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John shares his Shakespeare Cathedral tour

John shares his Shakespeare Cathedral tour

Canterbury Cathedral is commemorating the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. One of our volunteer guides is John Shirland (pictured right), whose specialist tours of the Cathedral focus on Shakespeare’s fathers and sons. Here John shares some of his tour highlights.


Which are your top three monuments/locations associated with Shakespeare?

Two are in the Cathedral –the tomb of the ‘Black Prince’ and our amazing perpendicular Nave, a third of the cost of which was given by King Richard II. Sadly Shakespeare does not credit Richard with this in his Tragedy of King Richard II. For the third I have to go a little further afield – it has to be The Globe Theatre in London

Black Prince

Close up of the Black Prince’s tomb – notice the 14th century fashionable moustache, the mail armour and the gauntlets. As fascinating to our medieval ancestors as to visitors today, this tomb was a tourist attraction from the moment of its completion.







Tell us about you and your connection to the Cathedral?

My connection with the Cathedral goes back to when, as an eight year old, I was brought on a day trip to Canterbury. The Cathedral impressed me, but what I remembered was a poor man who had cold feet for centuries – Stephen Langton, whose tomb sticks out through the wall. Nearly sixty years later, when I retired from teaching, a friend of mine, then Cathedral Head of Visits, David Earlam, told me I was to become a school guide. The Head Steward at the time, Nick Nichols, recommended my name to Dean Simpson, and I had the privilege of becoming a steward.

Tomb of Stephen Langton

 Stephen Langton exterior

Stephen Langton’s tomb is now half inside (left) and half outside (right) the Cathedral – you can see the outside half of the tomb on the south side of the Cathedral, the other half is hidden away in the Buffs or Warriors Chapel.






Why Shakespeare? What is it about Shakespeare that has inspired your tour?

On my eleventh birthday my father and mother gave me two sets of books – a complete set of Dickens and the Complete Works of Shakespeare. I was hooked on both.



Shakespeare’s second folio, containing 36 of his 38 extant plays. The Cathedral’s copy is now on display in the Crypt Treasury.








Apart from all the Cathedral’s monuments, what other Shakespeare related material from the Cathedral do you draw upon?

Shakespeare’s history book – the 1586/7 Holinshed ‘History of England, Scotland and Ireland’ sorry to all the Welsh, Holinshed treated Wales as part of England. This was the so-called ‘castrated’ edition where a lot of the original Holinshed was cut-out because of the threat from Spain – Spanish Armada 1588.

See for more about the Holinshed Chronicles.

 Holinshed image S

 An image from the Holinshed Chronicles showing the suicide of Cordelia daughter of King Lear





Tell us more…….when is your next tour and can we come along?

The last talks and tours I gave were on 11 and 18 April – just before the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, St George’s Day 23 April. I hope also to be able to help the ‘Young Futures Conference’ on Friday 8 July and am due to talk at the The Friends of Canterbury Cathedral Friends’ Day in June.


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