Two medieval artefacts that help to narrate the history of Shakespeare’s Schoolroom & Guildhall and the working life of Stratford-upon-Avon have returned to their original home. The Stratford Grammar School Desk and the Muniment Chest and Treasure Chest of the Guild of the Holy Cross have been preserved by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust for many years, however the restoration of Shakespeare’s Schoolroom & Guildhall has made it possible for them to be returned to where their story began.
Both pieces are owned by Stratford Town Council and were transferred from King Edward VI School to Shakespeare’s Birthplace in the early 1860s, where they have been stored and cared for as part of the town’s Borough Collections.
Lindsey Armstrong, General Manager for Shakespeare’s Schoolroom & Guildhall, explains, “In researching the building’s history one of our volunteers, Charles Rogers, began to explore the story of the Muniment Chest, which led us to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust collections. Dated c1450, the Chest would have once held all the wealth and records of the town. Thanks to the support of the Town Council we are delighted to now be able to display to the public this vast and unique piece in its original home.”
Charles Rogers, a volunteer with Shakespeare’s Schoolroom & Guildhall, says, “As a volunteer guide I wanted to know more about the town of Stratford during Tudor times. My research revealed the fascinating story of the Muniment Chest and I was thrilled to discover that it was still intact and that now, following the restoration of the Guildhall, is once again located at the heart of the town for all to see. This is another chapter of Stratford’s enthralling history and one of the town’s most significant treasures.”
Spanning almost 1 metre 70cm wide the Muniment Chest would have once had some painted decoration; still present are the three strong locks with the key for each held by three separate individuals. The key holders would have been pillars of society, and it is believed that during his tenure as Bailiff (Mayor) John Shakespeare, William’s father, would have been one of them. Containing during Tudor times the rolls and charters of the Guild, the money paid in by members and the town’s treasures such as silver dishes and cups, the Chest was still in use by the Town Council into the 19th century.
Alongside the Chest, an original school desk, known as Stratford Grammar School Desk, also owned by Stratford Town Council and cared for by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, has been put on permanent public display. This standing oak and elm desk, with a heavy single sloping top, was made in England in the 15th or early 16th century and would have been used by the schoolmaster and visiting scribes tutoring the older boys. It is once again taking its position in the corner of the first floor Schoolroom in the town’s Guildhall, so that visitors can get a sense of how school life would have been during William Shakespeare’s time. Like the other wooden objects in the building, there is a sense that the boys left their mark on the desk, as Fairholt's book Home of Shakespeare (1847) describes:
“The boys of the school very generally carried away some portion of it as a memento, and the relic-hunters frequently behaved as boyishly, so that a great portion of the old wood has been abstracted.”
Rosalyn Sklar, Museum Collections Officer at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, says, “We are delighted to be able to facilitate the return of these important pieces to their original home. The school desk and Muniment chest are both wonderful examples of late 15th century craftsmanship. The chest is almost certainly made of one Elm tree, the enormous boards held together with iron straps. This was a common method of making large, strong pieces of furniture at that time. The school desk bears a network of marks and scars that are testament to the desire people have had over the centuries to own a piece of something that was linked to Shakespeare. Being able to see these pieces in their original home really adds to the already fantastic visitor experience at Shakespeare’s Schoolroom & Guildhall.”
Both pieces went on permanent public display from Monday 31 July, for visitors and school groups to see as part of their visit to Shakespeare’s Schoolroom & Guildhall.