Troth, and your bum is the greatest thing about you— Measure for Measure, Act 2 Scene 1
William Shakespeare has often been perceived as a blend of fact, myth and even legend. Legends surrounding Shakespeare are often related to Shakespeare’s personality, perhaps to answer the perpetual question ‘what was Shakespeare like?’
Many of these legends centre on artefacts in our collection today, artefacts which I am lucky enough to care for in my role as Collections Care Officer. On one particular day, when inspecting one such artefact, I started wondering, why were people so obsessed with Shakespeare’s bum? Bum, posterior, buttocks, no matter how you describe it, these legends often focus on where he sat. In this blog I’m going to discuss some of these legends, along with their associated artefacts.
Falcon Inn Chair
There’s an intriguing label glued to the back of this chair, it reads, ‘Chair from the Falcon Inn, Bidford where Shakespeare held his Club meetings’. This label is interesting, and conjures up more questions than it answers; who wrote the label? Can it be trusted? If Shakespeare had a club, why did he hold it in Bidford on Avon - nearly seven miles away from his hometown Stratford upon Avon? What kind of club was it? Well unfortunately I can only venture an answer to one, perhaps two, of these questions.
To understand the significance of the chair, we have to delve into another Shakespeare legend, Shakespeare’s Crab Tree.
The legend of Shakespeare’s Crab Tree can be traced back to the mid 1700s, and was referred to by David Garrick, an actor and Shakespeare enthusiast. The tree, which once grew on the main road between Stratford and Bidford, became a tourist trap and target of souvenir hunters until what was left was uprooted.
After the tree had disappeared it acquired celebrity status, with poems and legends spun to romanticise the tree, and intern Shakespeare. One such account was told by Charles Frederick Green. Green told of the Toppers, a group of men from Bidford, who challenged Stratford men to ‘imbib[e] the nut-brown ale’ for which Bidford was renowned. Shakespeare, along with a few of his friends, took up the challenge. This didn’t go well for Shakespeare who slept under the Crab Tree as the effects wore off overnight. Perhaps the ‘club’ that’s described on the label was a drinking club? The type of club, and whether it truly existed, are sadly unknown today.
The age of this chair does make it highly improbable that Shakespeare sat on it; it dates from about 1630, some 14 years after his death. Interest in Shakespeare’s work began to escalate in 1702, when Nicholas Rowe’s edited volumes of his works were published. The tourist industry in Stratford took off following the Shakespeare Jubilee in 1769, and a greater interest in Shakespeare’s family life took hold. By the time the Falcon Inn Chair was donated to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in 1865, collectors and visitors were clamouring to own a little link to Shakespeare. Knowing this, it is easy to understand why connections to Shakespeare through artefacts would be strengthened, or even falsified, for monetary gain.
Shakespeare’s Courting Chair
Another chair with a Shakespeare legend belonged to the descendants of Anne Hathaway’s brother, Bartholomew. The family had lived in their ancestral home since 1543, when Anne Hathaway’s grandfather first took up the lease for the farmhouse and land. By 1792 Bartholomew’s descendants were capitalising on their link to Shakespeare and showed visitors around their home. One such visitor was Shakespeare collector and travel writer Samuel Ireland, who was shown a chair, known as Shakespeare’s Courting Chair. Legend would have it that the chair was sat in by Shakespeare, with Anne on his knee, during their romance –courtship. Ireland purchased the chair, along with other artefacts with a possible connection to Shakespeare.
Given the Falcon Inn Chair’s now disputed connection to Shakespeare, you may well be thinking ‘I can see where this is going’, but actually there is a possible direct family link. The chair was thought to have been passed on to the Hathaway family via Shakespeare’s granddaughter, Lady Elizabeth Barnard. When William Shakespeare died he left the bulk of his property to his daughter Susanna, his eldest surviving child. On Susanna’s death she left her property, possibly including some of the Shakespeare family heirlooms, to her daughter Elizabeth. It may have been Elizabeth’s wish to gift the chair to the Hathaway family because of their family connection.
Now this is where the notion of it being sat on by Shakespeare during his courtship comes to an end because Anne and William married in 1582, the chair dates from between 1600 and 1650. However the connection to the Shakespeare family doesn’t end there. Carved into the chair are two elements of the Shakespeare family coat of arms, which was granted in 1596 to William’s father John. The first is a shield, with a diagonal bend – a diagonal bar, the second is an eagle holding a spear. William Shakespeare inherited the title from his father and was entitled to use his family coat of arms to decorate the furniture in his home, perhaps it was a chair made for his grand family home New Place? The carving of the two elements have been carved by a different hand to the one who made the chair itself. Stylistically it is impossible to say when they were added, but they were present when the chair was drawn in 1792 by Samuel Ireland.
There are some further carvings on the chair, which are a little confusing. Following its purchase by Samuel Ireland, the chair came to the notice of his son, William Henry Ireland. William Henry Ireland was a notorious forger of Shakespeare relics. Perhaps he added the letters to strengthen its connection to the courtship of William and Anne Shakespeare –‘WAS’?
The chair returned to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage in 2002, following a successful bid at Christie’s Auction House.
The Courting Settle
A big draw to visit the cottage was lost when Shakespeare’s Courting Chair was purchased by Samuel Ireland. By the 1870s written accounts of people visiting included a description of a high backed bench – a settle – which was known as The Courting Settle. Charles Warren Stoddard, a journalist from San Francisco, wrote an article about his visit for the Overland Monthly in 1874. He wrote …
‘Where think you I am at this moment? Well, I am in the main room of Hathaway Cottage (a mile from Stratford-on-Avon), not three feet from the very chimney in which Will Shakespeare used to make love to his Anne. The old settle is close at my elbow, and the room itself is called one of the most perfectly preserved specimens of the sixteenth sentry farm-house living room.’’
Is it possible that the Hathaway family had two pieces of furniture purporting to have been sat on by William and Anne whilst courting? And if so why had it not been acquired by Samuel Ireland, or even mentioned by him?
It may be more likely that the family decided to create their own relic, filling the void Shakespeare’s Courting Chair once filled. This theory is strengthened by the fact furniture experts now date the settle to the early 1700s rather than existing between 1581-2, which is when William would have courted Anne Hathaway. Mary Baker, a direct descendent of Anne Hathaway’s brother, lived in the cottage and gave tours until her death in 1899. For a small fee she would even allow a piece to be cut from the seat, allowing a lasting connection to the settle, and Shakespeare, for visitors.
When Mary died the tradition of cutting pieces off the settle – thankfully – ceased. However the tradition of sitting on the settle remained. This became increasingly popular during the 1940s, when visiting military personnel from the neighbouring airfield bases would come, often with their sweethearts to sit where Anne and William once did during their romance. This tradition ceased in the 1980s, when collections care knowledge improved.
Well this is the big question, why chairs over any other artefact? The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust does hold other artefacts with links to Shakespeare’s touch, or even person. There are two locks of hair purporting to be that of William Shakespeare, there is also a ring, which was found in the churchyard of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford upon Avon in 1810. But more than any other artefact, chairs are the most prevalent. One theory could be that a chair, like a throne, is a symbol of power, symbolic of a person’s high status in society. However the three chairs in the Trust’s collection aren’t linked to Shakespeare the playwright and poet, they are linked to Shakespeare the man. Perhaps these chairs tell the story of our continued fascination with who Shakespeare was as a person, and what made him human. We are only too willing to believe that Shakespeare took part in a drinking game and fell asleep under a crab apple tree, or enjoyed a little wooing on a settle in front of the fire, because it makes the ‘Bard’ relatable. And yes, what’s more relatable than Shakespeare’s bum!