In this 400th anniversary year of the death of William Shakespeare, Hereford Cathedral is drawing attention to a mysterious letter with an as yet unexplained Shakespeare connection. Attention was drawn in 1978 to the letter’s existence, half hidden in the binding of a book, but its recent removal by a conservator means that the whole of the surviving text can now be read. And the mystery has deepened.
The letter survives as two fragments in a book from the historic library of Lady Hawkins’ School, Kington, Herefordshire, for which the cathedral library now cares, and is addressed to a ‘Good Mrs Shakspaire’. A leading researcher has concluded that, although dating from the right period, the references in the letter do not tie up with what we know about William Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway, but it reveals a moving human story concerning some other member of the family.
‘The writer implores the widow Shakspaire to pay a penniless orphan boy named John Butts money owing to him from her late husband,’ says Dr Rosemary Firman, Cathedral Librarian.
‘A Mr Sparowe is mentioned. These Shakespeares are said to have once lived on a Trinity Lane, but William Shakespeare is not known to have lived at such an address, and no connections are known between him and anyone called Butts or Sparowe. The book from which the letter was recovered was published in London by George Bishop, and we know that one of his apprentices, Richard Field, knew William Shakespeare, but this may be just a coincidence.’
The cathedral is inviting members of the public to have a go at finding out more: ‘We would love to hear from anyone who can add anything to this story,’ said Rosemary, ‘and it’s possible that there’s someone researching the history of their own family to whom this letter will make sense.’
The letter fragments can be seen on exhibition in the Mappa Mundi and Chained Library Exhibition at Hereford Cathedral until 3 September 2016 (exhibition open 10 am – 5 pm – normal admission charges apply). If anyone has any information on this intriguing puzzle, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line ‘Mrs Shakespeare’.