Every Shakespeare buff knows that the Boar’s Head pub in Eastcheap was where Sir John Falstaff and Prince Hal caroused in Shakespeare’s Henry IV under the watchful eye of Mistress Quickly.
This was, of course, an invention. There is no evidence that an inn of that name existed in the early 15th century, the time the play was set in. But there was definitely a Boar’s Head at or near the building shown above in Shakespeare’s time. In fact, it was almost certainly his local.
The original pub was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666 and subsequently rebuilt. The present building at numbers 33-35 Eastcheap was built in 1868 as a vinegar warehouse and references Shakespeare’s play with the effigy of a boar peeping out of bushes half way up the wall. Ian Nairn, the idiosyncratic architecture critic, described the building (now offices) as “the scream you wake on at the end of a nightmare”.
That boar is a fake, but the building previously on the site (which was not a pub, at least not in its later years) sported a bust of the actual boar’s head from the pub that was there in Shakespeare’s time. The original is now in the keeping of the Globe Theatre.
We know from parish tax records that Shakespeare lived very close by, in the parish of St Helens after he moved from Shoreditch in about 1592. It is not known exactly where he dwelled but he departed in 1596, leaving unpaid tax debts behind him. Parishes were often quite small, as their boundaries were set with reference to the number of people that could be comfortably accommodated in its church building. It may not sound very romantic but Shakespeare would have lived somewhere between the Nat West Tower, the Walkie Talkie, the Gherkin and Richard Rogers’s Lloyds building.
These buildings almost suffocate St Helen’s, a gem of a church, much of which is as it was in Shakespeare’s time. There is a recent stained glass window commemorating the playwright inside, one of the very few images of him in London on semi-public display. In the courtyard of St Helen’s was Crosby Place, where Richard III once lived and Thomas More wrote Utopia.
Using artistic licence, Shakespeare set the death of Henry VI in 1481 and his marriage to Anne at this place though neither event actually took place there. Richard, Duke of Gloucester said: “At Crosby House, there shall you find us both.” You would never have found the actual Duke of Gloucester there, but you might encountered William Shakespeare.
All previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here.