1902 Encyclopedia > William Shakespeare > Shakespeare Name and Family

William Shakespeare
(Part 16)


Shakespeare Name and Family.

The name Shakespeare is found in the Midland counties before the birth of the poet, scattered so widely that is not easy at first sight to fix the locality o its rise or trace the lines of its progress.

Several facts, however, would seem to indicate that those who first bore it entered Warwickshire from the north and west, and may migrate in early times from the neighbouring matches. The name itself is of course thoroughly English, and it is given by Camden and Verstegan as an illustration of the way in which surnames were fabricated introduced into England in the 13th century.

But it is by no means improbable that some hardy had fought successfully in the English ranks may have received or assumed a significant and and sounding designation that would help to perpetuate the memory of their martial prowess. We have indeed a distinct and authoritative assertion that some of Shakespeare’s ancestors had served their country in this way. However this may be, families bearing the name are found during the 15th and 16th centuries in the Arden district, especially at Wroxhall and Rowington, -- some being connected with the priory of 'Wroxhall, while during the 15th century the names of more than twenty are enumerated as belonging to the guild of St Ann, at Knoll near Rowington. In the roll of this guild or college are also found the representatives of some of the best families in the county, such as the Ferrerses of Tamworth and the Clintons of Coleshill.

Among the members of the guild the poet’s ancestors are to be looked for, and it is not improbable, as Mr. French suggests, that John and Joan Shakespeare, entered on the Knoll register in 1527, may have been the parents of Richard Shakespeare of Snitterfield whose sons gave each to his children the favourite family names. Richard Shakespeare, the poet's grandfather, occupied a substantial dwelling and cultivated a forest farm at Snitterfield, between 3 and 4 miles from Stratford. He was the tenant of Robert Arden of Wilmcote "a gentleman of worship," who farmed his own estate, situated a few miles to the west of Snitterfield. Richard Shakespeare was settled at the latter hamlet and doing as early as 1543, Thomas Atwood of Stratford having in that year bequeathed to him four oxen which were in his keeping; and he continued to reside there certainly till 1560, and probably till his death.

He appears to have had two sons, John and Henry, of whom John, the eldest, broke through the contracted circle of rustic life at Snitterfield, made his way to Stratford, and established himself as a trader in one of the leading thoroughfares of the town. This movement to the town probably took place in 1551, as in 1552 John Shakespeare is described in an official document as residing in Henley Street, where the poet was subsequently born.

As to the precise nature of his occupation, the kind of wares in which he principally dealt, there are various and conflicting statements that have given rise to a good deal of discussion. The earliest official statement on the subject occurs in the register of the bailiff's court for the year 1556. He is there described as a "glover," which, according to the verbal usage of the time, included dealing in skins, as well as in the various leather-made articles of farming gear, such as rough gauntlets and leggings for hedging and ditching, white leather gloves for chopping wood, and the like. But in addition to the trade of glover and fell-monger tradition assigns to John Shakespeare the functions of butcher, wool-stapler, corn-dealer, and timber-merchant. These occupations are not incompatible, and together they represent the main lines some of which at least a young farmer going into the town for trading purposes would be likely to pursue. He would naturally deal with the things he knew most about, such as corn, wool, timber, skins, and leather-made articles used in farm work -- in a word, he would deal in farm conveniences and farm products. In a town that was the centre and chief market of an agricultural and grazing district, and as the member of a family whose wide connexions were nearly all engaged in farming operations, his prospects were certainly rather favourable than otherwise. And he soon began to turn his country connexion to account. There is distinct evidence that he early dealt in corn and wood as well as gloves and leather, for in 1556 he sues a neighbour for eighteen quarters of barley, and a few years later is paid three shillings by the corporation for a load of timber.

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