John Shakespeare

John Shakespeare (born c. 1530 – September 1601) was a glover and whittawer (someone who worked with white leather), farmer and later an alderman in Stratford-upon-Avon.

He was the father of William Shakespeare.

As with his son William, only a limited amount is known about John Shakespeare's life. It is possible, although not certain, that he was the son of a Mr. Richard Shakespeare of Snitterfield, a farmer, who was given land for his services to King Henry VII of England.

Early career

John Shakespeare was a successful and well connected man during the early part of his career and engaged in a respectable trade. On October 2, 1556, he purchased a large house in Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon, which would later be the birthplace of William. In 1556 John took up the first of several key municipal positions he was to hold in Stratford when he was elected borough ale taster. He was responsible for making sure that weights and measures and prices were observed correctly throughout the borough by innkeepers and publicans, but also by butchers, bakers and town traders. In 1558 John was made borough Constable - similar to a very early police constable. He also held government positions in the town and was a glove maker.

Marriage into the local gentry

He also married Mary Arden, one of the Ardens of Warwickshire, a local gentry family. It is not known when they married, but a date around 1557 is assumed as there is a baptismal record for a "Joan Shakespeare, daughter to John Shakespeare" dated September 15, 1558. The Shakespeares had eight children: Joan (1558), Margaret (1562-63), William (1564-1616), Gilbert (1566-1612), Joan (1569-1646), Anne (1571-79), Richard (1574-1613), and Edmund (1580-1607).

Municipal responsibilities

In 1559 John became an afeeror or affurer, a role where the holder was responsible for assessing fines for matters not handled by existing statutes. This role led on to his becoming a Burgess, then a chamberlain. He was obviously reliable, to be trusted, well connected and well known. He would have been known as a 'Goodman', a title that recognised his growing social status within Stratford.

By 1564, John was an alderman, a member of the Common Hall of Stratford, and it was in this year William was born. In 1568 John was appointed High Bailiff - mayor of Stratford in all but name and carrying the title 'Master'.

Risk taking and financial problems

However, John later seems to have fallen on hard times. He was recorded as among several local men who stayed away from Church services for fear of being arrested for debt. Because of this, he eventually lost his position as an alderman. Records suggest that he was also prosecuted (or threatened with prosecution at least) in the 1570s for illegal dealing in wool and for usury or money lending - both highly illegal activities. Such illicit trade would have been profitable to his glove business by avoiding the middleman. He seems to have been involved in illegal wool trading in a meaningful way - in 1570 he was accused of making loans worth £220 (equivalent to over £50,843 today in 2007) including interest to a Walter Mussum. Mussum was not a good risk - at his death his whole estate was worth £114 - or barely twice what John Shakespeare had seen fit to lend him. The financial risk was just one side of this high risk activity. The law described usury as 'a vice most odious and detestable' and levied severe penalties for those caught in such practices, even in a small way. The law stated that anyone caught lending money with interest illegally would forfeit all the money lent, plus forfeiture of any interest due, face a fine on top and also possible imprisonment. John was also engaged in trading wool illegally in 1571 when he acquired 300 tods or 8,400 pounds of wool, a large consignment.

In 1576 John decided to, or was made to, withdraw from public life in Stratford. He had been excused levies that he was supposed to pay by supportive townsmen and business associates and they kept his name on the rolls for a decade, perhaps hoping that in that time he would be able to return to public life and recover his financial situation. But he never did so.

He is mentioned in the local records in 1597 when he sold some property to George Badger, a draper. Shakespeare was buried on 8 September 1601.

In the 18th century, a tract signed by John Shakespeare, and promising to remain a Catholic in his heart, was found in the rafters of the house on Henley Street. It was seen and described by the scholar Edmond Malone. Though it was subsequently lost, a very similar copy of the formulaic text came to light in the twentieth century which showed the original to be very likely genuine, except for the first leaf which had been forged by John Jordan.

Shakespeare's family tree


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