Synesis 2

SYNESIS-Magazin Nr. 2/2011, March/April

Below is the English translation of an article that appeared in German in the German magazine Synesis Nr. 2/2011, March/April. This was written in German by the author towards the end of 2010, based on previous writings in English, but written specifically for a German readership. It was assumed that some aspects of English geography, history, etymology, buildings, conventions, etc. might need to be explained to a German audience. This translation back into English was recovered/(re-)written at Christmas 2011/New Year 2012. [Relevant updates or comments are included in italics in square brackets.]

The title of the article is also the title of a forthcoming book by the author, to be published by RJL Smith & Associates, Much Wenlock, Shropshire in mid-2013.


Shakespeare’s Stanley Epitaphs in Tong, Shropshire


Biographies of Sir Thomas and Sir Edward Jr.

What can these tell us about Shakespeare’s biography?


Helen Moorwood

English (re-)translation of the German article


This is the translation and expansion of an article first written for the Parish Newsletter of the Anglican Church of St Bartholomew’s, Tong, Shropshire, which in 2010 celebrated its 600th anniversary under the motto ‘TONG 600’. The article was written as a short offering and preview of a book of some 300 pages, which has been written (almost complete!), but will not appear until 2011.

[In fact the book became rather longer and was not sent to the publisher until September 2011. Current expectations in early 2012 are that it will appear before summer 2012. For a variety of reasons the original article was not published in the Tong Parish Newsletter, and so the first publication of many details in this article was in German.]

Tong is a village north-west of Birmingham in the county of Shropshire, which stretches as far as the border with Wales, the county town of which is Shrewsbury. Tong still remains a village, but with a magnificent church which contains so many old tombs that it has often been called “the Westminster Abbey of the Midlands”. (Westminster Abbey in London is the burial church of the monarchs of England and other national worthies.)

One impressive two-tiered marble and alabaster tomb in the church is the Stanley Monument from the beginning of the 17th century. On it are the effigies of two knights in armour and one lady. The Memorial Inscription tells us exactly who they are: on the upper tier are Sir Thomas Stanley (c.1534-76), second son of Edward, Earl of Derby (Lancashire) and his wife Lady Margaret Vernon (c.1540-96). On the lower tier is their only son Sir Edward Stanley (1562-1632). (The dates come from MSS in archives.) Also appearing at the head and foot are two verse epitaphs.

In c.1663 the high-ranking Norroy, later Garter King of Arms Sir William Dugdale (1605-86, father from Lancashire) wrote convincingly in his notes that these verses were by William Shakespeare (“the late famous tragedian”). This acknowledgement stayed in his handwriting in a manuscript in his diary at the College of Arms. The diary was not published until 1827, when the relevant pages of inscriptions and sketch of the tomb became more widely known. The College of Arms is the body responsible since the 15th century for the awarding of coats of arms and also the organisation of the funerals of the monarchs and high-ranking aristocracy. At the head was the ‘Garter King of Arms’ and immediately below him were Norroy = nord roi = King of the North and Clarenceux, responsible for the South of England. Below them were various heralds with names often in medieval French, e.g. Rouge Dragon poursuivant, who performed various duties. The College still exists and the library holds thousands of manuscripts, some of which perhaps hide other relevant mysteries surrounding Shakespeare.

Why has there always been doubt for the last two centuries as to whether these verses were by Shakespeare? Indeed, there has been so much doubt that they have not even been mentioned in any recent Shakespeare biography (and in the last ten years alone there has been at least one new biography every year). The main reasons for the rejection or neglect were:

  1.  the dates did not agree: Shakespeare was born in 1564 and died in 1616. Sir Thomas Stanley had already died in 1576 (and so could not have known Shakespeare), and Sir Edward Stanley died in 1632 (much too late); and/or
   2. the verse style and quality could not be reconciled with the work of the famous poet; and/or
  3. the son of an illiterate citizen of a small provincial town, who was suffering from financial problems, could never have had such close contact with an aristocrat.

My research has led to the inevitable conclusion that none of these objections is justified. I claim that:

  1.  Shakespeare wrote the verses in c.1603, most probably when he and Sir Edward were both at the coronation of James I, when the tomb in Tong had either just been erected or was about to be completed; one verse was written as a memorial to his deceased father and the other was dedicated to Sir Edward himself for future use;
   2. the quality of the writing is totally irrelevant when one compares it to the rough verse epitaph that Shakespeare wrote for himself;
  3. he had always had the possibility of coming into contact with high-ranking families and most particularly with the Stanley family of Lancashire, Earls of Derby.

The rather new explanation about the ancestors, education and early biography of Shakespeare runs as follows:

A member of the Shakeshafte family of Lancashire was rewarded by Henry VII after the Battle of Bosworth (1485, signalling the end of the Wars of the Roses). This was because he had fought in the army under Baron Thomas Stanley, created 1st Earl of Derby, and he was rewarded with lands in Warwickshire. A descendant (grandson) later adopted the local Midlands version of the name – Shakespeare.  (Surnames were still rather flexible at this time.) John Shakespeare/Shakeshafte, glover (Alderman and Bailiff of Stratford) was the father of William Shakespeare. After his third marriage to a Catholic wife from an aristocratic family he had various thoughts about the future career of his talented son.

When William was still young (c.14-15) he was sent back to Lancashire to learn the life of a gentleman in a landed gentry family. This family – Hoghton of Lea and Hoghton Tower – was closely connected to the Stanleys, Earls of Derby. They passed down the oral family tradition that young Shakespeare had lived with them “for a couple of years”.

After service in this family and after the death of the head of the family Alexander Hoghton, who named William Shakehafte (alias Shakespeare) three times in his will in 1581, he spent a short time with the Heskeths of Rufford Old Hall (who also passed down a completely independent oral family tradition that young Shakespeare had lived with them for a short time).

The talented William was later almost automatically taken into the service of the Stanley family as actor and dramatist in Derby’s Men, later renamed Strange’s Men, who definitely performed Shakespeare’s early plays in London in the early 1590s. Via this route he had very likely known Sir Edward Stanley since his youth. The Verse Epitaphs were just a consequence of the recognition of this long-standing acquaintance with and patronage by the Earls of Derby, when Shakespeare and Sir Edward met again in London.


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