Anne Hathaway’s Cottage ponders Shakespeare marriage in And Thereby Hangs a Tale mystery

By Culture24 Reporter | 20 September 2011
A photo of a portrait painting of Shakespeare, showing him as a handsome young man with long hair and an orangey beard
© Collection of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Stratford-upon-Avon; ex-collection of the Earl of Ellenborough
Exhibition: And Thereby Hangs a Tale, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, Stratford-upon-Avon, until January 29 2012

Shakespeare’s marriage is a mystery. In a story of twists and turns you’d expect straight from the bard’s pen, his 1852 hitching took place when he was 18 (below the age of consent at the time) and featured a bride – Anne Hathaway – who was eight years older than Shakespeare and suffering the social ignominy of being pregnant out of wedlock.

This dastardly sequence, combined with the discoveries of ancient documents suggesting a botched marriage licence and a jilted spinster said to be Will’s true love, make for a plot as thick as any the groom could have stirred.

Most beguilingly of all, five beautiful churches claim to have hosted the possible shotgun wedding, so this complex display from national charity the Churches Conservation Trust aims to shed some matrimonial light on their credibility by reverting to priceless original sources of evidence.

At St Martin’s in Worcester, close to where Shakespeare signed a bond of marriage and received his licence, the register from the time has crucial pages from the period missing, supposedly removed by fans of the man who was a celebrity in his time.

Victorian Shakespeare biographer SW Fullom said he had seen the great man’s signature on parish registers at All Saint’s Chapel in Luddington, but (shock horror) those registers no longer exist, having apparently been burned by a curate’s wife during an accident with a kettle.

And St Andrew’s Church, in Temple Grafton, has the peerless claim of being named on the Marriage Bond itself, although dissenters have scotched its reliability due to a misspelling of the bride’s surname and incorrect titling of her status.

All three of those stonewall suspects, alas, have since disappeared, but the other two candidates remain – All Saints’ Church, in Billesley, is thought to have been chosen as a wedding venue by Shakespeare’s granddaughter, who was convinced her thespian forefather had navigated the aisle there, and the Holy Trinity Church where Shakespeare was baptised and ultimately buried would have been the obvious choice for his big day.

Regardless of the conclusions sleuth-like visitors come to, the Trust is hoping the show – which will tour in 2012 and has been funded by a £47,000 Heritage Lottery Fund grant – will highlight the stories and spirits lurking within holy heritage grounds.

“Our historic churches represent 1,000 years of British history,” said Chairman Loyd Grossman, speaking at the opening.

“This new exhibition explores the myths and legends of our greatest storyteller and the churches at the centre of Shakespeare’s marriage.

“We hope visitors to the exhibition will be inspired to visit the surviving historic churches mentioned in the mystery and also feel compelled to visit the historic churches in their own communities.

“It is only through bringing historic churches back into every day use that they can be saved for future generations.”

  • Open 9.30am-5pm (10pm-5pm Sunday, 10am-4pm from November 1, closed December 23-26). Admission £4.50-£7.50 (family ticket £19.50, free for under-5s). Visit the show online.

More pictures from the show:

A photo of an ancient church in woodland during a clear day
Billesley Church, one of the historic sites cared for by the Churches Conservation Trust these days, has a strong claim to have been Shakespeare's wedding venue of choice
© Sarah McCarthy
A photo of a rural cottage with a lush garden in front of it
Anne Hathaway's Cottage provides the starting point for the exhibition before it travels around the West Midlands and beyond in 2012
© Courtesy The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust
A photo of a cottage in front of a lush green garden with colourful plants and walking paths in the foreground
Held inside the picturesque tourist attraction, one part of the show positions Hathaway as an "evil spinster"
© Courtesy The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust
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