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Nick Asbury

White Hart Red Lion The England of

Shakesp eare’s Histories

Oberon Books London


White and Red. An apple’s red skin, white tasty flesh. Blood. Bone.

Roses, ambulances, strawberries and cream. Blossom, toadstools, sticks of rock. A festering boil. Poppies and the Cenotaph. The setting sun and the rising moon. Boiling rage and pale-faced fear. Blushing shame, cold disbelief. Rude health and wan sickness. Blood and bone. Red rags and white flags. Danger, appeasement. Red mist. The white dove of peace. Virgin. Whore. Semen. Womb. Red is nature’s colour of warning. Its own ‘do not consume’ sign or ‘leave me alone, I kill, you don’t want to fight me’ – holly berries and foxes, say. We use it ourselves to portray a threat of danger and also a hint of sex. From brake lights and stop signs to Ferraris and the lady in red. White is the blank canvas, the neutral, the antidote to the red. The partner of red, the setting. Pure. Unblemished. From the driven snow to white horses, wedding dresses and priestly collars. More ambiguous than black and white, red and white seem to affirm life – the present – in all its flesh and bloody gloriousness, filth and delight. It’s sex. It’s procreation. A woman bleeds red. A man ejaculates white. It’s lifeblood. Red and white corpuscles. It’s wine – red and white. It’s food – red meats, white meats. It’s flesh and blood. It’s love. It’s hate. It’s living. In the pink. It’s life. It’s NOW. It’s US. It’s also THEN. Red and white are the colours that separated a nation for nearly a hundred years and, 600 years on, still combine to create its national flag and emblem. We are the product of a schism that ripped the body of England apart in 1399, which was seemingly bandaged together in 1485, yet hacked and bloodied anew in the Reformation by the longerlasting pain of Catholicism and Protestantism with which these islands still wrestle today. 1

It was into this fresh wound of division that William Shakespeare was born and raised. Perhaps then it is no surprise that he chose division as the central plot around which all his plays revolved. Through the prism of History and what we now term the ‘Wars of the Roses’ he looked at, and commented on, his own cleft world. Later in his career he returned to write about the genesis of the battle between White Rose and Red, when Henry Bolingbroke deposed and killed his cousin, Richard II – the great Cain and Abel moment of this other Eden. Richard’s insignia was a White Hart, Bolingbroke’s was, among other symbols, a Red Lion. This was a tapestry of history, religion and life that Shakespeare could unpick and re-weave into an exploration of his own time and the deep division at the heart of his world. He was born on the banks of the River Avon that separates the South and the North of England. He straddled town and country and rode the fresh path of the Northern Renaissance. He was in the middle of the hourglass between Mediaeval and Modern and thus his work has lasted through Time, shining as brightly as fresh ink, by the crossing of divides. It also gives me some fantastic pubs to go in. In 1393 Richard II issued a decree that all Inns and Public Houses which sold ale or wine should place a sign outside their premises so the Ale Taster could more easily identify where he was going, presumably amidst the fog of drunkenness, and supposedly keep the brewing standards high. Innkeepers grudgingly stuck up a sign of Richard’s insignia, the White Hart. To the Arthurian Britons this was a fabled deer that ironically could never be caught and thus signified man’s quest for knowledge. To other Celts that followed it was a living symbol, if spotted, that some taboo had been crossed or a moral law had been broken. In the twelfth century, a White Hart is said to have charged at King David I of Scotland, and when he prayed to God for release the White Hart’s antlers turned into a cross and the beast disappeared in a cloud of smoke. At the site he built the Palace of Holyrood. By the time Richard II ascended to the throne two hundred years later the White Hart was a symbol of purity and luck. For others though, if killed, it remained a harbinger of doom, depending on your point of view. The ‘White Hart’ sign outside a tavern became so ubiquitous that it was used almost entirely to refer to a pub and became a generic term. Then Henry Bolingbroke, crowned by the name of Henry IV, took over the throne. His Red Lion insignia, among other ermine and fleur-delys, began to spring up on pub signs and walls all over the country. In 2

the feudal world of a tottering country, it made sense to keep in with your ruling Lord’s master. However, Sir John Swinton, riding through London wearing the livery collar of Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt, was lynched for his pains. So if your ruling Lord didn’t approve of the ‘usurpation’, as they saw it, then the White Hart sign could stay fixed firmly outside the local pubs, and thus still in the people’s minds. A lot of the Red Lion pubs that are named today come from the few consolidating years just after the slobbering King James I succeeded Queen Elizabeth I in 1603. In an act of supreme insecurity, James decreed that almost every building and certainly every pub should be imprinted with his own insignia, the Red Lion, just to remind all those peasants who couldn’t read who was boss. History had come full circle. ‘The Crown’ is still the most common pub name in the country according to a survey carried out by the ‘Campaign for Real Ale’ in 2007. The Red Lion is second. The White Hart is fifth. (The Swan, the emblem of Stratford-upon-Avon and royal property is fourth, and The Royal Oak, the signature of England and royal insecurity, is third). It is easy to underestimate the schism that tore apart England when Henry Bolingbroke usurped the throne from his cousin Richard II and left him for dead in prison – an act of fratricide that ripped through the nation like the red hot poker that mythically dispatched their greatgrandfather. All were faced with the question of whether to follow the King with a divine right, or the man most equipped to rule the country best. The Reformation is perhaps easier to understand. The tensions and terrors that led to Catholic fathers pitted against newly Protestant sons, one Lord’s estate barricaded against another’s and families hating families are sadly all too real for us. By the time Shakespeare was twenty-three, the Protestant monarch Elizabeth had been forced to kill her own Catholic cousin Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, for her own political survival. In the early 1590s Shakespeare wrote, in the final speech by the newly victorious Henry VII, in his play Richard III: England hath long been mad, and scarr’d herself; The brother blindly shed the brother’s blood, The father rashly slaughter’d his own son, The son, compell’d, been butcher to the sire: All this divided York and Lancaster, Divided in their dire division… (Richard III Act 5 Sc. 5) 3

To the audience that heard these words it must have seemed a pyrrhic victory by Elizabeth’s grandfather. History had indeed repeated itself – revolved with death at its centre like a barrel of blood – and ‘this fair land’s peace’ that Henry VII talked of in the play was nothing but an illusion. The bloodletting was no longer on the battlefield but in the doctrinal arguments of Henry VIII and Sir Thomas More, Protestant King Edward VI and his Catholic sister, Queen Mary I. For the feudal commoners of England, losing your life for your Lord had been replaced by losing your life for the Lord. From the flames and passions of this Tudor time our world today has been forged. The English are still fascinated with Elizabeth I and talk as if the Virgin Queen, the white face with the red hair, gave birth to us all. She is Eve in this other Eden. She is a white goddess in a sea of blood. Britannia. For two and a half years from 2006 to 2008 I was an actor in The Histories at the Royal Shakespeare Company – performing all Shakespeare’s History Plays from Richard II, Henry IV Part 1 and 2, Henry V, Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3, ending with Richard III. It was a massive success and won the RSC multiple awards across the theatrical spectrum. It will remain long in the hearts not just of the people that saw it but for anybody who worked on such a life-changing project. As we performed them every night, I began to find resonances that seemed to chime with my own experience. Scenes took place in locations that I knew and seemed to mean so much, but famous events roared by with the hazy familiarity of a schoolboy’s knowledge. Talking to the cast, crew and the audience I could sense the same. On some level these Histories touched us all. So I want to go on a journey to find out why they seemed to touch something within us, actors and audience alike, when we played them. What was it? What is the England that now watches these plays? And does the life of the White Hart and the Red Lion still run through this old place like the colours in a stick of rock? I want to see where Richard II died. I want to feel the thrill of Eastcheap where Falstaff and Prince Hal worked their magic. I want to walk the route of the anointed Kings as they lie where they were crowned in Westminster Abbey, and I want to explore the battlefields of England where the bandages of a wounded nation lie beneath the soil. In the Yorkshire village of Towton, for example, the locals play golf over the killing fields of the largest single loss of blood on English soil. 4

Little do they know that with their nine-irons and their niblicks they are chipping away at the skulls of their ancestors. I’m going to take with me some of the actors who played the parts relevant to the story to see what the man who played Bolingbroke thinks of Shrewsbury, what Falstaff thinks of Eastcheap and what Henry V makes of Agincourt. John Shakespeare, William’s father, was an Ale Taster before he was a glover and luminary of Stratford-uponAvon, so in his footsteps I and my travelling players will be exploring the hostelries and byways of an England forged on the battlefields, triumphs and betrayals of The Histories: on the one hand, Red – be it a pub or bloody Rose. On the other hand, White – be it the alabaster tombs of broken Princes or the quill of a playwright from Stratfordupon-Avon.



White Hart Red, Lion - look inside  
White Hart Red, Lion - look inside  

Preview of 'White Hart, Red Lion' by Nick Asbury