The Quiney letter

The only surviving letter written to William Shakespeare

Richard Quiney's letter to William Shakespeare, 25 October 1598

It was the Shakespeare scholar and editor Edmond Malone who made the discovery while trawling through some three thousand documents relating to Stratford upon Avon in 1793. In a letter of that year, Malone describes the ‘very pretty little relick, about three inches long by two broad’.

It’s a fascinating human document. The year was 1598 and Richard Quiney, whose son Thomas was later to marry Shakespeare’s younger daughter, was in London. He was there to petition the Privy Council for a new, more favourable charter for Stratford and for relief from the latest subsidy voted by Parliament. Times were hard in Stratford at that point: bad weather, poor harvests and two devastating fires had caused havoc with the local economy. Poor Quiney was forced to wait in London for four months. He had been looking for support from the lord of the manor, Sir Edward Greville and, on 25 October wrote from his lodgings at ‘The Bell’ in Carter Lane, London (just south of where the Old Bailey stands today) to his ‘Lovinge good ffrend & contreymann Mr Wm Shackespere’. Quiney asks for a loan of £30 (about £3,750 in today’s money). In fact it seems likely that Shakespeare never received the letter, since when Quiney died after a tavern brawl with Greville’s men in 1602, the letter was included among his papers in the archives of Stratford corporation. It is documented elsewhere that Shakespeare at least tried to help, so maybe the two men met in person instead. In any case there was a happy end, since eventually Queen Elizabeth agreed to relieve Stratford and the Exchequer reimbursed Quiney for his London expenses.