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The Parents of
William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare the Great Bard of Stratford

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William Shakespeare Biography - The Parents of William Shakespeare

John Shakespeare was born in 1531. His father, Richard Shakespeare, was a tenant farmer who worked on various sections of land, one of which was owned by the wealthy Robert Arden of Wilmecote. John worked as a farmer with his father but in 1551 he moved to Stratford to set up business trading in wool, malt and corn. His businesses tied in well with his father with his father producing the goods and John trading in the retail side. John was skilled in both leatherworking and the curing and processing of fine leather to make ladies gloves and purses for the nobility and traded as a Glover and Whittawer. He bought a house in Henley Street, Stratford , which was conveniently near the market. It was probable that a shop was attached as this, as was the usual practice. He also started in the dubious business of money lending. He obviously started to do very well with all of his various interests as he then purchased another house in Greenhill Street, Stratford in 1552, five years before he married Mary.

Mary Arden was born in 1540 as a member of the noble Catholic family of the Ardens of Park Hall whose family forebears had been given land by William the Conqueror. The Ardens were one of Warwickshire's most prominent families, tracing its ancestry back beyond the Norman Conquest to the Doomsday Book. Mary was the favourite of eight daughters of the widowed Robert Arden. His second marriage in April 1548 to Agnes Hill, a widow of another prosperous farmer, added four stepchildren to his own family. The family home was called Glebe Farm a two-storey Wilmecote farmstead. Mary was sixteen when her father died and she was named as one of the Executers of her father's will in which he left her some money and some land in Wilmecote. 

The courtship between Mary Arden ( his mother ) and John Shakespeare ( his father ) can be pieced together. John's father, Richard, was a tenant farmer who lived in Snitterfield and worked, and grazed his animals, on various sections of land. Some of this land was known to belong to Mary's father, the wealthy Robert Arden of Wilmecote. John initially started work as a farmer with his father before making the move to Stratford to pursue the retail side of the business. Mary and John, the Bard's parents, would have therefore had various opportunities to meet and start their courtship. Their courtship would not have been without problems as John was only of Yeoman stock and Mary was part of the aristocracy. It is extremely doubtful that Mary's father would have approved of such a liaison. Robert Arden died in 1556 and convention decreed that any marriage in the Arden family could take only place after the mourning period of one year. So it was that Mary Arden, the heiress, and John Shakespeare, the Yeoman, married in 1557 to become the Bard's Mother and Father.

The marriage between Mary Arden and John Shakespeare in 1557 must certainly raised a few eyebrows! John was of Yeoman stock and Mary was a member of the aristocratic Arden family. The major thing that the Bard's Mother and Father had in common was that both the Shakespeare's and the Ardens were staunch Catholics. This was extremely important as England, at the time, was fiercely Protestant and Catholics were viewed with real suspicion and often sheer hatred. John was clearly a very ambitious man and this is demonstrated not only by his choice of wife but also by his incredible rise in the community as a prominent citizen of Stratford. The reason that his rise to prominence was so amazing was that John Shakespeare ( father of the Bard ) was totally illiterate, he used glovers compasses as his signature. Mary ( mother of the Bard ) was no help to him in this quarter as she was also unable to read or write and used a running horse as her signature. John and Mary married at the ages of 26 and 17 respectively, a year after the death of Robert Arden. So John married a wealthy young lady giving the Shakespeare's a good start to married life and their role as parents. 

After their marriage, in 1557, Mary moved from the country to live in John's house in Henley Street - this became home to the mother and father of the Bard. The village of Stratford had a population of 1500 people, and only 200 houses at this time. In the same year he purchased the neighbouring house and garden as well. John was a real entrepreneur and had expanded his business into trading in wool and other farm produce and the dubious, but lucrative, business of money lending. The Shakespeare's were clearly an ambitious couple and John had the clear advantage of marrying into the aristocracy which would, no doubt , have impressed the men who ran the Town Council of Stratford.

John ( father of the Bard ) was making himself noticed and the same year of his marriage in 1557 was given his first public appointment as ale-taster of the Borough of Stratford. This might sound strange to us but in the Elizabethan era basic hygiene was practically unknown. People washed infrequently, men urinated in the living room and most houses had a refuse heap outside their front doors. The water was dangerous to drink at the best of times, so ale or wine depending on your class, was the safest option. The position of ale-taster was an important one and it was essential that Stratford maintained a long-reaching reputation for its brewing.

John and Mary ( mother and father of the Bard ) started their family in 1558 with the birth of their first child, Joan. Their happiness was short-lived as the baby died of the plague shortly after birth. The plague, commonly referred to as the Black Death, was rampant in England. The plague was often transmitted by the fleas that lived on animals. So farmers and the retailers of farm produce, such as animal hides, were in constant danger of contracting the Black Death. The disease could also be air bound and transmitted from an infected person's breath. So the virulent nature of the disease resulted in frequent outbreaks of the terrible disease for the next hundred years. People must have lived in constant fear for the lives of their children and most families had many children due to the high infant mortality rate - a terrible fear for the parents. Meanwhile John's rise in the Civic world continued and he was elected as Chamberlain of the Borough of Stratford in 1661.The Town Council met daily, and had many important tasks. They heard petitions, made sure the streets were kept clear, and insured that weights and measures were accurate.
Mary became pregnant again and gave birth in 1562 to a second daughter, Margaret. Once again
family life for the new parents was shattered as Margaret only lived for one year. A year later William Shakespeare was born on St Georges Day (the Patron Saint of England) 23rd April 1564. This birthday is not substantiated as there was no Birth Certificate or registration during that period of English history. There is, however, a record of William's baptism in the register of the Holy Trinity Parish Church in Stratford dated 26th April 1564. Given the high mortality rate of infants it was the custom of the Elizabethan parents to have their children baptised three days after their birth and so the birthday of William has been set as April 23rd. In 1665 John became an Alderman of Stratford and with this position came the benefit of free education for his children at the local Grammar School. This was good timing as the family started to expand with the birth of Gilbert in October 1566. John's career was still rising and in 1568 he became the Mayor of Stratford. The joy of the Shakespeare's must have been great when Mary gave birth to another daughter, also called Joan, in 1569 and they became parents once more. In 1570 John became Chief Alderman of Stratford - the pinnacle of his career. Due to his important Civic duties he rightfully sought the title of gentleman and applied for his Coat-of-Arms. The right to a Coat-of-Arms was very prestigious and sought after by many people. The coat-of-arms could be displayed on their door and all their personal items. It was also quite a costly undertaking with an amount of 30 guineas (30 pounds and 30 shillings) to be paid to the College of Heralds. Mysteriously, the application was unsuccessful. Two more children were born to the parents of the Bard, Anne in 1571 and Richard in 1574.

By 1578 things had started to go seriously wrong for Shakespeare's parents. The boys were removed from school in order to help with the finances as John was behind with the taxes. Another tragedy struck the family in 1579 when eight year old Anne died. This must have been a terrible time for Mary and John as parents and despite their mounting financial problems their young daughter Anne was provided with an expensive funeral by the Bard's mother and father. Things went from bad to worse for Will's parents and in the same year as Anne's premature death his father was forced to mortgage his mother's estate, Asbies. Despite the mortgaging of property their money problems continued and in 1580 John was fined 40 for missing a court date. 

There is no real evidence of the events which lead to John's downfall and how he descended from being a pillar of the community, and wealthy businessman, to a debtor whose only possession was a house on Henley Street. There are however a few possibilities that could be considered. His father was extremely ambitious and his swift rise to power within the Stratford community could have lead to jealousy. His dubious money lending activities could also have sparked some real bad feeling. And finally religion. His parents were staunch Roman Catholics during the time that most of his peers would have been of the new and equally fanatical Protestant religion. Queen Elizabeth was a Protestant, this religion and the break from Rome and the old Catholic faith was instigated by her parents Queen Anne Boleyn and King Henry VIII. Whilst Elizabeth adopted a liberal attitude towards religion she was in constant fear of uprisings and the possibility of Civil War. This real danger came from the supporters of the Roman Catholic faith. Englishmen remembered, with horror, the rule of her Elizabeth's sister forever known as Bloody Mary for her cruel persecution of non Catholics. This legacy of Bloody Mary and the constant threat to England from the Catholic France and Spain gave rise to hostile feelings towards any Catholics. Perhaps this was the reason that the Bard's father's application for the Coat of Arms back in 1570 was refused. Perhaps this was the major reason that led to his downfall. 

His wife Mary stood beside John through all of his troubles and in 1580 their last child, Edmund, was born. Life carried on with John and his sons working in the family business and then in 1582 another blow was dealt to the parents when their 18 year old son, William Shakespeare, came home with the news that 26 year old Anne Hathaway was three months pregnant. The scandal to the family and his mother and father caused by the conception of a child, by a much older woman, outside marriage must have caused immense gossip in the community and would have blackened the family name still further. The marriage between Will and Anne Hathaway must have been hastily arranged and a special licence had to be sought and issued by the Bishop of Worcester - a nightmare for his parents. The banns were only read once, instead of the conventional three times and William and Anne were married in November 1582. Due to the necessity of the swift marriage it can be assumed that William and Anne had no option but to move in with the Bard's parents. Six months after the marriage, in May 1583, John and Mary became grandparents to Susanna Shakespeare. William probably helped with his father's businesses during this time and possibly also took work as a teacher and perhaps even worked with a lawyer. William's twins Hamnet and Judith were born two years later in 1585 but despite the arrival of more children, fortune continued to go badly with William. There are indications that William might have offended Sir Richard Lucy by poaching a deer on his grounds. What with this and what with the general misfortunes of the family it was about this time that William left Stratford to seek his fortune in London. His parents struggled on but in 1586 John was finally removed from the Board of Aldermen. In 1592 he was fined for not attending church, was this perhaps the Protestant Church?

Things could not have been much worse for John and Mary ( mother and father of the Bard ). It was 1592, his parents were in debt and John had been stripped of all Civic duties. But this was all about to completely change. Their errant son William had started to become a success as a poet and was also making his name in Theatres of London. By 1592 William was mixing with the elite. The aristocrats and nobles of the Realm were his friends. In 1594 he would even play before the Queen. And John's fortunes were also rising. On October 20, 1596 by permission of the Garter King of Arms, John Shakespeare, and his children, were granted permission to display a coat-of-arms. His mother and father had achieved a long ambition. The coat-of-arms was gold with a black banner bearing a silver spear. The motto was "Non sans droit" or "not without right". John and his sons were then entitled to put "gentleman" after their name, they were officially part the Gentry. This title was reserved for those who were below knights but who had been granted the right to bear arms. The coat-of-arms could be displayed on their door and all their personal items. It is probable the application was initiated by William who , like his father, was ambitious to rise in the Elizabethan social order. By 1599 his father was reinstated on the Stratford Town Council. His father had regained his social standing, bore a Coat-of-Arms, was a member of the Gentry and he had regained his former wealth. The interpretation of the description of the Coat of Arms granted to Shakspere would have been the choice of the designer chosen by the family.
It does not appear with the crest on the Shakespeare monument in Stratford church, nor does it appear anywhere else. The crest design would have not formed part of the Heraldic Documentation. As such an original crest is not in existence there are various interpretations of the Shakespeare Coat of Arms. The image below is an interpretation of the description of the Coat of Arms designed by John Shakespeare enjoyed his new status until 1601 when John, the father of the great Bard, died at the age of 70. His loyal wife Mary, the mother of the great Bard lived for a further seven years until her death in 1608.

1531 Probable year of birth of Shakespeare's father, John Shakespeare
1540 Probable year of birth of Shakespeare's mother, Mary Arden
1556 Robert Arden dies (Shakespeare's maternal grandfather.)
1556 Mary Arden ( mother of the Bard ) was named as one of the Executers of her father's will 
1557 Marriage of John ( father of the Bard ) at the age of 26 to Mary Arden, aged 17 years
1557 John Shakespeare ( father of the Bard ) was elected as ale-taster of the Borough of Stratford
1561 Richard Shakespeare dies (Shakespeare's paternal grandfather) 
1558 Joan, the first child of John and Mary ( mother and father of the Bard ) was born but only survived
         for two months 
1561 John Shakespeare ( father of the Bard ) was elected as Chamberlain of the Borough of Stratford
1562 Margaret Shakespeare was born - she died one year later
1564 William Shakespeare was born 
1565 John Shakespeare ( father of the Bard ) became Alderman
1566 Gilbert Shakespeare was born 
1568 John Shakespeare ( father of the Bard ) became Bailiff of Stratford (equivalent to Mayor)
1569 Another daughter, also called Joan was born
1570 John Shakespeare became Chief Alderman
1570 John Shakespeare ( father of the Bard ) was accused in the Exchequer Court of Usury for lending
         money at the rate of 20% and 25% Interest
1570 John Shakespeare's application to bear a Coat-of-Arms and for the title of Gentleman fails
1571 Anne Shakespeare was born
1574 Richard Shakespeare was born
1578 John ( father of the Bard ) became behind with his taxes
1579 He was forced to mortgage Mary's estate, Asbies
1579 Anne Shakespeare died
1580 Fined 40 for missing a court date
1580 Edmund Shakespeare was born
1582 William marries Anne Hathaway and six months later John and Mary, his parents, become
         grandparents to Susanna Shakespeare
1585 William's twins, Hamnet and Judith Shakespeare, were born
1586 John Shakespeare ( father of the Bard ) was removed from the Board of Aldermen
1590 John Shakespeare's ( father of the Bard ) only possession was a house on Henley Street
1592 John Shakespeare's ( father of the Bard ) fined for not attending church
1596 John's ( father of the Bard ) brother Henry died
1596 On October 20 an application was made to the College of Heralds for a Coat-of-Arms and this time
         it was granted
1599 John Shakespeare ( father of the Bard ) was reinstated on the Town Council
1601 Shakespeare's father, John Shakespeare dies
1608 Shakespeare's mother Mary Shakespeare nee Arden dies

Full details relating to the lives of brothers and sisters of William Shakespeare and can be found in the next section of

William Shakespeare Full and Short Biography

Biography of William Shakespeare - Lives of brothers and sisters - Joan, Margaret, Gilbert, Anne, Richard and Edmund

 The Parents of William Shakespeare

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