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‘Falstaff shall die of a sweat, unless already a’ be killed with your hard opinions; for Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man’.
So Shakespeare ends Henry IV Part I, clearly to stop audiences from identifying the fictional Falstaff with the historical Oldcastle. But who was Oldcastle, and why might people connect him with one of Shakespeare’s best-loved characters?
Sir John Oldcastle was born in north-west Herefordshire in around 1370. Trained in military affairs, he fought at sea and in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and, latterly, France, and in so doing came to know Prince Henry, the future Henry V. As a young man he raided the lands of Dore Abbey in southern Herefordshire, but did he share a riotous youth with the prince, like Falstaff in the play? More respectably, he was an MP for Herefordshire and for a while he was numbered in the royal household. Through his second marriage he joined the aristocracy, becoming Lord Cobham of Cooling, Kent, and showing his prowess as a jouster.
But he had another, very different, side. A leading Lollard, he advocated religious reform in England and communicated with those of similar intent in Bohemia. Convicted of heresy, he escaped from the Tower of London and led an abortive revolt. On the run for almost three years, he was eventually captured, to be hung as a traitor and burnt as a heretic.
His memory was lambasted by some but praised by others, including John Foxe in his Book of Martyrs. Oldcastle’s name was therefore in the public’s mind and appeared, as a rather different character, in a play which was to give Shakespeare ideas for his Henrician trilogy. The then Lord Cobham, who was Lord Chamberlain, fearing taint by association, insisted on a name change, Shakespeare choosing Falstaff. But Oldcastle’s story doesn’t end there …
With the help of little-known information about Oldcastle’s life, insights born of living in the Welsh Marches and much research, Andy Johnson gives a lively account of Oldcastle’s life, the creation of Falstaff and the connections between the two.
Andy Johnson lives near Oldcastle’s birthplace and has been researching his life on and off for some 40 years. He has written and edited many books about Herefordshire and the central Welsh Marches, including, with his wife, a series of walking books set in historical landscapes in Herefordshire, Radnorshire and south Shropshire.
Paperback | 304 pages | 242 x 171 mm
70 colour and 20 b&w illustrations