On 10 September Dr Chris Laoutaris of The Shakespeare Institute lectured at Bisham Abbey in Berkshire, the former home of the formidable Lady Elizabeth Russell, the Elizabethan firebrand who is the subject of his recent biography, Shakespeare and the Countess: The Battle that Gave Birth to the Globe(Penguin), which was recently listed as one of the Telegraph’s ‘Best Books of 2014’.
The lecture was part of events which culminated in a Heritage Open Day on 11 September during which Bisham Abbey and All Saints Church (in which Lady Russell is buried in fine style beneath the splendid life-sized funerary effigies of herself and her children) were open to the public.
Nearly 400 people attended the Open Day to get up close and personal with the rich and varied history of the Abbey and church. The event was organised by Ann Darracott, author of The Grandisons: Their Built and Chivalric Legacyand Projects Coordinator of the Maidenhead Civic Society. She was aided by a team of dedicated guides and helpers who informed the public about the Abbey’s previous owners, architectural history and art collections, along with Chris Laoutaris who was on hand to talk about the extraordinary life of the radical Lady Russell. Patricia Burstall, Bisham church archivist, guided visitors through the church. As well as Elizabeth Russell, who blocked Shakespeare’s theatrical company from occupying a new playhouse built on her doorstep in Blackfriars in 1596, Bisham Abbey has been connected with the Knights Templar, the Grandison family, William Montacute, Earl of Salisbury, and Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, known popularly as ‘the Kingmaker’. Its most eminent guests included Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and James I.
The events were part of the Heritage Open Days initiative, which operates under the auspices of Civic Voice, the National Trust, and the Heritage Alliance, with sponsorship from English Heritage. The initiative was established to facilitate free access to buildings and landmarks of heritage significance which are rarely open to the public, helping to raise local awareness about their history and the treasures they contain. The Bisham Heritage Open Day was also supported by the Louis Baylis Trust and by Serco, which currently manages Bisham Abbey (now a sports centre) for Sport England.
Ann Darracott commented that Dr Laoutaris’ lecture “gave greater depth and interest to the Open Day for visitors that attended both. It was also of help to the Heritage Open Day guides who attended the talk. All were given a fascinating insight into this remarkable woman’s character ... The talk and the book flesh out the personalities involved, making them come alive, which in turn makes the extant buildings, portraits, stained glass, monuments etc. they left behind of greater interest.” Shakespeare and the Countesshas, she added, “provided an enhanced understanding of the ‘Countess’ and her role locally and on the national stage. This is important as it contributes to understanding the historical significance of Bisham Abbey and All Saints Church, which in turn should help in their preservation.”
The Maidenhead Civic Society’s Chairman, Bob Dulson, said: “The events were the result of months of hard work by Ann Darracott ... We were delighted that so many came to join us. It was a resounding success.”
For more on Heritage Open Days and to find out about the hidden histories you can explore in your area visit: www.heritageopendays.org.uk/
Photo: Left to right - Ann Darracott, Projects Coordinator of Maidenhead Civic Society, Dr Chris Laoutaris of The Shakespeare Institute, and Bob Dulson, Chairman of the Maidenhead Civic Society, at Bisham Heritage Open Day lecture, Bisham Abbey."