In his 1948 book, “And So Make A City Here” local historian G.E Bate suggests that our greatest poet and playwright William Shakespeare may have come to Isleworth in 1615, the year before his death, and stayed for a fortnight at the Vicarage, the home of his friend Nicholas Byfield. Like Shakespeare, Nicholas Byfield was born in Stratford on Avon and according to G.E Bate this shared birthplace was enough to make them good friends.
Bate adds that Shakespeare “was no doubt well acquainted with the district” as evidenced in his work – although giving Falstaff the disguise of “The Wise Woman of Brentford” in the “Merry Wives of Windsor” is no clear indication of familiarity with the locale. Any local knowledge that Shakespeare may have had of the area could have been acquired when riding up the Thames on a barge on his way to perform at Hampton Court for Queen Elizabeth and later King James with the Lord Chamberlain’s Players.
“Tell me, my good fellow. What’s that place over there called?”
“That’s Brentford, Master Shakespeare, zur!”
“Um. Interesting. Maybe I could use that name in my next play!”
Nicolas Byfield was the son of Richard Byfield who was later to become Vicar of Stratford. In 1596 Nicholas entered Exeter College, Oxford but failed to graduate. Taking holy orders he set off to establish a ministry in Ireland but stopped at Chester on the way. After some giving some well received sermons he was persuaded to stay on in the city as a preacher and very popular he became too.
On 31st March 1615 Byfield became the vicar at All Saints Church in Isleworth. He was a diligent minister, preaching twice every Sunday and giving “expository lectures” twice a week – on Wednesdays and Fridays. He kept up this good work until 5 weeks before his death on the 8th September 1622. For the last 15 years of his life he had been troubled by “a calculus” – a stone in his bladder. Over the years it grew in size until…
The next day after his death he was opened by Mr. Millins, the chirurgion, who took a stone out of his bladder of this forme, being of a solid substance 16 inches compasse the length way, and 13 inches compass in thicknesse, which weighed 35 ounces auerdupois weight.
A drawing of this massive stone appears on the lower half of a small portrait of Nicholas Byfield.
But were Byfield and Shakespeare friends? It is true that Shakespeare and Byfield were both born in Stratford-upon-Avon but Shakespeare was born there in 1564 and Byfield a full 15 years later in 1579. In Elizabethan times 15 years was a lifetime. When Shakespeare first went to London in 1585 he was 21 years old and Nicolas only 6. When he returned to Stratford in 1597 Nicholas was already at Exeter College, Oxford – and from there he went to Chester as a preacher. There is a slim chance they may have been acquainted but with 15 years and lots of geography between them it doesn’t seem likely that they were close enough for Shakespeare to spend a fortnight in Byfield’s house in Isleworth.
Meanwhile back on the barge…
“Tell me my good fellow. Who does that fine house over there belong to?”
“That belongs to Nicholas Byfield, the vicar of Isleworth, Master Shakespeare. They do say he comes from Stratford like yourself.”
“A fellow Stratfordian eh? Perhaps one day I might spend a fortnight there… or perhaps not.”
I wonder what difference it would have made to his work if Shakespeare had spent some time around here… “Othello, The Moormead of Venice?”, The Merry Wives of Waitrose?", “Ocado and Juliet?”
Interestingly a William Shakespeare, the son of Leonard Shakespeare, was born in Isleworth about 1619, 3 years after the death of our William Shakespeare. This Shakespeare also had a son called William Shakespeare. It seems for a time Isleworth was drowning in William Shakespeares!