Sketch of Ankerwycke Priory by J M Turner

“It is simply a story. It’s true to me.”

“Yea Hercules with yong children, Agesilaus with his sonne, Socrates with Alcibiades,
Architas with his seruaunts, not onely played but trifeled” (Humfrey)

As even Hughes admits, what she’s been writing is a work of fiction.

I offer this story ... for those who love Art and so find the Stratford version of Shakespeare too dull or empty to accept.

Even as romantic fantasy, Hughes’s vision of Life at Ankerwyke is riddled with errors—you might call them politic wormholes. Evidently, she doesn’t know thing one about early modern England—Shakespeare’s world—and she doesn’t know what she doesn’t know. Unfettered by knowledge, she is free to imagine an anachronistically perfect post-Romantic childhood for her darling viscount. Her vision of his education owes more to Rousseau and Montessori than to Elyot—and more to the Hundred-Acre Wood than either. In its adoration of her nascent “Shakespeare,” it belongs to the modern age, to the cult of childhood.

Looking at Hughes’s work simply as a story, there are scores of the sorts of errors that an editor (or even an experienced reader) of historical fiction would catch. Addressing all of her howlers would consume a lifetime, but here’s a basket of low-hanging fruit, gathered from only five paragraphs.

With Hughes, we are assuming that Edward was four to eight years old, that Smith himself taught the child, and that both were at Ankerwycke.

“...Edward was probably happy to follow his tutor around the estate...”

Wild supposition. On both parts: after six or seven hours together, struggling with grammar, the last thing they’d want is—oh, look!—even more of each other’s company. Why should Sir Thomas want a child intruding on his business or his meditations? Why should Edward want to spend his scanty recess with a glowering, chastising pedagogue? Why not with the stableboy?

Even if Edward had wanted to tag along, Hughes naively assumes that children in the 16th century could do as they pleased, and that their elders would indulge them. Edward would stand in Sir Thomas’s presence, and speak when he was spoken to.

“...helping him yank weeds and destroy tent moths, pick herbs and vegetables at their peak...”

Strype found it remarkable that Smith himself did any garden work at all. “And in the Art of Gardening, he was very curious and exact: Employing his own Hands sometimes for his diversion in grafting and planting” (Strype, 218). That is, now and then, as a hobby, he’d do the skilled and scientific parts of gardening—the time of planting being subject to the heavens—not the stoop labor. The weeding and watering, digging and dunging would be left to servants. Smith might pick herbs at certain hours for his still-room, but muddy vegetables? Come on!

The child as garden under cultivation is an ancient metaphor. It’s likely that Smith designed the paths and plots of the viscount’s curriculum, and chose what seeds of wisdom should be planted, and when; but left the digging and dunging of his lordship to the hireling tutor.

“...absorbing his tutor’s running commentary on how composting turns nasty waste into useful soil.”

In Thomas Hill’s influential The Gardener’s Labyrinth (dedicated to William Cecil), he discommends composted plant matter as less effective than manure. There were husbandmen “in Auncient tyme ... that wholly refused and forbadde the dunging of Gardens ... in that this dungyng might not onely infect the ayre thereabout, but cause also the crescente things to proue both vnsauerier and more corrupt. ... It was supposed inough at that time, to have fatned the fields and Garden plottes, with the leaves and emptie coddes of the Beanes, Peason, Tares, and such like, turned workemanly in with the earth in due season of the yeare, and not to have employed or dunged the ground with a rotten and pestilent matter (Hill, 16). These ancients weren’t handling their manure properly, says Hill. He prescribes only dung, dung, and more dung.

You will note that as an adult, Oxford was no countryman. By choice, he lived in London—and for a time, in Venice, where there was no earth to dig. He did not retire to a house in Buckinghamshire and cultivate his garden.

“...basic principles of property law couched in accurate terminology got communicated...”

If they were, they failed abysmally to register. The adult Oxford’s legal Latin was off-kilter, as if he were trying to remember phrases that he’d only half heard. His endless suits were unsuccessful.

Property law? To a small boy? Really?

Humanist education was all about moral philosophy. What Smith needed to teach, in his brief time with the viscount, was his place in the great order of the world, and his responsibilities.

“... during honey-collecting or berry-picking forays.”

Beekeeping? Best left to those who know the art of it. As for foraging in hedgerows! “Common as blackberries” is contemptuous. Hedge-witch, hedge-priest, hedge-player, and hedge-whore all denote the lowest and vilest of their kind.

“Sitting on a fallen log...”

I suppose Hughes had to tick Duke Senior off her list. Like all Oxfordians, she’s on a scavenger hunt for parallels to Shakespeare’s works in Oxford’s life, and loves to find the clues that she herself has planted. Look! Books in the running brooks! Remember, Arden is a romance. Smith had been known to sit upon a green bank in his own garden, and discourse; but a log is beggarly, as well as most damnably damp.


Like gypsies? Read Smith on degree.

Or worse, like beasts, who know no table manners.

Hunting parties held picnics called “assemblies” in the woods—but those were elaborately catered and served.


Raw? Galen, who was on Smith's shelves, pronounced them “wet, cold, and productive of phlegm." All raw fruit was discommended by the doctors, save (at need) as a laxative. It was poison; it bred hoarseness, headaches, fevers, and corruption; it engendered wind and lice. Smith, always careful of his sickly body, would have shrunk in horror.

“...bread and cold roast beef from a satchell prepared for them by the cook...”

I suspect in some earlier draft this was a sandwich, now hastily deconstructed. (You mean the Tudors didn’t have sandwiches? Really?) Bread and cheese, now: that would make sense. It’s a lowly meal—it’s still called a “ploughman’s lunch”—but requiring no cutlery or plate. But cold roast beef? Messy and impractical. What would the beef be wrapped in? A cabbage leaf? They’d have knives, but what would they carve it on? A trencher, that they’d have to carry? (A peasant lucky enough to get a chunk of meat would have bitten it, and then sawed it off at his lips: but etiquette was the first thing noble children were taught.) Tudor travel-fare would be small pies—meat and fruit together—which come in their own coffins of pastry, and can be neatly consumed.

“Smith’s mind would turn to his favorite poets, chiefly Homer, whose tales had thrilled him when he first began learning Greek under John Redman at the university.”

Smith was passionately interested in the phonology of the Greek language, and its authors’ philosophy. There’s no evidence that he cared for stories as stories.

Has Hughes read Troilus and Cressida? Shakespeare’s Homer is not a boy’s own adventure.

“Known for his oratorical skills when he taught Homer at Cambridge, Smith would regale the boy, the rabbits, squirrels, and crows who were all the audience he had these days, with Ulysses destruction of the suitors declaiming in Homeric Greek with occasional pauses to answer questions or make a pedagogical point.”

Sheer fantasy.

All noise to the Viscount, who would have known no more of Homer than the average squirrel. It’s all but certain that he had no Greek at all. He studied none at Cecil House.

And Shakespeare? Just a little more.

If Homer had walked the English soil in 1597 he would have felt that he had lived in vain. At that date no English poet had a substantial knowledge of either the Iliad or the Odyssey. Although the statutes of grammar schools made proud boasts that Greek was studied in the higher forms, it's likely that by the end of the 16th century only a handful of schoolchildren could read more than a few lines of Homer in the original. Those who fancied themselves as scholars could cite the odd tag from the Iliad and the Odyssey. ... Even writers who wanted to be thought of as classicists usually needed a Latin crib to help them through Greek poetry in this period. Ben Jonson, who famously drew attention to Shakespeare's 'small Latine, and lesse Greeke', probably got most of what he knew of Homer from an anthology of Greek verse which had a Latin translation facing each page.

That book of Jonson’s with the Latin crib survives, and is “in suspiciously good condition” (Burrow, 13)

“When the weather was too nice to stay indoors...”

It’s exceedingly unlikely that a Tudor pedagogue would have condoned skiving off like this, much less encouraged and abetted it.

“...they would pack a lunch...”

“Lunch” was unknown. The mid-day meal was dinner, when the household sat at table. Even harvesters, working against time and weather, halted for a noon-day meal, if only bread and ale. Those who were still peckish might partake of a little something—“nuncheon” or “bever”—between dinner and supper.

“...and head out with the dogs to flush rabbits, the bane of all gardeners...”

Rabbits aren’t native to the British Isles. The Romans brought them over as livestock. Until the late 17th century, rabbits in the wild were rare, and in some places, unknown. They were property, and farmed like pigs. Smith would almost certainly have kept a rabbit warren, just as he kept fishponds and dovecots. Another sort of man might have headed out with the dogs to flush poachers, the bane of all warreners.

“...Smith carrying his harquebuss loaded with shot.”

As a country boy, Smith would have known that conies aren’t hunted as game, but rounded up when they escaped: a spaniel or two would drive strays out of the hedges and bushes into their burrows. The hunter then would set pursenets at all the rabbit holes, save one, and send a ferret down that to bolt the rabbits into the nets. (Hence, coney-catching: the gullible are seen as tame and helpless. Fish in a barrel. Sitting ducks.)

Even if rabbits were game, you wouldn’t hunt them with a harquebus. Conies are quick; the gun is slow. And scattershot. And would probably blow the bunny to smithereens, if by some miracle you hit it. (There’s a scene in the film The Witch where a boy tries desperately to shoot a hare with a matchlock, fumbling with the powder, and damned near loses an eye from the recoil.) He would’ve done better with a well-aimed stone.

“Edward on the other hand may well have taken advantage of times when Smith was away or busy...”

No escape: Edward’s actual tutor—the one paid by his father—would be keeping his nose to the grindstone.

“ swim or paddle across the river and investigate the Royal Forest of Windsor on the Berkshire side.”

Good lord. Just Google drown + thames + windsor for a list of bodies found. It’s not safe water. John Dryden’s son—a man in the prime of life—was drowned there, trying to swim across. Hughes says she’s seen the Thames at Windsor. Does she really think “a small boy out on his own” was going to be swimming that river, back and forth? And remember: boys and men swam naked. With good reason: bombast was ballast, and would sink you like a brick for sure. So Edward leaves his clothes on the bank at Ankerwycke, and goes running around the Royal Forest starkers, like a Bedlamite? An “Eden-like immersion in Nature,” indeed.

Scratch the swim. It would have scratched him half to death in the bushes, if he hadn’t drowned first.

“Paddle across”? I hope she doesn’t mean “paddle” in the British sense: “To wade, walk about, or play in shallow water or mud; to agitate water with one's feet; to dabble one's feet or hands in water.” I know she thinks Neddy walks on water, but this is ridiculous.

Or maybe she means paddle, as in row? In what? A rubber raft? A birchbark canoe? A Welsh coracle? That’s the only paddle-propelled craft native to the British Isles. The classic Thames boat is a wherry, which is rowed with oars in oarlocks, by menials. The viscount would no more have rowed a wherry than he’d have driven an oxcart, even if it weren’t beyond his strength. And if he got a servant to row him, that would rather spoil the adventure, wouldn’t it?

Or was the servant the adventure?

“For a small boy out on his own..."

Children of his rank were almost never unaccompanied. William of Stratford had the great good fortune to be of the middling sort, unencumbered with servants and governors.

" would have been a thrilling place of mystery and constant revelation.”


The Earl cared nothing for the woodlands he inherited, save as income: he would fell the trees for ready cash (Nelson, 270-1). Taking a symbolic axe to his resented fathers?

“[Smith] would take Edward with him ... as they followed the hounds into the fields surrounding Ankerwycke and through the Forest of Windsor...”

Gosh. How did the hounds and horses get across the Thames? Did they paddle? Fly? And wouldn’t their quarry just have sat on the bank at Ankerwycke, smirking?

“...merlin on wrist, riding through meadows and leaping over hedges...”

On his 'orse with his 'awk in his 'and.

Even in fantasy, her godling could not have gone hawking and hunting with hounds at the same time. It’s like playing rugby and croquet at the same time, or ice hockey and archery. They’re incompatible. All that baying and thrashing would have scared any prey worth flying at; and unnerved the edgy and expensive falcon. You’d put her in a sulk for weeks, if she didn’t just up and leave.

“ arrive home after dark, tired and dirty, to a cold supper by what was left of the kitchen fire.”

Hughes really doesn’t get class, does she? Servants would be waiting up. At whatever hour, Sir Thomas would be properly received. His steward would see to that. There’d be servants drawing off his muddy boots, servants bringing him hot scented water and clean towels, servants—the viscount among them—waiting on him with a good hot supper in his own chamber. His pupil might have served him wine.

On returning to New Place, Master Shakespeare would have met with just such service. No gentleman waited on himself.

Even three centuries later, Elizabeth Gaskell writes of a snobbish wife of a country doctor who objects to her husband’s custom of coming in, cold and tired, to toast his own cheese by his nice, bright parlor fire. Waiting on oneself was rakish or unthinkably low. It took World War II to get the British middle classes (and upward) into their own kitchens.

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