Holy Trinity Through Time
In the late 1400s, Holy Trinity was bright, colourful and extravagant with walls painted with pictures of saints, scenes from the Bible and banners hanging from the pillars. Incense filled the air and prayers were said in Latin. But by the mid-1500s the religious upheavals of the Reformation meant that much of Holy Trinity’s colourful flamboyance was torn down, painted over or literally chiselled away leaving a much plainer more austere church.
There is a historical record that in 1561 five stained glass windows were removed and images ‘hacked’ at Holy Trinity. A young William Shakespeare, whose father, John Shakespeare was one of Stratford’s first bailiffs, may have heard first-hand about these upheavals. His father was ordered to cover up the now-famous mediaeval ‘Doom’ wall paintings in Stratford’s other church, the Guild Chapel in 1564 for which he was paid ‘two shillings’. The fact that John Shakespeare whitewashed over the walls rather than scouring off the images completely, is the reason why so much of the paintings survive today.
Scholars have often mused if his father told young William about his conflicts of responsibility. In 1571, the year that Shakespeare started school in Stratford, stained glass was removed from the Guild Chapel, and presumably Holy Trinity. Fortunately, a good part of Holy Trinity’s medieval wood and carvings escaped the Protestant reformist axes and chisels and the surviving 26 medieval wooden misericords from around 1450 are considered among the finest in the country.
While his life in London as an actor and dramatist isn’t comprehensively documented there’s much evidence to confirm his return to Stratford and Holy Trinity. His hand would have regularly touched the thirteenth century sanctuary knocker on the inner porch door as he attended services and walked his two daughters along the aisle [L2] for their weddings and he buried his mother, father, sister, two of his brothers and eleven-year-old son, Hamnet, in the churchyard. Period records tell us that Shakespeare’s life was deeply entwined with Holy Trinity. When Henry VIII closed the College close to Holy Trinity the tithe (tax) income [L3] privileges were sold off and it is recorded that in the summer of 1605 a portion of the shares in them was bought by one ‘William Shakespeare’ for £440. This is generally thought to be why he and his family were granted such prominent positions in the chancel for their graves.
At his burial on April 25th 1616 his body was carried through a door in the original rood screen to his grave in the chancel by the altar where an inscription, believed written by him before his death in classic iambic pentameter, reads:
Good friend for Jesus Sake forbeare
To dig the dust enclosed heare
Bleste be ye man yt spares these stones
And curst be he yt moves my bones
Some believe that this ‘curse’ was because of Shakespeare’s fear of his bones being moved into the adjacent charnel house as new bodies were buried over time. Certainly, his repeated mentions of graves, bones and gravediggers in his plays could support this view. Professor Lena Orlin of Georgetown University believes that Shakespeare even had a hand in designing his own monument before his death and commissioned a sculptor whom he had known in London to come to Stratford and carve a direct likeness of him. If that’s the case, the monument near his grave is the most accurate representation the world has of the face and features of its most famous playwright.
A Place of Pilgrimage
It wasn’t long before Holy Trinity became a shrine to Shakespeare. In 1746 the first Shakespeare play to be performed in Stratford – Othello – generated funds to restore the funerary memorial. In 1769 David Garrick organised a Jubilee complete with performances which attracted visitors from all over the country who decked the monument in the church with garlands and flowers. That event is remembered in Stratford by an annual parade on April the 23rd - Shakespeare’s birthday - with a special celebration service held at Holy Trinity. Over the years Milton, Keats, Sir Walter Scott, Alexander Pope and Ben Jonson all wrote about Shakespeare’s grave or visited Holy Trinity to see it for themselves. Look at the inscriptions on the many tombs and memorials inside the church and you’ll see that it became very fashionable to be buried or have a monument at Shakespeare’s church. Memorials to courtiers, knights, bishops, deans, earls and even servants to kings and queens adorn the walls and floors.
The mediaeval font in which Shakespeare and his family were baptised disappeared in 1774 to be used as a water cistern but was repatriated to the church, much damaged, in 1861 as its historical importance was recognised. 1864 was the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth and Stratford held a major festival with special services at Holy Trinity with invitations to eminent preachers to deliver a ‘Shakespeare sermon’ on the Sunday nearest his. By 1906 a busy Shakespearean tourist industry was supporting Stratford-upon-Avon’s economy and Holy Trinity was one of the first churches in England to levy an admission fee to visitors of sixpence.