The site of New Place from the prehistoric to the early medieval period
William Mitchell and Kevin Colls
The complex history of Stratford-upon-Avon can be chronicled through the fortunate survival of its early records. The site of New Place is situated in the lower Avon Valley close to a natural fording point along the River Avon. At the beginning of the Neolithic period there was a rapid growth in trade, technology and commerce. Several of the monuments are known from crop marks in the area around Stratford-upon-Avon, and find-spots of Neolithic-worked flint and pottery sherds are known. The Bronze Age is not represented on the site by either physical or artefactual evidence. The Iron Age was a period of immense social, technological and agricultural change. During the Early to Middle Iron Age, settlements consisted of individual farmsteads scattered across the Avon Valley rather than planned, nucleated settlements. The site of New Place is located on the corner of Chapel Street and Chapel Lane.
Hugh Clopton was a wealthy mercer, benefactor and public official. He was the youngest son of John and Agnes Clopton and was born near Stratford-upon-Avon at Clopton House, his ancestral home, in 1440. The earliest reference to a building on this plot is Clopton's own will of 1496: 'my grete house in Stratford'. Archaeological evidence suggests that it is likely that Hugh Clopton used the frontage range as shops. The upper floor of the front range probably contained bedchambers and additional storage rooms. Wells were the most efficient and practical source of water. Three wells are known to have existed on the site, although only two seem to date from Clopton's New Place. A passageway ran along the northern side, between New Place and the neighbouring buildings, from Chapel Street in an easterly direction. Hugh Clopton's New Place is known to have been built of brick and timber.
After William Shakespeare's death in 1616, New Place survived, in the same form, for a further eighty-five years before being destroyed to make way for a new, more fashionable, eighteenth-century house. This chapter discusses his motivations for building the property, the architecture and layout of the building, and the archaeological evidence that was left behind. Sir John Clopton was a direct descendant of Hugh Clopton, so, in 1677, the ownership of New Place reverted into the hands of a descendant of the original builder. Because of a change in economic fortunes, Stratford-upon-Avon was undergoing a period of significant redevelopment. The house was constructed on a three-bay plan, a feature typical of the period and one of a number of defining features of high-status houses. A considerable number of houses survive that have comparable architectural qualities to Sir John Clopton's New Place.
This book provides an abundance of fresh insights into Shakespeare's life in relation to his lost family home, New Place. It first covers the first 6,000 years of the site, from its prehistoric beginnings through its development into a plot within the economic context of early medieval Stratford-upon-Avon, and the construction of the first timber-framed building. The book then describes the construction and distinctive features of Hugh Clopton's brick-and-timber house, the first New Place. Stratford-upon-Avon gave Shakespeare a deeply rooted love of family, loyal neighbours and friends, and although he came to enjoy a prominent social standing there, he probably had little or no time at all for its puritanical side. The book provides a cultural, religious and economic context for Shakespeare's upbringing; education, work, marriage, and early investments up to his son, Hamnet's death, and his father, John Shakespeare, being made a gentleman. It discusses the importance of New Place to Shakespeare and his family during the nineteen years he owned it and spent time there. The book also takes us to just beyond the death of Shakespeare's granddaughter, Elizabeth, Lady Bernard, the last direct descendant of Shakespeare to live in the house. It further gives an account of James Halliwell's acquisition of the site, his archaeology and how New Place has become an important focus for the local community, not least during the 'Dig for Shakespeare'.
In March 2010, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust started to lift the turf on the site of William Shakespeare's family home. This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book provides the first 6,000 years of the site, from its prehistoric beginnings through its development into a plot within the economic context of early medieval Stratford-upon-Avon, and the construction of the first timber-framed building. It describes the construction and distinctive features of Hugh Clopton's brick-and-timber house, the first New Place, and provides a detailed account of it. The book also provides a cultural, religious and economic context for Shakespeare's upbringing; education; work; marriage; and early investments up to his son, Hamnet's death, and his father, John Shakespeare, being made a gentleman. It discusses the importance of New Place to Shakespeare and his family during the nineteen years he spent time there.
Corroborative evidence supports the likelihood that the frontage as sketched by Vertue represents Shakespeare's own home-improvement. The appearance of the external architectural features is thought to be similar to those of New Place. Vertue's sketch portrays a three-storey, half-timbered, square-panel-framed building. Shakespeare's gentlemanly status would have been conspicuously displayed on the remodelled frontage. Shakespeare's treatment of the hall remains uncertain. It remained, however, firmly at the heart of the house complex. The archaeological evidence suggests that part-way down the southern range on the courtyard side, there was a change in room width. After comprehensive archival research and archaeological interpretation, new artistic representations of New Place during Shakespeare's ownership have been created by Phillip Watson. The reconstructions encompass the complete refurbishment of the frontage range, including the long-gallery storey with gabled dormers, and present the Chapel Lane service and rear entrances, projecting and Elizabethan-style windows, and decorative timberwork.
A thorough understanding of New Place encourages to think about William Shakespeare more as a resident and representative of Stratford-upon-Avon than as a citizen of London. In relation to Shakespeare's life, New Place represents his social status and aspirations more than any other aspect of it. Shakespeare's taste in a home reflects his literary sensibilities as a writer. Archaeological remains will never reveal anything about their effect on Shakespeare's own intellect, imagination and feelings. This is the task of a Sir Thomas Browne, or a sympathetic biographer. The cultural reputation of New Place after Shakespeare, until the demolition of the second house in 1759, is worthy of more consideration, as, too, are the life and legacy of his granddaughter, Elizabeth, Lady Barnard. In later years the relationship between the New Place and Nash's House becomes significant, and the shared ownership and questions about their boundaries are interesting.