Did Shakespeare visit Fordwich?

 

It seems possible, though there is no direct proof. The basis for thinking that England's greatest dramatist may have actually played here lies in the town's accounts. These record that on 6th October 1605, Fordwich paid 10 shillings (50 p in modern money) to the King's Players, the leading London-based theatre company of which William Shakespeare was a member, and for which he wrote his plays. The payment was an incentive to the King's Players to put on a show in Fordwich, for which they would have charged additional gate money.

To put this in context, King James I had been on the throne for two years, following the death of Queen Elizabeth I. James had become the patron of the company, which had previously been known as the Chamberlain's Men. Around this time Shakespeare wrote some of his most profound work. Measure for Measure, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth were all written and first performed in this period.

Why would the country's greatest theatre company appear in Fordwich, with a population of only three hundred? Again, it is only possible to guess the reason, but there is no doubt that on at least 35 occasions between 1568 and 1633 the town of Fordwich paid sums ranging from 3 shillings (15 p) to 20 shillings (1) to various theatre companies.

Fordwich was then - as it is now - independent of its large neighbour Canterbury. From about 1560, Canterbury was regularly visited by London-based theatre companies. Provincial tours, as we would now call them, tended to take place in Lent, when the increasingly puritan City of London authorities closed the playhouses, in the summer, when companies often visited the country palaces of their aristocratic patrons, and during outbreaks of plague.

The records show that on nearly 100 occasions between 1558 and 1632 the Canterbury authorities paid appearance fees to theatre troupes for playing before "Master Mayor and his brethren" as it was often put. These performances seem to have taken place at the Canterbury Court Hall, what we would now call the town hall. But it is likely that each appearance before the Mayor would have been only one of several performances in Canterbury. For instance, we know from the diary of one Thomas Cocks that he went to plays in Canterbury on the 12th, 13th and 14th April, 1607. On the first two evenings he spent 1s 2d (6 p, which would have given him the best seat in the house) and on the third evening he spent 2d (just under 1 p) more, buying a cheap seat for his manservant. When not playing for the Mayor, the actors performed in the courtyards of Canterbury inns, including the Chequers and the Lion.

It seems likely that Fordwich was attractive to actors because (a) they probably travelled to and from Canterbury via water, landing and embarking from Fordwich, and (b) as time went on Canterbury itself became increasingly puritanical and hostile to all forms of public entertainment. The Mayor and Jurats of Fordwich saw a chance to bring some serious business to the little town. Citizens of Canterbury prevented from seeing plays by their strait-laced masters could easily walk or ride the two miles to Fordwich.

The later records support this interpretation. Between 1614 and 1633, Fordwich paid theatre companies to play on ten occasions. During the same period, Canterbury ceased paying for performances before "Master Mayor and his brethren", and instead paid actors considerable sums of money to go away.

One striking example is in 1621, when the King's Players (now minus Shakespeare, who had died in 1616) received 5s from Fordwich on 2nd August. Yet in the same year (exact date unknown) Canterbury paid 1 "to William Daniel chief of the King's Players to rid them out of the city without acting".

Where did the actors perform in Fordwich? There is no evidence from the existing records. They may have played in the courtyard of a pub, though it is uncertain that the predecessor of the Fordwich Arms had one. They might also have put up a temporary stage on open ground: in modern times, the Globe Theatre touring company, which often plays in the grounds of St Augustine's Abbey, uses an authentic reproduction of an Elizabethan travelling stage. The Town Hall, built in 1544, is a possibility, though it would have been difficult to squeeze much of an audience in with the players.

At that time a larger building called the Court Hall, which stretched across what is now the garden of Watergate House, may still have been standing. This was probably the manor hall belonging to St Augustine's Abbey, which had owned the port and manor of Fordwich until its dissolution in 1538. From a stone window moulding uncovered in 2006, the Court Hall was clearly a fairly grand building. The manor had been purchased in 1560 by John Johnson, a wealthy merchant from Canterbury, who rebuilt Watergate House in its present configuration. Johnson's descendants provided several mayors of Fordwich and it is reasonable to assume that they would have been involved in the town's dramatic ventures.

The last recorded payment by Fordwich to an acting troupe - again, the King's Players - was in 1633. It may not have been the end of all entertainment. During Lent, 1636, the King's Players were involved in a ferocious dispute with the Mayor of Canterbury, James Nicholson, about the actors' alleged licentious behaviour during an eight-day stay in the city: the Mayor's complaints went first to Archbishop Laud, then to the Privy Council in London. During the next four years Canterbury continued to pay actors to leave town, though perhaps only after they had performed without permission. Finally, the outbreak of the Civil War in 1641 put an end to play-going all over England. The theatres were dark until the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660.

 

 

Patrick Heren, Fordwich, November 2009