Unearthing Shakespeare – Part 2

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New Place is best known as the home of William Shakespeare, however by the time of Shakespeare’s purchase in 1597, New Place had stood for over a hundred years.

Around 1483, Sir Hugh Clopton, a wealthy merchant, important benefactor and future Lord Mayor of London (1491), acquired a burgage plot on the corner of Chapel Street and Chapel Lane, upon which he constructed his house. At the time of its construction, the house was known as the Great House and is thought to have been the second largest residence in the town (after the college in Old Town) and the only house to have been built using brick as a significant building component. This was recorded in 1540 by John Leland, the antiquary, who described New Place as a “praty house of bricke and tymbre wherm he (i.e. Hugh Clopton) lived in his latter dayes and dyed”.

The 1496 will of Hugh Clopton bequeathed ‘my grete house in Stratford upon Avon’ to his cousin William Clopton.
The house became known as New Place, first named as such in a Stratford rent roll of 1561 ‘domum vocatam the newe place’ (a domus being a mansion house). The layout and materials used in its construction suggest it was a house of status, designed to be a small manor, befitting of its influential owner.

The house proceeded to be retained by the Clopton family until it passed to William Bott in 1563. Four years later New Place was sold to William Underhill and then inherited by his son, also William, in 1570.

We have no contemporary illustrations or plans of New Place, much of what we know of comes from a pen and ink depiction made by George Vertue in 1737 (Picture 1). This sketch, accompanied by a site plan and a description, depicts a two storey-with attic, half-timbered building, with five gabled bays and a central ground floor gateway, which faced onto Chapel Street. The house frontage measured about 57.75 feet (a single burgage plot), and the garden 198 feet long, as documented in the borough charter.

Vertue’s interpretation suggests that this half timbered and brick structure, was not the actual dwelling house of New Place “besides this front or outward gate there was before the house itself (that Shakespeare lived in) within a little court yard grass growing there – before the real dwelling house. This outside being only a long gallery and for servants” – George Vertue 1737. Unfortunately, Vertue had to rely partly, on what others had told him, the house having been demolished in 1702 (see further blog post). Modern reconstructions of the house have relied heavily on this George Vertue source (Picture 2).

Dig for Shakespeare started in 2010 and is now approaching the start of its third and final phase. We have already learnt a lot more about the lay-out of Shakespeare’s home, and challenged and developed our existing knowledge of it. We anticipate phase 3 being crucial in the missing pieces we hope it provides…

You can find more images and information about the project here.

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Author:WillMitchell

Will Mitchell is Archaeology Supervisor for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and lead archaeologist on 'Dig for Shakespeare.'
  • http://44calibreshakespeare.com Humphrey

    part 1 was just a teaser but this is the ‘egg’ of the matter

  • http://dustbowlpoetry.wordpress.com/ Shelley

    Strangely, you can almost hear the pride in these structures in the language used to describe them.

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