We all know that Shakespeare used to hang out in Bankside. The reconstructed Globe theatre is a pretty big clue. But where did the Bard go home of an evening? Where did he sit while writing his plays and sonnets? Turns out that Shakespeare lived both north and south of the river in his 20 years as a Londoner.
Shakespeare's early years in London are a complete blank. He's referred to (famously, as an 'upstart Crow') in some lines by Robert Greene in 1592, but he probably ventured here from Stratford-upon-Avon a few years before that. Nobody knows were he was living as a newcomer. The first mention of a London home comes in 1596 when his name appeared on the parish records of St Helen's Bishopsgate... for tax evasion.
The exact location of Shakespeare's house is unknown. However, St Helen's parish is quite small, as shown on the John Rocque map of 1746 (150 years after Shakespeare's time).
He may well have been living on the site of the Cheesegrater skyscraper, which now sits in the southern part of that boundary. Or else he might have resided where the gigantic 22 Bishopsgate is under construction (roughly where the number 17 appears in the map above). We just don't know. One thing's for certain: he would have been familiar with the church of St Helen's. Its lower sections have changed little in appearance since his era.
He would also have been very familiar with Crosby Hall, a grand mansion house that once stood on Bishopsgate within his parish. Although the area has been extensively redeveloped over the centuries, Crosby Hall lives on. It was moved, stone by stone, to Chelsea in 1910, where it can still be seen today.
Some of Shakespeare's greatest plays may well have been penned in this parish. Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and The Merchant of Venice are all of the right vintage. The location would have been handy for the Shoreditch theatres, just a 10 minute walk up Bishopsgate.
Thence to Southwark
In 1599, or thereabouts, Shakespeare was living in Bankside. How do we know? Another note concerning tax evasion. This time, the errant Bard seems to have been living in the Liberty of the Clink — an area named for the notorious prison that is now a tourist attraction. Chances are that Shakespeare lodged close by the Globe theatre, located a little to the south-east of its modern day reconstruction. Here's how the area looked in 1616, from the panorama of Claes Visscher. Perhaps one of the buildings depicted here is Shakespeare's house.
By 1604, Shakespeare had moved back over the river. He rented lodgings on the corner of Monkwell and Silver Streets in Cripplegate Ward. Neither street exists today, though Monkwell Square in the Barbican lives on as a reminder. This composite map of the Barbican before and after the Blitz gives a good sense of the old street layout — Shakespeare's junction is just below-right of centre.
The playwright was lodging with a French Huguenot called Christopher Mountjoy. How do we know? Because Shakespeare ended up testifying at a marriage dispute involving Mountjoy a few years later.
A plaque in St Olave's churchyard marks the scene of this house.
Shakespeare's best documented London property was just across the waters from the Globe in Blackfriars. A plaque on St Andrew's Hill records that 'On 10th March 1613 William Shakespeare purchased lodgings in the Blackfriars gatehouse located near this site'. The date is known so precisely because the title deed to the property has survived in the archives.
What the plaque doesn't record is that Shakespeare immediately leased his new purchase back to the person he'd bought it from. It was probably an investment rather than his personal abode. By this point, Shakespeare was spending most of his time back in Stratford-upon-Avon, but there's a chance he used the place as a convenient pied-à-terre whenever he was back in the capital. (The gatehouse, by the way, was the old entrance to Blackfriars monastery, which had been closed 70 years before in the Dissolution.)
Shakespeare's connections with the area are further commemorated in this fine stained glass window in nearby Stationers' Hall.
Curiously, we would know so little about Shakespeare's London homes had he not found trouble with the law. Of his four known addresses, two come to us through tax avoidance records, and a third through his embroilment in a marriage dispute (though only as a witness).
Still, all's well that ends well.