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Shakespeare's Family By C. C. Stopes Characters: 19494

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

Richard Shakespeare was in tenure of the property at Snitterfield, which Robert Arden settled on his wife and daughters July 17, 4 Edward VI., Adam Palmer and Hugh Porter being trustees. On November 26, 1557, he, along with the executors of Robert Arden and Thomas Stringer, was returned as indebted to the late Hugh Porter of Snitterfield. On September 13 he prised the goods of Richard Maydes, and on June 1, 1560, of Henry Cole, of Snitterfield. He is believed to have been the father of John, Henry, and possibly of Thomas Shakespeare.

John Shakespeare must have come to Stratford-on-Avon, probably from Snitterfield, some time before 1552, for in that year he is described as a resident in Henley Street, and fined for a breach of the municipal sanitary regulations, along with Humphrey Reynolds and Adrian Quyney, twelvepence a piece.[120] This relatively large sum implies that he must have been even then a substantial householder. The determination of the house he then dwelt in becomes interesting in its bearing on the tradition as to the poet's birthplace. Nothing is recorded of John for the next few years, but he seems to have prospered in business, trading in farmers' produce. In a law-suit of 1556, with Thomas Siche of Arscot, Worcester, he was styled a "glover." In that year he bought from George Turner a freehold tenement in Greenhill Street, with garden and croft, which is not mentioned in any of his later transactions, and from Edward West a freehold tenement and garden in Henley Street, the eastern half of the birthplace messuage. Each of these was held by the payment of sixpence a year to the lord of the manor and suit of court. Whether he had previously lived in this eastern tenement, or in the western half, as a tenant has not been absolutely decided.

He was summoned on the Court of Record Jury this year, and was party to several small suits, in all of which he was successful. In 1557 he was elected ale-taster, and curiously enough he was amerced for not keeping his gutters clean, in company with Francis Harbage, Chief Bailiff, Adrian Quyney, Mr. Hall, and Mr. Clopton. He is believed to have married Mary Arden in 1557. The registers of Aston Cantlow, where it is likely that Mary was married, do not begin so early. She was single at the time of her father's death in 1556, and on September 15, 1558, "Jone[121] Shakespeare, daughter to John Shakespeare, was christened at Stratford by Roger Divos, minister." In 1558 John Shakespeare was elected one of the four Constables of the town,[122] and, in 1559, one of the affeerors or officers appointed to determine the imposition of small arbitrary fines. In 1561 he was elected one of the Chamberlains, as well as one of the affeerors. He remained Chamberlain for two years, and apparently so well did he discharge his financial duties in that office that he was called on to assist later Chamberlains in making up their accounts. It is generally supposed that he could not write, because in attesting documents he made his mark. But I am not sure that this habit is a certain sign of his ignorance of the art. Camden himself chose a mark as a signature based on his horoscope. (See his letter to Ortelius, Sept. 14, 1577.)

In 1561 Richard Shakespeare of Snitterfield died, and his goods were administered by his son, "John Shakespeare, Agricola, of Snitterfield," Feb. 10, 1561-62.[123] Many doubt that, even if he had any interest in Richard's property, such a description would have been given of the Chamberlain of Stratford-on-Avon. It must not be forgotten that there had been a John Shakespeare presented and fined twelvepence on October 1, 1561, in Snitterfield Court, but he may have been the Stratford John. In the description of a neighbouring property in 1570, we learn that there was a "John Shakespeare of Ingon," a farm in the neighbourhood of Snitterfield; and John Shakespeare of Ingon was buried September 25, 1589, according to Mr. Halliwell-Phillipps.[124] Hence arose reasonable doubts of the identity of John of Stratford with John, the heir of Richard Shakespeare of Snitterfield. Still, the evidence is much stronger in support of his identity than against it.

On December 2, 1562, the Stratford baptismal register records the christening of "Margaret, daughter of John Shakspere." At the making up of the Chamberlain's accounts for 1562-63 in January, 1563-64, the Chamber was found in debt to John Shakespeare 25s. 8d., as if he had been the finance Chamberlain of the two. Both of his daughters were dead when, on April 26, he christened his firstborn son William. That summer the plague raged in Stratford; the Council meetings were held in the garden, to avoid infection, and collections were made among the burgesses for the relief of the poor, to each of which John Shakespeare contributed.

In 1565 he was chosen alderman, and not only rendered the Chamberlain's accounts, but seems to have borne their financial liabilities, as in the accounts for the year is noted, "Item, payd to Shakspeyr for a rest of old det £3, 2, 7-1/2," the sum which was really entered as a debt in favour of the acting Chamberlains. The following year he again made up the accounts for the Chamberlains, and the Chamber was found to be in debt to him 6s. 8d., a sum that was not repaid until January, 1568.

From the number of petty actions for debt in which he appeared, either as plaintiff or defendant, one would believe that the business men of Stratford did not care to pay up until they were obliged to do so. In 1566 there occurs an interesting suit, which shows that John Shakespeare was even then acquainted with the Hathaways. In two actions against Richard Hathaway-one for £8, and one for £11-John Shakespeare had been security, and his name was substituted in the later proceedings for that of the defendant.

On October 13, 1566, his son Gilbert was christened.

In 1567 he was assessed on goods to the value of £4[125] for the subsidy 3s. 4d.; and in another entry on £3, 2s. 6d. This was not at all a small entry for a tradesman of the time. Everyone tried to make his estimate as small as possible, as men do to-day, when taxes depend on it. He was nominated that year, though not elected, to the post of High Bailiff, to which office, however, he was elected on September 4, 1568. In the precepts that he issued he is styled "Justice of the peace and Bailiff of the Town."[126] In the Chamberlain's accounts of January 26, 1568-69, there is mentioned, "Item to Mr. Balyf that now is 14/-," a sum not explained or accounted for; and in 1570 the Chamberlains "praye allowance of money delivered to Mr. Shaxpere at sundry times £6," during their year 1569-70, as if he had been doing work for the town.[127] On April 15, 1569, another daughter Joan was christened; and on September 28, 1571, his daughter Anna. After his year of office, John Shakespeare was always called "Master," a point to be remembered in determining the meaning of various little records in a town where others of the name came to reside. In 1571 he was elected Chief Alderman, and in 1572 he attained what may really be considered as his chief honour. "At this Hall yt is agreed by the asent and consent of the Aldermen and burgeses aforesaid, that Mr. Adrian Queney now bailif and Mr. John Shakespeare, shall at Hilary term next ensuing deale in the affairs concerninge the commen wealthe of the Borroughe according to their discrecions." This was an important consideration to devolve on the shoulders of a man if he could not read or write, and it very probably involved a visit to London.[128] In 1574, March 11, his son Richard was born; and in 1575 we find the locality of his house in Henley Street determined by William Wedgewood's sale, September 20, to Edward Willis for £44, of his two tenements "betwyne the tenement of Richard Hornbee on the east part, and the tenement of 'John Shakesper yeoman' on the weste part"-the street on the south, and the waste ground called Gilpittes on the north. This shows, therefore, that the east tenement of the birthplace was then in his occupation, and that somehow he was entitled yeoman. But in October he himself also bought two houses for £40 from Edmund and Emma Hall, the locality not specified. One of these has been supposed by some to have been the birthplace, or perhaps both, seeing that later entries make John Shakespeare responsible to the lord of the manor for 13d. for his western tenement, and the garden or toft to the west of it, as against the 6d. due for his eastern tenement.


To face p. 55.

We must then face the question, either John Shakespeare owned the birthplace in 1552, and resided in it until he added the wool-shop in 1556; or he rented the wool-shop in 1552, which he purchased in 1556; or he rented the birthplace in 1552, which he purchased in 1575 from the Halls. Under whatever circumstances he secured these, both remained free to him during all his financial difficulties, and descended to his son. But these uncertainties create the doubt that remains in the mind of some, Was the poet really born in the birthplace which tradition has assigned to him, or not? To me it seems that the balance of all considerations remains in favour of the birthplace. It is hard to account for a purchase in 1575 (that evidently galled him) of any other premises save those in which he resided. Little is known of John Shakespeare or his family during 1576 and 1577, but in 1578 begin the records of his temporary poverty, which I have noted under the account of his relations to his wife's relatives. For the Town Council, doubtless in consideration of his past services, excused him paying 3s. 4d., as his share

of "the furniture of the pikemen," etc.; and, along with Mr. Robert Bratt (the poorest member of the Corporation), he was excused the 4d. a week imposed on the aldermen for relief of the poor. Then came the mortgage of Asbies in 1578-79.[129] The following year he again left unpaid his share of the levy for armour-3s. 4d.; and he began, probably through shamefacedness, not to show himself at the Halls, though the State Papers still enter him among the gentlemen and freeholders of Warwickshire. But another influence began to affect his circumstances prejudicially about this time, and that is, the evil fortunes of his brother Henry of Snitterfield. How his biographer, in the "Dictionary of National Biography," could call this brother "a prosperous farmer," I know not.

In 1574 there had been a free fight, wherein blood was drawn, between him and Edward Cornwall, who afterwards became the second husband of his brother's sister-in-law, Margaret Webbe, née Arden. In the year 1580 there was an extra long series of actions against him for debt; threats of excommunication for withholding tithes; fines for refusing to wear the statute caps on Sunday; fines for not doing suit of court. Altogether he seems to have been a high-spirited fellow, who brought on himself, through lack of prudence, much of his ill-luck, and who had the unfortunate knack of involving other people in his troubles.

In 1582 both brothers were summoned as witnesses in support of Robert Webbe against the Mayowe appeal.

In November of that year John's eldest son William, of whom no earlier direct mention had been preserved, added to his embarrassments by a premature marriage, and in the following year John was made a grandfather by the birth of Susanna Shakespeare. In 1584 the twins Hamnet and Judith were added to his anxieties. About this time the Stratford Records notice how a John Shakespeare was worried by suits brought against him by John Brown, in whose favour a writ of distraint was issued against Shakespeare in 1586. But the answer was returned that "he had nothing whereon to distrain."

There are several reasons for believing that this John was not the poet's father. The prefix Mr. is not used in the entries; it is certain that he retained his freeholds in Henley Street all his life, and if he had "no goods whereon to distrain," he could hardly have been received as sufficient bail at Coventry, on July 19 of that year, for Michael Price, tinker, of Stratford-on-Avon, or as security for his brother Henry's debts. In 1586 he was removed from his office of alderman.[130]

Just in the year of the death of Edmund Lambert, when the possession of money would have given him power to have renewed his efforts to regain Asbies, Henry Shakespeare became a defaulter, and Nicholas Lane, by Thomas Trussell, his attorney, sued John Shakespeare in his place, 1587. William Court was his attorney in a weary case, which must have led both sides into heavy costs, over the recovery of £22.[131]

On September 1, 1588, he paid a visit to John Lambert at Barton-on-the-Heath, in the vain hope of inducing him to surrender Asbies; instituted proceedings against those who owed him money in Stratford, and, in 1589, against Lambert in the Queen's Bench at London, probably acting in the latter case through William. From the inquisition post-mortem of the Earl of Warwick, in 1590, we know Mr. John Shakespeare still owned the two houses in Henley Street.

In 1592 Mr. John Shakespeare appraised the goods of two important neighbours-of Ralph Shawe, wool-driver, July 23, and Henry Field, tanner, August 21. Thomas Trussell, the attorney, drew up the inventory, and denominated his associate as Mr. John Shaksper, Senior, for no clear reason, but possibly to distinguish him from the shoemaker John. The attestation is witnessed only by a cross. During this year Sir Thomas Lucy and others were drawing up the lists of Warwickshire recusants[132] that had been "heretofore presented." Among these they included several members of the sorely-oppressed family of the Ardens of Park Hall, and in Stratford-on-Avon "Mr. John Shackspere" and eight others. Probably some friendly clerk, wishing to spare them fines, added: "it is sayd that these last nine coom not to Churche for feare of process for debte." But it is quite possible it might refer to John Shakespeare the shoemaker, who, having been Master of the Shoemakers' Company, might have been called "Mr."[133] In the earlier undated draught from which this was taken the Commissioners state: "wee suspect theese nyne persons next ensuinge absent themselves for feare of processes, Mr. John Wheeler, John his son, Mr. John Shackespeere," etc.

Away up in London in 1593 the tide was beginning to turn for the family through the efforts of the poet and the affection of the Earl of Southampton.

In this year Richard Tyler sued a John Shakespeare for a debt, but it is not at all certain it was not one of the others of the name. In a case brought by Adrian Quyney and Thomas Barker against Philip Green, chandler, Henry Rogers, butcher, and John Shaxspere, in 1595, for a debt of £5, the absence of a trade after Shakespeare's name has made Mr. Halliwell-Phillipps suppose that he had retired by this date. A John Shakespeare attested by a cross the marriage settlement of Robert Fulwood and Elizabeth Hill in 1596, which represents probably the name of the poet's father. In 1597 he sold, to oblige his neighbour, George Badger, a narrow strip of land at the western side of his Henley Street garden, 1-1/2 feet in breadth, but 86 feet in length. For this he received £2 10s., and his ground-rent was reduced from 13d. to 12d., the odd penny becoming Badger's responsibility. He also sold a plat, 17 feet square, in the garden, behind the wool-shop, to oblige his neighbour on the other side, Edward Willis.

The application made for coat-armour, initiated in 1596, ostensibly by John Shakespeare, but really by William Shakespeare, as well as the Lambert case, dragged on through the later years of the century.

That he had not lost credit with his fellow-townsmen may be seen by John's latest recorded piece of work.

Early in 1601 an action was brought by Sir Edward Greville[134] against the Corporation respecting the toll-corn; and John Shakespeare, with Adrian Quyney and others, assisted to draw up suggestions for the use of the counsel for the defendants. On September 8 of that year the funeral of the old burgess took place at Stratford-on-Avon, but there is no trace now left of any sepulchral monument or memorial of any kind. No will or inventory, or even inquisition post-mortem, has come down to us.

It is quite possible that the Henley Street houses were entailed upon his eldest son, or that he may have bought up all rights during his father's lifetime to such an extent that "inheritance" could hardly be talked of. He seems to have indeed supported all the family, as there is no trace[135] of any of them, except Edmund the player, engaging in any trade or profession. Whether his mother resided in Henley Street or at New Place is not clear. There is nothing further known of her save the register of her burial: "September 9th, 1608, Mayry Shaxspere Wydowe."

No sepulchre or memorial of her has come down to our time. We only know that somewhere in the consecrated ground by Stratford Church lies the dust of John Shakespeare and Mary Arden, the parents of the poet.



[120] Stratford-on-Avon Chamberlain's Accounts, April 29, 6 Edward VI.

[121] Stratford-on-Avon Baptismal Register.

[122] All these references are from the Chamberlain's Accounts, and accounts of the Halls at Stratford-on-Avon. Those who have not had access to them may refer to Halliwell-Phillipps's "Outlines," i. 29; ii. 179 et seq.

[123] Worcester administration bonds, 1561. Notes and Queries, 8th Series, xii. 413.

[124] This statement is, however, evidently erroneous.

[125] Roll for Stratford, Longridge MS.

[126] Stratford Borough Records.

[127] The first notice of municipal employment of players appears during his year of office, the Queen's Company and that of the Earl of Worcester having performed before the council. A case was tried at the Warwick assizes, Easter, 11 Elizabeth, concerning the tithes of Rowington, and John Shakespeare, of Stratford-on-Avon, was on the jury.-Ryland's "Records of Rowington."

[128] See Chamberlain's accounts for "the expenses of Mr. Queeney in London," also for the expenses of the dinner given to Sir Thomas Lucy and others, at which Quiney and Shakespeare presided.

[129] In 1579 he buried his daughter Anne "with the pall and the great bell." On May 3, 1580, his youngest child Edmund was christened.

[130] "At this halle William Smythe and Richard Court are chosen Aldermen in the places of John Wheler and John Shaxspere, for that Mr. Wheler doth desire to be put out of the company, and Mr. Shaxspere doth not come to the Halles when they be warned, nor hath not done of long tyme."-Borough Reports. It is noteworthy that he was never fined for absenting himself as others were.

[131] Controlment Rolls, 29 Elizabeth, Stratford-on-Avon.

[132] State Papers, Domestic Series, Elizabeth. It may be noted that there was no Mrs. Shakespeare among the recusants. Other wives were noted, as Mrs. Wheeler.

[133] It remains a fact that John Shakespeare, shoemaker, is heard of no more in Stratford-on-Avon, and shortly afterwards his house was tenanted by another man.

[134] Stratford Corporation Records.

[135] Halliwell-Phillips is in error in stating that Gilbert was a London haberdasher.

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