News Tuesday, April 26th Words by: Bill Tanner, pictures by: Gordon Taylor

Paye your husband's debt: Letter to 'Mrs Shakespeare' discovered in Herefordshire

News Tuesday, April 26th

Paye your husband's debt: Letter to 'Mrs Shakespeare' discovered in Herefordshire

A secret letter, a hidden debt, a bond honoured… it's a plot worthy of Shakespeare.

For centuries a mysterious letter has been stuck behind the binding of a book at the historic library of Lady Hawkins’ School in Kington. The book is now in the care of Hereford Cathedral and the letter, once half-hidden, has been pieced together to reveal a mysterious tale.

Between its fragmented lines ‘the widow Shakspaire ‘ is urged to pay a penniless orphan, named John Butts, money owed to him from her late husband. Her late husband... Mr Shakespeare? The Shakespeare? Almost.


The book contains two commentaries on the scriptures in Latin by German theologian Johann Piscator (1546 - 1625). Both commentaries were published in London, 1597 and 1608 respectively, under the catchy titles Analysis logica omnium epistolarum Pauli and Analysis logica septem epistolarum Apostolicarum.

That’s 'Logical analysis of all the epistles of St Paul' and 'Logical Analysis of the seven epistles of the Apostles' to you and me.

Attention was first drawn to the hidden letter back as 1978, when Lady Hawkins' School Library was placed on permanent deposit with Hereford Cathedral's Library and Archive, but at the time it was half-covered by the book's binding. 

Medieval books have long held secret letters this way. Before cheap machine-made paper became available in the 19th century, handmade paper was relatively expensive and to save a few pennies, book bindings were commonly strengthened with scraps of waste paper - old letters, for example.

Some early text survive only because of fragments recovered from bindings.

The 'Mrs Shakespeare' letter has now been removed from the book by conservator Julian Thomas, and the surviving text can now be read in full for the first time. 

Shakes letter thumb

Shakesletter edit

Hereford Cathedral librarian Dr Rosemary Firman said the letter, addressed to ‘Good Mrs Shakspaire’, dates from the time of William Shakespeare but its the references don't tie up with what's known about the playright and his wife Anne Hathaway.

It looks, instead, to be a story concerning some other member of the family.

"A Mr Sparowe is mentioned," said Rosemary. 

"These Shakespeares are said to have once lived on a Trinity Lane, but William Shakespeare is not known to have lived at such an address, and no connections are known between him and anyone called Butts or Sparowe.

"The book from which the letter was recovered was published in London by George Bishop, and we know that one of his apprentices, Richard Field, knew William Shakespeare, but this may be just a coincidence."

The fragile letter is now in a temperature and humidity-controlled case, alongside the book after conservators used the opportunity to carry out some minor repair work.

"We would love to hear from anyone who can add anything to this story," added Rosemary.

"It’s possible there’s someone researching the history of their own family to whom this letter will make sense."

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The letter fragments are now on show at the Mappa Mundi and Chained Library Exhibition at Hereford Cathedral (10am - 5pm, admission applies), where they'll be exhibited until September 3. Everything in the Lady Hawkins' School Library can be studied on request in the Reading Room.  

Anyone with information or suggestions on the letter's origin is asked to email with the subject line ‘Mrs Shakespeare’.

April 23 marked 400 years since the death of Shakespeare. Anniversary events are being held throughout 2016. Search Shakespeare400 for details.

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