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Shakespeare's Family By C. C. Stopes Characters: 12385

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


None of the family seem to have risen above the heraldic horizon till John Shakespeare applied for his coat of arms. Into the contest over that application it is well to plunge at once, and thence work backwards and forwards. Four classes of writers wage war over the facts: the Baconians, like the late Mr. Donnelly, who deny everything; the Romanticists, who accept what is pleasant, and occasionally believe manufactured tradition to suit their inclinations; the agnostic Shakespeareans, like Halliwell-Phillipps, who really work, but believe only what they can see and touch, if it accords with their opinions; and the ingenuous workers who seek saving truth like the agnostics, but bring human influences and natural inferences to bear on dusty records. Now, Halliwell-Phillipps does not scruple to affirm that three heralds,[51] the worthy ex-bailiff of Stratford, and the noblest poet the world has ever produced, were practically liars in this matter, because they make statements that do not harmonize with the limits of his knowledge and the colour of his opinions. From his grave the poet protests-

"Good name in man or woman, dear my lord,

Is the immediate jewel of their souls.

Who steals my purse steals trash....

But he who filches from me my good name

Robs me of that, which not enriches him,

But leaves me poor indeed."

Othello, Act III., Scene 3.

We must therefore at least start inquiry with the supposition that these men thought they spoke truth. There was no reason they should not have done so. Sir John Ferne[52] writes: "If any person be advanced into an office or dignity of publique administration, be it eyther Ecclesiasticall, Martiall or Civill ... the Herealde must not refuse to devise to such a publique person, upon his instant request, and willingness to bear the same without reproche, a Coate of Armes, and thenceforth to matriculate him with his intermarriages and issues descending in the Register of the gentle and noble.... In the Civil or Political State divers Offices of dignitie and worship doe merite Coates of Armes to the possessours of the same offices, as ... Bailiffs of Cities and ancient Boroughs or incorporated townes." John Shakespeare had certainly been Bailiff of Stratford-on-Avon in 1568-9; the draft states that he then applied for arms, and that the herald, Cooke, had sent him a "pattern." Probably he did not conclude the negotiations then, thinking the fees too heavy, or he might have delayed until he found his opportunity lost, or he might have asked them for his year of office alone. No doubt John Shakespeare was deeply impressed with the dignity of his wife's relatives, and wished, even then, to make himself and his family more worthy for her sake. The tradition of this draft, or the sight of it, may have stimulated the heart of the good son to honour his parents by having them enrolled among the Armigeri of the county. John had appeared among the "gentlemen" of Warwickshire in a government list of 1580.[53]

The Warwickshire Visitations occur in 1619, after the death of the poet, without male heirs, and are no help to us here. In the first 1596 draft the claims are based on John's public office, on a grant to his antecessors by Henry VII. for special services on marriage with the daughter and heir of a gentleman of worship (i.e., entitled to armorial bearings). Then a fuller draft was drawn out, also in 1596, correcting "antecessors" into "grandfather." Halliwell-Phillipps only mentions one at that date, but Mr. Stephen Tucker,[54] Somerset Herald, gives facsimiles of both. Halliwell-Phillipps calls these ridiculous assertions, and asserts that both parties were descended from obscure country yeomen. The heralds state they were "solicited," and "on credible report" informed of the facts. We must not forget that all the friends intimately associated either with the Ardens or the Shakespeares (with the exception of the Harts) were armigeri.

Nobody now knows anything of that earlier pattern, nor of the patents of the gifts "to the antecessors." But seeing, as I have seen, that sacks full of old parchment deeds and bonds, reaching back to the fifteenth century, get cleared out of lawyers' offices, and sold for small sums to make drumheads or book-bindings, and seeing that this process has been going on for 400 years, it does not seem to me surprising that some deeds do get lost. Generally, it is those we most wish to have that disappear. Lawyers do not, as a rule, concern themselves with historical fragments, but with the soundness of the present titles of their clients and their own modern duties. (I do think that historical and antiquarian societies should bestir themselves to have old deeds included among the "ancient monuments of the country" and entitled to some degree of protection.)

We must also consider how illiterate the inhabitants of the country were in the reign of Henry VII., how the nation was bestrid by officials of the Empson and Dudley type, and we have reason to believe that various accidents, intentional or otherwise, caused many an old grant to disappear at that period.

It has struck me as possible that John Shakespeare may have intended ancestors through the female line. The names of his mother and grandmother are as yet unknown, and the supposition has never been discussed. But in support of John Shakespeare's claim, and in opposition to Halliwell-Phillipps's contradiction, we can prove there were Shakespeares in direct service of the Crown, not merely as common soldiers, though in 28 Henry VIII. (1537), Thomas, Richard, William and another Richard were mentioned as among the King's forces.[55]

But one Roger Shakespeare was Yeoman of the Chamber to the King, and on June 9, 1552, shared with his fellows, Abraham Longwel and Thomas Best, a forfeit of £36 10s.[56] This post of Yeoman of the Chamber was one of great trust and dignity; it was the same as that held earlier by Robert Arden, of Yoxall, the younger brother of Sir John Arden, and the election to it suggested either inherited favour, Court interest, or signal personal services. His ancestors might have been also the mi

ssing ancestors of John Shakespeare. He himself may be the Roger who was buried in Haseley in 1558, supposed by some to have been the monk of Bordesley. He may also have been the father of Thomas Shakespeare, the Royal Messenger of 1575, noticed later.

This record proves nothing beyond the inexactitude of Halliwell-Phillipps's sweeping statements, but it gives us a hope that something else may somewhere else be found to fit into it and make a fact complete. One of the facts brought forward as a reason for the grant of arms to John Shakespeare was "that he hath maryed Mary daughter and one of the heires of Robert Arden in the same countie, Esquire." "Gent" was originally written, and was altered to "Esquire."[57]

Some have doubted that the grant ever really took place, but Gwillim, in his "Display of Heraldrie," 1660, notes, "Or, on a bend Sable, a tilting Spear of the field, borne by the name of Shakespeare, granted by William Dethick, Garter, to William Shakespear the renowned poet." Shakespeare's crest, or cognizance, was a "Falcon, his wings displayed, Argent, standing on a wreath of his colours, supporting a speare, gold." His motto was, "Non Sans Droict."

It is said there were objections made to this pattern on the ground that it was too like the old Lord Mauley's.[58] Probably they were only notes of a discussion among the heralds, when it was decided that the spear made a "patible difference," and a résumé of the qualifications was added.

This was answered on May 10, 1602, before Henry Lord Howard, Sir Robert Sidney, and Sir Edward Dier, Chancellor of the Order of the Garter: "The answere of Garter and Clarencieux Kings of arms, to a libellous scrowle against certen arms supposed to be wrongfully given. Right Honorable, the exceptions taken in the Scrowle of Arms exhibited, doo concerne these armes granted, or the persons to whom they have been granted. In both, right honourable, we hope to satisfy your Lordships." (They mention twenty-three cases.) "Shakespere.-It may as well be said that Hareley, who beareth gould, a bend between two cotizes sables, and all other that (bear) or and argent a bend sables, usurpe the coat of the Lo. Mauley. As for the speare in bend, is a patible difference; and the person to whom it was granted hath borne magestracy, and was justice of peace at Stratford-upon-Avon. He married the daughter and heire of Arderne, and was able to maintaine that estate" ("MS. Off. Arm.," W. Z., p. 276; from Malone).

It has struck me that the attempt to win arms for his father was in order to continue them to his mother.

In the Record Office I found the other day a note that explains what I mean: "At a Chapitre holden by the Office of Armes at the Embroyderers Hall in London Anno 4o Regin? Elizabeth? it was agreed, that no inhiritrix eyther mayde wife or widdow should bear or cause to be borne any Creast or Cognizaunce of her Ancestors otherwise than as followeth. If she be unmaried to beare in her ringe, cognizaunce or otherwise, the first coate of her Ancestors in a Lozenge. And during her Widdowhood to Set the first coate of her husbande in pale with the first coate of her Auncestor. And if she mary one who is noe gentleman, then she to be clearly exempted from the former conclusion."[59]


[51] Cooke, Dethicke and Camden.

In the description of England prefixed to Holinshed's Chronicles it is stated:

"A gentleman of blood is defined to descend of three descents of nobleness, that is to saie, of name and of armes both by father and mother" (p. 161). "Moreover as the King doth dubbe Knights and createth the barons and higher degrees, so gentlemen whose ancestors are not knowen to come in with William Duke of Normandie (for of the Saxon races yet remaining wee now make none accompt, much lesse of the British issue), doe take their beginning in England, after this manner in our times. Whosoever studieth the lawes of the realme, whoso abideth in the Universitie giving his mind to his booke, or professeth physicke and the liberall sciences, or beside his service in the roome of a captaine in the warres, or good counsell given at home, whereby his commonwealth is benefited, can live without manuall labour, and thereto is able and will beare the port, charge, and countenance of a gentleman, he shall for monie have a cote and armes bestowed upon him by heralds (who in the charter of the same doo of custome pretend antiquitie and service, and manie gaie things) and thereunto being made in good cheape be called master, which is the title men give to esquires and gentlemen, and reputed for a gentleman ever after" (Ed. 1586, pp. 161-2).

The same is repeated in "The Commonwealth of England and Maner of Government thereof," by Sir Thomas Smith, London, 1589-1594, Chap. XX.

In a contemporary play, quoted by John Payne Collier, the herald is made to say:

"We now are faine to wait who grows in wealth,

And comes to beare some office in a towne,

And we for money help them unto armes,

For what can not the golden tempter doe?"

Robert Wilson: The Cobbler's Prophecy.

[52] Sir John Ferne in "The Glory of Generositie," 1586.

[53] State Papers, Dom. Ser., Eliz., cxxxvii. 68. The gentlemen and freeholders in the countye of Warwick. Among the freeholders of Barlichway, John Shakespeare, father of William and Thomas Shakespeare, 69. In Stratford-on-Avon John Shaxspere, and at Rowington Thomas Shaxpere, April, 1580.

[54] "Miscellanea Genealogica et Heraldica," 2nd Series, 1886, vol. i., p. 109, since published in a volume.

[55] The Musters. Archers of Rowington and Wroxall, S.P.D.S.

[56] State Papers, Domestic Series, Edward VI., vol. xiv., Docquet.

[57] Nichols's "Herald and Genealogist," vol. i., p. 510, 1863; and "Miscel. Gen. et Herald.," Series II., vol. i., p. 109.

[58] See the papers in the Bodleian Library, Ashmol. MS. 846, art. ix., f. 50 a, b. "The answers of Garter and Clarencieux Kings of Arms, to the Scrowle of Arms, exhibited by Raffe Brookesmouth, caled York Herald," wherein they state that there is "a patible difference."

[59] State Papers, Domestic Series, Eliz., xxvi. 31, 1561.

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