This is one of my favourite stories that I like to tell when it comes to talking about William Shakespeare and Stratford upon Avon.
Hugh Clopton was the benevolent aristocrat who lived at Clopton Manor which is a rather grand house next to the River Avon. It is in fact still there today. Hugh Clopton was the man who was responsible for the construction of the fourteen arched stone bridge which spans the River Avon and acts as the main thoroughfare across the river from the south to the town itself. It was on the occasion of the opening of the new bridge that a young and curious William Shakespeare first met Hugh Clopton.
Hugh Clopton recognized in the young William Shakespeare someone who was willing to learn and who was different from the rest. A visit by the young William to the Clopton library was his first exposure to ax expansive library of any kind. William continued to make visits to Clopton Manor and develop an interest in literature which would never leave him.
The friendship between William Shakespeare and Hugh Clopton continued through childhood and adolescence. Hugh Clopton was the first person to whom William showed his first ever draft of a Play, a Play in 1575 by an eleven year old boy as yet untitled but inspired by witnessing the spectacle of the Kenilworth Pageant of 1575 and later to be called ‘A Midsummers Night Dream’.
William Shakespeare was at a crossroads in his life in 1585. He was unhappy at home with wife Anne Hathaway and he had received an invitation from former teacher and Jesuit Priest Simon Hunt to go to Rome. Hugh Clopton provided the funds for William to spend three years in Italy but asked William, when the ‘Play’ was finished, that it be performed first at Clopton Manor.
There is another romantic development to this story. William had dreamed of owning the stone house which overlooked the Kings Grammar School where he had schooled as a child. He wanted to make that house his family home for wife Anne and their three children. No other property in Stratford would do. The house was owned by Hugh Clopton.
Hugh Clopton agreed that if William could perform the Play at Clopton Manor, then he would sell the house opposite the school, called New Place, to William. In turn, William would make a promise to wife Anne. Little would she know that she would have to wait twelve years before that promise would be honoured.
Hugh Clopton was a smart astute businessman who made his name in London and succeeded in becoming London Lord Mayor in the early 1590s just at the time when William Shakespeare, actor turned Playwright, was getting public acclaim for his Plays. This was no coincidence. Ironically, when William showed his latest draft of ‘Midsummers Night Dream’ down at the Mermaid Tavern on Friday Street, the university Wits discouraged him with derogatory comments of ‘don’t give up the day job’.
The climax to this story came in 1597. Hugh Clopton and William Shakespeare were both saddened by the death of fellow Stratfordian James Burbage and the loss of the original Theatre. Plans were afoot for a new theatre called the Globe on the north side of Londons River Thames but in 1597, William was performing his Plays wherever he could.
His masterpiece, ‘Midsummers Night Dream’, remained unfinished and Hugh Clopton was showing signs of ill health. The finishing touches were put and the Play was finally ready with Richard Burbage assigned to the leading role, as always. This was a Shakespeare Premier like no other, on a glorious midsummers night on the cedar lawn of Clopton Manor, just as Hugh Clopton and William Shakespeare had desired.
This was a wonderful production indeed and performed by the Lord Chamberlains Men before both the recently widowed Lady Anne Lucy and his Wife Anne Hathaway. It would be the only Shakespeare Play ever attended by Anne Hathaway and the only time the two ladies actually met in William Shakespeare’s lifetime. Hugh Clopton would be able to keep his promise to William and transfer ownership of New Place. William could keep his promise to wife Anne.
There was one other footnote to the Clopton-Shakespeare Agreement. Though Sir Thomas Lucy was not the man he once was, he remained fiercely opposed to a Shakespeare Coat of Arms and Hugh Clopton would ‘lock horns’ with his Stratfordian rival one final time to become instrumental in getting the Shakespeare Coat of Arms finally granted and gentleman status. Alas, ‘Not of Right’.
Hugh Clopton died the following year, 1598 as he attended the mulberry tree which was centred on the cedar lawn he so dearly loved. William Shakespeare planted another mulberry tree in the garden of New place in memory of the man who had been such a guiding light and inspiration up to this point in his life.
This story is completely untrue but I have no conscience about telling it and making you believe that it actually happened. Hugh Clopton lived about a century before William Shakespeare and they, of course, never knew each other. Hugh Clopton was the man who originally built the Bridge and the house opposite the school which William Shakespeare liked so much but the house was not in the ownership of the Clopton family when William Shakespeare bought it in 1597. No Shakespeare Play, to my knowledge, was ever performed, let alone premiered, during William Shakespeare’s lifetime. Anne Hathaway is not known to have attended any of the Shakespeare Plays. There is no evidence that William Shakespeare attended the Kenilworth Pageant of 1575 or that the Pageant in any way inspired the creation of a Play called ‘Midsummers Night Dream’.
Let me share what I like about this story. First I like that there could be a benevolent person like Hugh Clopton who would inspire a young man like William Shakespeare to become a great writer. In characterization, Hugh Clopton is the opposite to some extent of the harsher, tougher, puritanical Sir Thomas Lucy who could well have been his jousting rival in action as well as in life. I also like that William Shakespeare could have had access to a useful library which would motivate him to write. In sixteenth century England, only the privileged had books, they were not for the commoners like the Shakespeare family. Another feature in my story is the ‘Uncle’ parenting engaged by Hugh Clopton in his relationship with William Shakespeare, William much abandoned and neglected by his busy Father while Hugh Clopton, never a Father of children of his own, sought compensations through William in an unlikely way.
As I have said, the Clopton Manor house, much renovated of course, still stands today as a Hotel. It is not hard to imagine, however, with a sense of romanticism, such a relationship between Hugh Clopton and William Shakespeare and that the relationship was further nurtured in the environs of the big city of London. It does not matter that the relationship in real life did not exist. It helps to paint a picture of the social development of a provincial town like Stratford upon Avon in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and to how and from where William Shakespeare may have drawn someone as a mentor and inspiration for the writing of the Plays.
In any event, I hope you agree that it is a beautiful story.