Wem’s Shakespearean Connection: “Old Sir Rowland” Unmasked

On 10 February a public lecture was delivered in the Church of Ss Peter and Paul, Wem; repeating a lecture before dignitaries in The City of London on 18 January. This article sets out some of what was spoken into the record at that event.


A recent lecture delved into the intriguing possibility that William Shakespeare’s As You Like It holds a hidden connection to a real-life figure from Wem, Sir Rowland Hill. The evidence suggests that Shakespeare drew inspiration from this 16th-century polymath, weaving his legacy into the play’s fabric.

The lecture, titled Who is Old Sir Rowland?, explored the parallels between the fictional “Old Sir Rowland” and the historical Sir Rowland Hill. Deeds, family ties, and even a dancing pavement at Soulton Hall, Hill’s rural headquarters outside Wem, hinted at a deeper meaning.

Political Echoes in the Forest of Arden: The lecture argued that the play’s usurping Duke and forced of the sympathetic characters resonated with England’s own sixteenth-century political turmoil. Sir Rowland Hill, a champion of harmony during the Reformation, could be seen as a mirror to those themes in the play. It was noted that the Forest of Arden included Shropshire in a Tudor mind.

Material Connections: Clues emerged beyond politics. Hill’s chair, personal items, and even the bookplate in the First Folio (the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays) held geometric references, suggesting a shared knowledge between the two figures.

Blood Ties and Beyond: The lecture delved into Hill’s kinship with Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden, and his connections to other powerful dynasties. It also explored Hill’s contributions as an architect, learning theorist, and cultural patron, highlighting his coded references to ancient theatres and temples found at Soulton Hall.

The Lost Dance of Harmony: The lecture proposed that the play’s concluding dance, thought lost, is in fact preserved in the stones of the dancing pavement at Soulton Hall. This aligns with Hill’s efforts to protect persecuted individuals and cultural artifacts.

Beyond the Play: The lecture went further, examining Hill’s extensive work in publishing, commissioning art, and regulating drama. It argued that his cultural influence extended far beyond Wem and his own time.

A Legacy to Embrace: The lecture concluded by emphasizing the significance of Sir Rowland Hill and his potential to unlock cultural and economic opportunities for Wem. This discovery not only sheds light on “As You Like It” but also opens a new window into the rich history and potential of this Shropshire town.

With thanks and acknowledgement to Byrga Geniht and Christine Schmedle. 

The London version of this lecture was recorded and is available via YouTube under the title: “A Shakespeare Mystery Solved: Who is Old Sir Rowland?”.  A transcript was also placed in the Wem Library.

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