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William Shakespeare’s father was a man named John Shakespeare. When you study William’s life you often hear about John Shakespeare, as many references to glove making in Shakespeare’s plays like the glover’s pairing knife in Merry Wives of Windsor come from an intimate knowledge with the glove making trade, which most assume came from William’s father John. When it comes to the life of John Shakespeare, however, the man was much more than a glover, having served also as an ale taster, alderman, and found himself embroiled in a great deal of legal and financial trouble that some historians believe contributed to our lack of records for Shakespeare’s grammar school days. To help us understand John Shakespeare better and explore the records we have of his life and how he came to be the father of the world’s greatest playwright, we welcome our guest, Bob Bearman, to tell us John’s story. 

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Bob Bearman was the Head of Archives at Shakespeare Birthplace Trust from 1970-2007, and is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Honorary Fellow of Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Honorary Research Fellow at the School of History at University of Birmingham, General Editor for the Publications of the Dugdale Society, Editor of the Warwickshire History, and a Member of Editorial Board of Midland History. Bob is the author of several books on Shakespeare including Shakespeare's Money: How much did he make and what did this mean? which was published in 2016 and features John Shakespeare, which is the topic Bob joins us to discuss today. Find a list of Bob’s books and publications as well as more information and resources in the show notes for today’s episode.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Bob Bearman about :

  • Did John Shakespeare grow up in Stratford Upon Avon?

  • John Shakespeare is most often described simply as “a glover” but with all these other civic duties as well, was John Shakespeare frequently changing jobs during his lifetime, or are we seeing a variety of occupations simply because we are examining a man’s entire life at once that we see so many professions?

  • Despite an initial success with the dealings in wool, it would be the wool industry that led to John Shakespeare’s irrecoverable financial trouble. Bob, what happened to land John Shakespeare in financial trouble? 

… and more!

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It shall be to your good; for my father's house and all the revenue that was old Sir Rowland's will I estate upon you, and here live and die a shepherd.
Oliver

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This is the main parish church in Snitterfield. It dates back to at least the 1340s (and possibly earlier.) I was unable to find out in time for this episode's publication how likely it would have been that John Shakepseare was baptised here, but it is certain he would have known about it and highly likely he visited there as a child. It is called St. James the Great at Snitterfield. This image is in the public domain. Source

John Shakespeare Was Born in Snitterfield

Spelled as Snitterfield, Snytenfeld, and Snitfield, this little village in England was known for the snipe that frequented meadows at this location and derived its' name from that lowly bird which was plentiful there. Today, the village of Snitterfield is overseen by the Straford on Avon District Council (according to Wikipedia), and is indeed quite close to Stratford Upon Avon.

John Shakespeare came to Stratford Upon Avon from Snitterfield sometime before 1552, which is the date when paper documents record him in regards to legalities of ownership of properties on Henley Street (I sourced that date from this book – fascinating background on John Shakespeare in the book Shakespeare's Family: Being a Record of the Ancestors and Descendants of William Shakespeare. With Some Account of the Ardens by Mrs. Charlotte Carmichael Stopes (2008). You can read it on Project Gutenberg here.)

Bob explains that, 

“[John Shakespeare] didn’t grow up [in Stratford Upon Avon] as a child, but we don’t know where he was born. The earliest registers start at 1538, and only a few then. Most under Elizabeth I. anyone before then, it’s only exceptional cases when we know when they were born or baptized. We know Richard (John’s father) Was a well to do , 1528 Snitterfirled, not as a freeholder, a copy holder on two manors there, died in 1561. Exactly how long the family had been there, we don’t know, but couldn’t have been too long because no town records mentions Richard. Shakespeare was very common name in that area. The location of Snitterfield homestead is identified today as Park View, partly timber framed, extended since, and once housed the Shakespeare family. John and his family would have known about Stratford, as a market was held there weekly. Any produce would have been sold there and major purchases were made there as well. It was basically the grocery store run for the Shakespeare family.” 

Determining exactly when John Shakespeare was born is done by backtracking from the date of his death. Bob shares that John Shakespeare died at an unsually old age of 75, in 1601, which makes a rough estimate of his birth to be around 1526. 

We know when he moved to Stratford Upon Avon as a guess based on documents that place him in Stratford Upon Avon professionally, and owning property. Bob explains,

“1556, [he was] trading as a glover in the town [meaning Statford Upon Avon]. To learn that trade he must have apprenticed somewhere first and that was most likely done in Stratford. It was usual to do that for 7 years, places him in the town by 1548 at the latest. April 1552, first appears in Stratford’s written records, fined 12 pence each for making a muck heap in the street instead of putting it in an authorized place. Henley street is where he bought the freehold of a property (perhaps that he was renting up until then). Quite young to buy a house, but after he moved to Stratford the time matches up [with the appromiated date of being] born 1526, apprenticed in 1540s, and freeman, latest in 1547, age of 21. That would have allowed him 5 years or so to build up resources to buy a house.” 

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Shakespeare's Birthplace Stratford| This is one of the properties on Henley Street purchased by John Shakepseare. Despite his financial issues, John Shakespeare retained ownership of this house until his death, and passed the property to his son, William Shakespeare. The image is done by an unknown author – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ppmsc.08872. This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information. | “Photographs in this collection were published before 1923 and are therefore in the public domain.”| Source

John Shakespeare Married & Settled In Stratford Upon Avon

While we do not have records of exactly how or where John Shakespeare met Mary Arden, Bob explains that we do know that Mary was unmarried when she was mentioned in the Wilmcote willl. Bob explains this information helps us piece together a timeline for her marriage to John Shakespeare:

John’s wife was Mary Arden, single when Wilmcote mentioned her in his will. John and MAry’s first child was baptized 1558, implying they had married about a year earlier. This ties in nicely with the life plan of John Shakespeare establishing himself as independent first then pursuing a trade. Tended to delay the first marriage of men into their 20s. He would have been around 31 when he married. Mary Arden was fatherless by 1556, inheriting substantial property, and Robert Arden was one of John Shakespeare’s landlords.

Records indicate John Shakespeare was appointed to the position of town ale-taster in 1556. Bob explains that while this was a town office, it was considered a minor role.

[Ale -taster was a] minor office to hold. [A] corporation was setup by charter in 1553 to manage aspects of local government. Ale taster was to supervise the production of ale and bread. [This officer] regulated prices according to the price of wheat, barley, and oats. Stratford appointed two [ale tasters and] John [Shakepseare] was one of them for 1556-1557. Ale tasters were junior post holders, but the significance of this appointment is that he must have been of sufficient repute to attract the corporation’s attention. The previous AUgust, he was sworn as the local court’s jury, and that wouldn’t have happened if the corporation wasn’t already looking at him for roles like ale-taster. JOhn was a town constable for 1557-1558 and 1558-59, this made him a candidate for promotion to capital burgess, the 14 men who formed the lower tier of the official governing body. We don’t know when he made it that far, but 1560, is approximately what we expect. Treasurer 1562, that was a post that was almost always reserved for capital burgess rank. Alderman 1565, high bailiff 68-69.

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This is an example of a glove made in the late 17th century, dated 1620. As a glover, John Shakespeare would have created fashionable gloves like this one for people to wear.” The gloves are sewn from white suede which has the meat side outwards. The fingers are sewn together with coarse, light thread. The thumb is sewn with a seam on the inside. The entire glove, including the collars, is lined with a red silk velvet with a long fringe. It is probably a pair of gloves intended for winter use. The outside of the collar is upholstered in white silk and lined with coarse white linen. Surface embroidery of silver and gold thread, cantilevers and sequins. The cantilevers attached to the fabric with yellow silk. The embroidery is the same on both sides of the collar. It consists of a border field around the edges and a middle field with abstract loops and volutes. There are also remnants of embroidery around the thumb seam. The edges of the collar look unfinished. The joint between the lining and the embroidery is completely open.
In the 1790 dressing room inventory, one of the gloves is stated to have a low gold fringe. The gloves have disappeared from the inventory of 1801 but were written for in the 1812 edition, now without the gold fringe being mentioned.” This description is roughly translated from the original Swedish description. Read the original and find more details about the gloves here.| This file was provided to Wikimedia Commons by Livrustkammaren (The Royal Armoury) as part of a cooperation project with Wikimedia Sverige. All artworks in the photographs are owned by the museum and in the public domain due to age. The photographs themselves are either public domain due to age or the copyright is held by the museum which has made it available as CC0 or licensed it with the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

John Shakespeare Ran Into Substantial Money Issues

John Shakespeare is most often described simply as “a glover” but served also as an ale taster and dealer in wool. I became curious as to whether it was common for a man in the 16th century to change jobs, or hold multiple positions, as traditionally we only hear of men training in apprenticeship for one joh then doing that vocation for the rest of their lives. Bob explains that for John Shakespeare, he was not so much changing jobs as he was diversifying his income:

“[John Shakespeare is] described as a glover or whittower, on 5 occasions, no doubt this was his only trade. Another description was yeoman or farmer, [which] occurs more often than glover, over the same period. Explained at least until the late 1570s, by the fact that he was responsible for farming Wilmcote (Arden’s land when she married him) and land father Richard had in Snitterfield. Like man artisan/craftsman, who also had back up interests in working the land. Not a matter of changing jobs, but setting himself up as a specialist, artisans, but not letting go of life he inherited. And he also dealth in wool.” 

Some historians credit the reference to a glover’s pairing knife in William Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor with an intimate knowledge with the glove making trade, which most assume came from William’s father, John. In addition to ale taster and glove maker, John Shakespeare is listed in official records as dealing in wool with an expression “wool brogger” being used to describe John Shakespeare. Bob explains that working in wool was a by product of being a glover in the first place: 

“[A] glover needed leather from hide of sheep, and would have had a lot of wool on his hands [Cassidy's note: from raising the sheep and skinning them to make the leather]. [Being a wool brogger in addition to a glove maker would have been] circumstantial really, [he] could have purchased his sheep skins, but clear that glovers specifically either [sourced their sheep] from purchased sheep or ones they harvested themselves; [either way, glovers] ended up with substantial amounts of wool leftover they needed to do something with. Sheep skins weren’t tanned in the way cow skin was to make shoes,belts, or buckets, but were tawed instead to be a more delicate leather “white leather” paired to the necessary thickness to soften it. This was bont the traditional leather process. That’s how he came up with fell wool, and he decided to sell it on. Could become a middle man, or broker, “brogger” of selling wool. Buying shorn wool and selling it, mainly for export. Brogger is a small scale middle man for owners of smaller flocks, after first getting into the business by selling their own fell wool. Remarkably profitable.1568, allegedly involved in sell of 21 todds (600 lbs) of wool. Astonishing 8400lb (300 todds) quite high in midlands wool dealers. Legal cases, exaggerated sums always bandied about, do confirm he was in the wool business.”

Despite an initial success with the dealings in wool, it would be the wool industry that led to John Shakespeare’s irrecoverable financial trouble. Bob explains that despite wool trading being a product of the glove making industry, 

“Technically speaking what he was doing contravened enact of Parliament, which restricted the sale of wool either direct ot manufacterrs or woolen goods, and this act was passed when prices was high and designed to cut out the broggers, and protext the interest of the big merchants who were having trouble exporting wool. Informants stood to gain by threatening to reportoffenders to court. If the blackmail didn’t work and the case went against the defendant, the informant would get a reward. One of these informants 1570 reported John Shakespeare, selling it at more than the allowed rate of interest, followed up with accusations that John was involved in those two sales of wool before mentioned, and as a brogger he wasn’t allowed. Imprisoned, then banned from bringing in any further. 1570s wool prices on the rise, government took actions against broggers to protext merchants, this could have impacted his business interests, but on the other hand he should have been able to fall bacon his other trade (glovers) to tide him over. 1570s serious trouble. Overreached himself, ran out of credit. Details unclear.” 

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This is an image I took of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford Upon Avon, England, in 2018. Holy Trinity Church records indicate John Shakespeare was buried here in 1601. Photograph is by Cassidy Cash. Licensed under Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0

John Shakespeare died a gentleman, at 75


It is always surprising to me that after years of suffering extensive financial trouble, and seemingly insurmountable debt woes, in 1596, John Shakepseare is granted an official Coat of Arms, declaring him to be a gentleman (with all the rights and priviledges therein). I would give credit to William Shakespeare’s success as a playwright by this time, but seeing as the coat of arms was given to William’s father–not William, I was confused. Bob explains that the process of acquiring the coat of arms may help shed light on how this came to be: 

“William [was] behind the general improvements in John’s fortunes by this time. Why would William bother to get involved? Major clue [to that is] in New Place [acquired] 1597, [the] second largest house in Stratford. [William was] involved in considerable outlay. By then he must have been financially secure [William], in was in a year or two either side of this that the grant was made, and that John recovered his wife’s land at Wilmcote, and revived a case 30 years old to recover a debt of 21 lbs, setting the family back on it’s feet, ostensibly in the name of John Shakespeare, but probably William [was] pulling strings in the background. William would have know the coat of arms would have passed to him at John’s death, William likely saw it as his duty. 1570s,witnessed his father’s undoing, he’d made things worse by marrying while in his teens, so it could be that he felt personally guilty for the trouble he’d brought in by marrying and having children. New Place [was the] first venture into real estate, [which] make it clear [that] at his first opportunity that his family had regained his status, possibly even reconciliation with his father.” 

John Shakespeare would live several more years after seeing his fortune restored and his good name firmly set. He lived an extraordinarily long life for the early 17th century, passing away at the age of 75. Bob shares:

[John Shakespeare was buried] 8 Sept 1601, [he] died two or three days before. [We] don't know the nature of his death, [there is] nothing to suggest he died of anything other than old age. Carried off by an illness that a younger person would have fought off. Buried in Stratford Upon Avon, entered in the register as Master John Shakespeare, [the title] “Master” recognized his former positions as alderman, deliberately chose this instead of [calling himself] “Gentleman”, even though he was entitled to the title “Gentleman”. We don’t know whether William was at the burial (he might have needed to be sent for since he was in London). [John Shakespeare's] will doesn’t survive. Will makers often made a request to be buried in the church.

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Download this Stratford Upon Avon Watercolor Print

Completed in pen, pencil, and watercolor by Cassidy Cash, this Stratford Upon Avon print features 8 real life properties located in Stratford Upon Avon, England, from the life of William Shakespeare in one beautiful print. Celebrate your love of Shakespeare by downloading your free copy when you sign up for our email newsletter. The newsletter goes out on Mondays with episode notifications, and as a subscriber you get artwork like this one every month, completely free.

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