Home / Features / SHAKESPEARE’S LOVERS – Part One: The White Lady

SHAKESPEARE’S LOVERS – Part One: The White Lady

The White Lady

William ShakespeareThere is a theory that most of us fall deeply in love twice in our lives.  I believe that William Shakespeare did: that there were two women with whom he fell in love; that these two love affairs had a lasting impact on his life and work; and that neither of these women was his wife.

As far as his dramatic characters go, Shakespeare’s lovers divide into two types.  On the one hand, there are those dark and difficult women, like Hermia, the ‘tawny Tartar’ of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Katherine – ‘brown in hue like a hazel nut’ – in The Taming of the Shrew.  Perhaps the darkest and most difficult of them all was the celebrated ‘Dark Lady’ of the Sonnets, who anticipates such dazzling and dangerous characters as Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth.

The dark ladies in Shakespeare have their fair, heavenly counterparts, including Helena, the ‘painted maypole’ of the Dream, and Bianca in the Shrew, whose name meant ‘White’.  Shakespeare’s dramatic lovers seem naturally to fall into one or other of these two polarised camps, and Clare Asquith argued convincingly in Shadowplay – The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare (New York, 2005) that these ‘dark’ and ‘fair’ women symbolised the essential division in Shakespeare’s England, with the fair Helenas signifying the Catholics and the dark Hermias representing the Protestants.  There is more than a hint of truth in this and yet, as I shall argue, each feminine type can be traced back to a female figure in Shakespeare’s world – one of the two loves of his life.

The ‘Dark Lady’ must await a post of her own.  For now, let us turn our attention to the ‘White’ lady, who would appear to have been Shakespeare’s first love.

On Tuesday, 27 November 1582, the consistory court of the Diocese of Worcester issued a special marriage licence ‘inter Willelmum Shaxpere et Annam Whateley de Temple Grafton’.  The licence allowed Will Shakespeare and Anne Whateley to marry in haste.  Shakespeare was technically a minor.  At just eighteen years of age, he would have needed his father’s permission, as well as that of the Bishop of Worcester, if he was to wed Anne Whateley before the Advent season arrived.

Another document came to light in 1836.  This revealed that on the day after the first licence was granted, two Stratford farmers rode over to Worcester and laid down a hefty bond, indemnifying the Bishop against any unfortunate repercussions arising from the speedy marriage of ‘William Shagspere’ to ‘Anne Hathwey of Stratford … maiden’.

Shakespeare married the orphaned Anne Hathaway, who was already pregnant (their first child, Susanna, was baptised six months later).  The other Anne – Anne Whateley of Temple Grafton – vanished into local legend, which held that she had indeed married the teenage Shakespeare, secretly of course, in the private oratory at Clopton House and then retired to the secluded manor house of Hillborough, in the parish of Temple Grafton, about five miles downriver from Stratford.

Anne Whateley duly became something of an embarrassment to Shakespeare scholars.  The persistent urge to present Shakespeare as a man whose remarkable gifts offset his unremarkable life meant that his first Anne had to be written out of the biography.  ‘Annam Whateley de Temple Grafton’ was casually dismissed as a bothersome clerical error, a woman-who-never-was.

A near-neighbour of the Shakespeares in Stratford was George Whateley, a draper who served alongside Shakespeare’s father on the Stratford Corporation.  In May 1582, George Whateley married his second wife at Holy Trinity Church, where Will Shakespeare had been baptised eighteen years earlier.  He was in the running for the post of bailiff, Stratford’s equivalent of mayor, that September.  Shakespeare’s father had been lying low, neglecting his civic duties, but he emerged from hiding to attend his first meeting of the Corporation in five years and to vote for one of Whateley’s rival candidates.  It was to be John Shakespeare’s final appearance at the Guild Hall.

George Whateley appears to have sponsored two of his brothers, John and Robert, to function as underground priests in their home village of Henley-in-Arden, eight miles north of Stratford.  These priestly brothers were not the only siblings of George Whateley, as his father’s will makes clear.

The Ultimo Testamentii John Whateley de Hendeley in Ardena can be found in the Worcestershire County Archive.  Probated in 1554 – ten years before Will Shakespeare was born – it consists of eight-and-a-half pages of closely written script and tells us that John Whateley had five sons (including John, Robert and George) and four daughters.  One of these daughters was named Agnes and was then living with her mother in the family home in Henley-in-Arden.  The will also hints at a possible godmother for ‘Agnes my daughter’ in the form of one Agnes Fairefox of Barford, a village upriver from Stratford.

The name Agnes (the ‘g’ was not pronounced) was a variant of Anne.  Shakespeare’s other Anne – Anne Hathaway – was named ‘Agnes’ in her father’s will of 1581.  The names were interchangeable.  Agnes Whateley would also have been known as Anne.

John Whateley's will (which mentions "Agnes my daughter")
John Whateley’s will (which mentions “Agnes my daughter”)

It is probable that Anne, or Agnes, Whateley was a Catholic, like her brothers.  Their mother came from, and retired to, Lapworth, a remote part of the manor of Stratford which also produced the gunpowder plotter, Robert Catesby.  The manor of Temple Grafton, meanwhile, was in the hands of the ardently Catholic Sheldon family.  Hillborough Manor – with which Anne Whateley was long associated in local lore – belonged to Ralph Huband, a neighbour of the Sheldons, from whom Will Shakespeare bought ‘one half of all tithes of corn and grain arising within the towns, villages and fields of Old Stratford, Bishopton and Welcombe’ in the summer of 1605.

The vicar of Temple Grafton at the time was John Frith, ‘an old priest and Unsound in religion’, who had previously been reported to the authorities for solemnising marriages during those periods, such as Advent, when it was forbidden to do so, and without the regulation reading of the banns.  He comes across a little like Friar Lawrence, the ‘Ghostly confessor’ of Romeo and Juliet, as just the kind of clergyman to conduct an illicit marriage ceremony for two ‘star-crossed lovers’.

It was also noted of John Frith that his ‘chiefest trade is to cure hawks that are hurt or diseased, for which purpose many do repair to him’.  This remark rings bells when we turn to one of Shakespeare’s lesser known works.  A Lover’s Complaint, part of which was appended to the Sonnets when they were published in 1609, suggests that one of Shakespeare’s earlier liaisons had involved a ‘sacred nun’, a ‘sister sanctified of holiest note’, who seemingly nursed him back to health after an ‘accident’.

Could it be that, just as the ‘Unsound’ vicar of Temple Grafton had a reputation for curing injured hawks, Agnes Whateley of Temple Grafton had the caring skills to help an errant teenager recover from a broken bone?

Stratford tradition insists that Hillborough Manor is haunted by a White Lady, the unhappy shade of Shakespeare’s jilted lover.  Augustinian nuns were also known as White Ladies – a designation which might account for the whiteness of the saintly Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew, who cannot be married until her dark, ill-tempered sister, Kate, has been wed.

We can no longer dismiss Shakespeare’s first Anne as the chimerical slip of a clerical pen.  The Last Testament of John Whateley of Henley-in-Arden proves that an Anne Whateley did exist.  Her brother knew, worked with and lived close to Shakespeare’s father.  And if George Whateley funded his brothers’ clandestine activities then it is at least possible that he also maintained his younger sister Agnes in her Catholic devotions.

The fact that urgent steps were taken, as soon as the Bishop’s court granted ‘Willelmum Shaxpere’ a licence to marry ‘Annam Whateley’, to ensure that Will actually married ‘Anne Hathwey of Stratford’ raises the likelihood that Shakespeare’s first choice of bride was entirely unsuitable.  His father had already demonstrated his opposition to George Whateley becoming the bailiff of Stratford.  For Will to marry into such a Catholic family could have been disastrous.  In the England of Elizabeth I, no one in their right minds would marry a ‘sacred nun’.

But Shakespeare never forgot his saintly ‘sister sanctified of holiest note’.  The gossipy John Aubrey would report in 1681 that Shakespeare ‘was wont to go to his native Country once a year’, adding, ‘I think I have been told that he left 2 or 300 pounds per annum there and thereabout to a sister.’

There was no such bequest in Shakespeare’s will.  Perhaps the people of Stratford remembered, though, that Will had privately made this generous provision for his ‘sacred nun’ and beloved White Lady, Anne Whateley of Temple Grafton.



About Simon Stirling

Simon Andrew Stirling is an author and historian whose latest book, “Who Killed William Shakespeare? The Murderer, the Motive, the Means”, was published by the History Press in August 2013. His previous book, “The King Arthur Conspiracy: How a Scottish Prince Became a Mythical Hero”, was also published by the History Press in 2012. Simon’s blog, in which he reveals ongoing research and comments on his adventures in publishing, can be found here: www.artandwill.blogspot.co.uk . He is an accomplished speaker and is available to give talks on any subject related to his work on Shakespeare.

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