As their contribution to Shakespeare’s Birthday this year, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has created #SaluteToStratford, where people can share what makes Stratford special to them. Most people have just put up a photo and note about a favourite place, but my husband Richard Morris, Stratford born and bred, wrote the following about the Welcombe hills. It’s an area that is close to his heart, and that has an intriguing Shakespeare connection. Just a short walk from the town, it’s usually quiet, though during lockdown many locals must be taking their exercise there.
As a child the whole area of Welcombe hills was my playground, in fact there is even a photo of my mother holding me as a baby outside the hotel. So I have a long and deep association with these lovely hills north of Stratford.
Later I became interested In archaeology and joined evening classes on field archaeology at the local college. Naturally I was particularly fascinated by the history of the Welcombe hills. We knew there had been a medieval village of Welcombe and the inhabitants had been forced out, but couldn’t locate the position. After mapping all of the medieval ridge and furrow the location was still inconclusive but it was decided that the village is probably buried under the hotel.
Shakespeare seems to have had some involvement, though his role is unclear. On 1st May 1602 he paid £320 in cash to William Combe and his nephew John for four yardlands (about 120 acres) of arable with rights of common for livestock on the Welcombe hills. The Combe family were notoriously rich, greedy usurers, they were also interested in enclosure as there was profit to be made. However the Town Council were opposed to any enclosure of common land and the Town Clerk Thomas Greene, who was also Shakespeare’s cousin, was determined to do something about it. On the 17 November 1614 he was in London and called on Shakespeare who had recently arrived from Stratford. He wrote:
“At my cousin Shakespeare coming yesterday to town I went to see him how he did. He told me that they assured him they meant to enclose no further than Gospel Bush, and so up straight (leaving out part of the dingles to the field) to the gate in Clopton hedge, and take in Salisbury’s piece, and they mean in April to survey the land, and then give satisfaction and not before”.
However instead of waiting until 1 April, Combe’s men started digging and during December they dug a trench surrounded by hedge mounds extending over 50 perches. A couple of local men attempted to fill in the ditch but were beaten up by Combe’s men. Then overnight women and children from Stratford and Bishopton arrived with spades and mattocks and began filling in the ditch and flattening the hedge mound. On the 28th March 1615 Warwick Assizes issued an order restraining Combe from making any enclosure of common land, which was against the laws of the realm.
However Combe was determined to get his way. He had the poor tenants beaten and imprisoned, he also impounded their pigs and sheep. Ultimately by buying up land and houses he depopulated the entire village.
That September Greene made an entry in his diary that Shakespeare “was not able to bear the enclosing of Welcombe”.
What do we make of this ambiguous note? Did Shakespeare mean he couldn’t afford to pay for the enclosure, or that he couldn’t bear the thought (surely a more modern meaning). Did he use a lack of cash as an excuse not to carry out this dodgy proceeding? There is more information here.
We all hope that Shakespeare showed empathy for his fellow-humans in real life just as he did in his plays. As a child, his family faced poverty, but while he knew poverty was a bad thing, it doesn’t follow that he thought it was up to him to prevent it. This great speech in King Lear, about the homeless and destitute, perhaps suggest that relieving poverty is the responsibility of those in power, not individuals.
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.
It’s ironic that the building that now sits on the spot where the unscrupulous Mr Combe forced his impoverished tenants out of their homes is the grandest hotel in the area.