On December 28 1594 a play was performed in the hall of Gray’s Inn, one of the four Inns of Court, by what the hall’s diary described as “a company of base and common players”. After a riotous evening of drunken revelling the official report dismissed it as The Night of Errors. But those “base and common players” were in fact William Shakespeare’s troupe, including Shakespeare himself, and the play was The Comedy of Errors. On special occasions it is still possible to see the play staged in the very hall – albeit reconstructed – where it was once put on with Shakespeare in the cast.
Gray’s Inn could almost drown in its own literary history. Its Elizabethan alumni include George Chapman, the playwright whose translation of Homer were drooled over by John Keats, and Thomas Middleton, who co-wrote Macbeth and is now enjoying a renaissance in his own right. But its most celebrated resident was Francis Bacon, whose statue adorns Gray’s Inn’s South Square (pictured above). It is a tad ironic that the large garden at the back in the Inn which almost certainly inspired Bacon’s famous essay Of Gardens, which began “God Almighty first planted a garden, and, indeed, it is the purest of human pleasures” was only constructed after he had acquired the neighbouring parkland and cleared the “lower orders” away. Paradise comes at a price for some.
Gray’s Inn is curious. The footprint of the building is almost exactly as it was in medieval times, but it has been so heavily rebuilt that hardly any of the stonework is original. If you look at the hall and chapel from the north, they are built roughly where the town house or “inn” of its first owner Lord Grey of Wilton (in Herefordshire) would have been. But little remains from medieval times except a holy water font embedded in the wall, recycled bricks inside, some majestic stained glass (not least of Francis Bacon) and possibly some window frames. However it is likely that the screen in the hall – dating to the 1590s – could have been there at the time of Shakespeare’ performance.
If you come into Gray’s Inn by way of Gray’s Inn Road you will be entering one of the time warps of London. Suddenly, the roar of City’s traffic dims to near nothingness and you can walk through territory little changed for hundreds of years and with barely a moving car in sight. Every evening a curfew bell is still heard in South Square, one of only two in London (the other being in the Tower of London), that preserve the tradition of a “curfew” or “curfeu”, a word derived from the French “couvre feu” or cover the fire, which, had it been observed in 1666, might have prevented the Great Fire of London.
These days, the curfew in South Square is generated electronically rather than with an actual bell, but at least an old tradition is being maintained.