Shakespeare’s Seton Castle

The author making this week’s notes, near Seton Collegiate Church
There is a slight sense of Spring in the air. I saw some snowdrops peeping through dead brown leaves the other day, & the biting cold is twinkling away on the northern winds. This week’s walk was spent in sunshine; not warm raybeams, but not cold either. I had chosen the Seton Castle stroll, with my missus & wee Daisy on each hand like the Byronic solecism.
You can park the car just off the main road on the very eastern edge of Port Seton, a couple of hundred metres from the caravan park. We were immediately greeted by the endearing sight of a lady feeding horses, & on investigation we found out her name – Shona – & the fact she is an equine Mother Teresa, rescuing horses for a fairer life in her fields.

Shona also told us we had just missed a certain lady called Sylvia, who apparently walks the walk we were about to walk every day, taking photographs as she does so. Apparently the birds eat directly from her hand, so gentle is her soul.
It was nice to be out with just the wife. A right pair of pathfinders we are; she is 1/16 Canadian Indian & I love the way her ears twitch when she’s within three meters of subterranean water. Our pleasant potter together properly began with a sign saying, THE SANDY WALK. There was no sand to speak of, but a fine carpet of fallen pine needles did give somewhat the illusion of sand.
We proceeded along the path beset by pine trees – some deciduously -barren, some Himalayan verdant – for about half a mile, before breaking out into open fielderie. Here, the main path turns left through a formal opening in the wooden fence,  becoming a signposted gentle rise through a grassy heathland.
A few steps in a young laddie on a dirt-bike rustled by us, testament to the universality of this particular walk, being so close to a conurbation & a holiday park. Emily commented on how good the path was & as a mother herself declared it to be perfect for baby buggies. She also said that it would be a good place for a run, for those healthily inclined.
At the top of the wee heath the path forked into the signposted ‘long’ & ‘short’ trails. Turning right along the shorter version, we entered a tall, ivy-mantled wood which spilled out at the walls of the bat-haunted Seton Collegiate Church. Closed in winter, it rose up as tall & sturdy as the Chateaux of Hougoumont as it fended off the attacks of Napoleon’s Grand Armee.
We continued our walk around the walls until the short trail met the long trail coming in from our left. Before taking the long trail back to the car, we instead headed right a wee while, thro’ more fantastic woodland, in order to glimpse the fabulous Seton Palace from the bed of a stream, through a grate in its outer wall.
Approaching the Collegiate Church. Seton Palace is to the right of the picture
Now in private hands, today’s palace stands on the site of the Castle of the Lords Seton, whose Jacobite version had his lands & title stripped away for treason in 1716, & the castle was left to ruin. A couple of centuries previously, however, it was considered the most desirable house in Scotland, & through my investigations I would like to place the twenty-five year old Shakespeare as acting in its main hall.
James VI in 1586

We begin in 1585, when in another part of East Lothian, King James VI lorded over, ‘a sumptuous banquet prepared by the Earl of Arran at Direleton, after a Council held there ; divers of the nobility and gentry passed the time right pleasantly with the play of Robin Hood.’ James clearly loved the theatre, & also composed many quite decent poems of his own. Thus enamour’d with the literary arts, to help celebrate his upcoming marriage to a princess of Denmark called Anna in 1589 he asked Queen Elizabeth of England if he could borrow some of her actors. It is her majesty’s granting of her royal cousin’s request that begins the possibility of Shakespeare having visited East Lothian.

That Shakespeare was a member of the Queen’s Players seems likely.  ‘The parallels between Shakespeare’s plays & the Queen’s plays,’ writes Terence G Schoone-Jongen, ‘are substantial & intricate.’ It is clear that many of their recorded plays were rewritten by Shakespeare, with lines & phrases popping all across the Shakesperean ouvre. Where the Queen’s Players produced & acted in Richard III & King Leir, so Shakespeare wrote a version of Richard III & the slightly differently spelt King Lear. Where The Two Gentlemen of Verona shares much with the Queen’s Players’ Felix & Philomena, so the playlet of the mechanicals in Act V of A Midsummer Night’s Dream bears a strong resemblance to the Players’ Clyomon and Clamydes. Likewise, while ‘The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth‘ forms the entire foundation for the material of 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV and Henry V; their ‘Troublesome Reign of King John’ is simply a redaction of Shakespeare’s King John. So much so, that in the 1611 quarto printing of the ‘Troublesome Reign,’  the authorship was assigned to ‘W. Sh,’ which was elongated in the 1622 printing into  ‘W. Shakespeare.’ Furthermore, in 1592, & practically from his death-bed, the chief playwright of the Queen’s Men, Robert Greene in his ‘Groats-worth of Witte,’ blurted;

Here is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger’s heart wrapped in a Player’s hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.

Greene is here commenting on the evolution of Shakespeare from actor to playwright. The ‘Tigers heart’ expression is alluding to a line in Henry VI Part III, which reads, ‘O tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide!’ In the same papmlet, Greene also castigates Shakespeare & Thomas Kyd with, ‘it is pity men of such rare wits [Nashe, Marlowe and Peele] should be subject to the pleasures of such rude grooms.’ On their formation in 1583, the Queen’s Players were given the title, ‘grooms of the chamber.’ There is enough here to place Shakespeare with Her Majesty’s players, & thus we can send him towards King James through the following literary memorials;


The Queen’s Players are sent to the court of King James
(The statement of the Revels from 1587-89)

Betweene the of September 1589 a regni * R* Eliz., and the of the same September, for • the furnishing of a mask for six maskers and six * torchbearers, and of such persons as were to utter speeches at the shewing of the same maske, sent into Scotland to the King of Scotts mariage, by her Majestie’s commanundement, signified into the Mr & other officers of this office by the Lord Treasurer, the Lord Chamberleyn & Mr Vicechamberleine : the charges, as well for workmanshipp & attendance, as for wares delivered & brought into this office for & about the same, hereafter particularly insueth.


The Queen’s Players are in Carlisle, September 20th 1589

After my verie hartie comendacions: vpon a letter receyved from Mr. Roger Asheton, signifying vnto me that yt was the kinges earnest desire for to have her Majesties players for to repayer into Scotland to his grace : I dyd furthwith dispatche a servant of my owen unto them wheir they were in the furthest part of Langkeshire, wherevpon they made their returne heather to Carliell, wher they are, and have stayed for the space of ten dayes, whereof I thought good to gyve yow notice in the respect of the great desyre that the king had to have the same Come unto his grace: And withall to praye yow to gyve knowledg therof to his Majestie. So for the present, I bydd yow right hartelie farewell
The xxth of Septemre, 1589
Yowr verie assured loving friend
H Scrope


The ruins of Seton Palace (MacGibbon and Ross)

While the Queen’s Men were in Carlisle, up in Scotland things were not turning out as King James had hoped. Terrible weather had prevented Princess Anna from crossing the North Sea, & James had camped up at Seton Castle to watch the Firth of Forth for any ships from Denmark. A letter from William Asheby to Walsingham. [Sept. 8, 1589) reads;

With the first wind the Queen is expected out of Denmark. It is thought that she embarked about the 2nd instant, but that contrary winds keep the fleet back. Great preparation is made at Leith to receive her, and to lodge her till the solemnity, which shall be twelve days after her arrival. The King is at Seaton till her arrival.

Anne of Denmark

James spent most of September at Seton Castle, giving our investigation ample time for Shakespeare & the Queen’s Men to arrive in the county. There is no precise evidence for him acting in Seton Castle, I’ll be the first to admit, but there is a great deal of evidence to suggest he was attached to James’ court at this time. For example, the only copy of William Stewart’s Chronicle of Scotland ever found existed in manuscript form in James’ royal library in Scotland. How else but by seeing it in person would Shakespeare have found the accurate correspondances with his play Macbeth, including one incredibly uncanny passage of sixty-five lines describing the thoughts and motives of Macbeth and his wife.

While Shakespeare was studying in the Royal library, James was becoming more & more romantically inclined, & in a grand act of chivalry set sail on October 24th for Norway, where his bride’s little fleet had sheltered from the storms. That Shakespeare & the Queen’s Players went with him in the large wedding entourage can be discerned by an epigram in John Davies of Hereford’s The Scourge of Folly (c.1610).  Dedicated to, ‘our English Terence Mr. Will: Shake-speare,’  it begins;

SOME say good Will (which I, in sport, do sing)
Had’st thou not plaid some Kingly parts in sport,
Thou hadst bin a companion for a King

Kronborg Castle

Scholars have scratched their heads over this passage for centuries, but there is a starkness to it which fits with consummate ease into Shakespeare – the Queen’s Player – accompanying King James VI to Denmark. By doing so he would have witnessed at first hand Kronborg castle in Elsinore – the setting of Hamlet – where James & his young queen spent the first few months of 1590 honeymooning, getting drunk & watching plays. Our budding bard would also have met the Danish noblemen Axel Gyldenstierne & Jorgen Rozenkrantz, who appear in Hamlet as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Such wonderful coincidences, & when Shakespeare placed the ‘play within a play’ at Kronborg, I am rather inclined to believe he was actually recording himself & his own duties while being the ‘companion for a king.’ In this passage from Hamlet, the traveling players enact a ‘Dumb-Show;’

Enter a King and a Queen, very lovingly: the Queen embracing him, and he her. She kneels and makes show of protestation unto him. He takes her up, and declines his head upon her neck: lays him down upon a bank of flowers: she, seeing him asleep, leaves him. Anon comes in a fellow, takes off his crown, kisses it, and pours poison in the King’s ears, and exit. The Queen returns;  finds the King dead, and makes passionate action. The Poisoner, with some two or three Mutes, comes in again, seeming to lament with her. The dead 
body is carried away. The Poisoner wooes the Queen with gifts; she seems loath and unwilling awhile, but in the end accepts his love. 

What is interesting here is that just like Hamlet’s father, the King in the Dumb-Show was murdered by having poison administered to his ear. In a similar fashion, a French surgeon, Ambrosie Parex was suspected of killing the French King, Francis II, by giving him an ear infection during the course of treatment. Francis, of course, was the first husband of James’ mother, Mary Queen of Scots, a lady who will be popping up rather a lot on our walks across East Lothian.

It was time for the walk back under a scintillating sky. Returning to the point where the short & trails met, we turned right along the long version, skirting the wood which reached to the heavens on our left. Another wee while later & we were back at the signpost & heading back along familiar trails. The sun was sweet , Daisy was happy & all was well with the world.
The Sandy Walk offers a real variety of treasures for the nature-lover, where wonderful woodlands mingle with pretty vistas of the sea. The only drawback was the mellow hub-hub of traffic noise; from Virgin trains rushing to London to the constant maelstromix of the A1 in the afternoon. But this is one lonely negative in a bag full of happy positives, & a session at Seton in the sun should please the county’s walkers no end!

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4 thoughts on “Shakespeare’s Seton Castle”

  1. terrific!! wonderful you take these walks, and they ARE healthy for ya….
    beautiful Emily and Daisy, by the way, not to mention the travel..xo


  2. You can make this a longer walk. instead of following the path back to sandy walk, follow the path to the right going past the small golf course, go through seton mains (the converted barn houses )and it will lead you to seton dean and back onto the main road. We are always on the lookout for new walks and your site is really helpful. Thankyou.


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