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was pleased with his own hand to write an amicable letter to Mr. Shakespeare, which letter, though now lost, remained long in the hands of Sir Wm. D'avenant, as a credible person now living can testify." This unnamed witness was Sheffield, Duke of Buckingham, according to the note of Oldys.
Occasion will constantly occur, as our summary proceeds, to discuss the traditions recorded by Rowe; as these came down to him from D'avenant and the enquiries of Betterton, they are divided between the local source in Warwickshire and the memoirs that might be gleaned from the reassembled and reorganized companies of players,—in every case, therefore, they are worth attention, and while we put together the multifarious collections of later biographers, we must not be unjust to the first.
WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, then, was born at Stratford on Avon, in Warwickshire, in 1564, the sixth year of Elizabeth; his baptism is recorded on the 26th of April; but his precise birthday cannot be certainly determined; there is a glimmer of tradition, however, that his anniversary was the day of his death; this is recorded on his monument as the 23rd of April. It is quite consistent with the custom of the time that the child should have been carried to the font at three days old, and for the sake of unity in grateful associations, it seems agreed to assume this date-if not more probable than another, it is at least as much so.
The name of Shakespeare was and is widely diffused in Warwickshire and adjoining counties, and occurs in records with indication of every variety of station, gentleman, prioress, butcher, or shoemaker; but it is only by a link of conjecture that we can trace the line of the poet up to his grandfather. Of his father, John Shakespeare, we first catch sight as resident in Henley Street, Stratford, in 1552, when he incurred a fine there for a sterquinarium before his dwelling. In 1556, he was on jury of court leet at Stratford; was sued before John
Burbage, bailiff of the town, for £8, as a glover; sues another to recover barley, and acquired two copyhold tenements, with appurtenances,-one of them, in Henley Street, almost as good as freehold. It was either in this year or the next that he was elected upon the corporation, which consisted according to the charter, dated only in 1553, of fourteen aldermen and fourteen burgesses. He duly advanced through the successive offices and dignities of ale-taster, affeeror, constable, chamberlain, was elected an alderman in 1565, when his son William was in his second year, and bore charges in equal proportion with his fellows; in 1568 he became high bailiff of the town, and by virtue and for the duration of his office a justice of the peace, and thereafter was usually styled in the town registers Master John Shakespeare; he was head alderman for the ensuing year. One entry occurs of a payment to him by the corporation for timber; and in 1597, when the poet was fifteen, his father is styled in a deed Johannes Shakespeare "yeoman."
Thus we may safely say, that at the time of the birth of William Shakespeare, and at least for some years afterwards, his father was a substantial burgess of Stratford, taking rank with the best-considered men of the town,— grocers, haberdashers, and butchers though they might be. His transactions indicate common dependence upon trade and agriculture, the town and the farm; just that position, in fact, that has sufficient general agreement with the better account of Rowe, probably obtained through his descendants, that he had considerable dealings in wool, and with the less flattering version of the old parish clerk, that he was a butcher-as most yeomen and farmers, to say nothing of country gentlemen, occasionally are.
That John Shakespeare's family are mentioned in the town records as gentlemen, as implied by Rowe, does not now appear, and, indeed, he himself is the first who appears in them. Neither can implicit reliance be placed upon an extract from the Heralds' Office, which avers that in the year that he was bailiff he obtained a grant
of arms. I do not, however, entirely disbelieve it, though it may have been forged by the Heralds for an intelligible purpose. John Shakespeare seems to have ceased to be a glover some time previously, (for the trade only occurs once attached to his name,) and at this time to have been in prosperous circumstances; his wife, it is certain, was descended from a very ancient family, and the ambition, if not the sentiment of grade, which certainly animated his son, may have induced him to avail himself of an opportunity to secure a title to gentry.
There is clearly not sufficient evidence to found a decision, but enough is known to show that there was every opportunity for Shakespeare to be stimulated by a motive powerful with certain natures, the consciousness of title by descent and connection, to a higher rank than the gifts of fortune have confirmed.
John Shakespeare married in 1557, which may account for his neglectful attendance as aletaster, by which he incurred fine. His wife was Mary Arden, youngest daughter of Robert Arden, or Arderne, of Wilmecote, in the neighbouring parish of Aston Cantlowe, who has no better title in law papers than agricola, or husbandman, and evidently from the inventory of his house at death had the occupation of a yeoman, but nevertheless was not only of good descent, but possessed considerable landed property. Robert Arden was owner of houses and land at Snitterfield, about three miles from Stratford -his wife's jointure was here, and in 1550 had a Richard Shakespeare tenant of part of this property. As John Shakespeare had a brother Henry, and a Henry Shakespeare lived and died at Snitterfield, it is not unlikely, though not proved, that they were sons of the tenant of Robert Arden, and in any case the intercourse of the families is explained. Mary Arden and Alicia, the only unmarried sisters out of seven, were executors of their father's will, at his death at the end of 1556. Mary Arden inherited £6 13s. 4d. (ten nobles) in money, and a small estate in fee, in the parish of Aston Cantlowe, called Asbyes, consisting of a messuage, fifty acres of
arable land, six of meadow and pasture, with right of common, and in addition she had an interest in property in Snitterfield. If she was of age when she was left executrix, this would bring her to seventy-two when she died. Reckoning in like manner, from the first mention of John Shakespeare as a householder, he would be twenty-five when he married, and seventy-two at death. Their youngest child was born in 1580, when William Shakespeare, their eldest son, was sixteen; and this settles, approximately, all that is of interest, the relative ages of parents and child; the general probability being in favour of a lower age for Mary Shakespeare than forty-five at birth of last child.
The family of the Ardens had possessions adjoining the forest of Arden, or Arderne, and their pedigree is traced by Dugdale, without interruption, to Edward the Confessor. In later times, a Walter Arden married a daughter of John Hampden of Bucks, and was brother to Sir John Arden, Squire to the body of Henry VII., and grandfather to a Robert Arden, groom of the chamber to the same monarch, and from this junior branch, within the moderate limits of family tradition, was deducible the line of the mother of Shakespeare.
An Arden, a cousin of Mary Shakespeare, some degrees removed, was Sheriff of Warwickshire in 1568, the same year in which her husband reached the height of municipal honour as Bailiff. One of her sisters was married to an Edward Lambert, of Barton on the Heath, of whom we shall hear again.
It seems not improbable that the occupations of John Shakespeare were modified by the portion of land that he received with his wife, and in 1570 he rents a meadow (Ingon) of fourteen acres, at a rent implying that there was a good house upon it. His connection with the town, however, still continued; it was during his term as Chief Alderman, 1571-2, that Queen Elizabeth visited Sir Thomas Lucy at Charlecote, close to Stratford, of which town he was the most powerful and important neighbour. The corporation were at moderate charges
"for the Queen's provision;" here probably she heard the news of the massacre of St. Bartholomew. In 1575, Warwickshire was in excitement with the bustle and magnificence of her entertainment at Kenilworth. In this year, when William Shakespeare was eleven years old, his father bought two houses in Henley Street for £40; this is the last trace of his comparative prosperity; notes that ensue, scanty and scattered, are uniformly of a less cheerful cast, until better days came back by the successes of his son. The cause of his difficulties is not discoverable, but the hints of his proceedings suggest that it was rather from excessive than deficient activity; true, he could not, or did not write, but signed manfully with a mark; so, however, did most of his colleagues on the corporation, who would naturally be the busiest and most thriving men of the town. Some tradition of these embarrassments reached Rowe, but in ascribing them to a numerous family, his informant seems to have erred by misreading the register, and giving to the father of the poet the family of a namesake, a shoemaker. His last child, Edmund, was born when William was sixteen, making the fifth living, Gilbert being fourteen years old, Joan eleven, and Richard six. A sister Anne, however, had died the previous year, aged eight. Two daughters died in infancy, before the birth of William. Commentators have remarked, that at the funeral of Anne, 8d. was paid for bell and pall, an expense that was not generally incurred, and as difficulties were already accruing, it may be that they were aggravated, if not brought on by imprudences of ambition but we have said we will eschew conjecture.
While half the aldermen could not write, and perhaps not read, there were others who could read Latin and write it too, as their preserved letters avouch. From the time of Edward IV. (1482) the Guild of the Holy Cross of Stratford had held lands on condition of maintaining a priest competent to teach grammar, that is Greek and Latin, freely to all scholars of the town. After the disso