Back into Stratford upon Avon today, for a closer delve into Shakespeare’s life. We’re off to explore his his place of birth.
The original house is still standing, now with a museum attached. But first a dash through the local market to pat a fabulous owl or two. As you do. So soft!
William’s parents were John and Mary Shakespeare. His father was a glove maker, we learn, but also dealt in wool and occasionally, money lending. Later in life he was involved in civic duties for the town as Bailiff.
The original house was a modest two room, two storey affair, extended later as the family and finances grew. One of eight children, William was born in 1564. Sadly not all of the Shakespeare brood made it through childhood. With the infant mortality rate high, his two older sisters died in infancy. William was lucky to survive – he was born in the year the plague came to Stratford upon Avon.
William was schooled in the village – the school is still there, only a short distance from the family home. By the time he was 13, he left school and what happened next is lost to time. Theories range from working with his father, being a butcher’s apprentice and then there’s also that poaching allegation from the Charlecote estate. It’s also possible that he learnt his craft, originally acting, by travelling with a troupe. These have been termed “the lost years”. Until he emerged at 18, married with a pregnant wife, details are sketchy and speculative at best. There is period post marriage which is “lost” too – the travelling/actor theory is most likely in that period.
Post marriage, Anne moved into the Shakespeare family home, as was the custom of the day. Their daughter Susanna was born, and shortly after, twins Hamnet and Judith. Sadly, Hamnet died at the age of 11. The remaining children went on to marry and produce four grandchildren, one of whom Shakespeare lived to see. Only one of the 4 married, but she had no children. As a result, there are no direct descendants of William Shakespeare.
In his time, Shakespeare was a prolific writer, immensely successful. He wrote close to a million words across 37 plays, 154 sonnets and 5 titled poems. He performed for Queen Elizabeth I, was part of the coronation ceremony for King James I and under the support of his patron, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, went on to be part owner of the Globe Theatre in London.
Whilst his success called him to London, he eventually returned home to buy “New Place” (no longer standing), the largest house in the centre of Stratford upon Avon. He also shored up his family’s reputation by buying his father a coat of arms, and in doing so, enabled him to be referred to as a gentleman. As befits a good son, he saved his father’s reputation before splashing out on the new house.
The museum in which we stand houses one of the largest collections and artefacts associated with his works, stored safely under the floor.
Even though William traveled to London often, much of his writing and most of his family life occurred at this house, his place of birth. He later inherited the house from his father.
William died aged 52, in 1616. It sounds young to our ears, but at a time when any illness might be your end and the average lifespan for a Londoner was 35 years, it was a relatively long life. The cause of his death is unknown, but speculated to be a fever or a stroke. His works were first published posthumously, in 1623, now known as the First Folio.
The house is extraordinarily modest.
It’s been set with typical living of the day and guides speak to each room’s history and purpose. A pretty garden edges it. Over the centuries, it became a place of pilgrimage for lovers of his work. For a time the fashion was to etch your name into the windows and many famous authors have left their mark.
We see the room where he was born – he would have stayed in this room until he was 5, sleeping in the pull out section under the bed. Child on one side, baby on the other – there wasn’t much privacy in those days.
Our tour over, we make the trek across town to visit Anne Hathaway’s cottage – her family home.
It’s clear on arrival, that the Hathaways were successful. They ran a small flock of sheep, albeit on rented land and at the height of their success were second in wealth only to the local Lord of the manor. This sounds rather fabulous until you realise that the original house was a modest three rooms, later extended to the house we see today. Those original three rooms made one wealthy indeed and are a great example of the disparities in the class system of the time.
Anne’s father and William’s father most likely knew each other: they attended the same church and ended up in civic duties together. It’s likely that William and Anne knew each other as children, despite the age difference. There’s also some speculation that the men may have traded between themselves, one being a sheep farmer the other needing leather and wool for glove making.
The grounds are quite extensive, complete with a sculpture walk, orchard, vegetable and flower garden. The rooms are small and ceilings are low – people must have been tiny in the 1500s.
They were a superstitious lot too – the house has various herb posies and weavings designed to ward off evil spirits.
By late afternoon, were Shakespeare’d out. There’s only time to pop back to the lolly shop (the call of those liquorice toffees is hard to resist) and for a relaxing drink at the pub. When in England, etc. One does what one must.