Following on from one of our previous blog posts featuring quirky facts from our library, here are some quirky facts about items in our museum collection. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust cares for an extensive collection of over 7000 objects which includes over 150 paintings, around 200 items of wooden furniture and hundreds of archaeological finds. I have selected some of the most intriguing items to give you an idea of some of the weird and wonderful things that the Trust cares for.
1. One of the oldest items in the collection. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust cares for lots of archaeological collections and fossil finds. This is now a closed collection and most of the archaeological finds excavated in Warwickshire now go to the county museum. This mammoth’s tooth was found at a dig at Alveston Manor in Stratford-upon-Avon and was gifted to the Trust in 1910. Mammoths were prehistoric creatures with trunks and long tusks that are in the same family as our modern day elephants. They lived from around 5 million years ago and went extinct about 4000 years ago, meaning that they coexisted with early humans. There were many different species, the largest being palaeoloxodon namadicus, which were estimated to be over five-metres high and seven-metres long. This tooth is from a woolly mammoth which were significantly smaller, about the size of modern day African elephants. As their name suggests, they were covered in thick fur which made them well suited to survive the freezing temperatures of the ice age in which they lived. They were hunted by early humans who often used their bones and tusks to make tools.
2. One of the youngest items in the collection. This special edition of the popular board game Monopoly features the town of Stratford-upon-Avon. Many local landmarks such as Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and Holy Trinity Church are used as locations around the board. It was released in 2016 after Stratford-upon-Avon won a public vote to decide which Midlands town would be featured as part of the next special edition version of Monopoly.
3. Something that may have belonged to Shakespeare. This signet ring dates from the late 1500s or early 1600s and was discovered near the churchyard of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1810. It is possible that it may have belonged to Shakespeare as the ring bears the initials “WS”. Rings of this nature were used to authenticate documents by leaving their impression in warm wax to create a seal. They would consist of some sort of symbol personal to the sender, such as a monogram or coat of arms, so the receiver could recognise the legitimacy of the document. The wax also created a tamper-proof seal so that the recipient would know if the document had been opened. Shakespeare’s daughter Judith married at Holy Trinity Church in February 1616. A few weeks later Shakespeare was making amendments to his will. One line of the will reads “whereof I have hereunto put my Seale” but the word “Seale” has been crossed out and replaced with the word “hand”. It has been suggested that Shakespeare lost his ring which he would have used to make the seal at Judith’s wedding the month before, and so had to sign the document instead.
4. Something that didn’t belong to Shakespeare. The writing on the parchment to which these two locks of hair are attached claims that they belonged to Shakespeare; one from when he was 16 and the other in the last year of his life. They are part of a selection of hair samples which also supposedly includes those of Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway, his granddaughter Lady Elizabeth Barnard, the 3rd Earl of Pembroke and the poet Michael Drayton. In reality these locks of hair are forgeries and are thought to date from the late 1700s. One of the papers contains signatures which match the style of William-Henry Ireland, a famous forger of Shakespearean works.
5. Shakespeare souvenirs. The Trust has in its collection hundreds of souvenirs relating to Stratford and Shakespeare dating from the 1700s to modern day. Some of the most intriguing are items that are supposedly carved from the wood of Shakespeare’s mulberry tree. Legend has it that Shakespeare planted a mulberry tree in his garden at New Place. By the mid-1700s the house was owned by Reverend Francis Gastrell, who became so fed up of tourists wanting to see Shakespeare’s mulberry tree that he cut it down in a rage in 1756. The wood was reputedly sold to local clockmaker Thomas Sharp who proceeded to make and sell souvenirs made from the wood. The SBT has over 60 of these souvenirs in its collection, including goblets, boxes, tankards, tobacco stoppers and even a pastry cutter! Many other supposedly authentic souvenirs reside in other museums and private collections over the world. A lot of them must be fakes, as surely Shakespeare’s mulberry tree can’t have been that big!
6. One of the prettiest items in the collection. This purse or bag dates from the mid to late 1500s and is made of vibrant pink silk satin and embroidered with metal threads and sequins. This type of bag is commonly referred to as a ‘sweet bag’ and they were often used to carry sweet-smelling herbs and dried flowers that could be held under the nose to mask unpleasant odours and guard against ‘bad air’. Alternatively bags such as this were used as a form of gift wrapping and would contain a small gift such as jewellery, money or perfume.
7. A Jacobean practical joke. Dating from between 1600 and 1625, this painting features the rather grotesque sneering figures of two court jesters. The figure on the left is believed to be Tom Derry who was employed by King James I’s wife Queen Anne of Denmark. The figure on the right is perhaps Archibald Armstrong or John Muckle who were both jesters for King Charles I. The painting has the inscription ‘wee three logerhds’ (or ‘we three loggerheads’) beneath it. The word loggerhead in the late 1500s and early 1600s could either mean a ‘block of wood’ or a ‘stupid person’. ‘Three loggerheads’ could therefore be interpreted to mean the two jesters and their wooden stick with a carved face. However, it is also implied that the viewer of the painting is in fact the third loggerhead - how rude!
8. An item with a disgusting use. These seemingly simple copper instruments are Anglo-Saxon in origin and have an intriguing use. They would hang from a ring which would be attached to a person’s belt or necklace, and they were used for personal hygiene. Known as ‘toilet sets’, the assortments typically contained picks for getting dirt out from beneath fingernails or stray bits of food from between teeth, tweezers for plucking hairs, and even a miniature scoop to remove ear wax!
9. An item with a claim to fame. This rather striking lustreware teapot can claim to have been used by three women who were at the height of celebrity in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Marie Corelli (1855-1924) was an English novelist whose books were more popular in her day than those by the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling and H.G. Wells. She moved to Stratford-upon-Avon in 1899 and was instrumental in helping to preserve many of Stratford’s historic buildings and gardens. This teapot was used at Corelli’s home in Stratford, Mason Croft, when she entertained two of the most famous actresses of their day: Ellen Terry (1847-1928) and Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923). Terry and Bernhardt were leading Shakespearean actresses and they found success all around the world. Both were famous for playing some of Shakespeare’s most renowned and challenging female roles such as Lady Macbeth, Ophelia and Desdemona. Both actresses also took on some of Shakespeare’s male characters, Terry playing Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Prince Arthur in King John, and Bernhardt playing the titular role in Hamlet. The teapot used by the trio belonged to a Mrs Pearce who kindly lent it to Corelli for the occasion. It was then donated to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust by Mrs Pearce in 1906 and can now be found on display in the parlour of Anne Hathaway’s Cottage.
10. One of my favourite items. One item that I find particularly intriguing is this stool which is on display in the parlour at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage. It dates from the 1500s and is incredibly small: it stands at just 18cm high and the seat measures 18cm by 14cm, far too small for anyone but a small child to sit on! Stools such as this were commonly used by women when cooking in the fireplace. They would require low seating to be able to cook directly over the fire. The stool has five sets of concentric circles carved into the seat. These sorts of marks were often used to ward away evil spirits and witches and examples can be found carved into furniture, doorframes and the walls and beams of houses across England. It was believed that witches possessed the ability to transform inanimate objects into their likeness, so it’s possible that these marks may have been carved in order to protect the stool from being enchanted. Stools were also used in the interrogation of suspected witches. Suspects were often bound to stools with their feet raised off the ground, or forced to stand on a stool for hours on end in the hope that they would break down and confess. If these are indeed witch marks, they reveal the level of paranoia and superstition that everyday people felt about witches in the 1500s. I find this to be a truly fascinating object and one of my personal favourites.
If this has inspired you why not head over to our online catalogue to see what other fascinating treasures we care for. To read about some more quirky items from our library collection, check out our blog 'Quirky facts from our library'.