Charlecote, the seat of the Lucy family, and the first, very large country house known to have been built in Warwickshire in the latter part of the 16th century, was begun in 1559 or 1560. It was of brick, the fashionable material of the day, and originally consisted of a main block, one room deep, and two projecting wings. A two-storied porch, decorated in the classical style, was added later. If viewed from above, the house then resembled a large capital E lying on its side, and so it is supposed that the addition was in compliment to Queen Elizabeth I.
The main block contains the Great Hall with a barrel-vaulted ceiling. Among other rooms displaying decorated ceilings and wood panelling, the current drawing room is where Elizabeth stayed for two nights in 1572 (see below) when she visited Charlecote on one of her Royal Progresses. The two-storied gatehouse that guards the approach to the house, and under which the Queen would have passed, remains unchanged.
There is plenty of evidence for the time-honoured story that the young Shakespeare poached deer in Sir Thomas Lucy’s grounds. Charlecote’s estate of 185 acres, which lies about four miles east of Stratford-upon-Avon, backs on to the river. It had no deer park as such until 1618 when the Lucy family applied for a royal licence to create one; the fallow deer that now live there arrived in the 18th century. But in the 1580s, the Lucy lands would have consisted of woodlands rich in chestnuts, elms, oaks and sycamores; there was a free warren teeming with rabbits and hares, besides numerous pheasants, wood pigeon, foxes and roe deer. It would also have been rigorously patrolled by several keepers on the look out for locals hoping to bag a free supper.
Other local landowners owned similar parks and Shakespeare quite frequently refers to hunting and to deer in the plays – ‘‘What, hast not thou full often struck a doe,/ And borne her cleanly by the keeper’s nose?’ asks Demetrius in Titus Andronicus. Elsewhere, in The Taming of the Shrew and Venus and Adonis, he gives us ‘Fleeter than the roe’ and the ‘fleet-foot roe.’ There is a deer hunting passage in Henry VI (3.1) and around a hundred lines deal with the subject at the beginning of The Merry Wives of Windsor.
The deer-stealing story begins with two independent accounts; the first in notes written around 1688 by Richard Davies, an Oxford clergyman:
‘Shakespeare was much given to all unluckiness in stealing venison and rabbits, particularly from Sir – Lucy who oft had him whipped and sometimes imprisoned and at last made him fly his native country to his great advancement.’
The tale gains substance in 1709 with Nicholas Rowe – playwright, poet and the first editor of Shakespeare’s plays, following the Folios of the 17th century. Within the volume, Rowe included ‘Some account of the life ETC of Mr William Shakespeare,’’ the first formal biography. It was completed with the ‘Researches’ of the Restoration actor Thomas Betterton, who claimed to have worked with actors who had known Shakespeare. Though the latter’s ‘ Conversations … with the people of Stratford-upon-Avon (1715)’ was full of colourful detail, however, it had the disadvantage, of resting upon unverifiable oral material.
In Rowe’s account, Shakespeare had –
‘ fallen into ill Company; and amongst them, some that made a frequent practice of Deer-stealing, engag’d him with them more than once in robbing a Park that belong’d to SIR Thomas Lucy of Charlecot, near Stratford. For this he was prosecuted by that Gentleman, as he thought, somewhat too severely.’
The young Shakespeare, continues Rowe, appears to have compounded his misdemeanour for –
‘ in order to revenge that ill Usage, he made a Ballad upon (Sir Thomas) … said to have been so very bitter, that it redoubled the Prosecution against him…’
Two stanzas of this balled appeared in the late 1680s, when Joshua Barnes, a Cambdrige don, who claimed to have heard them sung by his hostess at a Stratford inn:
Sir Thomas was too covetous To covet so much deer; When horns enough upon his head Most plainly did appear.
Had not his worship one deer left? What then? He had a wife Took pains enough to find him horns should last him during life,
This rendition apparently earned the lady a new gown, and she might have received an additional ten guineas had she only continued to sing, notes Barnes.
A bitter satire indeed, which, having miscalled Sir Thomas for a greedy overabundance of game, went on to expose him as a cuckold sporting multiple horns bestowed by his dear/deer/doe – his wife. Other versions of the ballad appeared in the 18th century and described how Shakespeare had gone even further in retaliation by recklessly sticking it on Sit Thomas’ great gate. This information was drawn from Betterton’s account and declared –
‘This ballad was writ upon a sheet of Parchement made by Shakespear himself from the skin of a stolen sheep,’
It was certainly inflammatory, further insult lying in the fact that Warwickshire people pronounced ‘lousy’ like ‘Lucy, –
If Lucy is lousy, as some folk miscall it, Sing lousy Lucy, whatever befall it.
By 1763, the story had gained such authority as to attain a mention in the entry on Shakespeare in The Biographica Britannica, and spoke of continuing hostilities between Sir Thomas Lucy and Shakespeare to such an extent that, in 1585 at the age of twenty one, the latter was driven out of Warwickshire.
Scholarly spats about the story’s authenticity continue to flare up: some hardline biographers, anxious to fill the aching void of Shakespeare’s so-called ‘Lost Years‘ with indisputable fact, hold that only legal documents should be regarded as ‘proof.’ Oral accounts are dismissed as gossip, or as myths belonging to the Shakespeare tradition, or as inventions by local people increasingly aware of the marketable value of Shakespeare. Other, more laid back commentators, regard oral material as having a very definite place in the historical record, and accept that most folktales usually have some basis in truth,
It is convenient and credible to suppose that Shakespeare had to make a sharp exit from Stratford after all the acrimony with Lucy: he had responsibilities at home (three young children and a father in precarious straits) and so something reasonably serious must have accounted for his departure. Having landed in London’s new theatre-land without friends or support, Shakespeare, ‘driven to the last Necessity, went to the Playhouse door and pick’d up a little Money by holding the horses of those who had no Servants.’ (Betterton again).
I am indebted to a friend for the idea that starting at the very bottom of the playhouse hierarchy might be rather like collecting trolleys at a multinational supermarket, before rising through the ranks to executive management. The substance of this comment, though oral, has been accurately recorded.
Shakespeare evidently had a long memory for, in due time, he took further revenge in The Merry Wives of Windsor,’ where Falstaff is a deer-stealer and Justice Shallow appears to be a caricature of Sir Thomas. Both are local magistrates, qualified to sit in judgement on poachers and other wrongdoers. And Shallow’s cousin, Slender, speaks of the very same rampant white ‘luces’ – or pikes – that appear in the coat of arms of the Charlecote Lucys.
Bettina Harris, Library Support Assistant
The Making of the Warwickshire Country House 1500-1650/ Geoffery Tyack
The works of Mr. William Shakespeare/ edited by Nicholas Rowe
William Shakespeare: a Documentary Life/ Samual Schoenbaum
Shakespeare Revealed; a biography/ Rene Weis
William Shakespeare; his life and work/ Anthony Holden
Nine lives of William Shakespeare/ Graham Holderness
Will in the World/ Steven Greenblatt
Brian Strathie, for his supermarket comment.