Saturday, November 1, 2014

Shakespeare in Lancashire

by Elizabeth Ashworth

William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon and was baptised there on the 26th April 1564. His father was John Shakespeare, who was a glover, and his mother was Mary Arden. They lived in a house on Henley Street and we know that William would have attended the local grammar school. But what he did between leaving school and becoming an actor and playwright in London is a mystery that many people have attempted to solve by speculation.

The only things known for certain are that he received a licence to marry on 27th November 1582; his daughter Susanna was baptised on the 26th May 1583 in Stratford; and his twins Hamnet and Judith were baptised there on 2nd February 1585. Apart from that very little is known about what Shakespeare did during what is known as his ‘lost years’. However, there are clues if you seek them out.

Ben Jonson said that Shakespeare ‘understood Latin pretty well, for he had in his younger years been a schoolmaster in the country’. So  was William Shakespeare a schoolmaster? And if so, whereabouts 'in the country'?

It is possible that he spent some of his youth in Lancashire. There are at least two places in the county that claim a Shakespeare connection: Hoghton Tower and Rufford Old Hall.

Hoghton Tower

Hoghton Tower has been the home of the Hoghton family since the Norman Conquest. After Henry VIII’s Reformation, they remained committed Catholics and during the reign of Elizabeth I the house was used as an academy where boys were educated before being sent abroad to Douai to train for the priesthood. In 1580, the Jesuit priest, Edmund Campion, visited Lapworth Park in Warwickshire, home of the Catesbys. He was looking for young men from the area to join his mission as subseminarians. There is no doubting that William Shakespeare was the sort of clever and talented young man that Campion was seeking. It seems doubtful that he would have merely drifted into working for his father’s glove making enterprise when other options were available to him, and surely the son of John Shakespeare, a man keen to sign the Borromeo Testament to profess his Catholic faith, would have been an ideal candidate for Campion. He may even have come with the recommendation of his schoolmaster, John Cottam, whose brother Thomas was a priest, and who came from Lancashire.

The outer courtyard at Hoghton Tower.

If William Shakespeare did go with Edmund Campion, he would probably have travelled to Hoghton Tower. He might even have worked there as a schoolmaster for a time. Catholic families did employ unlicensed schoolmasters to instruct their children and some are recorded as being as young as 15 or 16 (and according to Mrs Gaskell, in a later period, Patrick Bronte ‘opened a public school at the age of sixteen’). However, any proof that Shakespeare was at Hoghton is tenuous. On 3rd August 1581, Alexander Hoghton wrote a will shortly after the arrest of Edmund Campion and a search of Hoghton Tower. He left to a William Shakeshaft and a Fulke Gillom, small pensions and requested that Sir Thomas Hesketh take them into his service or ‘help them to some good master’. The bequest follows that of some musical instruments and play clothes to Thomas Hesketh, so it seems that Shakeshaft and Gillom may have been players,  but they may have had other roles as unlicensed schoolmasters.

Was William Shakeshaft the same person as William Shakespeare? Shakeshaft was a common name in the Preston area, so maybe the link is too fragile. Although it seems that William Shakespeare’s grandfather Richard did use that variant of the name and may have originated in Lancashire, so perhaps William used it to ‘fit in’ or as an alias.

If William Shakeshaft and William Shakespeare were one and the same then the trail leads us further south in Lancashire to Rufford Old Hall, the home of Sir Thomas Hesketh.

Rufford Old Hall

Now owned by the National Trust, they claim on their website that  ‘There’s reasonable evidence to suggest that he (Shakespeare) could once have known Rufford’s Great Hall for a few months whilst still in his teens.’

The oak screen at Rufford dates from around 1530.

If Shakespeare did live and perform at Rufford he wasn’t there for long and it may be that Thomas Hesketh did help him to ‘some good master’ because William became a member of Lord Strange’s Men and Lord Strange, Ferdinando Stanley, was a neighbour of the Heskeths and certainly visited Rufford on more than one occasion.

Lord Strange’s Men were a troupe of players founded by Ferdinando Stanley whose home was at Lathom in west Lancashire. After the mysterious death of Ferdinando following an offer from Catholics abroad to help him usurp the throne, the players became the Lord Chamberlain’s men and it is with this company that William Shakespeare was associated in London.

Another link with Rufford is that Shakespeare’s financial backer at the Globe was a man named Thomas Savage, who came from Rufford and whose wife was a Hesketh.

Of course nothing can be proved, which always makes for an intriguing conspiracy theory and one which is irresistible to a novelist! If you’d like to know more about Shakespeare’s lost years (at least my version of them), you’ll find the whole story in my new novel Many Kinds of Silence. Out now as an ebook with a paperback version to follow.


Elizabeth Ashworth lives in Lancashire and is an author of historical novels and local interest books. For more information please visit her website:


  1. Interesting, and I'll be reading your book. Plus I didn't know Fernando was such a popular name in the 16th and 17th Century.

  2. Fascinating, I didn't know of these links Shakespeare may have had to Lancashire.


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