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The Door To Shakespeare’s London

May 28, 2010
by the gentle author

Ever since I wrote about the Shakespearian actors in Shoreditch, I have been wondering if there is anything left in the neighbourhood from Shakespeare’s time when his plays were performed here at “The Theatre” and “The Curtain Theatre” in Curtain Road at the end of the sixteenth century. The Norman church of St Leonard’s Shoreditch that Shakespeare knew was demolished in the early eighteenth century but I heard a story that a door from the church had been preserved, a door that Shakespeare could have walked through.

When I spoke to the Reverend Paul Turp, he confirmed that the new church had reused much of the material from the earlier building and that the paving of the portico included twelfth century stone. In fact, he believes that the current building was constructed using the floor of the Norman church as its foundation, and the tombs of the Shakespearian actors are buried down below, just waiting to be rediscovered. My enquiry became the premise for an exploration, and when I met the beguiling Rev Turp on the steps of the church, he handed over a flashlight, a single gesture that filled me immense anticipation.

Standing there on the porch in the afternoon sunlight, the Rev Turp began by conjuring a picture of the moment the Roman army arrived on the other side of the road to secure a source of fresh water. This was the wellspring of the River Wallbrook at the junction of Shoreditch High St and Old St. From a camp here at the crossroads, the Roman army controlled England and Wales. The road West led to Bath, the road North led to York, the road East to Colchester and the road South to Chichester. When I heard this I realised that Old St truly is an old street.

The Anglo-Saxon word “suer,” meaning stream, gave the neighbourhood its name “Shoreditch,” and it was this stream that undermined the old church, leading to its demolition. Even after the building of George Dance the Elder’s church in 1740, there were problems with flooding and the ground level was built up to counter this. Only the top three steps out of the ten at the front of the church are visible now, the rest are underground. Similarly, the lower crypt was filled to stabilise the structure, which is very frustrating for the Rev Turp because he believes that the floor of the lower crypt is the floor of the Norman church, where the tombs of the Shakespearian actors are. This is the floor that William Shakespeare walked upon, whenever he came for services, weddings of his fellow actors, or when his brother Edmond‘s son was buried here in 1607.

As I stood in the depths of the crypt with the Rev Turp, beneath a dusty brick vault, peering down to the mysterious lower vault that has been filled in, the physical space came to manifest the distance between us and Shakespeare’s world. The Rev Turp wants to excavate through the layers of rubble and human remains to reach it. ”If I can find a stone with the name Burbage on it then I shall be satisfied” he confessed, referring to the joiner James Burbage who built the first theatre in Shoreditch and his son Richard who was the first actor to play Romeo, Hamlet and Richard III.

We were standing in the underworld of the imagination, it was packed with the dead, though just a fraction of the more than seventy-six thousand buried at this site. We peered deep into small family vaults on each side, where piles of coffins had collapsed upon each other, broken open over time, creating a mishmash of bones. Many coffins were discovered to have been filled with bricks, indicating the undertakers had sold off the bodies before burial – though fortunately the families of the dead were none the wiser. We gazed through a large central vault where, beneath a surface that resembled dunes, countless layers of coffins were stacked up yet broken in upon each other to create a morass of unknown depth. Under the porch, on a level with corners of lead coffins sticking out from the surface, we were literally walking upon the dead. The Rev Turp told me tests were done to check whether the remains of those that died of smallpox still presented any risk of infection today, and I was reassured to learn that although the virus was present, it was inert.

In the crypt, I was confronted with the great number of dead that exist between us and Shakespeare’s world, when I had just wanted to walk through a door and be there. So I asked the Rev Turp about the surviving door from the earlier church and, leading me back from the depths, he took me to the Clerk’s House facing Shoreditch High St, which has the door in question built into it. Maybe it was the experience of the crypt, but as I walked through the churchyard, wiping the sinister dust off my hands and relieved to be out in the air, I thought of lines from Romeo & Juliet (first performed at The Curtain Theatre). Mortally injured, Mercutio says of his wound, “tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door; but ’tis enough, ’twill serve. Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.”

Once I saw the old door, I was disappointed at first, though I tried to hide it from the Rev Turp. The door was tall and narrow, with panels that appeared eighteenth or nineteenth century in style, not the wide medieval church door I had envisaged. The Rev Turp explained it was from a side entrance, but I began to wonder. Not only were there two layers of railings between me and the door – which was locked – but even if I was able to walk through it, could I accept that this door that was around in Shakespeare’s time? Then something unexpected happened, by chance the resident of the Clerk’s House arrived home at that moment and, without thinking twice, I leant through the railings to ask if I could see the reverse of the door. He said “Yes. Come in.” So, leaving the Rev Turp standing, I ran out of the churchyard gate and into the gate of the Clerk’s House – and through the door.

At once, I could see from the back of the door that it was ancient, with primitive iron hinges, and acceptably medieval in its robust contruction. Then my host showed me old panelling, also incorporated into the building, at the top of the stairs, of proportion and construction that was of the renaissance or earlier. Now I was persuaded of the history of the door and, as I stood to take my picture, looking out from behind the portal to Shakespeare’s London, a black cat ran down the stairs and out of the door, turning to look back at me, as if in confirmation of my good luck at this discovery.

The Clerk’s House

The enigmatic doorway

Beneath Shoreditch Church.

Stacks of coffins collapsed upon each other and broken open.

Tudor stocks and whipping post in the entrance to Shoreditch Church. “Every church should have one!”says the Rev Turp.


7 Responses leave one →
  1. dilly permalink
    June 25, 2011

    How, absolutely, amazing this article is! Especially reading that some of the coffins contain bricks and the reason why! Looking at the back of the door must have been thrilling having, at first, thought that it was a much newer door altogether. Superb reading!

  2. John Ellis permalink
    March 24, 2012

    Well done.Thank you so very much for bring history Alive for me ,er, us.

  3. Sonia Murray permalink
    October 4, 2012

    A fascinating article – living history! And your comments on the generations of dead that lie in the crypt, the generations that lie between us and Shakespeare’s time, are evocative. My ancestor James Pocock was a common soldier, shot through both thighs at Waterloo; military records show he was born at Shoreditch in 1777, so he would have been baptised at the old church and his parents may be dust in the crypt you photographed.

    I also enjoyed the article on David Garrick – I’ve seen the Staffordshire figure often, and knew Garrick was an actor, but knew almost nothing about his life or his performances. Thanks, as always! And your picture of the black cat looking through the crack in the door is marvellous.

  4. Ron Pummell permalink
    April 9, 2013

    Fortunately I knew nothing of this history when us Boy Scouts of the 1st Shoreditch had meetings in that crypt about 1949/1951.

  5. David Whittaker permalink
    April 23, 2015

    just Wonderful Thanks so much..

  6. Kate Fearnley permalink
    June 24, 2015

    This is marvellous stuff – raised goose pimples!

  7. Gary Croft permalink
    January 5, 2016

    You take me to places that are beyond my wildest dreams.
    I just love reading the experiences your hand puts down….sublime

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