Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 5, No. 0668. Wednesday, 10 August 1994.
From: Tom Dale Keever <
Date: Tuesday, 09 Aug 94 22:21:49 EDT
In two June posts regarding the character of The Bishop of Winchester in the
*H5*, I plays raised some interesting issues about Shakespeare's uses of
history. I accidently deleted the posts, but the first asked if Winchester had
been as awful as he is portrayed and a reply pointed out that "Winchester
geese" was a term for prostitutes and referred to the fact that the brothels in
Southwark were located on land owned by the Bishop.
In Shakespeare's day the name of the Bishop of Winchester was associated with
the Southwark stews and Shakespeare draws on this association when Gloucester
uses the term "Winchester goose" in his confrontation with the churchman in
1H6, i, 3, but I wonder if he's indulging in some creative anachronism.
Southwark had a shady reputation dating back to the 13th century, but I think
that its most disreputable industries, e.g. prostitution, taverns, theaters,
etc, grew in response to London's staggering 16th century population explosion,
a Tudor phenomenon caused largely by the upheavals in the agrarian economy
sparked by the "privatization" of the monastic lands. The 14th and 15th
century Winchester of 1&2H6, Henry Beaufort, was guilty of many things, but I
wonder if whore-mongering was one of them. Does anyone else know when the
prostitution industry got to be a major part of the Southwark economy and when
it came to be associated in common jargon with the Bishop?
Though "Winchester goose" is glossed by some as meaning a prostitute, Andrew S.
Cairncross, editor of the Arden edition of 1H6, defines it as "a swelling in
the groin, the result of venereal disease," and "one so affected." Can anyone
out there resolve this?
Shakespeare's Winchester managed to parlay his church position into the largest
private fortune in the land, after the crown's, and made his money work for
him. He does not appear as a character in HENRY V, but the military campaign
that culminated in Agincourt was only possible because of the cash he was
willing to lend, at a generous rate, to his nephew Harry. Though his
friendship with Henry V had its ups and downs, it really isn't fair to say, as
Gloucester does in 1H6, that his sovereign "ne'r could brook" him. His
support for the crown, under both Henry V and his son, was unwavering.
Shakespeare's artful blackening of Winchester shows how skillful he was at
creatively "misreading" his sources even early in his career. He doctored the
record to create a thoroughly villainous figure. Winchester was vain,
ambitious, and ruthless enough and there were plenty of contemporaries who
hated him, but it is safe to say he had nothing to do with Gloucester's death,
if only because he had nothing to gain by it. Late in their lives they even
seemed to be getting along a little better. Despite his preference for a
negotiated peace Winchester backed Gloucester's final campaign in France with a
loan - at interest, of course. Accounts of his last days by a source who was
there give no evidence of the guilty deathbed torments we read in 2H6.
Shakespeare learned early on that bad history could make good theater.
Gloucester's taunt, "Name not religion, for thou lov'st the flesh..." does ring
true, though. Beaufort was famed for the luxury in which he lived, and, though
Shakespeare's references to lechery are exagerations that link him in the
popular mind to his successors in the See of Winchester and their South Bank
whores, he was hardly a celibate. He fathered at least one bastard in his
youth and may have sired more he didn't admit to. The one he acknowledged
would have been hard to deny - he knocked up Lady Alice FitzAlan, daughter of
the powerful, and dangerous, Earl of Arundel. Their daughter, Joan Beaufort,
was my 17th great grandmother. Beaufort is hardly the most admirable of my
forebears but he's far from the worst.