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Tudor mystery over “Mrs Shakespeare” letter

Posted on: April 29, 2016 2:05 PM
Is this 400-year-old letter in Hereford Cathedral's library connected to the family of William Shakespeare?
Photo Credit: Gordon Taylor / Chapter of Hereford Cathedral
Related Categories: England, Hereford, History

[ACNS] Hereford Cathedral in the English Midlands is investigating possible links between a 400-year-old letter that was found hidden in the binding of an old book; and the family of playwright William Shakespeare, who was born 50 miles to the east in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Before the 19th century, when cheap machine-made paper became available, paper was made by hand and was relatively expensive. Waste paper was often recycled as endpapers and strengthening in book bindings; and some early texts only survive today because they have been recovered from bindings.

And that was the case with two fragments of a letter found in the binding of a book from the historic library of Lady Hawkins’ School in Kington, Herefordshire; which is now under the care of Hereford Cathedral.

The letter is addressed to a ‘Good Mrs Shakspaire’. A cathedral historian has concluded that the letter dates from the right period as William Shakespeare, but “the references in the letter do not tie up with what we know about William Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway,” a Cathedral spokesperson said.

The letter reveals what the Cathedral describes as “a moving human story concerning some other member of the family.”

The letter fragments were discovered in 1978, but were only recently removed from the binding by a conservator, allowing them to be read for the first time in four centuries.

“The writer implores the widow Shakspaire to pay a penniless orphan boy named John Butts money owing to him from her late husband,” Cathedral librarian, Dr Rosemary Firman, said. “A Mr Sparowe is mentioned. These Shakespeares are said to have once lived on a Trinity Lane, but William Shakespeare is not known to have lived at such an address, and no connections are known between him and anyone called Butts or Sparowe.

“The book from which the letter was recovered was published in London by George Bishop, and we know that one of his apprentices, Richard Field, knew William Shakespeare, but this may be just a coincidence.”

The cathedral is hoping members of the public may have information to help solve the mystery as to who this Mrs Shakespeare is. “We would love to hear from anyone who can add anything to this story and it’s possible that there’s someone researching the history of their own family to whom this letter will make sense,” Dr Firman said.

Anybody with information is invited to email Dr Firman at library@herefordcathedral.org.

The letter fragments are on display until 3 September at Hereford Cathedral’s Mappa Mundi and Chained Library Exhibition.