And seeing ignorance is the curse of God,
Knowledge the wing wherewith we fly to heaven.
-Henry VI, Part 2, Act IV.
It’s odd to think that the legacy of one of history’s most significant authors was beset by tragedy and villainy long after he shuffled off this mortal coil.
William Shakespeare was an innovator and a major literary figure far ahead of his time. Part actor, part intellectual and part rabble rouser, Shakespeare’s words gave life to humanity and pathos. Still today, his legacy is defined by his wisdom and insight, testament to the long lasting nature of the written word.
But Shakespeare’s physical legacy was famously disturbed by one of history’s most unpredictable and ruthless villains: the infamous Reverend Francis Gastrell.
The house referred to as “New Place” was the final home of William Shakespeare in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon. It was the very house in which the Bard died in 1616 at the age of fifty two. And it no longer exists.
The house stood on the corner block between Chapel Street and Chapel Lane, and was one of the largest homes in the town. It was built in 1483 by Sir Hugh Clopton, a mansion of timber and brick. It had ten fireplaces, five gables, and grounds large enough to hold two barns and even an orchard, of which Shakespeare was said to have been quite fond.
In the years following the poet and playwright’s death, the house changed hands and families many times. Eventually, in 1756, it came into the possession of Reverend Francis Gastrell. Gastrell was, by all accounts, a curmudgeon and ill tempered man. Becoming tired of the constant visitors and shrine like attendance, Gastrell destroyed a mulberry tree in the garden, a mulberry tree planted by Shakespeare himself. Angry townsfolk struck back, breaking all the windows of the New Place.
As the public battle wore on, Gastrell’s application for an extension of the garden was roundly rejected by the locals. In addition, they levied a tax increase upon him. Infuriated by the fever pitch and in complete disregard for heritage conservation, Gastrell hastily demolished New Place in 1759. Outraged at the sheer destruction of a priceless cultural landmark, the townsfolk of Stratford-upon-Avon eventually put so much pressure on Gastrell that he was forced to leave town, forever stained by an act of pure villainy.
One can’t help but think about this in a modern context. Today, cultural preservation and heritage companies such as Rappoport Heritage Consultants ensure that culturally significant sites stay well treated and maintained for future generations. It’s a true shame that a few bad attitudes in 1759 led to one of literary history’s most important places being unprotected and subsequently destroyed.