merry meeting’ and his fatal ‘fever’ to come out. Shakespeare’s son-in-law, John Hall, was a respected doctor of Stratford-upon-Avon who kept detailed notes on his clients and the treatments he had administered to them. He left no record of Shakespeare’s death.
Neither did Shakespeare’s ‘cousin’, Thomas Greene, a trained lawyer and minor poet who knew Michael Drayton. Greene was the town clerk of Stratford-upon-Avon. He and his family had lived for several years at Shakespeare’s home of New Place. But Thomas Greene made no mention of Shakespeare’s death. Rather, he quickly resigned his post, sold his house, and moved to Bristol.
Shakespeare’s fellow poets, Drayton and Jonson, had nothing to say at the time about Will’s death. Neither did that other Warwickshire poet, Fulke Greville, who – as Recorder of Stratford – was the town’s registrar and coroner.
This blanket of contemporary silence regarding Shakespeare’s death is not, of course, proof that he was murdered (that evidence exists elsewhere). At the same time, though, it offers no evidence that he was not murdered. Many people died of mysterious fevers in those days, and more than a few of them were victims of assassination.
So how can ‘historians and Shakespeare experts’ state so categorically that Shakespeare wasn’t murdered? Realistically, they can’t. They have no proof. But they’re happy to scoff at the suggestion, because the theory flies on the face of everything they’d like to believe about William Shakespeare.
History is not written in stone: it’s more fluid than that. New discoveries are made, new accounts written. It behoves each generation to rediscover the past, not least of all because our understanding of the past can only be based on our view of the present, and as that evolves so must our attitude towards history.
More to the point, every historical account is, to a greater or lesser extent, a work of fiction – like a map, which illustrates the terrain and certain landmarks but is still only a selective, symbolic representation. The assumption that Shakespeare’s first choice of wife, Anne Whateley, never existed is a convenient fiction (that is, as an explanation it might or might not be true). It is not a ‘fact’, in the strictest sense of the word. It is an opinion, an educated guess, which just happens to have been accepted as historical fact. When new evidence emerges – like her father’s will – then we need to consider it carefully. Most of all, we must be prepared to adjust our ideas to accommodate this new information.
Similarly, it might be appropriate to say ‘I don’t think Shakespeare was murdered’, but it is wholly inappropriate to insist point-blank that he wasn’t. By doing so, scholars are really only defending their own comfortable fictions while refusing to examine the facts.
The bottom line, then, should be clear enough. Much of what we think of as historical ‘fact’ (e.g. the remains of King Richard III were lost in a river) often turns out to be historical fiction. At which point, everybody has a decision to make: do we stick with the fiction, to which we’ve grown so attached, or do we create an updated and – hopefully – more accurate narrative incorporating the latest evidence?
Ultimately, the choice is a political one. Because the past and the present are intimately connected (or, at least, our views of them are), and if you are resistant to any form of change in the present, you’ll struggle to accept any alteration to your picture of the past.
You can read more about Simon's investigation into William Shakespeare's death in his book here on Amazon in the UK and world wide. Simon is also giving away a hard-back of his book so join us on Facebook for a chance to win a copy!