THE CHOSEN ONE

The son of the Snitterfield tenant farmer has packed his few belongings into a small bag and left the family home to travel five miles to the local town of Stratford upon Avon.

It is one of the most remarkable journeys he will ever make in his life.

The year is 1551.  It is late October and the first frost of the winter has hit hard on the ground.

He makes the two hour journey on foot.

Little does he know yet but the world is about to change beneath his feet.

His name is John Shakespeare.  He is twenty one years old.

John Shakespeare is a craftsman of a sort and he knows a thing or two also about gathering in the barley from the corn fields, malting it and turning it into ale.

He has connections in Stratford which will provide board and lodging for him.

Stratford is a small provincial town in middle England with a population of around two thousand people housed in a couple hundred tenements.

Red brick may grandly house magistrate Thomas Lucy as Lord of the Manor at nearby Charlecote but it has yet to make an appearance in downtown Stratford where thatched stone cottages are very much the norm.

The town is strategically positioned on the river Avon and on a trade route going south to London and north to Birmingham traversed at the stone built Clopton Bridge.

John Shakespeare cannot read or write but he is confident about making a future in this town.

He plans to set up a small shop making and selling gloves and products from wool, utilizing the resources from the land and the livestock at his father’s farm.

One day, he might be an ale taster, a borough constable, an alderman, a bailiff, a town mayor, a magistrate, a member of parliament.

You never know but hey John you had better hold your horses there!

Sometimes, an ambitious young man can be too big for his boots.

But a young man can certainly dream.

Stratford is most notable at this time for the Grammar School which has recently been founded in its constituency by the young King Edward VI, the last of a bunch as it would turn out.

Alehouses, taverns and inns are everywhere.

Local peasants and yeomen mingle with rogues, vagabonds, tramps, whores and entertainers.

The aristocratic gentry are the City Fathers and Puritans who hold the upper hand.

The simple huts of the hermit are ayonder, blending into the Warwickshire countryside with priories and monasteries.

Castles with royal connection are a few miles northward to Warwick and Kenilworth.

Ale is the drink of the common people, the English peasant.

It is mainly brewed at home by the wife, fermented into malt from barley grown in the local fields.

Sometimes hops is also added to turn the alcoholic beverage into beer but ale remains the locals favourite tipple.

No doubt John Shakespeare watched his mother work with the mash bucket to do the malting in the brewing house during his childhood.

A spanking new silver sixpence buys a jug of ale to last an evening.

A half crown will do for a gathering.

The swagger of drinking to excess has prompted government legislation to curb it but it is difficult to police control in a small country town like Stratford.

The Bawd, nevertheless, requires a licence.

John Shakespeare must have thought the alehouse as a shabby, smelly, unsophisticated  place serving the lower rungs of Elizabethan society.

It was the unlikely place for bawdy entertainment of ballad singers, jugglers, actors and exhibitors of exotic wonders, not to mention clandestine marriages, dowry negotiation, betrothals and even wife sales.

The ale is served by a buxom barmaid who might otherwise be described as a wrench or a tapster.

As for the ale itself, it is best described as sickening to taste, cloudy like horses urine with husks on top.

No wonder it was not the preferred taste of everyone and by adding hops, beer was becoming more popular.

John Shakespeare was a man on a mission.

The ‘pub talk’ among the frequenters of the alehouse is of the chosen one.

When the young King passes into the next life, as he surely will, the expectancy is that Princess Mary, as catholic in her faith as a bunch of red roses, will inherit the thone of England and parity will be restored.

Her tying of the knot with Spain’s Prince Phillip is just over the horizon.

But the greater talk is of of an usurper who has no legal right to be crowned King or Queen and a conspiracy among people of influence not a million miles away from the lodgings of John Shakespeare.

And walls have ears.

John Shakespeare, like a great many Stratfordians, is staunchly catholic in his faith and he is not likely to be persuaded to convert to protestantism virtue of a young King ineffective in his rule and who is in his last days with an incurable sickness.

Or indeed persuaded by his successor.

If the granting of a grammar school charter to Stratford was a deliberate ploy, it was not going to fool the townfolk who are not of little (catholic) faith.

No sooner has John Shakespeare arrived and settled into the town than there is an outbreak of sweating sickness.

Many think that this is the same sickness which has afflicted the young King, so locals are not surprisingly cautious of newcomers to the town.

That includes the young man called John Shakespeare and a vetting process is in place.

It is barely a quarter of a century since the much beloved King Henry VIII ended his marriage to first of six wives Catherine of Aragon which led to the rise of the alternative protestant faith in the first place.

Over time, John Shakespeare has nurtured an affection for Mary Arden, the youngest daughter of Robert Arden, the proprietor of his Father’s Farm and prosperous farmer at Wilnecote.

In the five years that have passed since he came to settle in Stratford, John Shakespeare has become a respected member of the community, setting up a leather and wool shop as part of a cottage he had bought a year ago on Henley Street.

Robert Arden passes away in the early Spring of 1556.

John Shakespeare sees an even greater opportunity than the one he first envisaged.

Mary Arden has come of age and  become the heiress of her Father’s farmstead.

John Shakespeare does not need to seek the permission or approval now of Robert Arden for his daughter’s hand in marriage.

All John Shakespeare needs to do is wait a year and a day.

He knows Mary Arden will not refuse him.

He returns home in 1557 to take Mary Arden as his bride.

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