Reinterpreting 15th-century wall paintings in Shakespeare’s Schoolroom

Recent analysis of 600-year-old murals in Stratford-upon-Avon’s historic guildhall has revealed clues to their probable date, as well as the purpose behind their creation. As the building, now a visitor attraction, prepares to reopen, Carly Hilts visited the site, and spoke to Jonathan Foyle to find out more.


In the 13th century, the Guild of the Holy Cross – a religious and social organisation of merchants – received permission to build a chapel and hospital in Stratford-upon-Avon. Over time, the former building was adorned with elaborate wall paintings depicting vivid scenes of the Day of Judgement, the deeds of saints, and the life of Adam, for the contemplation of the congregation. These murals fell foul of the iconoclastic religious reforms of the 16th century, however, and the local council demanded their removal. The town bailiff who authorised the payment of two shillings for ‘defasyng ymages in ye chapell’ (though the destruction appears to have been limited to covering the offending images with limewash – many of them were rediscovered in the 19th century) was one John Shakespeare, father of the famous playwright. His illustrious son went to school in the striking timber-framed building that still stands beside the chapel, and there recent analysis of further long-obscured wall paintings has shed light on the beliefs and interests of the guild members.

Next to the chapel built by the Guild of the Holy Cross in the 13th century is the 15th-century hall that once served as their headquarters. Within its timber-framed walls the religious organisation built a priests’ chapel, adorned with colourful altar paintings. They also decorated their dining room with sacred imagery.

Today ‘Shakespeare’s Schoolroom & Guildhall’ is a visitor attraction (see ‘Further information’), but the hall was originally built c.1420 as the new headquarters of the Guild of the Holy Cross. It was where they kept their counting house – where meetings were convened and the guild’s records and funds were stored (in this space visitors can still see the original muniments chest that once safeguarded deeds, charters, and money, and can watch a short film introducing the building’s history). The hall also held the Court of Record, where local commercial disputes could be heard. A key part of the complex, however, was the priests’ chapel, where ecclesiastical guild members could say private prayers – but in the mid-16th century, the suppression of religious guilds that took place under Edward VI saw the building take on a rather more secular function. From 1553, the guildhall housed Stratford Borough Council, and 15 years later the King’s New School moved into its top floor (a young William Shakespeare is believed to have joined its ranks c.1571). For centuries, the former guildhall remained at the heart of local civic life, until the Victorian period when the council moved to the new, larger premises of the Town Hall in 1848.

Altered images

In the same way as the neighbouring guild chapel, religious images in the priests’ chapel were covered over during the 16th century. They would remain hidden from view for hundreds of years – but in 2016, during conservation work that was undertaken when the guildhall was set to open to the public for the first time, traces of the room’s once-colourful decorations were brought to light once more. Above the altar was a triptych showing God the Father cradling a crucified Christ, with figures of the Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist on either side – and while these images, which had been painted directly on to plaster, had been reduced by time to fragmentary silhouettes, a depiction of John the Baptist on a nearby timber was strikingly well preserved. Since then, detailed analysis by York University archaeologists has revealed more details of the altar paintings, as well as helping to establish the phasing of the guildhall itself through dendrochronological analysis of some of its timbers. More recently still, research by architectural historian and broadcaster Dr Jonathan Foyle has shed intriguing new light on the paintings’ probable date, and the hidden meanings embedded in their imagery.

This well-preserved image of John the Baptist was discovered on one of the timbers of the wall of the priests’ chapel.

Jonathan came to the guildhall almost by chance: he was filming in Stratford-upon-Avon and made a spontaneous decision to visit the historic building, as he had not seen it before, but had previously been involved with research in Coventry’s guildhall some 20 miles to the north and wanted to compare the two. ‘I also wanted to see the wall paintings – my PhD is in archaeology, but my MA is in art history, and I like to combine these where I can,’ he said.

The altar paintings had been previously dated to the 1440s, but Jonathan suggests that they may be two decades older. Key to this analysis is a pair of coats of arms that were painted above the main scheme. ‘I couldn’t see a good reason for the coats of arms to date to the 1440s, 20 years after the building was completed,’ he said. ‘There is no evidence that the chapel had been repainted at a later date.

One shield depicts the English royal arms as they were styled in the early 15th century, with the three lions of England quartered with three fleurs-de-lys to represent the monarchy’s claim on the French throne. Noting that it is very unusual to see the national arms above an altar, Jonathan interprets this design as representing the monarch – but which one? A possible clue came from the other shield, which depicts the arms of the Beauchamp family. This shield had previously been interpreted as representing the Earls of Warwick – not an unreasonable supposition, perhaps, given that the Warwick line was very influential locally (a form of their heraldic motif, the bear and ragged staff, still appears on the historic flag of Warwickshire, and in the modern County Council’s logo), but Jonathan argues that it in fact stands for a different branch of the family and instead represents a cousin, Richard de Beauchamp, 1st Earl of Worcester, who was a local patron of the guildhall.

Jonathan Foyle’s reconstruction of how that chapel may have looked before its paintings were covered over by religious reformers. Image: Jonathan Foyle.

Worcester fought during the Hundred Years War, and was fatally wounded at the Siege of Meaux (just outside Paris) in 1422. He was not the only high-profile loss during this campaign, however: the king himself, Henry V, became ill during the siege and died shortly afterwards. As these deaths date to around the time of the guildhall’s construction, Jonathan suggests that the loss of two national and local heroes prompted the creation of the altar paintings, marking a moment of national mourning and commemorating both individuals.

Although the images were probably painted over by the time William Shakespeare attended the school within the same building, it is possible that he would have been told about them by his father, and it is also a pleasing parallel that William would go on to write about Henry V in his plays, Jonathan said. ‘The power of these images is that they speak of two uses of the building in different centuries – the priests commending the souls of these two important men, and the education of William Shakespeare,’ he said.

Fine art, fine dining

Further wall paintings survive upstairs, in a room that today is known as the Master’s Chamber because it later served as accommodation for the schoolmaster. While the guild still occupied the building, though, it was their refectory, where members ate meals together. This communal dining was not merely for sociable reasons – guilds, confraternities, and monastic communities across Europe were encouraged to share meals in order to express their religious brotherhood in imitation of the Last Supper. In order to provide suitable inspiration for such sentiments, many of their dining rooms were decorated with murals depicting Jesus’ final meal with the Apostles. Particularly fine examples are known from 15th-century Florence, as well as the famous version painted by Leonardo da Vinci in the refectory of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Jonathan says – and he argues that Stratford-upon-Avon’s guildhall, although 50 years older than Leonardo’s design, was similarly adorned.

Sara Beaumont This striped mural in the Master’s Chamber (once the guild’s refectory) is thought to have originally represented the Last Supper.

For centuries, a frieze on one of the Master’s Chamber walls was covered by bookcases, but when these were removed they revealed traces of a colourful scheme of 13 alternating red and white stripes, each topped with a shield in a contrasting colour. The resulting effect is reminiscent of a ‘flashy pageant tent’, Jonathan says – but he believes that the underlying message was rather less worldly.

Within the shields are the faint remains of what appear to be upside-down croissants – motifs that make no sense in heraldry, he said. These are not coats of arms, however: closer inspection of the shields reveals faint traces of eye sockets, noses, beards – they contain scratched-out images of faces, and the ‘croissants’ above them are the shapes of haloes disappearing behind what would have been the shoulders of 13 portrait busts. Most tellingly, Jonathan adds, the central bust has a four-lobed halo (‘like rounded windmill blades’), which is usually an indication of a depiction of Christ. Originally, this mural was intended to represent Christ and the Apostles, he concludes.

Jonathan Foyle’s reconstruction of the scheme before it was damaged by iconoclasts (it also shows a now filled-in window).

‘As people ate in this room, the mural would have been intended as an inspiration to encourage good works,’ he said. ‘Piety and charitable work were key to the guild’s mercantile creed – they were not solely after filthy lucre. Rather, this was a band of men dining in emulation of Christ, encouraged to look to their personal salvation.’

Coming up roses

Although the Last Supper mural had been literally defaced, within the same room there were other images that had escaped the attention of religious reformers, as they had been hidden from view thanks to the installation of a ceiling in the 16th century. Two red-and-white roses were rediscovered when this modification was removed again in the 19th century, and they were long thought to be Tudor roses dating to the time of the dynasty that used such motifs as its heraldic emblem (1485-1603). Again, however, Jonathan suggests that the paintings are older than previously thought – describing the Tudor association as a ‘red-and-white herring’.

Not a Tudor rose, but a representation of the Virgin Mary in the guild’s dining room, Jonathan suggests.

‘In the Middle Ages, a five-petalled red rose was used to represent the five wounds of Christ, while the five-petalled white rose was its counterpart, representing the Virgin Mary’s purity. Together they form a symbol known as a Marian rose, and this was being used in the very early 15th century – for example, in the Sherborne Missal,’ he said. ‘I have carried out research in Lincoln and Lichfield cathedrals, both of which are dedicated to Mary, and both feature this kind of rose. They represent the Paradise garden, in perennial spring, where Mary was believed to live in Heaven – and, by extension, they are an aspirational symbol indicating the paradise that everyone wanted to get to. The two houses in the Wars of the Roses made use of an already familiar symbol, and as a royal motif it reflects how kings aspired to govern an earthly paradise, mirroring the heavenly paradise above.’

Like the Last Supper scene, the roses were intended to motivate the guild members to live good lives, Jonathan added. ‘Mary was one of the principal dedicatory saints of the guildhall, and the roses are in the dining room of its governing body,’ he said. ‘Rather than this expressing “Oh, this new Tudor dynasty is marvellous”, it is more probable that they were meant to represent inspiring reminders of the future rewards of their good works.’

Jonathan’s findings form a key part of new interpretive panels within Shakespeare’s Schoolroom & Guildhall, which include explanations of the wall panels and videos (accessed through QR codes) that visitors can watch for more detailed explorations of the building’s history. These were created thanks to recent grants by the Culture Recovery Fund and the National Lottery Heritage Fund, and have been installed as the Schoolroom prepares to reopen to the public after being mostly closed since the initial COVID-19 outbreak. It is hoped that, like the Marian roses, the coming spring will represent a new flowering for the building and its historic images.

Further information
Shakespeare’s Schoolroom & Guildhall is currently closed, but will be opening for half-term between Saturday 19 February and Sunday 27 February, and is set to reopen fully in the spring. For more information on the building, and on visiting, see

Grateful thanks to Lindsey Armstrong, General Manager of Shakespeare’s Schoolroom & Guildhall, for showing Carly around the building and its wall paintings.

All images: Sara Beaumont Photography, unless otherwise stated.