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Welcome to Episode #133 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s play King Lear is based upon the story of the ancient British King who founded Leicester in England, written by Geoffrey Monmouth. Monmouth based his story on real elements of Leicester’s history, including the Jewry Wall and ancient roman tombs, some of which are still there in Leicester today. For the 16th century, this story was already hugely popular when Shakespeare decided to adapt it for his play version. The story was so tied up with the city of Leicester, that historians believe the visit of the King’s Men to Leicester in 1606 was specifically to perform King Lear, which had been written that same year. While the framework of Shakespeare’s version does seem to follow in Monmouth’s footsteps, there are specific elements in Shakespeare’s version which  are strikingly similar to actual court cases in 17th c England which were captivating the cultural mindset at the time. There were real court cased being heard in 1605-1606 involving men accused of madness by their daughters, and the names of these daughters are just a few letters off from the name Cordelia which Shakespeare named one of Lear’s daughters in his play. Details like these are tantalizing to explore, and we have invited our guest this week, Mathew Morris, who knows the archaeological history of Leicester best, to help us sort out the real history from the legend of King Leir.

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Mathew Morris has worked for University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) since 2004, excavating a wide range of rural and urban archaeology across the Midlands, from the prehistoric period through to the Industrial Revolution. He graduated from the University of Leicester in 2003 with a BA in Archaeology and an MA in Landscape Studies; his interests include urban archaeology, community archaeology and Roman and medieval archaeology. Notable projects include the Highcross Leicester retail development, a massive multi-period urban excavation investigating the north-east quarter of the Roman and medieval town; the Western Road Roman cemetery in Leicester, work on Leicester and Oakham castles and the Leicester Greyfriars, and the first excavated section of the Lower Icknield Way at Aston Clinton in Buckinghamshire. In 2012, he supervised the successful archaeological search for the lost grave of King Richard III. He has co-authored three popular books on Leicestershire archaeology, Visions of Ancient Leicester (2011), Richard III: The King under the Car Park (2013) and Life in the Roman World: Roman Leicester (2018).

In this episode, I’ll be asking Mathew Morris about :

  • Did the real Cordelia bury her father in a vault beneath the River Soar?

  • Monmouth’s version of King Leir and the founding of Leicester is considered a source for William Shakespeare, but let’s look at where Monmouth got his information. Mathew, did Monmouth research the actual Leicester?

  • In popular culture in 1605, around the time Shakespeare was performing King Lear, there was a widely circulated court case involving a Brian Anseley whose daughter, Grace, tried to have him declared senile. Some historians suggest that the play, King Lear, was tied not only to Monmouth’s history, but also to this specific court case in an attempt to tie the play into popular current events. Mathew, are there connections between a man whose daughter tries to get him declared senile and the legends of King Leir? 

… and more!

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The King is coming.

Earl of Gloucester

King Lear (I.1)

“King Leir and Daughters.” by an Anonymous author, c. 1250. From the From Chronica Majora, vol. 1, Saint Albans, England, ca. 1240–53, Corpus Christi College Library, Cambridge, MS 26. | Source

The Real King Leir (Well, the real story.)

Not many people know that Shakespeare’s King Lear is actually based on a historical figure. There is debate over whether the King Leir of famous lore might have been a real, physical, person.  Legend holds King Leir was one of the first Kings of Britain.

As Mathew shares, the history of ancient King Leir is intimately linked with the city of Leicester and some people,

“…claim shSkapeseare got the idea while performing in Leicester with the King’s Men. They were there in 1606. That’s the year King Lear was published (likely they came there to perform it [in Leicester].) [Leir's] story first appears with Monmouth “history of the Kings of Britain” King Leir is the 10th King of Britain ruling for 60 years.”

Despite Monmouth's version being fictional, archaeological evidence proves that some of the King Leir story has an element of truth. As Mathew shares, archaeological evidence indicates that there was a city founded by King Leir, that of Leicester. Mathew explains,

“[There is] Some evidence to support it’s foundation, on the assumption that King Leir is fictional. We know from archaeological evidence that the first permanent settlement was 1st C BC (700 years after Monmouht claim Leir founded the city) It was called Rattae means “ramparts” [in] Celtic. Monmouth is correct when he says Leicester is an ancient royal center.”

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Royal Lear,
Whom I have ever honour'd as my king,
Lov'd as my father, as my master follow'd,
As my great patron thought on in my prayers-

Earl of Kent

King Lear (I.1)

The Jewry Wall and St Nicholas' Church in Leicester, England. The wall is the second largest piece of surviving civil Roman building in Britain, and is both a Scheduled Monument and a Grade I listed building. Originally it separated the Palaestra from the Frigidarium at Ratae Corieltauvorum's baths. St Nicholas' Church (visible behind the wall) is also Grade I listed, and dates from AD 880. | When Shakespeare's company, the King's Men, visited Leicester in 1606, this wall would have been there. | photo by NotFromUtrecht uploaded to Wikimedia Commons, used here under Creative Commons Attribution License 3.0 which allows distribution and sharing of the photograph with a link to both the author and the license as well as an open indication of whether changes were made to the photograph. No changes were made to the photograph, it is presented here as it was found at this source.

The Jewry Wall

Just before Shakespeare wrote his version of King Lear, an anonymously written predecessor was registered in 1594, and published in 1605, titled The True Chronicle History of King Leir, and his three daughters, Gonorill, Ragan, and Cordella. This contemprary version of the story of King Leir was a comedy, having a happy ending, and seeing Leir restored to the throne (which matches up with Monmouth's version of the historical account). Shakespeare would take his version in a different direction, writing instead the tragedy of King Lear that we know today. Mathew explains that according to Monmouth, there's  direct connection to the city of Leicester found in Monmouth's account. He explains,

Unlike Shakespeare’s version, in Monmouth’s version Cordelia defeats her sisters and reinstates her father, ruling several years before passing away,and Cordelia takes the crown at his death. Allegedly she buries her father to the Roman God Janus,  tomb. 

Monmouth's version shows a familiarity with the landscape and layout of Leicester the city. Monmouth's reliance on Leicester, the city, in his story, only lends plausibility to the idea that Shakespeare's company may have gone to Leicester to perform their version of King Lear (as far as I know it is unconfirmed that they did, indeed perform, Lear, there, but we do know the King's Men were in Leicester in 1606.)

For Shakespeare history fans (And those of ancient archaeological Britain) one relic worth visiting in Leicester is the Jewry Wall. Mathew explains,

There’s a piece of Roman masonry still there Jewry Wall, in the medieval period and Shakespeare’s time it was known as the Temple of Janus. Direct link to that and Leir’s legend.

According to Oliver Harris, in his work, Jews, Jurats, and the Jewry Wall: A Name in Context, the name of the wall being “Jewry Wall” is based in the Jewish history of England. “The origin of the name of the wall (first recorded c. 1665) is debated. It is unlikely to relate to Leicester's medieval Jewish community, which was never large and was expelled from the town by Simon de Montfort in 1231. One theory that has achieved widespread currency is that the name bears some relation to the 24 “jurats” (meaning “sworn men”, and roughly equivalent to aldermen) of early medieval Leicester, the senior members of the Corporation, who were said to have met, as a “jury”, in the town churchyard—possibly that of St Nicholas. But it seems more likely that the name derives from a broader folk belief attributing mysterious ruins of unknown origin to Jews. Such attributions are found at a number of other sites elsewhere in England and other parts of Europe.” (I am quoting this article on wikipedia, which cites the information on jurats and the jewry wall from this paper by Oliver Harris which you can read in pdf format here.) I encourage you to view Dr. Harris' paper as he included lithographs of the Jewry Wall, and interesting information on the explusion of Jews from Leicester.

 

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By Janus, I think no.

Iago

Othello (I,2)

The first edition of Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande, printed in 1577. | Original: Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection | No changes have been made to this image, and is provided here under Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 which grants the right to distribute and share the image with attribution, link to the license, clear acknowledgement that use does not constitute endorsement, and an indication of any changes made. | My use of the photograph here is not an endorsement by Folger Shakespeare Shakespeare Library of my work. Source

Tudor England did not believe King Leir was real

Another possible source for Shakespeare's King Lear, in addition to Monmouth's version, was the second chronicle of Holinshed, who wrote about the story, presumably after having read it in Monmouth's version himself. The first edition of Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande, was printed in 1577.

Mathew explains that despite the wide publication and distribution of these stories, King Leir being well known did not lead to a general acceptance of the story as truth. Instead, Mathew explains, 

Would 16th century England have considered Monmouth’s version of early Britain to be a factual historical account?

Contemporary chroniclers criticized [Monmouth's] stories. Tudor writers [were] questioning its' accuracy. Enough people thought it was questionable that while it was hugely popular and famous, it wasn’t considered real.

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I fear I am not in my perfect mind.

Lear

King Lear (IV.7)

“King Lear and the Fool in the Storm” by William Dyce (1806–1864). Dated 1851, oil on canvas, housed at the Scottish National Gallery, not on view. NG 2585. National Gallery of Scotland. Public Domain. Source

A real man, Brain Annesley, accused insane by three daughters

Shakespeare seems to have routinely connected his plays to current events of the 16th century, which makes sense in context of a theater medium, which was known for commenting on the social events of the day through performance. King Lear appears to be no exception as the storyline Shakespeare chooses, and the specific ways he deviates from Monmouth's version, echo a real life court case that happened about the same time Shakespeare is thought to have written his play, King Lear. 

In 1603, a man named Brian Annesley was put on trial. Mr. Annesley had three daugthers, named Grace, Christian, and Cordell. One of his daughters, the oldest, wrote to Robert Cecil (prominent member of Elizabeth I's court, and powerful enough to take action on claims submitted to him), and Grace claimed her father Brian was insane. She sought to have him legally declared a lunatic in order to take over the family estate. In the process of the trial, the youngest daughter, Cordell, pleaded her father's case, defended him convincingly in court, and fought to have the court believe Brian should not be declared insane. Cordell won her arguments, loyally defending her father, and when Annesley died, he left most of his estate to Cordell. The case was scandalous for the time, and captured the attention of society. 

As is was the youngest daughter, named similiarly Cordelia, who defends King Lear in Shakespeare's play, you can see the striking resemblance. We cannot really know if Shakespeare used the real life Annesley and his daughters to write his play, when you read through the letters which surive to/from Robert Cecil and Cordell versus her older sister (whose husband, Sir John Wildgoose, wrote Cecil with Grace's partnership in this attempt), they argue very similarily to what occurs in the play about what constitutes insanity, how someone should be treated, and the loyal, faithful daughter, Cordell, finds a strong parallel in Shakespeare's Cordelia.

Read Donna Woodford's book “Understanding King Lear” here on Google Books (or on Amazon here, that's an affiliate link), to see copies of the letters from the Annesley family to/from Robert Cecil as well as more information on the court case.

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Cook, play, and dance your way through the life of William Shakespeare
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Books & Resources Mathew Morris Recommends

My article on the archaeology behind the King Leir legend https://ulasnews.com/2020/05/26/leir-of-leicester-the-archaeology-behind-the-legend/

Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain http://www.yorku.ca/inpar/geoffrey_thompson.pdf (the Leir legend starts on page 28)

Holinshed's version http://english.nsms.ox.ac.uk/holinshed/texts.php?text1=1587_0134

Also the following for more information of the history and archaeology of Leicester

https://romanleicester.com/

https://storyofleicester.info/

https://jewrywallstory.leicester.gov.uk/

Additional book Cassidy thinks you might like on this topic:

Download this Stratford Upon Avon Watercolor Print

Completed in pen, pencil, and watercolor by Cassidy Cash, this Stratford Upon Avon print features 8 real life properties located in Stratford Upon Avon, England, from the life of William Shakespeare in one beautiful print. Celebrate your love of Shakespeare by downloading your free copy when you sign up for our email newsletter. The newsletter goes out on Mondays with episode notifications, and as a subscriber you get artwork like this one every month, completely free.

Subscribe now and grab your copy!

This illustration is part of our exclusive members library available when you subscribe to That Shakespeare Life. Subscription helps support the podcast and gives you access to the entire library PLUS you get our exclusive Experience Shakespeare digital history activity kits delivered once a month. Learn more and sign up here.


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