Two medieval artifacts that help to narrate William Shakespeare’s story in his home town and the working life of Stratford-upon-Avon are now on permanent display at Shakespeare’s Schoolroom & Guildhall, the building in which their story began. Preserved for many years by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the return of the Stratford Grammar School Desk and the Muniment Chest and Treasure Chest of the Guild of the Holy Cross to their original home has been made possible thanks to the restoration of the 15th century building, which opened to the public in 2016.
Both pieces are owned by Stratford Town Council and were transferred from King Edward VI School (which shares its site with Shakespeare’s Schoolroom & Guildhall) to Shakespeare’s Birthplace in the early 1860s, where they have been stored and cared for as part of the town’s Borough Collections.
Lindsey Armstrong, General Manager for Shakespeare’s Schoolroom & Guildhall, explains, “Each of these pieces tells a fascinating story that is woven into the very fabric of Shakespeare’s Schoolroom & Guildhall, so they will be an important and exciting part of our visitor experience.”
Spanning almost 1 metre 70cm wide and dating c.1450 the Muniment Chest would have once held all the wealth and the records of the town. No longer visible, the chest would have originally had some painted decoration, but still present are the three strong locks with the key for each held by three separate individuals. The key holders would have been pillars of society, and it is believed that during his tenure as Bailiff (Mayor) John Shakespeare, William’s father, would have been one of them. Containing during Tudor times the rolls and charters of the Guild, the money paid in by members and the town’s treasures such as silver dishes and cups, the Chest was still in use by the Town Council into the 19th century.
Alongside the Chest, an original school desk, known as Stratford Grammar School Desk has been put on permanent public display. This standing oak and elm desk, with a heavy single sloping top, was made in England in the 15th or early 16th century and would have been used by the schoolmaster and visiting scribes tutoring the older boys. It is once again taking its position in the corner of the first floor Schoolroom in the town’s Guildhall, so that visitors can get a sense of how school life would have been during William Shakespeare’s time. Like the other wooden objects in the building, there is a sense that the boys left their mark on the desk, as Fairholt's book Home of Shakespeare (1847) describes:
“The boys of the school very generally carried away some portion of it as a memento, and the relic-hunters frequently behaved as boyishly, so that a great portion of the old wood has been abstracted.”
Rosalyn Sklar, Museum Collections Officer at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, says, “The school desk and Muniment chest are both wonderful examples of late 15th century craftsmanship and we’re delighted that we have been able to facilitate the return of these important pieces to their home. Being able to see these pieces in their original setting really adds to the already fantastic visitor experience at Shakespeare’s Schoolroom & Guildhall.”
Shakespeare’s Schoolroom & Guildhall is open daily. For full details visit www.ShakespearesSchoolroom.org
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