Shakespeare’s father, John, came to Stratford from Snitterfield before 1532 as an apprentice glover and tanner of leathers. John Shakespeare prospered and began to deal in farm products and wool. It is recorded that he bought a house in 1552 (the date that he first appears in the town records), and bought more property in 1556. Because John Shakespeare owned one house on Greenhill Street and two houses on Henley Street, the exact location of William’s birth cannot be known for certain.
Sometime between 1556 and 1558 John Shakespeare married Mary Arden, the daughter of the wealthy Robert Arden of Wilmecote and owner of the sixty-acre farm called Asbies. The wedding would have most likely taken place in Mary Arden’s parish church at Aston Cantlow, the burial place of Robert Arden, and, although there is no evidence of strong piety on either side of the family, it would have been a Catholic service, since Queen Mary I was the reigning monarch.
We assume neither John nor Mary could write — John used a pair of glovers’ compasses as his signature while Mary used a running horse — but it did not prevent them from becoming important members of the community. John Shakespeare was elected to a multitude of civic positions, including ale-taster of the borough (Stratford had a long-reaching reputation for its brewing) in 1557, chamberlain of the borough in 1561, alderman in 1565, (a position which came with free education for his children at the Stratford Grammar School), high bailiff, or mayor, in 1568, and chief alderman in 1571. Due to his important civic duties, he rightfully sought the title of gentleman and applied for his coat-of-arms in 1570 (see picture on left). However, for unspecific reasons the application was abruptly withdrawn, and within the next few years, for reasons just as mystifying, John Shakespeare would go from wealthy business owner and dedicated civil servant to debtor and absentee council member.
By 1578 he was behind in his taxes and stopped paying the statutory aldermanic subscription for poor relief. In 1579, he had to mortgage Mary Shakespeare’s estate, Asbies, to pay his creditors. In 1580 he was fined 40 pounds for missing a court date and in 1586 the town removed him from the board of aldermen due to lack of attendance. By 1590, John Shakespeare owned only his house on Henley Street and, in 1592 he was fined for not attending church.
However, near the very end of John Shakespeare’s life, it seems that his social and economic standing was again beginning to flourish. He once again applied to the College of Heralds for a coat-of-arms in 1596, and, due likely to the success of William in London, this time his wish was granted. On October 20 of that year, by permission of the Garter King of Arms (the Queen’s aid in such matters) “the said John Shakespeare, Gentlemen, and…his children, issue and posterity” were lawfully entitled to display the gold coat-of-arms, with a black banner bearing a silver spear (a visual representation of the family name “Shakespeare”). The coat-of-arms could then be displayed on their door and all their personal items. The motto was Non sanz droict or not without right. The reason cited for granting the coat-of-arms was John Shakespeare’s grandfather’s faithful service to Henry VII, but no specifics were given as to what service he actually performed. The coat-of-arms appears on Shakespeare’s tomb in Stratford.
In 1599 John Shakespeare was reinstated on the town council, but died a short time later, in 1601. He was probably near seventy years old and he had been married for forty-four years. Mary Shakespeare died in 1608 and was buried on September 9.
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Brooke, Tucker. Shakespeare of Stratford. New Haven: Yale UP, 1926.
Child, Harold. English Drama to 1642. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature. An Encyclopedia in Eighteen Volumes. 2000. http://bartleby.com. (04/04/00).
Hosking, G.L. The Life and Times of Edward Alleyn. London: Jonathan Cape, 1952.
Rowse, A.L. Shakespeare the Man. London: Macmillan, 1973.
Speaight, Robert. Shakespeare: The Man and his Achievement. New York: Stein and Day, 1977.