When William Shakespeare left Stratford to walk to London around 1585 it was the start of an iconic journey which resulted in some of the greatest plays ever written.

It’s not known exactly which route he took, but the most probable way was to Aylesbury, through the Chilterns, and on to Tudor Amersham.

It was this route that Nick Gammage followed in May to mark the 400th anniversary of the publication of the First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays in 1623.

New research has also revealed a previously unrecorded link between Shakespeare and Chesham Bois, which suggests that he may have been a guest at the medieval manor house there.

With many thanks to Nick Gammage for this article.

From Stratford to London

Uncovering evidence about Shakespeare’s life is hard because virtually every aspect remains shrouded in mystery. There are no letters, diaries, or shopping lists. One important source is John Aubrey’s portrait of Shakespeare in his collection of biographies, ‘Brief Lives’, written just 50 years or so after he died. Here Aubrey recounts that Shakespeare used to stay at The Ship Inn in the Buckinghamshire village of Grendon Underwood on his way to London. A modern copy of a badly damaged vellum map of 1606 shows fields around Bicester with a lane running across the middle through Marsh Gibbon and Grendon Underwood marked ‘London Waye’. If the line of that route is continued northwards, it leads directly to Stratford.

The Wroxton Hands fingerpost on the Stratford-Banbury Road directs the traveller ‘To Stratford’ ‘To Banbury’ ‘To Chiping Norton’ and ‘To London’. The hand ‘to London’ points down a country lane towards North Newington. From there it passes through Bodicote and Adderbury then across the River Cherwell to Aynho. Because of the state of the main roads at the time it is not that unusual for travellers to be directed cross country to London.

By the late 15th century, many roads had decayed into an appalling condition. Churned up and rutted, they were flooded and impassable after heavy rain. The roads linking towns in the low-lying marshy terrain around Aylesbury, Buckingham and Bicester were particularly notorious. Travellers often chose routes through drier ground – and that is where the road through Grendon comes in.

Wealthy merchants funded road repairs out of their own pocket because it was good for business. Sir Hugh Clopton, a wealthy Stratford merchant and Lord Mayor of London in 1491, paid for the great 14-arch stone bridge across the Avon which bears his name. He also paid to improve the road through marshy bogs on either side of Aylesbury – one of the worst sections on the route to London.

And Clopton was not alone. The powerful Buckinghamshire landowner Edmund Brudenell of Amersham whose manors included Raans and Shardeloes left £40 in his will for the repair of roads around Aylesbury. This shows Aylesbury was a key hub on the road between Stratford and London. And it is most probable Shakespeare would have passed that way after leaving Grendon Underwood.

After Wendover, the Old London Road passed through the centre of Great Missenden. After Little Missenden it made its way towards Amersham by the River Misbourne – now a bridleway. Walking with the chalk stream on his left, Shakespeare would have passed in front of Shardeloes, then a fine Tudor Mansion owned by the Cheyne family. From Amersham the road continued through the Chalfonts and on to London.

Queen Elizabeth I’s Progress

The final piece of evidence supporting the idea Shakespeare walked through the Missendens, Amersham and the Chalfonts relates to the journeys of Queen Elizabeth I herself. For centuries English monarchs had escaped the heat of London each summer – and the Plague – by “progressing” around the country. The routes of those journeys are a good guide to the way others would have gone because courtiers planning the route would select the safest, most convenient, and best – or, more accurately, least-worst - roads.

From the Court Records we can see that in October 1592, Elizabeth stayed with John Reve at Princes Risborough Parsonage, Mrs Hampden at Hampden House and then William Hawtrey at Chequers. Then on 4 October 1592 she dined at Amersham or as it is written in the records - ‘Hamerston’. Sadly, there is no record of which inn or private house was selected for the Queen.

The Cheynes

Researching Shakespeare’s connections with the Chilterns reveal that he may have stayed at the now-lost medieval Chesham Bois Manor House, home of the Cheyne family. The link comes through Shakespeare’s close relationship with his literary patron 21-year-old Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare dedicated his long dramatic poems ‘Venus and Adonis’ and ‘The Rape of Lucrece’.

Wriothesley inherited his love of learning and literature from his formidable grand-mother Jane, Countess of Southampton. Before her marriage, the countess was Jane Cheyne, daughter to William Cheyne of Chesham Bois, the eldest son of John Cheyne and his wife Margaret de Louvetot.

The inscription on the memorial to the Countess of Southampton in Titchfield Church, Hampshire reads:

“Heere lyeth the Right Honorable Ladye Jane, Countis of Southampton, Daughter of William Cheynie of Chessamboyes in ye county of Buckingham Esquier, wife unto Ye Right Honorable Sr Thomas Wryotheslye….”

The Earl of Southampton would have visited these powerful relations on his grandmother’s side at Chesham Bois Manor. William Shakespeare - good friend, companion, confidant - may well have been with him.

Over the 25 or so years that Shakespeare lived in London he would have taken more than one route visiting his family in Stratford depending on the time of year, weather, the business to be conducted on the way and so on. But on that first crucial journey he most likely travelled a road that took him through Amersham.

For a longer version of this article visit amershammuseum.org. In May, to mark the 400th anniversary of the First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays, Nick Gammage walked this route to raise funds for Amersham Museum. Please support him at justgiving.com/fundraising/shakespearewalk