Shakespeare's "lost" local church in London may have been found – beneath some flower beds and cracked paving stones. New research has pinpointed the site of the old church of St Leonard, which was the centre of worship and burial for many of the leading actors and personalities of the Shakespearean stage, including the Bard himself. A study of archive material has revealed that much of the building may still exist, buried underground in an extraordinary time capsule.
The long-lost church has been identified in the heart of Shoreditch, the east London district that has more recently become the haunt of late-night clubbers and Brit artists. The old church was demolished in the 18th century and traces of it erased. A new St Leonard's was later constructed in the area, but it has now been established that it was built some distance away from its former home.
Shakespeare lived for several years in Shoreditch and is believed to have known the church well, worshipping there. At the time, the area was a haven for artists and actors, and notorious for boozing, prostitution and violence. Plays and playhouses were banned within the City, making Shoreditch, on its northern fringe, a magnet for actors and writers. The church was also local for the playwright-spy Christopher Marlowe, and later Ben Jonson, the Bard's friend and rival. Edmund Shakespeare, the playwright's infant nephew who died when only a few days old, was baptised at the church.
An investigation by the Rev Paul Turp, vicar of St Leonard's, has established that the old church stood in a depression, at least 10 feet below the level of adjacent streets, and was only partially demolished. He believes it was simply "filled in" to make the land level with surrounding streets and that a substantial part of the building remains buried, waiting to be uncovered. He has identified the likely site and hopes that archaeologists will investigate further.
"There were tombs of important people in the old church," he says. "If they are still there, under part of the later church, it's not too difficult a job to excavate them. What I would love to find, as a church man, would be the original stone font, dating back to 1182. For me, that would be the greatest excitement of all."
Among those buried at St Leonard's were many of Shakespeare's friends and associates, including Richard Burbage, who first played the roles of Hamlet, Othello and King Lear.