Shakespeare and the Trussells of Billesley
Copyright 1958 by Gwynneth Bowen
First published in The Shakespeare Fellowship News-Letter (English), Spring 1958.
In Shakespeare, A Portrait Restored (reviewed on p. 9) the late Contesse de Chambrun stated it as a fact that William Shakespeare of Stratford was a first cousin of John Trussell of Billesley, author of The First Rape of Fair Helen and publisher of Robert Southwell’s Triumph Over Death—their mothers being sisters”. If this were true it would raise a very interesting point, for then William Shakespeare (or Shaksper) of Stratford would be a kinsman of Edward de Vere the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, whose grandfather, the 15th Earl married Elizabeth Trussell and, through her, became the owner of Billesley Manor, as Mr. J. Shera Atkinson pointed out in his interesting article on the Manor of Bidlesley, published in the News-Letter of September, 1953.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, the Contesse de Chambrun’s statement is open to several objections. In the first place, it is not known for certain that the John Trussell who wrote The First Rape of Fair Helen was the same person as the John Trussell who published Southwell’s tract, or that either of them ever lived at Billesley. Secondly the connection between the Shakspers of Stratford and the Trussells of Billesley seems to have been a generation further back.
The First Rape of Fair Helen has recently been reprinted in Shakespeare Quarterly (Vol. VIII, No. 4, Autumn, 1957) with an introduction by M. A. Shaaber, according to whom the relationship depends upon whether or not William’s maternal grandmother was a sister of a Thomas Trussell of Billesley who died in 1517, and the inference that John Trussell was a friend of William’s “depends entirely on the presumption that he lived at Billesley near Stratford”. But it seems that he could not have lived there after 1585, for in that year another Thomas Trussell made conveyances of the manor. In the same year “Thomas committed robbery and felony on the highway at Bromley, Kent, and was in 1588 attainted and sentenced to death. Billesley Manor passed to the Crown and was granted in 1590 to John Willes and others, being then held on lease by Richard Ognell. In 1600 Otho Nicholson of London and George Ognell of Billesley sold the manor to Robert Lee for £5,000”. (Quoted by Shaaber from Victoria County History of Warwick, III (1945), 60).
It is difficult to see why these transactions alone should have prevented William and John from being neighbours and friends in their youth and William, himself, is supposed to have left Stratford in 1585, or soon afterwards, but from the commendatory verses prefixed to The First Rape of Fair Helen, it appears that John Trussell was still a very young man in 1595. Moreover, there is no evidence that he ever lived at Billesley. On the other hand, though Shaaber does not mention the fact, the Manor of Billesley with other estates in Warwickshire, was part of the inheritance of Edward de Vere the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, though it would seem to have passed from him back to the Trussells before 1585.
In his article, Mr. Atkinson described a visit to the house shortly before it was put up for sale in 1952, when he was shown the “Shakespeare Room” and the adjoining library, where according to a local tradition, Shakespeare wrote As You Like It. It is now the property of Mr. C. R. Hughes, who kindly showed the joint editors over it when they visited Stratford last summer, and entertained them at tea with his wife and daughter. Mr. Hughes has since become a member of the Fellowship.