The only working theatre that can claim Shakespeare performed there is celebrating the incredible discovery of the actual boards on which the famous Bard is believed to have trod.
“Everyone interested in Shakespeare and in the theatres of his time must feel a thrill of excitement at the discovery of the only surviving boards on which he is likely to have performed”
– Professor Sir Stanley Wells, Honorary President, The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
The nearly 600-year-old oak floorboards have been uncovered at St George’s Guildhall in King’s Lynn, England’s largest medieval guildhall, which is currently undergoing a major refurbishment.
The amazing find has been hailed by archaeological building expert Dr Jonathan Clark as ‘the largest expanse of timber medieval flooring in the country’.
St George’s started out life as a religious Guild meeting house, confirmed by Royal Charter in 1406, but it went on to become a theatrical venue with the first recorded performance in 1445. It is the only working theatre in the world that can claim Shakespeare himself performed there.
The theatre in King’s Lynn was used extensively at the time for touring companies – Queen Elizabeth’s Men, a troupe of actors formed at the command of the Tudor Queen in 1583, performed there ten times in the late 1500s.
In 1592-3 London’s theatres were closed because of another outbreak of plague and William Shakespeare and his company of actors were on tour in King’s Lynn in Norfolk.
A note in the corporation of King’s Lynn’s account book shows Shakespeare’s company were paid by the corporation to perform there. This is not the only link to the famous playwright.
Robert Armin, who was Shakespeare’s leading comic actor, playing the comedy parts like the Porter in Macbeth, the Gravedigger in Hamlet, Feste in Twelfth Night and the Fool in King Lear, was born in the town, one street away from the theatre.
There is also evidence, in a book published in Shakespeare’s lifetime, of an incident that happened at the King’s Lynn theatre – where an audience member watching a play about a murder on stage was so consumed with guilt she confessed to killing her husband.
It is said that this incident inspired Shakespeare to write part of the plot of Hamlet with the Murder of Gonzago/Mousetrap scene.
The Grade I Listed building was derelict and in danger of demolition by 1945 before it was bought by a local landowner and turned into an arts centre.
But the site, which also has an art gallery and lecture space, has been under-used in recent years and its future looked uncertain again in 2016.
Archaeological work has been underway at the site for the last two months, which revealed the original floor, hidden underneath a 1960s and 1950s floors, as well as flooring believed to be from the 18th and 19th century.
Some of these floor beams have been tested and dated to between 1417 and 1430, when the building was created. The large oak boards are almost twelve inches thick, held together with pegs rather than nails.
It is believed the floor would have been laid by shipwrights and taken about a year to create.
Tim FitzHigham, Creative Director at the Borough Council of King’s Lynn & West Norfolk, said:
“I first heard the tale that Shakespeare had performed at the Guildhall as a kid but when I went back as an adult it seemed people had forgotten about it.
“Before I became Creative Director at the council, I had been involved in researching the history of the venue. We were able to demonstrate the connection of the town with Robert Armin and Shakespeare.
“We were also able to confirm that we have the account book showing that the borough paid Shakespeare’s company to perform at the venue.
“We’ve got a great team: the Borough Council of King’s Lynn & West Norfolk, in partnership with Norfolk Museums Service, Norfolk County Council and in collaboration with the National Trust.
“Thanks to funding from the UK Government’s Towns Fund, under its Levelling Up agenda, a project to refurbish and redevelop St George’s Guildhall and associated buildings has been commenced by the Borough Council of King’s Lynn & West Norfolk, in partnership with Norfolk Museums Service, Norfolk County Council and in collaboration with the National Trust who own the building.
“Thanks to this funding, we can get in experts like Dr Jonathan to enable us to be confident as to what these boards really mean, it makes this building important nationally and internationally.
“Shakespeare is known across the globe, so to be able make this claim is pretty magical,” he added.
Dr Paul Edmondson, Head of Research for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, said:
“To see the medieval stage where Shakespeare might have performed rediscovered after centuries is an exciting opportunity. It’s a unique survival of theatre performances from a great period of English drama. This is a truly special discovery.”
Dr Jonathan Clark said:
“As archaeological finds go this is extraordinarily rare especially on this scale.
“This is the largest timber 15th-century floor in the country, and that’s before you add the Shakespeare connection.
“Scientific analysis and the study of the structure confirms that it is a complete 15th-century floor so this floor would have been in situ when Shakespeare performed here in 1592-3. It’s a really fortuitous survival.
“The main reason it’s still there is because it’s totally integral to the building, it would have been really difficult to dismantle it without destroying the structure so they either had to patch it up or put another floor on top of it, which is why it’s still intact,” he added.
Cllr Simon Ring, Borough Council of King’s Lynn & West Norfolk Cabinet Member for Tourism, Events and Marketing said:
“It is fantastic news indeed that such an eminent archaeologist as Dr Jonathan Clark is so confident that these beams at St George’s Guildhall are the original flooring from the early 1400s.
“It confirms the guildhall as a heritage asset of national importance. It provides a further opportunity for us to promote its importance historically and to invite more funding so that we can complete the restoration to a standard that will not only stand the test of time, but also create an attraction that will catapult King’s Lynn and West Norfolk’s heritage into the world of ‘must visit’ British destinations,” he added.
Vicky Etheridge, King’s Lynn Town Deal Board member and project champion for St George’s Guildhall, said:
“These floorboards have been in plain sight for many years, viewed from underneath as the corridor ceiling running underneath the theatre to the galleries behind.
“To have confirmation that they are indeed the original floorboards of the stage, which have been covered for many years, is beyond exciting, and something that would not have come to light if we hadn’t developed this project and sought Town Deal funding from the UK Government under its Levelling Up agenda.
“Clearly, as a board, we will now be working with the project officers and experts to see how we can develop our plans to incorporate this discovery into the project and will be discussing any potential changes with the government and other funders to ensure we maximise the opportunities this finding presents,” she added.
The project team will now work out a plan to incorporate this exciting discovery into the project.