The floorboard which William Shakespeare is believed to have stood on while performing have been discovered in West Norfolk.
The nearly 600-year-old oak floorboards have been uncovered at St George’s Guildhall in King’s Lynn, England’s largest medieval guildhall, which is currently undergoing a major refurbishment.
The amazing find has been hailed by archaeological building expert Dr Jonathan Clark as ‘the largest expanse of timber medieval flooring in the country’.
St George’s started out life as a religious Guild meeting house, confirmed by Royal Charter in 1406, but it went on to become a theatrical venue with the first recorded performance in 1445. It is the only working theatre in the world that can claim Shakespeare himself performed there.
The theatre in King’s Lynn was used extensively at the time for touring companies – Queen Elizabeth’s Men, a troupe of actors formed at the command of the Tudor Queen in 1583, performed there ten times in the late 1500s.
In 1592-3 London’s theatres were closed because of another outbreak of plague and William Shakespeare and his company of actors were on tour in King’s Lynn in Norfolk.
A note in the corporation of King’s Lynn’s account book shows Shakespeare’s company were paid by the corporation to perform there. This is not the only link to the famous playwright.
Robert Armin, who was Shakespeare’s leading comic actor, playing the comedy parts like the Porter in Macbeth, the Gravedigger in Hamlet, Feste in Twelfth Night and the Fool in King Lear, was born in the town, one street away from the theatre.
There is also evidence, in a book published in Shakespeare’s lifetime, of an incident that happened at the King’s Lynn theatre – where an audience member watching a play about a murder on stage was so consumed with guilt she confessed to killing her husband.
It is said that this incident inspired Shakespeare to write part of the plot of Hamlet with the Murder of Gonzago/Mousetrap scene.
The Grade I Listed building was derelict and in danger of demolition by 1945 before it was bought by a local landowner and turned into an arts centre.
But the site, which also has an art gallery and lecture space, has been under-used in recent years and its future looked uncertain again in 2016.
Archaeological work has been underway at the site for the last two months, which revealed the original floor, hidden underneath a 1960s and 1950s floors, as well as flooring believed to be from the 18th and 19th century.
Some of these floor beams have been tested and dated to between 1417 and 1430, when the building was created. The large oak boards are almost twelve inches thick, held together with pegs rather than nails.
It is believed the floor would have been laid by shipwrights and taken about a year to create.
Tim FitzHigham, Creative Director at the Borough Council of King’s Lynn & West Norfolk, said: “I first heard the tale that Shakespeare had performed at the Guildhall as a kid but when I went back as an adult it seemed people had forgotten about it.
“Before I became Creative Director at the council, I had been involved in researching the history of the venue. We were able to demonstrate the connection of the town with Robert Armin and Shakespeare.
We were also able to confirm that we have the account book showing that the borough paid Shakespeare’s company to perform at the venue.
“We’ve got a great team: the Borough Council of King’s Lynn & West Norfolk, in partnership with Norfolk Museums Service, Norfolk County Council and in collaboration with the National Trust.
“Thanks to funding from the UK Government’s Towns Fund, under its Levelling Up agenda, a project to refurbish and redevelop St George’s Guildhall and associated buildings has been commenced by the Borough Council of King’s Lynn & West Norfolk, in partnership with Norfolk Museums Service, Norfolk County Council and in collaboration with the National Trust who own the building.
“Thanks to this funding, we can get in experts like Dr Jonathan to enable us to be confident as to what these boards really mean, it makes this building important nationally and internationally.
“Shakespeare is known across the globe, so to be able make this claim is pretty magical,” he added.