In the early 1600s a French wigmaker and his family lived in Monkwell Street in the Barbican. He never did anything particularly noteworthy. But the City of London named one of the Barbican’s terrace blocks after him. What earned Christopher Mountjoy this immortality was that he let a spare room to a successful playwright on his frequent visits to London from Stratford, William Shakespeare.
William Shakespeare lived with the Mountjoys between 1598 and 1612. This is the period in which Shakespeare wrote Henry V, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Anthony and Cleopatra and the Tempest. Since so little is known about Shakespeare’s life, literary historians have latched onto the fact that he lodged with the Mountjoys to try to squeeze as much out of it as they can. It is suggested that Shakespeare used his experience of living with a family who all spoke French for use in his plays. For example, the scene in Henry V between King Henry and his future bride, Katherine, the daughter of the French King, with her maid acting as interpreter.
HENRY: Madam my interpreter, what says she?
ALICE: Dat it is not be de fashion pour les ladies of France,–I cannot tell vat is baiser en Anglish.
HENRY: To kiss.
ALICE: Your majesty entendre bettre que moi.
HENRY: It is not a fashion for the maids in France to kiss before they are married, would she say?
ALICE: Oui, vraiment.
There is also a small part for a French herald called Mountjoy, which it is speculated, Shakespeare named after his French landlord.
The Mountjoys had a house on the corner of Silver Street and Monkwell Street (sometimes called Mugwell Street) in the Barbican area. Monkwell Street itself was obliterated by the bombing raids of the Second World War, but it would seem that Mountjoy House is almost on top of the original street where the Mountjoys lived. Barber Surgeons Hall was built on the west side of Monkwell Street fairly close to what is now London Wall. (London Wall for all its ancient-sounding name and bits of old Roman and mediaval walls, is a new road created in the 1950s). In the 17th century John Bunyan preached in a chapel in Monkwell Street. Silver Street had a church named St Olave’s which was destroyed in the Great Fire of London. It was never rebuilt and the remains are preserved off London Wall near the Museum of London. Take a walk through the less explored parts of the Barbican. If you start at the main door of St Giles Church and head down the steps towards Wallside, at the back of the school, you can find your way round the mediaeval circular tower into Barber Surgeons Hall and its wonderful secluded garden. On the left, you will pass someone’s fireplace which is all that remains of an early house. Perhaps this is where Shakespeare actually lived or visited friends.
Christopher Mountjoy was born to a Huguenot family at Crecy in France. In 1572 Mountjoy fled with his family to England as a refugee from the French wars of persecution against the Huguenots. He had a wife and a daughter, both named Mary. An estimated 50,000 Protestant Huguenots and Walloons fled to England, (Walloons being Protestants from the Low Countries). The Huguenots community centred around Shoreditch, Spitalfields and the areas between there and the Barbican, so it was natural for Mountjoy to settle in the Barbican at the edge of the City.
It is not known where the word ‘Huguenots’ came from. It was originally a term of abuse used by their enemies. The Huguenots were simply French Protestants. During the 16th century they were violently opposed to Roman Catholic beliefs, much like the English Puritans. Tensions between the Huguenots and the Catholic majority led to a series of civil wars from 1562 to 1598. The kings of France, of the house of Valois, supported the Catholic majority. The Bourbons, who claimed the throne, sided with the Huguenots. This made the contest as much political as religious. Throughout the wars, Huguenots fled the country or emigrated. One of the central events of the wars was the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, as it was called, when Catholics in Paris massacred thousands of Huguenots between 24th of August and 17 September 1572. Christopher Mountjoy fled France in 1572, probably to escape during these massacres. The wars ended in 1598 when King Henry IV issued the Edict of Nantes giving religious equality to Catholics and Protestants alike.
It has been suggested that Shakespeare may have derived from the Mountjoys his interest in herbal and Paracelsian (unorthodox) medicine which was associated with the Huguenots at the time. To tie this back in again with the Barbican, in 1597 the Barber’s Company in Monkwell Street created a herb garden near the Mountjoys’ house. It is quite possible that this was inspired by the expertise of the local Huguenot community.
In 1987 the Barber Surgeons livery company had the wonderfully eccentric idea of reconstructing this herb garden, which you can find in the area just described. There are 49 herbs planted in a complicated concentric pattern. These are not herbs for eating; they are mediaeval remedies.
The Barber Surgeons have produced a book on it, which you can get by phoning 7606 0741. Or you can look at www.barberscompany.org.uk . The herbs include ‘Southernwood’, which ladies used to take to church to keep them awake during sermons, and ‘Mandrake’ which traditionally screams when pulled up by the roots, and which features in the Harry Potter books. The Mountjoys may have used herbs from the original herb garden and taken Shakespeare round it to tell him what healing properties each one had.
When they arrived in London Christopher Mountjoy and his family set themselves up in the wig and hat making trade. Aristocratic ladies of the Shakespearean age followed Queen Elizabeth as the ideal. Queen Elizabeth had red frizzy hair so fashionable ladies also had to have red frizzy hair. There were many recipes for bleaching hair to the correct colour, many using urine, which was convenient in an age without plumbing. If a lady didn’t have the right kind of hair or urine, she could wear false hair instead — a very common practice in Elizabethan times. Some women went bald and wore wigs rather than struggle with their own. Wigs – or ‘periwigs’ as they were called – were quite acceptable. Queen Elizabeth had over eighty of her own. Ruffs, or ruffles, were in high fashion and during the Elizabethan era these became more elaborate and were constructed on gauze wings which were raised at the back of the head while the ruffs framed the face. Elizabethan fashion dictated that the head should be covered with a hat, veil, coif or a caul. Many of the hats were adorned with feathers, pearls, glass jewels, spangles, gold thread, embroidery and lace. All of this provided a lucrative business opportunity for the Mountjoys.
You may wonder why Shakespeare was living in the Barbican, quite a distance from the Globe on the South Bank. The Globe was actually first built in Curtain Road, Shoreditch, just up the road from the Barbican. It was called the Theatre and was built by the theatrical impresario, James Burbage, and his actor-producer son, Richard Burbage, in 1576. This was the heart of theatreland in Elizabethan England. The Fortune Theatre was built later in Golden Lane. The theatrical company operating at the Theatre were known as the Chamberlain’s Men. Shakespeare was a member and Henry V was one of the plays first put on there. “This wooden O” referred to its almost circular wooden structure. When a dispute broke out with the landlord, they simply took the theatre apart and shifted it across the river, where it was put back together again and called the Globe.
The reason we know anything about the Mountjoys and their lodger is that court records survived of the dispute in the Mountjoy family in which Shakespeare was called as a rather unwilling witness in 1612. Christopher Mountjoy had a daughter, Mary. He also had an apprentice, learning the hat and wig making trade, called Stephen Belott. Maybe Mary wasn’t much of a catch, or maybe Mountjoy particularly favoured his apprentice, because Mountjoy was extremely keen that they should get married. It doesn’t sound as if Belott was particularly enthusiastic though. So whenever Shakespeare sat down by the fire after a hard day at the Theatre, hoping to knock off a few more pages of Macbeth, he would frequently be disturbed by Mountjoy begging him to use his skill with words to persuade Belott to propose to Mary. “Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there, i’ the name of Beelzebub?” may well have been inspired by the persistent Mountjoy. Probably to get a bit of peace and quiet, Shakespeare undertook the task and very soon Mary became Mrs Belott. Belott and Mary married in November 1604. It may not have been Shakespeare’s way with words which persuaded Stephen to marry the boss’s daughter. Mountjoy may have promised rather more than he meant to in order to secure a successor to the family business. Father and son in law soon fell out over money. Belott claimed he had been promised £60 cash when the marriage took place and £200 to be left by Mountjoy in his will. He only received £10 after the marriage and he feared that he would do just as badly from Mountjoy’s will. So in 1612 he brought his case to court. The court referred the dispute to the French Church in London set up for Huguenots. The court finally awarded Belott just another £7. Shakespeare was called to give evidence, but he wasn’t a lot of help, and was clearly reluctant to take sides. He admitted he had known the parties since 1598, but he did not remember what dowry was promised or what Mountjoy gave Belott at the time of the marriage. Shakespeare left the Mountjoy’s house also in 1612 so perhaps he was heartily sick of them by then, especially as they were all probably knocking at his door trying to find out what his evidence was going to be.
None of this would be known at all, except for the detective work of an American professor, Charles Wallace and his wife Hilda, who spent months poring over old documents in the public records office and came up with the details of the 1612 case. One of the court documents contains one of only six instances of Shakespeare’s handwriting known to exist.
Lawrence Williams speculated in a recent editorial about who now might be recorded in future histories, just like the people commemorated in the names of Barbican blocks have been. Surely what is most astonishing is how some people become famous for the most incredibly accidental reasons. A French refugee with a spare room to let. Who could have dreamt it. Not even Shakespeare.