Tudor coroners' records give clue to 'real Ophelia' for Shakespeare

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education correspondent

  • Published
Helen Morton of the Three Bugs Fringe Theatre company performs Ophelia drowning in the Apex Hotel swimming pool

An Oxford historian has found evidence of a story that could be the real-life inspiration for Shakespeare's tragic character, Ophelia.

Dr Steven Gunn has found a coroner's report into the drowning of a Jane Shaxspere in 1569.

The girl, possibly a young cousin of William Shakespeare, had been picking flowers when she fell into a millpond near Stratford upon Avon.

Dr Gunn says there are "tantalising" links to Ophelia's drowning in Hamlet.

A four-year research project, carried out by Oxford University academics, has been searching through 16th century coroners' reports.

'Local tragedy'

These have revealed a treasure trove of information about accidental deaths in Tudor England.

Image caption,
The coroners' reports revealed the story of Jane Shaxspere

But Dr Gunn says they were taken aback to find an account of the death of a girl who might have been a young cousin of her contemporary, William Shakespeare.

"It was quite a surprise to find Jane Shaxspere's entry in the coroners' reports - it might just be a coincidence, but the links to Ophelia are certainly tantalising," he said.

The coroners' report, originally written in Latin, describes the death of two-and-half-year-old Jane Shaxspere, who drowned picking marigolds in a stream beside a millpond.

The translation of the report records the cause, time and place.

"By reason of collecting and holding out certain flowers called 'yellow boddles' growing on the bank of a certain small channel at Upton aforesaid called Upton millpond - the same Jane Shaxspere the said sixteenth day of June about the eighth hour after noon of the same day suddenly and by misfortune fell into the same small channel and was drowned in the aforesaid small channel; and then and there she instantly died.

"And thus the aforesaid flowers were the cause of the death of the aforesaid Jane."

The biographical gaps in William Shakespeare's life make it impossible to know if this was the death of a cousin or other relation when the playwright was a boy living in Stratford upon Avon.

Tudor health and safety

But Emma Smith from Oxford's English faculty says that it's likely that William Shakespeare would have known of the story - and that it could have been in his thoughts when writing the flower-strewn drowning of Ophelia in Hamlet.

"It's interesting to think of Ophelia combining classical and renaissance antecedents with the local tragedy of a drowned girl," said Dr Smith.

There are other theories about the inspiration for Ophelia, including the story of Katharine Hamlet, who drowned in the river Avon, not far from Stratford upon Avon, in 1579 - a decade after Jane Shaxspere.

The haunting image of the drowned girl, garlanded by flowers, caught the imagination of painters, such as the pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais.

The research project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, has also uncovered the type of health and safety nightmares that troubled the Tudors.

These are often more Monty Python farce than Shakespearean tragedy, says Dr Gunn.

The detailed accounts of deaths include hazards such as being run over by a cart.

There were also three fatalities involving performing bears.

Archery proved to be a particularly dangerous activity for Tudor villagers.

There are 56 deaths reported from accidents involving bows and arrows. Dr Gunn says this includes spectators paying a heavy price for falling asleep too near to the targets.

The most inept archery death, he says, was a man who managed to shoot himself in the head with an arrow.

The first accidental death from a handgun appears in 1519, when a man shooting at a target hit a woman who walked in front of him.

Workplace accidents

There were fatal maypole accidents and a particularly pungent end was faced by a man who fell into a cesspit when relieving himself.

Image caption,
The painter Millais was inspired by the image of the drowned girl with flowers

More ambiguously, a man died following the crushing of his testicles "during a Christmas game".

And a man from Scotland died while demonstrating how he liked to lie down and be tied up, a recreation which he had claimed to be popular in his homeland.

There were also workplace accidents, such as coal miners suffocating underground and workers drowning when they were washing themselves in rivers.

"Coroners' reports of fatal accidents are a useful and hitherto under-studied way of exploring everyday life in Tudor England," says Dr Gunn.

"Some medieval historians have used them, but the Tudor records are much fuller. The enquiries into the deaths were extensive and solemnly undertaken."

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