1902 Encyclopedia > William Shakespeare > Stratford-upon-Avon: The Old Welsh Border

William Shakespeare
(Part 14)


The Old Welsh Border

In earlier times Shakespeare's own district had been virtually a border country also. The mediaeval tide of intermittent but savage warfare, between the unsubdued Welsh and the Anglo-Normans under the feudal lords of the marches, ebbed and flowed across the Severn, inundating at times the whole of Powis-land, and sweeping on to the very verge of Warwickshire. In the 12th and 13th centuries the policy of intermarriage between their own families and the Welsh princes was tried by the English monarchs, and King John, on betrothing his daughter Joan to the Welsh prince Llewelyn, gave the manor of Bidford, six miles from Stratford-on-Avon, as part of her dower. The fact of this English princess being thus identified with South Warwickshire may help to explain the prevalence of the name Joan in the county, but the early impulse towards the giving of this royal name would no doubt be strengthened by the knowledge that John of Gaunt's daughter, the mother of the great earl or Warwick, had also borne the favourite local name. Shakespeare himself it will be remembered had two sisters of this name, the elder Joan, born some time before him, the firstborn of the family indeed, who died in infancy, and the younger Joan, who survived him. But the local popularity of a name, familiarly associated with the kitchen and the scullery rather than with the court or the palace, is no doubt due to one of the more striking incidents of the long conflict between the English and the 'Welsh on the western border. As we have seen, during the Barons' War and the Wars of the Roses the western border was the scene of active conflict, each party seeking Welsh support, and each being able in turn to rally a power of hardy marchmen to its banner. And that the insurgent Welsh were not idle during the interval between these civil conflicts we have the emphatic testimony of Glendower :-

"Three times hath Henry Bolingbrooke made head
Against my power: thrice from the banks of Wye
And sedgy-bottomed Severn have I sent him
Bootless home, and weather-beaten back."

The Hotspur and Mortimer revolt against Henry IV well illustrates, indeed, the kind of support which English disaffection found for centuries in the Welsh marches. A rich heritage of stirring border life and heroic martial story was thus transmitted from the stormy ages of faith and feudalism to the more settled Tudor times. Apart from the border warfare there were also the multiplied associations connected with the struggles between the nobles and the crown, and the rise of the Commons as a distinctive power in the country. The whole local record of great names and signal deeds was in Shakespeare's day so far withdrawn into the past and mellowed by secular distance as to be capable of exerting its full enchantment over the feelings and the imagination.

The historical associations thus connected with the hills and streams, the abbeys and castles, of Warwickshire added elements of striking moral interest to the natural beauty of the scenery. To the penetrating imagination of poetic natures these elements reflected the continuity of national life as well as the greatness and splendour of the personalities and achievements by which it was developed from age to age. They also helped to kindle within them a genuine enthusiasm for the fortunes and the fame of their native land. And scenery beautiful in itself acquired a tenfold charm from the power it thus possessed of bringing vividly before the mind the wide and moving panorama of the heroic past. The facts sufficiently prove that scenery endowed with this multiplied charm takes, if a calmer, still a deeper and firmer hold of the affections than any isolated and remote natural features, however beautiful and sublime, and have power to do.

This general truth is illustrated with even exceptional force in the lives of Scott and Shakespeare. Both were passionately attached to their native district, and the memorable scenes amidst which their early years were passed. So intense was Scott's feeling that he told Washington Irving that if he did not see the grey hills· and the heather once a year he thought he should die. And one of the few traditions preserved of Shakespeare is that even in the most active period of his London career he always visited Stratford at least once every year. We know indeed from other sources that during his absence Shakespeare continued to take the liveliest interest in the affairs of his native place, and that, although London was for some years his professional residence, he never ceased to regard Stratford as his home.

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