Shakespeare, Chaucer, and The Tabard Inn

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 28

What if Shakespeare and his friends had gotten together and carved their names on the wall of an inn made famous by Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales? In 2015, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee history professor Dr. Martha Carlin found an anecdote in a little-known, unpublished manuscript that suggests just such a link between these two great English writers.
Unfortunately, the Tabard Inn burned down in the great Southwark fire of 1676, so there’s no way of knowing the truth for sure. But even if it only was hearsay, this Shakespeare graffiti story—and the alehouse-centric connection between two writers over 200 years apart that it suggests—captures the imagination. Carlin talks with Rebecca Sheir about the anonymous diarist who wrote the account and what might have drawn Shakespeare and his pals to the Tabard Inn.
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Dr. Martha Carlin is a professor of history in the College of Letters & Science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published July 15, 2015. © Folger Shakespeare Library. This podcast episode, "Betwixt Tavern and Tavern," was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Lisa Nalbandian at Wisconsin Public Radio. From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series.

The manuscript featured in this podcast episode was on exhibit January 20 through March 27, 2016, at the Folger Shakespeare Library, as part of Shakespeare, Life of an Icon. Find out more information about this manuscript on Shakespeare Documented.
“Some Notes for my Perambulation in and round the Citye of London for six miles and Remnants of divers worthie things and men,” with reference to Shakespeare: “The Tabard I find to have been the resort Mastere Will Shakspear Sir Sander Duncombe Lawrence Fletcher Richard Burbage Ben Jonson and the rest of their roystering associates in King Jameses time as in the large room they have cut their names on the Pannels,” ca. 1643. Edinburgh University Library, MS La. II 422/211, fol. 8


MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. This podcast is called “Betwixt Tavern and Tavern.”

While the scholarship around Shakespeare's works is voluminous, we are always eager to learn more about Shakespeare’s life, especially the life he lived as a working man in the London theater. There is such an intense hunger to know something about Shakespeare himself, that when something new recently turned up, it generated considerable excitement, especially since this particular item seemed to link Shakespeare with another man acknowledged as a great writer in English literature, Geoffrey Chaucer.

As you will hear, a discovery was made by University of Wisconsin history professor Martha Carlin that seemed to place Shakespeare, along with several other prominent members of the Elizabethan literati, together, drinking, at the Tabard Inn, the roadhouse made famous in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales two centuries earlier. The story, which leans on a little-known manuscript and an ancient piece of graffiti, is intriguing, to say the least. She tells the story now to interviewer Rebecca Sheir.


REBECCA SHEIR: I want to start with this discovery you made. What was it you found? And then tell us where you found it.

MARTHA CARLIN: Well, it was a very lucky discovery of an unpublished manuscript, and the discovery that is the most fun, is the discovery of a reference to Shakespeare and his circle that had never been really known about or published, and it is a small anecdote, somebody writing, probably, in the early 1640s. And what survives are 27 loose pages, concerning mostly London, or its southern suburb, which is called Southwark. And the antiquities in Southwark included the Tabard Inn, which was famous in the 17th century, and in Shakespeare’s day, and earlier, because it was the place where Geoffrey Chaucer had set the opening of his famous Canterbury Tales. In The Canterbury Tales, 29 pilgrims meet up at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, which was a real inn. And there the host, Harry Bailly, who was the real host of the real inn, in Chaucer’s fictional work, he guides them in the morning on their road to Canterbury.

SHEIR: And so in this sheaf of 27 sheets of paper, what does the writer say about the walls of the Tabard Inn?

CARLIN: [LAUGH] Let me get the exact quotation up. He says, “The Tabard I find to have been the resort of Master Will Shakespeare, Sir Sander Duncombe, Lawrence Fletcher, Richard Burbage, Ben Jonson, and the rest of their roistering associates in King James’s time as in the large room they have cut their names on the panels.” And that is the complete text of the reference to Shakespeare and his circle.

SHEIR: So this roistering group of men, does it appear that these guys each carve their own names on the walls, or did someone carve, you know, “So-and-so was here, along with so-and-so”?

CARLIN: Well, I would read this as if... My understanding of this is that the likelihood is that they each carved their own name, in other words, that the carvings each looked distinct one from another, and the implication is that these are the graffiti of these individual guys.

SHEIR: Were there other comments to be found? Like, you know, “Great beer at this place, good times.”

CARLIN: I, uh, nothing in this manuscript says anything like that. [LAUGHTER] My guess is that there was good beer at the Tabard, and that’s one of the reasons why Shakespeare and his roistering associates met there. But I think it’s very likely that the main reason they met at the Tabard, which was not in particularly good repair, perhaps, in Shakespeare’s day, but it was famous, because of the association with Chaucer.

SHEIR: Can you talk more about what Chaucer says about the Tabard Inn in The Canterbury Tales, and how important it is in that book?

CARLIN: It’s very important. It’s really interesting. Chaucer gives so much circumstantial detail about the inn. He gives it its name, he gives the name of its host. The host later plays a very extensive role in The Canterbury Tales. He’s one of the characters who keeps popping up in the links between the tales, and making comments, and doing this, and doing that. He’s actually the character who’s seen most often in The Canterbury Tales, although he doesn’t have a lot of lines, so to speak, and he doesn’t have a tale of his own. But he’s a character who’s repeatedly reintroduced.

What’s really interesting is that Chaucer’s description of the Tabard. It sounds almost like a modern advertisement for a hotel, that Chaucer tells us that it’s large, it’s spacious, it has good lodging for man and beast, it has good food. It’s a remarkable piece of advertisement of a real place, a real inn, and its real innkeeper. And my guess is that a reason that Chaucer might have had for introducing a real person and a real inn at the beginning of his fictional Canterbury Tales is, it’s a gambit, in the kind of way that a modern storyteller might introduce a story by saying, “I once knew a man who did such and such.”

SHEIR: So are we assuming, then, that Chaucer actually ate or stayed at the Tabard, or did he just use it as a character, do you think?

CARLIN: I think it’s quite likely that he knew the Tabard and its innkeeper well from personal experience.

SHEIR: I want to zoom out a bit here and go back to that moment…


SHEIR: When you found these 27 pieces of paper that had just been sitting there in the library…

CARLIN: Right.

SHEIR: What were you doing in Scotland? And tell us about that moment when you came upon this.

CARLIN: Well, I was in Scotland because a friend of mind was singing in a concert. So, I tried to combine a visit of pure personal pleasure with a little bit of archival research by trying to find if there were any manuscripts that I could see on that visit. I, because I was working in the British Library, I had access to the best collection of catalogs for the British Isles that I could possibly hope for. And I started looking for catalogs of medieval manuscripts in libraries in Edinburgh. And I wasn’t having a lot of luck.

But I found that the University of Edinburgh had in its special collections department an enormous uncataloged collection of papers that had once belonged to a Scottish antiquary and lawyer called David Lang. They’ve never been cataloged and there is no catalog today, but there is a typescript hand list that gives an indication of what some of the contents are, and a copy of that typescript hand list was in the British Library in London, where I found it and read through it, and found that it referred to this one document, as the 27 leaves are all cataloged under one catalog number. And within this document it referred to this Shakespearean graffiti anecdote, and it quoted it. So I made plans to come and see the document, and when I saw it, and photographed it, you know, it was all as promised, and it was a remarkable thing.

SHEIR: You’re telling the story in such measured tones. At the time, were you jumping up and down for joy?

CARLIN: I was absolutely squeaking with excitement. [LAUGH] But you can’t squeak loudly in a reading room, so I had to squeak softly.

SHEIR: Good point. So, Martha, we recently did a podcast about Shakespeare’s biography, and one of the points that came up is, how really little we know today about his life, aside from, you know, a couple of scattered details and a lot of myths. So, if we can assume that this graffiti on the wall, as you call it, is really Shakespeare’s, what more then do we know about him and his life?

CARLIN: What we know that’s new is, what part of his circle was. That this anecdote, which lists Master Will Shakespeare, Sir Sander Duncombe, Lawrence Fletcher, Richard Burbage, Ben Jonson, and ye rest of their roistering associates in King James’s time, this gives us a list of the people that Shakespeare hung out with.

SHEIR: So, it wasn’t already known that Shakespeare hung out with these guys?

CARLIN: Well, with the exception of Sir Sander Duncombe, the others were all colleagues of Shakespeare’s and, so far as one can assume from this, friends of Shakespeare’s. They would all have been acting at the Globe theater in the decade from 1599 to 1609, and at least one of them, that’s Fletcher, lived on Bankside near the Globe theater. But the others who are named here did not, and it’s fascinating to me that they would have gone well out of their way to go and drink, presumably, at the Tabard Inn, and use one of the public rooms of the Tabard as perhaps a sort of club house, and found themselves so much at home there that they carved their name on the paneling of the room.

Also interesting is that more than a generation after Shakespeare died, that paneling is now one of the sights of Southwark; that this unknown antiquary, who made these notes and was writing in the reign of King Charles I, that he thought that all of these men were celebrities, and that he thought it was worth recording that their graffiti survived on the paneling of this room, of this public room in the Tabard Inn.

SHEIR: So, based on what you just said, it’s safe to assume that this inscription was probably made between, what, 1599 and 1609?

CARLIN: I think that’s the most likely time. Fletcher himself came to London in May of 1603 in the entourage of the new king, James I, and he died only five years later in 1608. So, his graffiti, at least, must date from that five year period. And the King’s Men had their most concentrated acting at the Globe in that decade. After 1609, they had a new theater in the City of London, across London Bridge from Southwark on the north bank of the Thames.

Now one of the members of this list of names, Sir Sander Duncombe, I think was not either a contemporary of Shakespeare or a part of his circle. He seems to have been at least a generation younger than Shakespeare. But he may have added his name to the rest out of a sense of homage, perhaps, as a gesture of respect, and also to kind of make himself a part, posthumously, of Shakespeare’s circle.

SHEIR: The writer of this document talks about places that, I’m quoting here, “are fast ruining as the Tabard Inn.”


SHEIR: Is it common for a humble little tavern like this to still be standing 200 years later?

CARLIN: Ah, but the Tabard was not a humble little tavern at all. It was a big commercial inn, and it had been since its beginnings in the late 1300s, in Chaucer’s day, in fact. If the Tabard in Chaucer’s day could put up 30 people and their horses, it must have had very, very generous quarters. And by Shakespeare’s day, its size had been increased, because it had taken in a property that lay beside it on the north.

SHEIR: Well, going back to this description from the early 1640s, do we know anything about the actual writer?

CARLIN: What’s known about him comes from one of these 27 leaves of paper, which has some personal notes on it, and it’s the only set of personal notes in the collection of 27 sheets of paper. It mentions that the... It's a sheet that’s dated November 1643, it’s the only dated document in this collection. And it mentions that the writer had been given a drawing by Wenceslaus Hollar, a great Bohemian artist and mapmaker, who had been making a panoramic view of London, which he did from Southwark. He climbed up in the tower of the great priory church of Southwark, and from that tower he made a beautiful panoramic view of the City of London. And he seems to have come to know the anonymous compiler of these antiquarian notes, and to have given him a drawing, and, unfortunately, that drawing does not survive among the antiquary's notes, but the antiquary refers to it in this page of personal reflections. And he also mentions romantic interest in a lady he describes as "poor Mabel Acton," and he says that if he ever should marry, he has thoughts that he might marry her. So, he’s clearly a young unmarried man. He’s a royalist. He talks about how poor Mabel Acton’s father or grandfather, whom he calls the "old knight," had been dispossessed of his house by the Parliamentary forces under the command of one Major Okey.

He also mentions, in a description of the antiquities of Hackney, that he found in the basement of an old tower, he found a skull, and he showed it to Dr. Harvey, and Dr. Harvey assured him it was a woman’s skull, and the unknown antiquary thinks that she was a victim of being imprisoned in this dungeon in the Middle Ages, and it’s all very romantic. What’s intriguing about this anecdote, aside from the little spot of archeology that the antiquary was doing, is that he was acquainted, apparently, with William Harvey, who was the discoverer of the circulation of blood. So, he was somebody who had acquaintance with great scholars, including scientists. He was interested in history and antiquities in London and its suburbs. So, he was a well-connected young man.

One of the pages of his notes has the initials "JE" on it. And for a delirious moment I thought that perhaps JE was the famous diarist John Evelyn, who lived in the 17th century, and who was a young, unmarried royalist in November 1643. However, further reflection has suggested to me that this is an unlikely identification, that things just don’t quite connect with what is known of John Evelyn, and the handwriting is not a match for what is known of John Evelyn’s hand in this period.

SHEIR: Oh...

CARLIN: Alas, alas. [LAUGH] Evelyn knew Hollar and was a close friend of his. He writes about Dr. Harvey, but both times at a later date. So, although there are many points of connection, seemingly, between the life of John Evelyn the diarist and what is known of this unknown antiquary, I think they’re not the same person.

SHEIR: So, the mystery continues.

CARLIN: The mystery continues.

SHEIR: So, Martha, what do you think, if this carving mentioned in this document…


SHEIR: …by this unknown antiquarian, if this carving was genuine, did Shakespeare and Jonson and the rest of these guys gather at the Tabard Inn by accident, or do you think they got together at the Tabard specifically to pay tribute to Chaucer?

CARLIN: I think that they were both very sensitive to this connection between the great Chaucer, who’s the father of English poetry, and themselves. And that they may have met... They may have chosen to meet at the Tabard Inn, which was not particularly convenient to any of them, but I think they may have met there because of its association with Chaucer. It may be that the Tabard had the best beer in Southwark in the day, or the lowest prices, or the prettiest barmaids, I have no idea. [LAUGH] And, so, there may have been other inducements to meet there.

But none of the men who are named in this anecdote, none of them lived near the Tabard. And it would have been out of their way to get there from London, or to travel there from Bankside, where the Globe theater was. It was, maybe, half a mile or so from the Globe and at least a quarter of a mile south of London Bridge, so it’s not on a direct route for any of these guys, in getting from home to theater and back again. They must have had a reason to go to the Tabard, and I think that the Chaucer connection may well have been at least part of the reason.

SHEIR: So, knowing that this might have happened, this gathering, what’s the scene you conjure in your head?

CARLIN: [LAUGH] Well, what I would love to conjure is a scene of Ben Jonson, the great playwright and poet, and William Shakespeare, equally the great playwright and poet, not only talking shop about the Globe theater, and theatrical productions there, and swapping stories with the actors who met with them there, but also possibly engaging in lively arguments for fun, not serious ones, that were later described as "wit-combats" in accounts of Shakespeare and Jonson that were written and published late in the 17th century by men who were interested in their careers, and who tried to collect scraps of information about them.

These references to wit-combats between Shakespeare and Johnson have never received any contemporary confirmation from Shakespeare’s own day. But I think it’s possible that this anecdote about the graffiti in the Tabard Inn that includes the names of Master Will Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and ye rest of the roistering associates, I think it’s quite possible that those wit-combats between Shakespeare and Jonson could indeed have taken place, and taken place in the Tabard in Southwark.

SHEIR: Wow. Martha Carlin, thank you so much.

CARLIN: It’s a pleasure. I enjoyed it very much, Rebecca.


WITMORE: Martha Carlin is professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She was interviewed by Rebecca Sheir.

“Betwixt Tavern and Tavern” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Lisa Nalbandian at Wisconsin Public Radio.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.