WHO IS OLD SIR ROWLAND
On the 15th of January 1559, the coronation of Elizabeth I took place. Leading the procession was Thomas Leigh, that year’s Lord Mayor and a protégée of Sir Rowland Hill, who had himself served as Lord Mayor in 1549/50 and was in the final two years of his remarkable life. The persecution, violence and iconoclasm of the Reformation and Counter Reformation, together with the political instability of the period prior to the reign of Elizabeth, might have resulted in civil war rather than the renaissance that England went on to enjoy.
Sir Rowland Hill’s contribution to the relative harmony of Elizabeth’s reign has been neglected for over a century and a half. For instance, his publishing of the Geneva Bible (1560) was occasionally overwritten altogether during the twentieth century. This Bible preceded the King James Version by half a century. Shakespeare, John Knox and Oliver Cromwell all used it; it was taken to America on the Mayflower; and the first design of the Great Seal of America was taken from the illustration of the pursuit of the Israelites on the Bible’s frontispiece, found above the name of Rowland Hill, the publisher.
Hill was a polymath: he published on medicine, mathematics, discoveries of the New World, the laws of European states, theology, teaching, and statecraft. He was a patron of the arts, and of drama in particular. That such a man would deploy codes when he built his rural headquarters at Soulton Hall in Shropshire is hardly surprising. The detail of the neoplatonic references have been set out by James D. Wenn of Byrga Geniht, but it is enough to say here that Soulton Hall references Eleusis in Greece and Solomon’s Temple. During Mary’s reign, Soulton Hall sheltered books, scholarly materials, and people in danger for their beliefs -
Sir Rowland Hill worked extensively to heal the fractures in civil society and welfare that opened up during England’s Reformation. He refounded the hospitals of London independently of the Church, patronised education, developed a kind of labour exchange, built bridges and causeways, and provided benefits to the poor.
In the 17th century this story connects with the Wren church of St Mary Abchurch. The Fellows of Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, the patron of the parish, and of which Matthew Parker had once been Master, directed that Christopher Wren’s rebuilding of St Mary Abchurch should mirror the 55 foot cube of Sir Rowland Hill’s Soulton Hall. (Further details can be found in the Word of the Month booklet and on the website page for August 2023: https://www.stmaryabchurch.org.uk/august-
SHAKESPEARE'S 'OLD SIR ROWLAND'
A persuasive case can be made that Old Sir Rowland in As You Like It is a reference to Sir Rowland Hill, and that the play is a monument to the statecraft that established the Elizabethan settlement that “did not make windows into men’s souls” and thereby heralded national renewal.
Shakespeare’s As You Like It has a hero who is a rich exemplar of virtue to the characters of the play, and his name is Old Sir Rowland de Bois (‘of the Forest’). In the play this character died shortly before the events portrayed, in a way that echoes the death of Sir Rowland Hill before the events of Shakespeare’s own time. In the source book of the play, Rosalynde: Euphues Golden Legacie (1590), this character is ‘John’, and Shakespeare has purposely changed the name of this senior exemplar to ‘Old Sir Rowland’. Rosalynde was written by Thomas Lodge Jr, the son of yet another Lord Mayor of London: Thomas Lodge Sr. Their family had held the manor of Soulton before transferring it to Hill in 1556, so the author of the source book of As You Like It was not only personally familiar with Sir Rowland Hill, but also knew the woodland setting of Soulton, which is right on the edge of the Forest of Arden as that name would have been understood by a medieval or early modern mind: the area bounded by Watling Street, the Fosse Way, the Salt Way, and the Welsh border.
Shakespeare would have been familiar with Sir Rowland Hill through his name on the frontispiece of the Geneva Bible, which he quotes frequently, and Sir Rowland would have been remembered as a Lord Mayor of London who was supportive of drama. His monument in St Stephen Walbrook, holding Magna Carter, represents how Shakespeare and his contemporaries would have understood him.
The narrative arc of As You Like It pays homage to the projects in which Sir Rowland Hill was engaged. A usurping Duke creates dangerous disharmony in the court, and the sympathetic characters are forced to retreat to the Forest of Arden, where they study philosophy and recover harmony, which they take back to the court, thus referencing the real Forest of Arden cultural exodus that had contributed to the Elizabethan settlement. In the play, a circular dance for eight participants marks the recovery of harmony. The pavement in Abchurch Yard mirrors one at Soulton Hall designed for a courtly dance for eight that codes meanings in philosophy and theology—a commonplace early modern concept (see John Weaver’s An Essay Towards an History of Dancing (1712), which furnishes another Shropshire connection). Three prominent Shropshire families in the Tudor period—the Vernon, Stanley, and Sidney families—are known Shakespeare patrons and muses, cementing even further the connection between Shakespeare and Shropshire.
The first performance of As You Like It might have been at Wilton House, recently restored to a family that had been exiled from it during Mary’s reign. Again we find a connection with the Forest of Arden:
Duke Frederick, hearing how that every day
Men of great worth resorted to this forest,
Addressed a mighty power, which were on foot
In his own conduct, purposely to take
His brother here and put him to the sword;
And to the skirts of this wild wood he came,
Where, meeting with an old religious man,
After some question with him, was converted
Both from his enterprise and from the world,
His crown bequeathing to his banished brother,
And all their lands restored to them again
That were with him exiled.
William Shakespeare, As You Like It. Act V, scene iv, line 159
It is clear that Shakespeare changed his source text’s ‘John’ to ‘Old Sir Rowland’ in honour of the real Sir Rowland Hill, and now that we are aware of that, a great deal else in this loved and enigmatic play makes historical sense
related to Sir Rowland Hill and resident at Soulton Hall
With thanks and acknowledgement for scholarly support to James D. Wenn and Christine Schmidle