THE MARRIAGE OF JOHN SHAKESPEARE AND MARY ARDEN

This is the story of the marriage of the parents of William Shakespeare, surely the most famous ever citizen of the English town of Stratford upon Avon.

John Shakespeare married Mary Arden in 1557.

Their marriage produced eight children but not all survived.

William Shakespeare was the third born on 23rd April 1564, St. George’s Day,  and was baptized at the local Holy Trinity Church three days later, as was the custom of the time.

At the time of the marriage, John was twernty-seven and Mary just twenty,

Mary was the youngest of eight daughters of the widowed Robert Arden, a prosperous farmer at Wilmcote who had died a year before.

The Arden family had been highy respected ever since the times of the Norman Conquest and their credentials are recorded in the Doomsday Book.

John Shakespeare, alas, was the son of a tenant farmer who grazed livestock on land rented from the Arden family at nearby Snitterfield.

Mary inherited her father’s farmstead and land on his death.

Mary Arden was a heiress and came from arisocratic well to do bloodline whereas John Shakespeare was a mere yeoman and a nobody.

There is, however every reason to suppose that the two knew each other from childhood and apart from the obvious farming connection, both the Arden and Shakespeare families retained catholic sympathies in spite of the new wave of protestantism which had swept across England under the reign of Elizabeth I.

There is also every reason to think that Robert Arden would have strongly opposed his daughter’s marriage to a man below her station in life, had he lived to see it happen.

Nevertheless, the couple saw out the decreed passing of a year after Robert Arden’s death and the marriage took place, it is believed, at the church chapel of Aston Cantlow.

If William Shakespeare was perceived during his life as an opportunist, then it is fair to say that he was no more than a’chip off the old block’ from his father John.

John Shakespeare was to prove himself as an accomplished craftsman and ambitious businessman.

It is not hard to imagine that Mary Arden would have been impressed by his plans to aspire and raise his station in life from yeoman to gentleman.

In the few years before he married Mary Arden, John Shakespeare had already begun building the platform for his own future and that of a future family.

In 1551, when he was twenty one, he left the family farm at Snitterfield and settled in the nearby town of Stratford upon Avon.

This was the beginning.

Mary Arden was still a child of fourteen years then but it is not improbable to suppose that John Shakespeare was taking the first steps in a masterplan to wed a wealthy farmers daughter and enhance his own status and reputation as a direct result.

Within those few years, John Shakespeare had applied his craftsman-like skills and his knowledge of farming to set up a small shop in Stratford from which he could make and sell saddles, harnasses and fine leather gloves.

So much so that he was able to purchase a cottage on Henley Street in the heart of Stratford town and later on another property nearby.

Clearly, Mary Arden could not help but be impressed and they came to live at the Henley Street cottage immediately after their marriage.

No doubt the combination of John Shakespeare’s sense of enterprise and the good Arden family name presented opportunities to the young man in a town of only two hundred houses and fifteen hundred people at that time.

One of John Shakespeare’s first elevations in civic status came shortly after his marriage when he became the official ale-taster for Stratford town.

Ale was an important commodity in the Elizabethan era with fresh clean safe water a rarity and milk only consumible after calving.

Over time, John Shakespeare and his son William could come to know well the importance of growing barley in the Warwickshire fields surrounding Stratford upon Avon and the conversion of it into malt which would produce the ale so precious to survival.

The marriage of John Shakespeare and Mary Arden certainly enjoyed a few years of great prosperity.

John Shakespeare aspired from ale-taster to Borough Constable, Borough Chamerlain and Alderman, town Mayor and would have known everything that was worth knowing about on a daily basis.

He held a position of influence and could start a secondary business as a moneylender.

His eldest son at least, William, could be privileged to attend for free the local Grammar School.

John Shakespeare would have known town folk like James Burbage and would have been partly instrumental in encouraging the visit of visiting pageants for theatre performances.

These were early days in an entertainment trend which would not cease and which would, unknown to him at that time, would sow the seeds for the ambitions of his eldest son.

John Shakespeare may well have felt to an extent that he was above the law and it was not necessary to pay all his taxes.

Tax evasion must have been as common then as it is today if someone has the mindset to do it.

But this was perhaps just one reason for his downfall and the plight which would blight the Shakespeare family of John and Mary for a number of years.

There are several factors behind the downfall.

The first is that John Shakespeare had portrayed himself to be something he was not.

Being moderately successful in local business did not gloss over the fact that he was no more than an illiterate yeoman farmer’s son.

An upstart crow to coin a phrase which was later used by a writer to refer to his then aspiring son William.

The Shakespeare and Arden families did not negate or seem to break the practice of their catholic faith in face of the rising protestant tide.

Added to this was John Shakespeare’s long-term goal to aspire to become a gentleman and honour a likely promise he made to Mary Arden on occasion of their marriage.

Not only that but his moneylending activities could only have led to the making of enemies and thereby compromising his otherwise comfortable existence..

It is not entirely improbable that he did not have the best of relations with fellow aldermen and councillors or that he was the upstanding member of the community that history wishes us to think he was throughout this time.

The consequences were drastic.

John was stripped of all his civic responsibilities.

He mortgaged the farmstead which was the bulk part of Mary’s inheritance, sold some of her inherited property and yet was still unable to repay the debts he had somehow accumulated.

The only retained property during all this time was the cottage on Henley Street where it had all began.

The family problems were undoubtedly confounded by involvement in the hiding of catholic troublemakers sought by the State and the scandal brought to the family name by eighteen year old William’s relationship with a farmers daughter, Anne Hathaway, eight years older than him.

Was this not just another story of ‘chip off the old block’ but with a different twist?

A newspaper article might have carried the headline ‘Shakespeare marries a farmers daughter – Again!’if it could have been published.

Redemption only came in the last years of John’s life when his son William, now a wealthy man from writing and producing propular plays in London, was able to ‘wipe the slate clean’ for his father and earn the right to the coveted Coat of Arms.

‘Not of Right’ is perhaps never more appropriate in all the likely circumstances.

John Shakespeare died with relative dignity at the age of seventy-one in 1601 and was survived for seven more years by Mary until her death in 1608.

The birthplace of William Shakespeare, that cottage on Henley Street, as well as the Wilmcote farmstead at which Mary Arden was raised, are visited today by thousands of tourists whose curiosity is unceasing for the heritage of England’s greatest writer.

That is the story of John Shakespeare and Mary Arden.

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