The year is 1568. Queen Elizabeth sits on the throne of England. Mary, Queen of Scots, has fled Scotland seeking refuge with her cousin Elizabeth. Instead, she finds herself imprisoned and turned over to the Earl and Countess of Shrewsbury. In March of 1568, a young stonemason, by the name of Robert Smythson, leaves Caversham, where he has been working for the Queen Elizabeth’s cousin Sir Francis Knollys, and travels to Longleat in Wiltshire, to join the workforce of Sir John Thynne. He will spend the next twelve years building one of the most beautiful homes in England for a man renowned for his demands for perfection and stinginess, before moving north to oversee the design and building of Wollaton Hall for Sir Francis Willoughby and finally Hardwick Hall for the Countess of Shrewsbury.
The year is 2017. Four hundred and forty-four years later, a writer and librarian travels to England from America to follow in Robert’s footsteps. I have spent as many years reading and writing about the building of Longleat as Thynne, Smythson and others spent building it. Now I will walk where he walked, touch the stone he placed, gaze up at the lines he designed. The people and places will, hopefully, come alive in my imagination and then on the page. I will explore the villages in which he lived, I will climb staircases he climbed, and I will stand in the church at Wollaton and touch his memorial.
Years ago, I studied the original manuscripts for Tennessee Williams’ play “The Glass Menagerie” at the Harry Ransom Center at UT. I remember the chill I felt as I ran my hands over Mr. Williams’ own pages, over the ink he had placed, as I compared draft to draft, following the changes and trying to follow his thoughts. I imagine I will feel the same as my hands touch Smythson’s stone. It is a pilgrimage of sorts, a dream fulfilled, the next step in a long journey.
For me, Robert Smythson is part history, part fiction. Little is known of the man himself, but much is known of the characters he worked for. From demanding miser to paranoid visionary to ambitious widow, these people must have shaped his personality even as they shaped their respective parts of England. For many years, I have known there is a story here to be told. Over the next few weeks, I will lower my ear to the ground and try to catch the echo of their footsteps and the whisper of their words.
I am hoping Robert will come further alive for me during this journey, that he will tell me his story in his words. This trip has been delayed over the years until the time and funds were right. I am a better writer than I was when I started, and I believe in divine timing. My hopes for this trip are high, as it will not be soon repeated. May the stars align and the weather be tolerable. May the sun gleam off the polished stone as I hope it will and may the natives be friendly and helpful. May my bucket be full and may my work flow when I return.
Stay tuned for the rest of the story. Write on……