Historians aren't certain that William Shakespeare was born on St George's Day 1564, but we do know that he died on this day 400 years ago. Hordes of people will be visiting Stratford-upon-Avon today to celebrate, and rightly so, his hometown's a great day out on any day of the year. But for several years of his life Shakespeare's home was London, and it's a fair bet you won't find anniversary hordes flocking round any of his London residences, not even today. In part this is because we don't know where most of them are. But there are a couple we have proper documentary evidence of, neither of which still exist, but you can have a sit down in one and a beer in the other. Near enough.
by 1592: William Shakespeare first moves to lodgings in London. 1593: Now lodging somewhere in Bishopsgate. 1596: Now lodging somewhere in the parish of St Helen's in Bishopsgate.
1599: Now lodging somewhere on Bankside, near the Globe Theatre. [map]
And that's not the current Globe Theatre, which is too near the Thames. Back then a row of theatres ran slightly further back, within the 'Liberty of the Clink', an ancient enclave whose laws permitted entertainments banned in Surrey a few streets away.
The site of the original Globe can be found by crossing Southwark Bridge and then taking steps down immediately beyond the FT's offices. An arc of information boards on Park Street reveals that the site lays before you, beyond the railings, within the protective realm of a block of flats. The limit of the Scheduled Ancient Monument area is defined by a change in the cobbles, with a late Georgian terrace plonked straight across the middle of it, because nobody back then cared of heritage. Indeed the Globe had burnt to the ground in 1613, ignited by a cinder during a performance of Henry VIII, and only a few minor archaeological traces remain. It's believed that Shakespeare might have lived in a house adjacent to the theatre, but that's mere speculation, and nobody knows precisely where. Moving on...
Things were going well for Shakespeare by this time, he'd already written most of his classics like A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hamlet and Othello. Perhaps in response to his increased reputation he moved back north of the river and rented lodgings in the City. His landlord was Christopher Mountjoy, a French Huguenot refugee and a maker of ladies' ornamental wigs in the elaborate Elizabethan fashion.
We'd know none of this were it not for a family dispute following the marriage of Mountjoy's daughter Mary to his apprentice Stephen Belott. When a promised dowry failed to materialise in full, Bellot took Mountjoy to court and Shakespeare was called as a witness. His words, in this case, weren't particularly useful, but modern scholars were bequeathed a rare example of his handwriting as a result, and also a precise address.
The Mountjoys' house was situated on the corner of Silver Street and Monkwell Street, on the boundary between the wards of Farringdon and Cripplegate. The catch is that neither the house nor either of the streets still exist. The house disappeared in the Great Fire, as you'd expect, and then the local area was wiped from the map again during the Blitz. Pretty much the whole of Cripplegate was consumed, and the street pattern substantially remodelled during the erection of the Barbican estate.
The location we're trying to pinpoint lies just outside this modern development, either underneath or fractionally to the south of London Wall, which despite its name is another modern interloper on the A-Z. Head to the section east of the Museum of London, close to the actual remains of the actual London wall on Noble Street, very near to where the local branch of Eat dispenses caffeine and wraps.
The best clue to the precise site of the Bard's lodgings is St Olave's church, a small place of worship whose churchyard abutted the street corner in question. This was also destroyed in WW2, but its footprint remains as a tiny garden, as is the way with many of the City's former places of worship. It's quite pleasant too, with a raised lawn and a footpath winding through, and an old stone bowl which might be a font or maybe a birdbath, its hard to be sure.
The City have erected a plaque by a bench to confirm the Shakespearian connection, using the usual convention of 'Near Here' to confirm there's no remaining wall to properly attach it to. If you're planning on getting up close and maybe taking a photo, best hope there isn't a modern day Romeo and Juliet canoodling on the bench when you visit. But if it's free, take a seat and look around you at the lofty offices and highwalks, and try to imagine that Macbeth and King Lear were likely written right here.
By this time Shakespeare had retired to a fine house in Stratford, but was now rich enough to be able to buy a second property here. Maybe it was his bolthole in the capital, or maybe simply an investment, there isn't even enough documentary evidence to prove he ever stayed the night. Whatever the reason, when he bequeathed it to his daughter he left us one of only six confirmed signatures still in existence today.
The document goes on to locate the property "upon a streete leading downe to Pudle wharffe", now known as St Andrew's Hill. It confirms the land "being in the tenure or occupacion of one William Ireland", which suggests a specific backstreet called Ireland Yard. It states "part of which said Tenement is erected over a great gate", which can only mean the Blackfriars Gatehouse, the former entrance to an ancient monastery. And the Wardrobe is a church, in case you were wondering, still jammed between the local buildings to this day.
But even these clues aren't quite enough to end scholarly dispute and pinpoint the site with accuracy. The best guess is that the property may have occupied the north side of Ireland Yard where it joins St Andrew’s Hill, which is where the City of London have placed another blue plaque. But this building's a bit dull, on the face of it a Georgian townhouse but actually a modern office reproduction, so I prefer to believe our attention should be on the pub across the alley where the other side of the gatehouse might have been.
This is The Cockpit, a small but resplendent tavern where gamblers at the local cockfights once came to drink. Its pointed black frontage gleams, and drips with colourful hanging baskets, while a flurry of (I take it temporary) St George's flags hang from the upper level. And yet it wasn't busy after work this week when I wandered by - all the local City gents were across the road supping on the pavement outside the rather more upmarket (and oddly named) Shaw's Booksellers.
Things would have been a lot busier around here in early Jacobean times, not least because of the Blackfriars Theatre where Shakespeare's troupe played out the winter months. These days the bypassed quadrant of backstreets to the south of Ludgate Hill goes mostly unnoticed except by those who work here, which is a shame because it's almost quaint in parts. It's also easier here than at the Barbican to imagine our greatest playwright stepping out from home... until that fateful day 400 years ago when Will's will suddenly became important.