There is no need to doubt whether a grammar-school boy from Stratford-upon-Avon could grow up to write great, and enduring, plays and poems. Indeed, in the late Elizabethan period, the West Midlands was much the likeliest region of England to produce a major secular poet and playwright. Marcus Gheeraerts’s famous ‘Ditchley’ portrait of Queen Elizabeth I shows her right toe pointing to Ditchley Park in Oxfordshire, the seat of her loyal Champion (and perhaps half-brother), Sir Henry lee, while her heel rests on the adjacent county of Warwickshire. This posture symbolically declares her especially proud ownership of the English Midlands. The geographical heart of England was intimately connected, as if veins and arteries with the Queen’s own heart. She loved it in quite particular and personal ways. Not only had she spent one of her happier periods of imprisonment at Woodstock Palace; she had long been in love, probably more than with any other man, with someone whose surname and title both marked him as a Midlander, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who was in his heyday virtually King of Middle England.
Yet the substantial distance of the Midland counties from her court gave them in practice a unique creative freedom. During the twenty years of Shakespeare’s childhood and adolescence the royal feet that rested on these central counties rested as yet quite lightly. Strong traditions of drama and civic pageantry, rich and generous local patrons and excellent local grammar schools all combined to make the West Midlands as a whole, and Warwickshire in particular, ‘another Eden’, a territory in which both learning and recreation flourished, and had robustly survived or adjusted to the religious and political storms of the of the mid century, perhaps almost thriving on these difficulties.