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Shakespeare signature on a 1613 deed

​Shakespeare's signature on the Blackfriars deed

Shakespeare’s purchase deed for property in Blackfriars

Val Hart, Assistant Librarian at Guildhall Library, unravels the history behind  Shakespeare’s deed, one of the City of London’s greatest treasures, which bears one of only six authenticated examples of Shakespeare’s signature.

'I Gyve . . . unto my Daughter Susanna Hall . . .  All that Messuage or ten[emen]te with thappurtenances wherein one John Robinson dwelleth, scituat, lyeing & being in the blackfriars in London nere the Wardrobe'. With these words William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon, gentleman, bequeathed to his descendants the only property he is known to have owned in London. Why he purchased it is not known. He may have intended to live there – it was conveniently situated for both the Blackfriars Theatre and the Globe Theatre just across the river – but there is no evidence to suggest that he ever did so. It is more likely that he bought it as an investment or to enhance his status as a gentleman.

Since 1843, when it was bought at auction by the Corporation of London for £145, the title deed to Shakespeare’s Blackfriars property has been one of the City’s greatest treasures. Although it is the vendor’s, not the purchaser’s copy – Shakespeare’s copy is in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington – the deed bears one of only six “authenticated” examples of Shakespeare’s signature.

The deed describes the property purchased in some detail:

'All that dwelling house or Tenement with th’appurtenaunces situate and being within the Precinct, circuit and compasse of the late black Fryers London, sometymes in the tenure of James Gardyner Esquiour, and since that in the tenure of John Fortescue gent, and now or late being in the tenure or occupacion of one William Ireland or of his assignee or assignes; abutting upon a streete leading downe to Pudle wharffe on the east part, right against the Kinges Maiesties Wardrobe; part of which said Tenement is erected over a great gate leading to a capitall Messuage which sometyme was in the tenure of William Blackwell Esquiour deceased, and since that in the tenure or occupacion of the right Honorable Henry now Earle of Northumberland; And also all that plott of ground on the west side of the same Tenement which was lately inclosed with boordes on two sides thereof by Anne Bacon widowe, soe farre and in such sorte as the same was inclosed by the said Anne Bacon, and not otherwise, and being on the third side inclosed with an olde Brick wall; Which said plott of ground was sometyme parcell and taken out of a great peece of voide ground lately used for a garden'.

The deed of purchase is dated 10 March 1613 and was made between the vendor, Henry Walker, Citizen and Minstrel of London on the one part, and William Shakespeare, William Johnson, Citizen and Vintner of London and John Jackson and John Hemmyng, both described as gentlemen of London, on the other part. Shakespeare was the sole purchaser; the men named with him acted as trustees. It is tempting to equate Johnson with the landlord of the Mermaid Tavern in Cheapside and Hemmyng with John Heminges, actor, manager and editor of the Shakespeare first folio, but the identity of John Jackson remains uncertain.

On the following day (11 March 1613) Shakespeare executed another deed stipulating that £60 of the purchase price was to remain on mortgage until paid in whole the following September. Whether this sum was ever paid is not known.

After the dissolution of the Blackfriars monastery in 1538, its land and buildings had been parcelled out to ambitious courtiers. The estate of which Shakespeare’s property formed part was granted in 1547 to Sir Francis Bryan, dubbed “The Vicar of Hell” by Thomas Cromwell. After Bryan’s death in 1550 it came into the hands of Thomas Thirlby, Bishop of Norwich, later Bishop of Ely, who then sold it to William Blackwell, Common Clerk of the City of London. In 1590 the estate was divided between two of William’s children, William Blackwell junior and Anne Bacon. Anne’s portion contained the gatehouse property, and in 1604 her son Mathie (also called Matthew or Mathias) Bacon, sold this part of the estate to Henry Walker for £100. Later the same year Walker leased the gatehouse to William Ireland, Citizen and Haberdasher of London, for 25 years.

The exact date at which Shakespeare’s property passed out of the hands of his descendants is not known, but in August 1667, Edward Bagley, a kinsman of Shakespeare’s grand-daughter, Elizabeth Barnard, sold the site to Sir Heneage Fetherston. As the Blackfriars area had been razed to the ground by the Great Fire of the previous year, Bagley received only £35 for the land. 

Despite the detailed description in the deed it has proved difficult to locate the exact site of Shakespeare’s property. We know that it abutted on the street leading down to Puddle Wharf which is now St Andrew’s Hill. The Wardrobe which it was near or “right against,” is commemorated in Wardrobe Place. However, even the Shakespearean scholar James O. Halliwell-Phillipps, who owned an abstract of title to Fetherston properties in Blackfriars (now in the Folger), could arrive at no firmer conclusion than that the gatehouse property stood either partially on or very near Ireland Yard. The present day passage of this name, which runs west out of St Andrew’s Hill, undoubtedly derives its name from the Ireland family who owned or occupied property in the Blackfriars area at least as early as 1582. Deeds, plans and the Folger abstract of title suggest that Shakespeare’s property may have occupied the north side of Ireland Yard where it joins St Andrew’s Hill, but this is still research in progress.

Owing to its iconic status, Shakepeare’s deed (reference CLC/522/MS03738) is available for consultation only with advance notice and at the discretion of the Director of LMA. However, facsimiles are available for consultation both at LMA (CLC/522/MS03738A) and at Guildhall Library (Bside 2.66).

The Shakespeare deed is now available via LMA’s online catalogue.

30 October 2014
Last Modified:
26 September 2019