Shakespeare Stage Unearthed in Major Medieval Timber Discovery!

The oak floorboards are believed to be the only surviving stage from William Shakespeare's time and are the largest discovered in Europe.

Fri 06 Oct 23


The only surviving timber floorboards where William Shakespeare once performed have been discovered in the UK in what is one of the world’s largest medieval timber floors.

The rare find was made at St George’s Guildhall in King’s Lynn, the UK’s oldest working theatre, with tree-ring dating and a building survey verifying its origin.

It has been perfectly preserved for over 600 years thanks to “an unusual form of construction which has led to it not being messed with.”

As reported by the BBC overnight, “the hugely important discovery” is the largest 15th-century timber floor in the UK, and possibly in Europe, and is the sole surviving example of a stage where Shakespeare once acted.

Experts say they are ‘blown away’ by the ‘extraordinary and magical’ discovery, with floorboards uncovered under the existing auditorium during renovations.

The theatre claims Shakespeare acted at the Norfolk venue in 1592 or 1593 when performing companies fled London during the plague.

“We have the borough account book from 1592-93, which records that the borough paid Shakespeare’s company to come and play in the venue,” according to Tim FitzHigham, the Guildhall’s creative director.

Tim FitzHigham, Creative Director for the borough council and Dr Jonathan Clark, Archaeologist, explain more about the exciting find – footage courtesy of @WestNorfolkBC.

Dr Jonathan Clark, an expert in historical buildings, has been researching the venue and said, “We wanted to open up an area to check, just to see if an earlier floor was surviving here. And lo and behold, we found this,” and points through to a temporary trapdoor.

A couple of inches below the modern floor are what he believes to be boards trodden by the Bard, each 12in (or 30cm) wide and 6in (or 15cm) thick.

Using a combination of tree-ring data and a building survey, Dr Clark could date the floor to 1417 and 1430 – which coincided with the original construction of the theatre.

Kings Lynn Guildhall 9266 1 fotor 20240306232011
The Guildhall’s success as a theatrical venue proved its own undoing; so popular were the performances that a purpose-built theatre — the Theatre Royal — was erected in St James Steet in 1813. The hall became a warehouse, and over time became decrepit. It was in danger of being pulled down in 1945 when Alexander Penrose stepped in and purchased the building. Over the next decades, the medieval building was restored and transformed, and several adjoining warehouses were added to create gallery spaces. (Photo Credit: Britan Express under Creative Commons)

According to Dr Clarke, the floor was locked together and pegged through to massive bridging beams.

“We opened up a section of modern flooring and confirmed it was the original floor structure that people would have walked on, including probably Shakespeare,” Dr Clarke said.

“We can date the flooring by the construction type – these boards are pegged to secure them, which is a medieval technique. And they are rebated, which means they have a step in the side to lock into each other.”

Tree-ring dating, known as Dendrochronology, is a scientific method of dating tree rings to the exact year they were formed in a tree.

A tree’s growth rate changes in a predictable pattern throughout the year in response to seasonal climate changes, resulting in visible growth rings.

“We know that these (floorboards) were here in 1592, and in 1592, we think Shakespeare is performing in King’s Lynn, so this is likely to be the surface that Shakespeare was walking on.”

“It’s the only upper floor, which is in something of its original state, where he could have been walking, could have been performing,” he says.

Mr FitzHigham believes the rare find will put the theatre on the international map and attract global visitors to Norfolk.

Kings Lynn Guildhall 9249
The historic Guildhall of St George is the largest surviving medieval guildhall in the country. The Guildhall was created for the Guild of St George over the years 1410-1420. It is built of brick dressed with ashlar, and the interior is an excellent example of 15th-century architectural decoration. (Photo Credit: Britan Express under Creative Commons)

Speaking to the Daily Mail overnight, Mr FitzHigham “first heard the tale that Shakespeare had performed at the Guildhall as a kid, but when (he) went back as an adult, it seemed King’s Lynn had forgotten about it.”

The historic building was a religious meeting house in the early 15th century before becoming a theatrical venue extensively used by touring companies.

Queen Elizabeth’s Men, a troupe of actors formed at the command of the Tudor Queen in 1583, performed ten times in the late 1500s with Robert Armin, Shakespeare’s leading comic actor, born just one street away from the theatre.

According to a book published in Shakespeare’s lifetime, an audience member at the King’s Lynn Theatre confessed to killing her husband after watching a play about a murder.  

It is alleged that the incident inspired the famous Murder of Gonzago scene in Hamlet.

“Before I became Creative Director, I had researched the venue’s history. We could demonstrate the town’s connection with Robert Armin and Shakespeare,” Mr FitzHigham said.

“A lot of original features remain at the venue that Shakespeare would have been able to see – including the walls, windows and roof timbers.”

“To have the documents around that mean you can say this is where Shakespeare performed is remarkable. To then have the actual floor he performed on is a different league.”

“As archaeological finds go, this is right up there,” he said, “it is so rare to get a 15th-century floor, and the sheer scale of this is just extraordinary.”

With a sense of wonder, Mr FitzHigham said, “The main reason it’s still there is because it’s integral to the building; you can’t take it out without destroying the floor, so they either had to patch it up or put another floor on top, which is why it’s still intact.”

Next week, the discovery will be discussed at the Revealing the Secrets of the Guildhall talk.

After that, the project team will devise a plan to showcase Shakespeare’s floor without damaging it.


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