This is the story of a farm boy named John Shakespeare from the Warwickshire village of Snitterfield. John Shakespeare, born around 1530, was an opportunist and entrepreneur in life. His Son, William Shakespeare, would follow suit.
He married Mary Arden in 1557 the eldest Daughter of the landlord who owned the Farm which his Father tenanted and came into money for the first time. John Shakespeare and wife Mary moved to and settled in nearby Stratford upon Avon, at a time a modest market town with a population of under two thousand people. When Johns Father died in 1561, he came into an inheritance which enabled him to buy a double tenement cottage on Henley Street.
John needed a job and persuaded Master Glover Thomas Dixon to give him an apprenticeship. As a farm boy, John Shakespeare knew about Sheep and Wool. Wool was a valuable commodity in sixteenth century Elizabethan England and John Shakespeare was able to network many contacts while serving his glovemaking apprenticeship. It was not long before he branched out and became a wool brogger which would provide him with his prosperity.
John Shakespeare was well aware that wool brogging was illegal and he was cautious of anyone who might be a paid informant of his activities to the secret service of the Government. He began a process of asset preservation and liquidating land and property to avoid seizure. This also served the purpose of delaying tax payments. He was also a known catholic and Puritan magistrate Sir Thomas Lucy was one man who was intent on bringing Shakespeare to yield.
John Shakespeare, however, integrated well into Stratford town life. He became an Alderman, Bailiff, and finally Mayor and was a respected member of the community. He was no longer a glovemakers apprentice but a Whittaker and sought higher status as a Gentleman, not be burdened by the hardship and social stigma of manual labour. His application in 1576 for a Shakespeare Coat of Arms to the College of Guilds was compromised by the one man with whom he would perpetually draw swords, Sir Thomas Lucy.
Shakespeare held no real interest in Theatre but as town Mayor he did organize a performance of the Leicester Players at the Stratford Guild Hall in 1572. This was significant for a couple of reasons. His long-time friend James Burbage, Carpenter, was hired by Lord Leicester to join the acting Group while his own Son William would be so excited by the spectacle and drama of the event that he dreamed of one day becoming an actor and playwright himself.
The fortunes of John Shakespeare certainly took a tumble in 1576. Not only was the Coat of Arms Application compromised but the Queen herself had made a royal proclamation forbidding the activity of wool brogging and John Shakespeare was now facing litigation in Court for a number of unpaid debts. His trusted friends could no longer protect him and he found himself banished from the Stratford Council chamber, never to re-appear. Shakespeare and Arden family members found themselves indicted on trumped up charges of treason and one, John Somerville, was executed.
John Shakespeare was known to hold covert meetings at his Henley Street home . It was around this time that Jesuit Edmund Campion visited Stratford and may have conspired with John Shakespeare on a legitimate plot to depose Queen Elizabeth and place Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, on the throne. John was given a copy of the Borromeo testament which he kept in the rafters of his house, never to be found during his or Williams lifetime. This was enough to prompt Lucy’s henchmen to come a-calling and for John and son William to come within an inch of their lives on a near fearful night.
Stratford upon Avon was certainly no backwater in Elizabethan England and was on a main trade route between London and Birmingham. Edward VI, had seen fit to establish a Grammar School in the town, to which John Shakespeare was entitled to send his eldest Son William for free education and learn Latin and Greek. This was a privilege which John Shakespeare could no longer afford to continue in 1578, financially and for Williams personal safety, so he was sent away to a catholic seminary in Douai northern France on the advices of Simon Hunt, now a Jesuit Priest and previously tutor to William at the Grammar School.
The last years were unremarkable in particular, but surely John Shakespeare got the last laugh on Sir Thomas Lucy when the family Coat of Arms was finally granted in 1597. Sir Thomas Lucy died a year before John Shakespeare, yet ironically, both are buried at Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church within cursing distance of each other.
John Shakespeare was certainly a man of many secrets. He was also the Father of the man who would become England’s greatest Playwright and he, John Shakespeare, would play his part in his own Shakespeare Drama.
There is one other segment to the story that I have not yet told. We must go back to the summer of 1582 and a rendezvous which William Shakespeare had with Anne Hathaway which led to her pregnancy. Or did it? The sensation of my story is that John Shakespeare, not William, was the paternal father of Anne Hathaway’s child because she was John Shakespeare’s lover for several years and this affair continued for several years afterwards. Remarkably, John Shakespeare persuaded his own Son to marry his mistress which enabled John Shakespeare to live in the Henley Street cottages with wife Mary and mistress Anne. There were many reasons why William Shakespeare upped and left Stratford early 1585 and this was undoubtedly one of them. There is not a single shred of any evidence for this story and I may be the only person on the planet who believes it but John Shakespeare was on good terms with Anne’s Father, Richard Hathaway and John Shakespeare would have known Anne Hathaway as well as, if not better, than William who had just returned to Stratford from schooling in France.
A teaser for another Blog perhaps!