Visitors to Nash’s House will recognise this portrait of Sir George Carew (1555-1629) which hung in the staircase there until recently. The portrait is now on display in the Reading Room at the Shakespeare Centre on Henley Street.
Carew was not a native of Stratford-upon-Avon. He was born into a well-known Devonshire family and, like Shakespeare, lived and worked outside the town. Carew was knighted in 1578, became Baron Carew of Clopton in 1605 and was created Earl of Totnes in 1625/6. He was a prominent figure in the courts of Elizabeth I, James I and Charles II and a close friend of Sir Walter Raleigh.
In 1580 Carew married Joyce Clopton. Through this match, he became part of one of the great Stratford families. Since the 13th Century the Cloptons had been landowners in the area. Clopton House, now converted into apartments, still stands on the outskirts of the town to the north. Sir Hugh Clopton built the original New Place in 1483 and the family owned the property until Joyce’s father, William Clopton III, sold it in 1563. Just over thirty years later William Shakespeare purchased the house. Because of his links to the town through marriage, Carew is buried in Holy Trinity Church.
Carew served as High Steward of Stratford in 1610, about thirteen years after Shakespeare had returned to the town and purchased New Place. It is likely that the two would have known of each other and would possibly even have met. Carew would almost certainly have known of Shakespeare the playwright and actor in London and Shakespeare the businessman in Stratford. Shakespeare, in turn, would have known of Carew as a member of the nobility and a local landowner. He may also have been aware of his campaigns in Ireland and his position at court.
Without direct evidence we can never know whether the two men ever met but it is interesting to contemplate the circumstances under which they may have known each other and what this can tell us about them and the world they lived in.
The 16th Century saw significant unrest and conflict in Ireland. The Tudor re-conquest of Ireland began after the Earl of Kildare’s failed rebellion against the English crown in the 1530s. Carew first went to Ireland in 1574 and retired from his post there in 1603. He had been appointed lord president of Munster in early 1600 following the Earl of Essex’s failure to put an end to the rebellion.
Carew’s attitude towards Ireland and the Irish was affected by the death of his brother, Peter, in a skirmish against Irish fighters. He told Sir Francis Walsingham that it would be "hard for any Englishman to dwell in this land, for there is no war amongst themselves but all upon us; nothing so hateful as the name and habit of an Englishman; no part of Ireland free from rebellion. The loss I have sustained by this wicked nation is too grievous to remember, if hope of revenge did not breed me comfort."
When Carew did take his revenge, by killing one of the men who was alleged to have been involved in Peter’s death, the authorities in England and Ireland were not pleased and he was sent back to London temporarily in 1586.
Carew’s attitude towards the Irish was probably not untypical. When Shakespeare makes reference to Ireland it is not painted in a flattering light. The Irish are seen as rebels and the wars that are fought there are costly. Shakespeare creates many Scottish and Welsh characters but only one Irish character. This is probably due to censorship at the time. The Irish wars caused a crisis and at some points it seemed that England might fail in its suppression of the country's violent resistance to English rule.
If you want to know more about Shakespeare and Ireland you can listen to the BBC podcast, Shakespeare’s Restless World, produced in conjunction with The British Museum.