A church in Shoreditch where Shakespeare may have worshipped could be subject to high-tech excavation work, in a bid to find out more about the church’s past
St. Leonard’s church, the setting for the hit BBC series Rev, stands upon a former medieval church, also called St. Leonard’s, which was demolished in the 1730s.
The church on Shoreditch High Street has recently attracted the attention of Maurizio Seracini, professor of structural engineering at the University of California, San Diego. Seracini is currently putting forward proposals to excavate the church using none-invasive methods, including ground-penetrating radar, 3D modelling and fibre-optic cameras.
Seracini told The Guardian: “It’s potentially one of the milestones in the history of London, and not just because of Shakespeare.
“If you look here but find nothing, it’s either because you looked in the wrong place or that there was nothing there anyway. But even then something worthwhile will have been done.
“This church, its site, is a historical and cultural landmark for Britain. It would be a noble and necessary thing to do.”
Seracini’s most famous work surrounds the search for the long-lost Leonardo da Vinci mural, The Battle of Anghiari at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.
Some Historians argue the church inspired the tomb scene from Romeo and Juliet, claiming that historical descriptions bare a striking resemblance to the setting described in the play.
But Dr Lucy Munro, a member of the Architecture Research Group at Shakespeare’s Globe and a Lecturer at King’s College London said: “It’s hard to say that it could only have been inspired by one specific church – Shakespeare would have encountered a number of them, and it’s likely to be a hybrid of his various experiences.”
Although Munro says anything that gives us a better idea of how medieval and early modern Londoners lived, worshipped and died is welcomed.
“We’ve lost so many of the churches of these periods, along with their monuments, decoration, furniture, and so on, that to know a little bit more about St Leonards – which was such an important church for people connected to the playhouses – would be very precious,” she added.
Shakespeare spent several years living in east London, but little is known about his time there.
Recent archaeological work nearby uncovered two theatres including The Curtain and The Theatre, which are linked to his early career.
The Theatre, which was excavated by specialists at the Museum of London in 2008, was opened in 1576, and is believed to be London’s first purpose-built playhouse, run by actor-manager James Burbage.
Whilst The Curtain, where Romeo and Juliet, and Henry V were first performed, is set for redevelopment after excavation work was carried out in 2012.
Munro added: “Although Shakespeare set comparatively few of his plays in London, he was living and working here, and the city emerges in intriguing ways throughout his works.”
“Even plays like his tragedy Titus Andronicus – set it ancient Rome – have connections with Londoners’ experiences of violence and revenge, through sites such as Tyburn, where traitors and martyrs were publically executed.”
“So excavations like this can give us a richer backdrop for the plays, and a stronger sense of how they emerged from a specific locale and culture,” she said.
Paul Turp, the current vicar at St Leonard’s was unavailable for comment.
By Zak Thomas