Shakespeare and the poaching legend at Charlecote

Bust of William Shakespeare in Great Hall at Charlecote Park

There can be no doubt that William Shakespeare would have known Charlecote and its rural parkland, and been aware of the Lucy family. But can we say that there were closer connections between Shakespeare and the Lucys?

Legend has it that a young William Shakespeare was caught poaching deer at Charlecote and was hauled up before the first Sir Thomas Lucy, the local magistrate.

It has to be said that there is no documentary evidence for this, but romantics among our staff and volunteers favour the “no smoke without fire” approach.

There is no evidence that there was even a deer herd at Charlecote at the time. Scholars at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust assure us that there is also no documentary evidence of any prosecutions for poaching – of anyone at all locally – during the years of Shakespeare’s youth. But is it not possible that this boisterous young man was caught poaching or misbehaving elsewhere and still brought before the authority of Thomas Lucy – but used his wit and way with words to escape punishment before his well-documented flight to London to escape further retribution?

A misty dawn or a moonlit night - perfect for poaching?
Fallow deer buck at Charlecote Park in early morning mist
A misty dawn or a moonlit night - perfect for poaching?

So did Shakespeare caricature Sir Thomas Lucy as Justice Shallow in The Merry Wives of Windsor? It’s a play that lacks the finesse of many of his other works, full of exaggerated characters. Perhaps Queen Elizabeth I’s desire (command!) for a play in which Falstaff falls in love led to a hastily-written play for production at court where the audience would have recognised their colleagues being satirised.

Justice Shallow is portrayed as a vain and fussy wealthy landowner, very proud of his ancestry, and there is much play on the word “luce” sounding like the derogatory “louse”. The luce (French: pike) from which the Lucy name derives is the fish symbol on the family coat-of-arms.

All his successors gone before him hath done't; and
all his ancestors that come after him may: they may
give the dozen white luces in their coat.
It is an old coat.
The dozen white louses do become an old coat well;
it agrees well, passant; it is a familiar beast to
man, and signifies love.

The "luce" or pike symbol can be seen in the Lucy family coats of arms
Lucy family coat of arms in stained glass at Charlecote Park
The "luce" or pike symbol can be seen in the Lucy family coats of arms

Throughout the play there are references to deer and venison in scenes with Justice Shallow, and Shakespeare certainly seems to know his way around a carcase when Falstaff says:

“Divide me like a bribe buck, each a haunch: I will
keep my sides to myself, my shoulders for the fellow
of this walk, and my horns I bequeath your husbands.”

Creating the legend

It is of course entirely possible that the poaching legend came after the publication of The Merry Wives of Windsor when the links to Shakespeare’s rural youth were spotted. Another Lucy may have had a hand in this.

Actor and impresario David Garrick’s self-promoting Shakespeare Jubilee festival in 1769 made Stratford-upon-Avon the prime Shakespeare destination that it is today.  “Bachelor” George Lucy helped revive the poaching story for this event and no-one knows how heavily embellished the legend became as a result of the Jubilee.

And finally…

In the early 1600s Shakespeare was buying property in Stratford-upon-Avon so was clearly no longer solely based in London and would have been aware of local events. Our volunteer Research Group has recently discovered an account of Thomas Lucy III (the first Sir Thomas’s grandson) being shipwrecked in 1609 – just a year before Shakespeare wrote The Tempest…