Get Your Premium Membership

Shakespeare —Parentage and Birth

by Sidney Lee


Distribution of the name.

Shakespeare came of a family whose surname was borne through the middle ages by residents in very many parts of England—at Penrith in Cumberland, at Kirkland and Doncaster in Yorkshire, as well as in nearly all the midland counties.  The surname had originally a martial significance, implying capacity in the wielding of the spear.  Its first recorded holder is John Shakespeare, who in 1279 was living at ‘Freyndon,’ perhaps Frittenden, Kent. The great mediæval guild of St. Anne at Knowle, whose members included the leading inhabitants of Warwickshire, was joined by many Shakespeares in the fifteenth century. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the surname is found far more frequently in Warwickshire than elsewhere.  The archives of no less than twenty-four towns and villages there contain notices of Shakespeare families in the sixteenth century, and as many as thirty-four Warwickshire towns or villages were inhabited by Shakespeare families in the seventeenth century.  Among them all William was a common Christian name.  At Rowington, twelve miles to the north of Stratford, and in the same hundred of Barlichway, one of the most prolific Shakespeare families of Warwickshire resided in the sixteenth century, and no less than three Richard Shakespeares of Rowington, whose extant wills were proved respectively in 1560, 1591, and 1614, were fathers of sons called William.  At least one other William Shakespeare was during the period a resident in Rowington.  As a consequence, the poet has been more than once credited with achievements which rightly belong to one or other of his numerous contemporaries who were identically named.

The poet’s ancestry.

The poet’s ancestry cannot be defined with absolute certainty.  The poet’s father, when applying for a grant of arms in 1596, claimed that his grandfather (the poet’s great-grandfather) received for services rendered in war a grant of land in Warwickshire from Henry VII. No precise confirmation of this pretension has been discovered, and it may be, after the manner of heraldic genealogy, fictitious.  But there is a probability that the poet came of good yeoman stock, and that his ancestors to the fourth or fifth generation were fairly substantial landowners.   Adam Shakespeare, a tenant by military service of land at Baddesley Clinton in 1389, seems to have been great-grandfather of one Richard Shakespeare who held land at Wroxhall in Warwickshire during the first thirty-four years (at least) of the sixteenth century.  Another Richard Shakespeare who is conjectured to have been nearly akin to the Wroxhall family was settled as a farmer at Snitterfield, a village four miles to the north of Stratford-on-Avon, in 1528.  It is probable that he was the poet’s grandfather.  In 1550 he was renting a messuage and land at Snitterfield of Robert Arden; he died at the close of 1560, and on February 10 of the next year letters of administration of his goods, chattels, and debts were issued to his son John by the Probate Court at Worcester.  His goods were valued at £35 17s.  Besides the son John, Richard of Snitterfield certainly had a son Henry; while a Thomas Shakespeare, a considerable landholder at Snitterfield between 1563 and 1583, whose parentage is undetermined, may have been a third son.  The son Henry remained all his life at Snitterfield, where he engaged in farming with gradually diminishing success; he died in embarrassed circumstances in December 1596.  John, the son who administered Richard’s estate, was in all likelihood the poet’s father.

The poet’s father.

About 1551 John Shakespeare left Snitterfield, which was his birthplace, to seek a career in the neighbouring borough of Stratford-on-Avon.  There he soon set up as a trader in all manner of agricultural produce.  Corn, wool, malt, meat, skins, and leather were among the commodities in which he dealt.  Documents of a somewhat later date often describe him as a glover.  Aubrey, Shakespeare’s first biographer, reported the tradition that he was a butcher.  But though both designations doubtless indicated important branches of his business, neither can be regarded as disclosing its full extent.  The land which his family farmed at Snitterfield supplied him with his varied stock-in-trade.  As long as his father lived he seems to have been a frequent visitor to Snitterfield, and, like his father and brothers, he was until the date of his father’s death occasionally designated a farmer or ‘husbandman’ of that place.  But it was with Stratford-on-Avon that his life was mainly identified.

His settlement at Stratford.

In April 1552 he was living there in Henley Street, a thoroughfare leading to the market town of Henley-in-Arden, and he is first mentioned in the borough records as paying in that month a fine of twelve-pence for having a dirt-heap in front of his house.  His frequent appearances in the years that follow as either plaintiff or defendant in suits heard in the local court of record for the recovery of small debts suggest that he was a keen man of business.  In early life he prospered in trade, and in October 1556 purchased two freehold tenements at Stratford—one, with a garden, in Henley Street (it adjoins that now known as the poet’s birthplace), and the other in Greenhill Street with a garden and croft.  Thenceforth he played a prominent part in municipal affairs.  In 1557 he was elected an ale-taster, whose duty it was to test the quality of malt liquors and bread.  About the same time he was elected a burgess or town councillor, and in September 1558, and again on October 6, 1559, he was appointed one of the four petty constables by a vote of the jury of the court-leet.  Twice—in 1559 and 1561—he was chosen one of the affeerors—officers appointed to determine the fines for those offences which were punishable arbitrarily, and for which no express penalties were prescribed by statute.  In 1561 he was elected one of the two chamberlains of the borough, an office of responsibility which he held for two years.  He delivered his second statement of accounts to the corporation in January 1564.  When attesting documents he occasionally made his mark, but there is evidence in the Stratford archives that he could write with facility; and he was credited with financial aptitude.  The municipal accounts, which were checked by tallies and counters, were audited by him after he ceased to be chamberlain, and he more than once advanced small sums of money to the corporation.

The poet’s mother.

With characteristic shrewdness he chose a wife of assured fortune—Mary, youngest daughter of Robert Arden, a wealthy farmer of Wilmcote in the parish of Aston Cantlowe, near Stratford.  The Arden family in its chief branch, which was settled at Parkhall, Warwickshire, ranked with the most influential of the county.  Robert Arden, a progenitor of that branch, was sheriff of Warwickshire and Leicestershire in 1438 (16 Hen. VI), and this sheriff’s direct descendant, Edward Arden, who was himself high sheriff of Warwickshire in 1575, was executed in 1583 for alleged complicity in a Roman Catholic plot against the life of Queen Elizabeth.  John Shakespeare’s wife belonged to a humbler branch of the family, and there is no trustworthy evidence to determine the exact degree of kinship between the two branches.  Her grandfather, Thomas Arden, purchased in 1501 an estate at Snitterfield, which passed, with other property, to her father Robert; John Shakespeare’s father, Richard, was one of this Robert Arden’s Snitterfield tenants.  By his first wife, whose name is not known, Robert Arden had seven daughters, of whom all but two married; John Shakespeare’s wife seems to have been the youngest.  Robert Arden’s second wife, Agnes or Anne, widow of John Hill (d. 1545), a substantial farmer of Bearley, survived him; but by her he had no issue.  When he died at the end of 1556, he owned a farmhouse at Wilmcote and many acres, besides some hundred acres at Snitterfield, with two farmhouses which he let out to tenants.  The post-mortem inventory of his goods, which was made on December 9, 1556, shows that he had lived in comfort; his house was adorned by as many as eleven ‘painted cloths,’ which then did duty for tapestries among the middle class.  The exordium of his will, which was drawn up on November 24, 1556, and proved on December 16 following, indicates that he was an observant Catholic.  For his two youngest daughters, Alice and Mary, he showed especial affection by nominating them his executors.  Mary received not only £6. 13s. 4d. in money, but the fee-simple of Asbies, his chief property at Wilmcote, consisting of a house with some fifty acres of land.  She also acquired, under an earlier settlement, an interest in two messuages at Snitterfield.  But, although she was well provided with worldly goods, she was apparently without education; several extant documents bear her mark, and there is no proof that she could sign her name.

The poet’s birth and baptism.

John Shakespeare’s marriage with Mary Arden doubtless took place at Aston Cantlowe, the parish church of Wilmcote, in the autumn of 1557 (the church registers begin at a later date).  On September 15, 1558, his first child, a daughter, Joan, was baptised in the church of Stratford.  A second child, another daughter, Margaret, was baptised on December 2, 1562; but both these children died in infancy.  The poet William, the first son and third child, was born on April 22 or 23, 1564.  The latter date is generally accepted as his birthday, mainly (it would appear) on the ground that it was the day of his death.  There is no positive evidence on the subject, but the Stratford parish registers attest that he was baptised on April 26.

Alleged birthplace.

Some doubt is justifiable as to the ordinarily accepted scene of his birth.  Of two adjoining houses forming a detached building on the north side of Henley Street, that to the east was purchased by John Shakespeare in 1556, but there is no evidence that he owned or occupied the house to the west before 1575.  Yet this western house has been known since 1759 as the poet’s birthplace, and a room on the first floor is claimed as that in which he was born. The two houses subsequently came by bequest of the poet’s granddaughter to the family of the poet’s sister, Joan Hart, and while the eastern tenement was let out to strangers for more than two centuries, and by them converted into an inn, the ‘birthplace’ was until 1806 occupied by the Harts, who latterly carried on there the trade of butcher.  The fact of its long occupancy by the poet’s collateral descendants accounts for the identification of the western rather than the eastern tenement with his birthplace.  Both houses were purchased in behalf of subscribers to a public fund on September 16, 1847, and, after extensive restoration, were converted into a single domicile for the purposes of a public museum.  They were presented under a deed of p. 9trust to the corporation of Stratford in 1866.  Much of the Elizabethan timber and stonework survives, but a cellar under the ‘birthplace’ is the only portion which remains as it was at the date of the poet’s birth. 

(The Project Gutenberg eBook, A Life of William Shakespeare, by Sidney Lee)