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The life of William Shakespeare

Shakespeare was baptised in Holy Trinity, parish church of Stratford upon Avon, on 26th April 1564, the third child of John Shakespeare and Mary Arden.  The date of his birth is uncertain, but rumour developed in the 18th century that he was born on 23rd April, St George’s Day.  There is no evidence to support this, but given his baptism date, it is likely he was born between 21st and 23rd April, in Henley St, Stratford upon Avon, in part of a building now known as Shakespeare’s Birthplace.

By the time Shakespeare’s father married Mary Arden, some time between 1556-8, he had established himself as a successful glover and whittawer (a dresser of light-coloured leather).  He bought a house and garden in Henley Street in 1556, and continued to buy property in the town.  The couple’s first child, Joan, was born in September 1558 and probably died in infancy.  A second child, Margaret, baptised in December 1562, was buried the following April.  A year later Mary gave birth to William.  At the time of his birth Stratford was in the grip of a devastating plague outbreak which killed one in eight of the town’s population.  Mary and John would go on to have five more children: Gilbert (1566-1612), another Joan (1569-1646), Anne (1571- 1579), Richard (1574-1613) and Edmund (1580-1607).


John Shakespeare had risen through the ranks to become one of fourteen burgesses of Stratford.  In 1565 he became an alderman and in 1568 he was elected bailiff for the year, one of the highest offices in the town. In spite of this rapid professional expansion and success, by the end of the 1570s John Shakespeare was in financial difficulties.  In 1578 he mortgaged some of his wife’s inheritance, which he lost in 1580.  He stopped attending council meetings after 1576, and was replaced as alderman in 1586.  In 1592 his name appeared on a list of nine people wanted by the authorities for recusancy, that is, refusing to attend church.  His excuse was listed as ‘for feare of processe for Debtte’.  Some scholars have concluded from this that John was attempting to conceal his secret Catholicism, and in 1790 a bricklayer claimed to have found a manuscript in the roof of Henley St detailing John Shakespeare’s commitment to Catholicism.  However doubts remain about its authenticity, and even if it were genuine, there is no reason to assume William shared his father’s Catholic convictions.

During John Shakespeare’s tenure as bailiff, two theatre companies visited Stratford, and there is every reason to suppose that William would have attended these performances as other children did.  During the period that William was in continuous residency in Stratford, at least thirteen different visits by companies of players provided him with the opportunity to experience live dramatic theatrical performances in the town.

 King’s New School

No records survive of Shakespeare’s education, but it is widely assumed he attended King’s New School, Stratford; a successful grammar school.  During his schooling he would have learned a huge amount of Latin literature and history; he would have read Cicero, and Seneca, Virgil and Ovid, and the comedies of Plautus and Terence.  The teaching methods of the time would have ensured he was trained in the arts of composition, rhetoric, and memory.

Shakespeare probably left school at around the age of 15, and several options would have been open to him, including becoming an apprentice in his father’s glove trade.  Many rumours place Shakespeare in Lancashire after leaving school, either as a school teacher or as a servant and player in a wealthy household.  However if we rely on the evidence, all we know for certain was by 1582 Shakespeare was in Stratford, marrying Anne Hathaway at the age of 18.  Anne was nine years older than William, and pregnant by the end of the summer 1582; the marriage was performed after only one reading of the banns, rather than the usual three, a sure sign that it was rushed in order to conceal a pregnancy.  Six months after the marriage, on 26th May 1583, Susanna Shakespeare was baptised, followed on 2nd February 1585 by twins Hamnet and Judith.  After the birth of the twins, up until 1592, details of Shakespeare’s life are sketchy.  One rumour which has passed down through the centuries is that he was caught poaching deer from Sir Thomas Lucy’s estate at Charlecote, and was forced to escape to London to avoid prosecution.

The next documented evidence we have about his life is from a pamphlet printed in London in 1592 by Robert Greene, or possible Henry Chettle, who attacks Shakespeare as an ‘upstart Crow’ and a ‘player’.  Whatever Shakespeare had been involved with between 1585 and 1592, it is clear that by 1592 he was known as an actor, and in addition, according to the pamphlet, a playwright.  No evidence remains of how skilled Shakespeare was as an actor. He is named as first in a list of Principle Actors in the first folio of 1623, and also appears in the lists of actors in Ben Jonson’s Workes in 1616.

It is possible Shakespeare had joined the Queen’s Men.  They performed in Stratford in 1587 and their repertory included plays which would later serve as sources for Shakespeare’s own plays, including The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Richard III and Henry V.  By 1592 Shakespeare had almost certainly completed his Henry VI cycle, and The Taming of The Shrew also dates to this time. Between 1592 and 1594 the theatres were closed due to the plague.  While they were closed it was tradition for the theatre companies to tour the provinces. However the publication of Venus and Adonis in 1593, dedicated to the earl of Southampton, suggests Shakespeare was continuing to write.  By 1594, with the reopening of the playhouses, Shakespeare was writing all his plays for the newly-formed Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  Payments to the company for their court performances over Christmas 1594 name Shakespeare, Will Kemp, and Richard Burbage as the leading actors; highlighting their pre-eminence among the company’s players.  From 1594-5 the Chamberlain’s Men performed The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Richard II, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Shakespeare’s plays were now also starting to appear in print.  Over the next two years he wrote The Merchant of Venice and Much Ado about Nothing, but in 1596 Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died, and many scholars see his subsequent outpouring of grief in plays like Twelfth Night and Hamlet.


Shakespeare’s continued success as a playwright enabled him to purchase New Place in Stratford in May 1597.  It was reputed to be the second biggest house in the town, with five gables, ten fireplaces, two barns, two gardens and two orchards.  The prices was in excess of £120.  He made many of his investments in Stratford rather than London. In May 1602 he paid the hefty sum of £320 for 107 acres of land in Old Town, Stratford; and the year before he had acquired a cottage in Chapel Lane in order to extend New Place. By 1605 he was able to pay £440 for a share in the tithes of Stratford, bringing in £60 a year. So in less than ten years Shakespeare had made enough money from the playhouses to invest almost £900 in his home town, over £90,000 in today’s terms.

Shakespeare continued to live in London during this period.  In 1596 he was living in the parish of St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, and by 1599 he had moved to the parish of the Clink, close to the site of the newly built Globe Theatre on Bankside.  The Globe had been constructed and built by the Chamberlain’s Men, and the first play performed there, soon after its opening in 1599, was Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. With the accession of James I in 1603 the Chamberlain’s Men were elevated to new heights when the king became their patron. For the king’s entry into London in 1604 Shakespeare and other players were each given four and a half yards of red cloth, possibly so they could march in the royal procession.  The newly-formed King’s Men performed regularly at court; between 1604 and 1605 they had played over eleven different plays for the king, including Measure for Measure, Othello, The Merchant of Venice and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

The Globe

From 1605-6m Shakespeare produced some of his greatest tragedies; King Lear, Macbeth, Timon of Athens and Antony and Cleopatra.  Records of Shakespeare’s friends and family provide other suggestions about his life at this time.  Augustine Phillips, a fellow sharer in the King’s Men, died in 1604, leaving‘my ffellowe william Shakespeare a Thirty shillings peece in gould’  It is reasonable to assume that his fellows in the theatre company were among his closest friends. William Barksted, a minor playwright, wrote warmly of Shakespeare as ‘so deere lov’d a neighbor’

During this time his daughter Susanna married the doctor John Hall.  Shakespeare’s younger brother Edmund came to London to become a player, but only a year later both he and his infant son were dead. In 1608 Shakespeare became a grandfather when Susanna gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth.  By 1609 almost half of Shakespeare’s plays had appeared in print, and the King’s Men had acquired the lease to the Blackfriars Theatre, an indoor playhouse which was far smaller than the Globe, but offered a much greater scope for stage devices and machinery, as well as music.  It also charged much higher admission prices than the Globe. This new playhouse presented some technical challenges for Shakespeare, which he responded to in The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, and The Tempest between 1609-11.

By 1613 Shakespeare had invested in London property, buying the gatehouse of the old Dominican priory in Blackfriars, close to the new theatre. It was large enough for him to let part of it out, and it was probably here that he now resided whenever he was in London.  In June of the same year the Globe theatre burnt down during a performance of Henry VIII.  The shareholders decided to rebuild it, with each sharer contributing between £50 and £100.  However by the time Shakespeare made his will in 1616 he was no longer a shareholder in the Globe, and it is likely he decided to end his involvement in the playhouse at the time it burned down.

Holy Trinity, Stratford upon Avon

Where Shakespeare spent the final years of his life is uncertain.  There is no evidence he retired to Stratford.  In November 1614 Thomas Greene, Stratford’s town clerk from 1603 to 1617, who repeatedly refers to Shakespeare as his cousin, was in London and noted that, Shakespeare ‘commyng yesterday to towne I went to see him howe he did.’  In January 1616 Shakespeare drafted his will, and in April of the same year he died.  What Shakespeare died from is unclear.  John Ward, a clergyman living in Stratford in the 1660s recorded that ‘Shakespear, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting, and itt seems drank too hard, for Shakespear died of a feavour there contracted’  He was buried two days later in Holy Trinity; inside rather than outside, since his ownership of Stratford tithes made him a lay rector.  The epitaph, possibly written by him, and warning future generations to leave his bones where they lie, was inscribed on the grave, though the grave may not originally have been where the stone is now placed.  Anne lived until 1623 (she was buried on 8th August) but her tombstone makes no mention of her husband.

 Shakespeare memorial, Westminster Abbey


Sources: Multiple, including Park Honan; Peter Holland.  See Useful Reading. For more on Shakespeare and the Globe see some earlier posts.


© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved
Biography Crime

The Real Robin Hood

Today’s snippets are on the search for the real Robin Hood.

Robin Hood is almost impossible to identify with any degree of accuracy since there is little concrete evidence which survives, and the man so quickly morphed into a folk hero and criminal outlaw that the Robin we think of today is in fact a composite of many men.

Three early writers did attempt to locate Robin in an historical context. In 1420 Andrew Wyntoun referred to a Robin Hood and Little John during the years 1283-5. Walter Bower mentions a Robin Hood and a Little John in his continuation of Fordun’s Scotichronicon, 1266. And in 1521 John Mair placed Robin Hood and Little John in the reign of Richard I. John Mair’s date is probably the most historically accurate, since Robin was almost certainly a legendary outlaw by 1261-2. This date is further supported by a certain Robert Hod, a fugitive who failed to attend a hearing at the York assize in 1225, and whose belongings, worth 32s.6d., were then forfeited. Thomas Gale, dean of York 1697-1702, left a note among his papers that Robin died on 24th December 1247.

According to J Holt, Hood’s biographer, Robin was an active criminal in 1193-4, was outlawed in 1225, and dead by 1247. Robert Hod is almost certainly the original Hood. When an account of his chattels was published in 1227 he was recorded as ‘Hobbehod’.

There have been attempts to match historical incidents with real people in order to uncover Robin Hood. The first stories about him come from 1450, including Robin Hood and the Monk, a manuscript which includes a prayer against robbers. It is purportedly a thrilling story of revenge and treachery. Robin is betrayed to the sheriff by a knavish monk while at worship in the church of St Mary, Nottingham. He is then rescued from Nottingham Castle by Little John and the rest of the gang. Robin Hood and the Potter, part of a manuscript collection  written shortly after 1503, in which Robin, after challenging and fighting a travelling potter, takes the potter’s dress and wares in order to inveigle his way into Nottingham Castle and lure the sheriff to the outlaw lair in Sherwood. The Gest of Robyn Hode, collected in the fifteenth century, is another collection of tales.’It includes what is perhaps the earliest story of all, the tale of the impoverished knight. In this story, Robin assists a knight who has mortgaged his lands to the abbot of St Mary’s, York, by robbing the monks themselves to repay the loan. The knight later becomes Sir Richard of the Lee who fortifies his castle to protect Robin and his men from the vengeful sheriff.’ The Gest also includes includes two archery contests held in Nottingham, an encounter between the king and Robin in Sherwood, and a tale of Robin’s death at Kirklees Priory in the West Riding of Yorkshire. The canon of Robin Hood stories is completed by a separate tale, Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, in which Robin kills a medieval bounty hunter.

These early stories contain no Maid Marion or Friar Tuck.’The friar is of special interest because he demonstrates once again how the doings of real people were pressed into service for the story. The original was Robert Stafford, parson of Lindfield, Sussex, who gathered around him a band of evil-doers who committed murders and robberies and threatened the peace of Surrey and Sussex between 1417 and 1429. He assumed the name of Friar Tuck, and puzzled royal officials recorded that he was “newly so called in common parlance”‘. By 1475 the friar appeared in the first surviving fragment of a Robin Hood play. In contrast, Maid Marion seems to have been a purely literary creation, originating in a French pastoral play, Robin et Marion, composed c.1283 by Adam de la Halle. She was then taken over in Gower’s Mirour de l’omme of 1376–9 where she participates in rustic festivals. By 1500 Robin and Marion had come to figure as king and queen of May in the May games.

All early references to Robin refer to him as a criminal, but in 1433 he is descried as ‘Goodman.’ So the early stories bear little resemblance to the current legend of Robin Hood, who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. This Robin didn’t appear until the 16th and 17th centuries, when Joseph Ritson and others expanded on the stories. The legend of Robin has continued to delight and fascinate since then, with movies, comic books, and television series devoted to Hood and his exploits.  Whatever the truth about the real man, it is clear that the exploits of Robin Hood and his Merry Men will live on for generations.

Source: J Holt: DNB.

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

Biography Poetry Thames

John Taylor – Water Poet

Today’s post is about the little-known poet John Taylor, who worked as a ferryman in London, rowing people back and forth across the Thames to the theatres on Bankside.

Taylor was born in Gloucester in 1578, and in the early 1590s he moved to London and became apprenticed to a waterman in Southwark. As well as ferrying passengers across the Thames, a vital service since there was only one bridge in London at this time, the Watermen’s Company also supplied men for the navy in times of war. In 1596, Taylor took part in Essex’s expedition to Cadiz. He also may have been at Ostend during the siege of 1601-4. He completed his apprenticeship in 1597, and in 1612 he married. The identity of his wife is uncertain, but she may have been known as Abigail Miles. The couple settled on Bankside in London and lived there until 1643. In 1605, Taylor was appointed Bottleman at the Tower of London. The job essentially involved Taylor rowing out to the incoming ships transporting wine, and demanding two large bottles as payment due to the Lieutenant of the Tower.

Taylor’s natural wit and polite manner, as well as his charming personality, meant he stood out from the rough men working the Thames. He often conversed with the courtiers he ferried back and forth, and in 1613, Viscount Haddington recommended Taylor become one of the King’s Watermen; a liveried group which served the crown on ceremonial business. Taylor also became spokesman for the Watermen’s Company on official business, and in 1614 he pressed a suit to the King on their behalf, protesting against the building of new theatres north of the river. To relocate the theatres would be a serious blow to the Watermen’s trade, since they relied on the huge numbers of visitors crossing the river to the Globe and other theatres on Bankside for their trade. Despite support from Francis Bacon, the King ignored the Watermen’s protestations.

Taylor’s strong links with the Bankside theatres meant he was in continual contact with playwrights, poets and actors. As a result he developed a love of books and writing. In 1612, he published his first collection of poetry, The Sculler.


To the whole kennell of AntiChrists hounds, Priests, friers, monks, and Iesuits, mastiffs, mongrells, Islands, Spanniells, blood-hounds, bobtailetike, or foysting-hound: the Sculler sends greeting.

Curse, exorcize, with beads, with booke, & bell
Poluted shauelings: rage and doe your worst:
Use conjurations till your bellies burst,
With many a Nigromanticke mumbling spell,
I feare you not, nor all your friends that fell
With Lucifer: ye damned dogs that durst
Devise that thundring treason most accurst,
Whose like before was never hatchd in hell:
Halfe men, halfe devils, who never dreamd of good,
To you from faire and sweetly sliding Thames,
A popomasticke Sculler war proclaimes,
As to the suckers of imperiall blood.
An Anti-Jesuit Sculler with his pen,
Defies your Babell Beast, and all his den.

In The Sculler, Taylor makes various derisive comments about his fellow writers, including Thomas Coryate, famous for his Crudities published in 1609. This led to a bitter pamphlet war. In 1614, he became involved in another conflict, this time with William Fennor. The two arranged a contest at the Hope theatre, but Fennor failed to turn up, and the packed house all but rioted against Taylor in their disappointment. In addition to personal verse, Taylor also wrote commendatory poetry on public events, such as the marriage of Princess Elizabeth in 1613. He counted many of the well-known writers of the time among his friends, including Samuel Daniel, Thomas Dekker, Thomas Heywood, and Samuel Rowlands.

Despite this illustrious company, Taylor failed to achieve recognition as a poet. He embarked on several voyages, which he documented in print, and continued to work as a Waterman. In 1625, he was one of the royal wherrymen to escort the new queen, Henrietta Maria, to Oxford to escape the plague. However, with the disintegration of Charles I’s rule, Taylor became something of a political commentator. He wrote a series of polemical pamphlets defending the episcopal church and satirising the radicals; these pamphlets

were designed to boost morale rather than convince the uncommitted, and the tone was jaunty and confident. Taylor was more concerned to establish appropriate images for the king and his enemies than plunge into the details of the issues at stake, largely beyond him and many of his readers. He presented the king’s war as a defensive struggle, with Charles a good protestant upholding the established church and his traditional prerogatives against hypocritical and aggressive parliamentary enemies.

Taylor’s last years were spent in poverty. With no royal court, and the Watermen’s Company in the hands of his enemies, he turned his hand to inn keeping, and by 1647, he was running the Crown alehouse near Covent Garden. He continued to supplement his income with published poetry, and made several further trips which he documented in print. However failing health finally overcame him in 1653, and he was buried on 5th December in St Martin’s-in-the-Fields.

Taylor was never afforded serious recognition as a poet, but his flair for literary entrepreneurship ensured he was a much more prosperous writer than many of his contemporaries, and he enjoyed a successful literary career which spanned over fifty years.

Source: Bernard Capp, DNB.

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

Biography Men Philanthropy

Never Despair – the life of Jonas Hanway

I referred to Jonas Hanway in an earlier post as being the first recorded man in England to use the umbrella, but having looked into a little of his life, it’s clear he was in fact an important philanthropist. The following is a brief biography.

Hanway was born in Portsmouth in 1712, the second of four children to Thomas Hanway, victualler to the Navy, and his wife Mary Hoghen. Two years after Jonas’ birth, his father died as a result of a fall from a horse, and in 1728, at the age of 16, Jonas was sent to live with his uncle in Oxford St, London. Wealthy and connected, the following year Major John Hanway sent his nephew to the Iberian peninsula as an apprentice merchant to an English factory in Lisbon.

Jonas spent the next twelve years in Portugal, developing eccentricities in dress and views, tipping pretty servant girls, and enjoying the company of reformed prostitutes. He experienced an unhappy love affair in Portugal, the only romantic interest he was ever thought to have enjoyed.

In 1741, Jonas returned to London, joining the Russia Company as a junior partner. In April of the same year he sailed to Riga, from where he travelled overland to St Petersburg, to make preparations for an expedition to Persia. His plan was to exchange English broadcloth for Persian silks, and to assess potential trading opportunities between England and Persia.He set forth with only a small handful of assistants, travelling to Moscow where he boarded a British ship to cross the Caspian to Langarud.  Disembarking, Hanway’s party was ambushed. All his goods were stolen and he was forced to escape in disguise. He was eventually rescued, but as a result of this experience he coined his personal motto, ‘Never despair’, and spent the next five years in St Petersburg trying to recover his trade.

Hanway returned to London in 1750, and took lodgings in the Strand with his half-sister and her husband, a prosperous wool merchant. He took active interest in the Russia Company, conducting business from John’s Coffee House east of the Royal Exchange. Always a handsome and well-dressed man, he developed a habit at this time of carrying both a sword and an umbrella, attracting much attention, since swords had long fallen out of fashion and umbrellas were the strict domain of women. In addition he wore flannel underwear and several pairs of socks to ward of ill health.

In 1753, Jonas published An Historical Account of the British Trade over the Caspian Sea (in four volumes). This was the first of many publications which eventually led to him being regarded in some circles as ‘one of the most indefatigable and splendid bores of English history’. In the same year he wrote arguments in favour of paving lighting and cleaning the streets of Westminster, and against a bill proposing the naturalisation of Jews.

The death of his mother in 1755 afforded Hanway another opportunity for publication. Travelling to Portsmouth for her funeral, he was inspired to write A Journal of Eight Days Journey from Portsmouth to Kingston upon Thames, to which he attached his curious An Essay on Tea: ‘I have long considered tea, not only as a prejudicial article of commerce; but also of a most pernicious tendency with regard to domestic industry and labour; and very injurious to health’. This publication led to Dr Johnson commenting drily that Hanway may have ‘acquired some reputation by travelling abroad, but lost it all by travelling at home.’

In 1756, Jonas donated £50 to the Foundling Hospital in London and was subsequently elected its governor. He supported the Stepney Society, which apprenticed poor boys to marine trades, and the Troop Society, which provided shoes and clothing to British soldiers in Germany and North America. He also generously supported the Magdalen Hospital for Penitent Prostitutes which opened in 1758.

He pursued his charity work vigorously, writing pamphlets, and publishing letters on the health and welfare of London’s poor children. In 1762, an act was passed requiring all London parishes to keep records of children in their care, and this subsequently became known as Hanway’s Act. In 1767, he wrote a persuasive pamphlet, leading to a further act requiring homeless London infants to be cared for in the country. This, according to some modern historians, was ‘the only piece of eighteenth-century legislation dealing with the poor which was an unqualified success.’

Hanway spent the remainder of his life working for good causes. He continued to write, publishing eighty five works, six of them in several volumes, during his lifetime. Hanway died in September 1786, at his home on Red Lion Square. In 1788 a memorial was unveiled in Westminster Abbey, commemorating his life as a philanthropist, the first memorial for charitable deeds in England.

Source: DNB

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