The story of the Shakespeares was one of social advancement, says Stanley Wells, reflected in dwellings that rose from rural farmstead to manorial splendour. Along the way were some family upsets: pregnant brides, lawsuits and excommunication...
This article appears in BBC History Magazine’s ‘The World of Shakespeare’ bookazine
The story of Shakespeare’s family – one of upward social mobility – is reflected in their homes. Start in the small village of Wilmcote, three miles north of Stratford-upon-Avon, where the playwright’s mother, Mary Arden, grew up in a small farmhouse built around 1514 by her father, Robert. Mary was the youngest of eight daughters by his first wife; his second, Agnes Hill, brought with her two sons and two daughters. When Robert made his will in 1556, he named young Mary as one of his two executors and left her a substantial amount of land and money, which suggests that she was a woman of exceptional ability.
Mary married the up-and-coming glover (and later wool dealer and money-lender) John Shakespeare, probably in 1557. Before long they moved into his substantial double-house in Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon, now known as Shakespeare’s Birthplace. Mary had eight children, but only six survived infancy. John gave the town loyal service, rising through the ranks from the relatively humble role of ale-taster to become alderman and, in 1568, bailiff (or mayor.) His application for a coat of arms was unsuccessful in 1576, but he was granted one 20 years later, when he was said to be worth £500 – a sum not to be sneezed at. He died in 1601.
In 1594 John’s eldest son, William, had become a shareholder in the troupe of players called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, based in London. Three years later William demonstrated his commitment to his home town by buying New Place, the largest house in the borough. It was demolished in the 18th century but recent archaeological excavations carried out under the auspices of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust have added to our knowledge about the size and layout of the property. It had five gables, a courtyard, three floors, and between 20 and 30 rooms – more than enough to accommodate the entire extended family, if necessary. Indeed, Thomas Greene, Town Clerk from 1603 to 1617 and a member of the Middle Temple, who described himself as William’s cousin – the word could be flexibly used – lodged there with his family.
There would also have been ample space for William’s unmarried brothers, Richard, Gilbert and Edmund, of whom little is known. We do know that Edmund, 16 years younger than William, became an actor in London like his brother, had a bastard child, and died when he was only 27. He was buried in what is now Southwark Cathedral on the last day of 1607 to the sound of the ‘great bell’ – the tolling of which cost someone, probably William, £1. Gilbert, who witnessed the deed of purchase for New Place in William’s absence, worked at one time as a haberdasher in London. Of Richard we know only that he was baptised in Stratford on 11 March 1574 and buried there on 4 February 1613.
Sisters and daughters
William’s sister Joan, born in 1569, married a hatter, William Hart, some time before 1600. They had four children: William, Mary, Thomas and Michael. Joan’s husband died in 1616 only a week before his famous brother-in-law, who left Joan life tenancy of part of the Henley Street house, along with £20 and “all his wearing apparel”. She lived there until her death in 1646 when the house, along with the adjoining dwelling, passed to her son Thomas, and then to his son, another Thomas, by the will of Shakespeare’s granddaughter, Lady Elizabeth Barnard. The property, identified as the Birthplace on the earliest surviving map of the town (dated 1759), remained in the family till 1806. The line continued; John Shakespeare Hart, a chair-maker, was buried in Tewkesbury Abbey in 1800 with a memorial that mistakenly described him as “the sixth descendant from the poet Shakespeare”. Subsequent family members emigrated to Australia.
Anne Hathaway, who married William Shakespeare in 1582, came from a farming family in the neighbouring village of Shottery. Their only son, Hamnet – the name a variant of Hamlet – died in 1596, aged only 11. Presumably, like his father, he had been a pupil at the free grammar school, though its records from this period don’t survive.
William and Anne had two daughters, Susanna and Judith. Susanna, born six months after her parents married, seems to have been an accomplished woman with a mind of her own. She was reported to the Ecclesiastical Court for refusing to take communion at Easter 1606 when, in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, the authorities were especially anxious to round up possible Roman Catholic sympathisers. The case was dismissed. The following year she married the strongly Protestant physician John Hall, and her father gave her the substantial gift of 107 acres of land in Old Stratford as a marriage settlement, while apparently retaining a life interest.
In 1613 her marriage was afflicted by scandal when one John Lane claimed that Susanna had caught a sexually transmitted infection from a married hatter and haberdasher named Ralph Smith. She successfully sued Lane for defamation of character in Worcester Consistory Court. Lane, who did not turn up to defend himself, was excommunicated. These events are dramatised in Peter Whelan’s successful play The Herbal Bed (1996).
The Halls are believed to have lived in the large and handsome house on the outskirts of the town now known as Hall’s Croft, which dates from 1613 and may have been built for them; when Shakespeare died in 1616 they moved into New Place. Shakespeare left most of his property to Susanna and appointed the Halls as his executors.
Susanna lived until 1649. Her epitaph reads “Witty” – that is, intelligent – “beyond her sex, but that’s not all, / Wise to salvation was good Mistress Hall.” In this period, education for girls lagged far behind that for boys, but there were petty schools in the town where both boys and girls could learn to read, write and do their sums. Susanna’s signature survives in the records of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
Shakespeare’s younger daughter, Judith, seems to have been a bit of a handful. At the age of 31, less than two months before her father died, she married Thomas Quiney, son of a prominent townsman, in Holy Trinity Church – but was excommunicated because they had not obtained the special licence required for marriage in Lent. There was reason to marry in a hurry: soon afterwards Quiney was accused of “incontinence” with Margaret Wheeler, who had been buried with their illegitimate child. He pleaded guilty. Shakespeare made changes to his will seemingly designed to protect Judith’s interests. She and Thomas went on to have three sons, all of whom died young; they called the eldest, born soon after his grandfather died, Shakespeare. Judith lived until 1662.
Shakespeare’s last direct descendant was Elizabeth, born to Susanna and John Hall in 1608. He left her most of his silver plate (easily convertible into cash if she wished). She married Thomas Nash and they lived in New Place. After he died she married John Barnard, a prosperous widower with several children, in 1649. When her mother died soon afterwards the couple moved into New Place. A staunch Royalist, Barnard was made a baronet in 1661. Later they moved back into his ancestral home, Abington Manor in Northamptonshire, an even more splendid house than New Place, where Elizabeth died childless in 1670.
So a family story that began in a modest farmhouse ended with Shakespeare’s granddaughter in a great manor house. What would Mary Arden have made of that?
Stanley Wells is a leading authority on Shakespeare. He is honorary president of The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and professor emeritus at the University of Birmingham.