LONDON – Some people believe Shakespeare may have worshipped at St. Leonard’s church, and that it might even have inspired scenes in “Romeo and Juliet.”
Today it provides the backdrop to the hit BBC series “Rev,” starring Tom Hollander. Soon, the East London church could be the site of one of the most exciting archaeological investigations in recent times, one that may shed new light on the life of the playwright.
St. Leonard’s church in Shoreditch — an 18th-century building known to “Rev” fans as St. Saviour in the Marshes — stands on a site occupied by its medieval predecessor, also known as St. Leonard’s, until it was demolished in the 1730s.
Historians have long speculated that large portions of the medieval church familiar to Shakespeare and many of his contemporaries might survive beneath the present church and its surrounding land. However, due to costs and the difficulties of investigating beneath and around a listed building used for worship, no work has been carried out.
That looks set to change.
Recently, the mystery of St. Leonard’s drew in Maurizio Seracini, professor of structural engineering at the University of California, San Diego, and an expert in the noninvasive investigation of historical sites and artworks.
Seracini, best known for his recent research into the long-lost Leonardo da Vinci mural “The Battle of Anghiari,” at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, says he will discuss potential research work at St. Leonard’s with fellow academics in the U.S.
If agreed on, he will draw up a proposal for a detailed historical assessment of the site using ground-penetrating radar, 3-D modeling and fiber-optic cameras.
“I’d like London, and Britain, to be involved,” he said. “It’s potentially one of the milestones in the history of London, and not just because of Shakespeare. If you look here but find nothing, it’s either because you looked in the wrong place or that there was nothing there anyway. But even then, something worthwhile will have been done. This church, its site, is a historical and cultural landmark for Britain. It would be a noble and necessary thing to do.”
In recent years, archaeologists working nearby have uncovered the remains of two key theaters linked to Shakespeare’s early career, The Curtain and The Theatre. Both were near the playwright’s lodgings during his formative, largely undocumented years in East London.
Shoreditch was, and remains, an area notorious for drinking and disorder, a maze of alleys dotted with marshy fields, rank with crime and the haunt of actors and musicians.
Opened in 1576, The Theatre was London’s first purpose-built playhouse and was run by actor-manager James Burbage. The site was excavated in 2008 by experts from the Museum of London Archaeology. In 2012 the remains of The Curtain, where “Romeo and Juliet” and “Henry V” were first performed, were excavated ahead of redevelopment.
Contemporaries of Shakespeare buried at the old St. Leonard’s include James, Richard and Cuthbert Burbage, theater owners and actors within Shakespeare’s inner circle, and fellow actors Richard Cowley, William Sly and Gabriel Spencer. Also buried there are Will Somers, court jester to Henry VIII, and the leading Elizabethan comic actor Richard Tarlton. Christopher Marlowe and Robert Greene also lodged in the area.
“If something were found, that would give us a contact with Shakespearean Shoreditch,” said writer and historian Charles Nicholl, an authority on Shakespeare’s life in London. “There is good evidence that ‘Romeo and Juliet’ was first performed at The Curtain, and when Shakespeare was writing all his earliest plays, Shoreditch is where they would have been performed, before the Globe was built in 1599.”
Some historians hold that the tomb scene in “Romeo and Juliet,” with its “stony” sepulcher in which the tragic lovers end their lives, has similarities to the decaying, tomb-crowded interior of the church.
By Shakespeare’s time, the church was already nearly 500 years old, crammed with crumbling tombs and memorials.
“You get an idea of what a close-packed quarter this area was,” Nicholl said. “The buildings, the theaters and church are all so close together.”