The painstaking work of a St Leonards couple has proved beyond doubt that Shakespeare visited Rye with his company of players.
Teacher Paul Franczak and his wife Rosie Brocklehurst provided evidence to back up their claim, which has now been recognised as legitimate by the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC, the world authority on Shakespeare.
Their research has put Rye on the map by forming part of a permanent online exhibition by the Folger.
They uncovered evidence which shows Shakespeare would have performed at The Mermaid Inn, at Rye, as part of the Mayor Making celebrations in the summer of 1597.
This was shown by a record of the Rye Chamberlain’s Accounts, which included an August 1597 entry for a payment of 20 shillings to Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.
The Lord Chamberlain’s Men was formed during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Shakespeare was not only the principal author of its plays, but a company ‘sharer’ and an actor.
The players had been invited to Rye to celebrate the mayor making of John Fowtrell, the then owner of the Mermaid Inn.
When former teenage friends Rosie Brocklehurst and Paul Franczak met in Rye in 2003 after more than 30 years, he told her about some research he had begun into Shakespeare’s theatrical troupe visiting Rye in 1597.
Rosie, a former Director of Communications who lives in St Leonard’s, and Paul Franczak, a former resident of Rye, and long time teacher at Homewood School, Tenterden, Kent, subsequently married in 2010.
Early in 2016, 400 years after Shakespeare’s death, Rosie Brocklehurst-Franczak, undertook some research into an historical thriller she was writing. She discovered that the original documents held at the Sussex Archive, The Keep, at Falmer.
She wrote to the Keep, to Toronto University where the Records of Early English Drama are produced, and also to the world famous Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington.
It was a timely approach. The Folger were putting together a permanent online exhibition of original Shakespeare Documentation, a world first.
Rosie said: “I have always loved History, and have a degree from the London School of Economics. But I was amazed that the Folger had such an embracing attitude towards mere lovers of History such as myself.
“It is well known that Shakespearean scholarship is jealously guarded and that academic reputations can be built on the discovery of new information. But it is important to bring information to a wider audience and we wanted to ensure that today’s residents of Rye were aware of their own fascinating history.”
She added: “We were invited by Judith and Martin, from the Mermaid, to revisit just before Christmas
“When we arrived, we were astonished to find a quotation from Shakespeare’s ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ and the date 1597, painted at the top of one wall in ‘Dr Syn’s’ lounge.
“I wondered if this information might have passed down the generations? There are some other wonderful wall paintings at the Mermaid, some visible and some hidden behind plaster. It is possible that ‘Love’s Labour Lost ‘ could have been one of the plays performed by the Shakespeare players.
“The only extant Quarto of the play was printed in 1598, but reference is made in the frontispiece to an earlier version. It was certainly performed before 1597. It is not known precisely what play was performed for the mayor-making however. Other possible contenders are The Merry Wives of Windsor, Richard II or Henry IV Part 1.”
It is likely that Shakespeare met Fowtrell because they performed for his celebrations. Fowtrell had married the widow Cicely Didsbury, whose former husband owned the Mermaid and left it to her.
The players may have stayed at the Mermaid, but may have lodged at another Inn. The Mermaid was known in the 16th century to have been used by merchants and wealthier clients.
Cicely Didsbury’s first husband book was once kept a book of all who had stayed at the Mermaid. “Unfortunately this book has long disappeared,” said Rosie, “What a tale it could tell if found.”
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