John Shakespeare, father of William, was born in 1531 to a farming family in Snitterfield, near Stratford. His father, Richard, rented land and property from the aristocratic and staunchly Catholic Arden family, and it was through this business connection that John met his future wife, Mary Arden. John Shakespeare chose not to continue in the family business – instead he moved to Stratford and established himself as a glover and leather worker.
The exact date of John’s marriage to Mary is unknown, but it is believed the nuptials took place in 1556 or 1557 in the parish church of Wilmcote, a village about three miles north of Stratford (and also the burial place of Mary’s father, Robert Arden). The marriage would have been considered unusual at the time, given that Mary hailed from gentry stock, while her husband was of a lower social order. Certainly, John would have greatly benefitted from the union, in both financial and social terms.
The couple began their married life in a recently purchased house in Henley Street in Stratford. Both husband and wife were in the habit of using symbols as their official ‘mark’, rather than signatures. This, however, does not necessarily mean they were illiterate – in fact, John’s later success in business suggests he had some reading skills, however rudimentary.
In 1558, the couple’s first child, Joan, was born. The child succumbed to the plague in infancy – the disease was rampant throughout England at the time. This pattern was repeated with the birth of the couple’s second daughter, Margaret, in 1559. She lived for barely a year. Happily, the couple’s third child and first son, William, survived and he was followed by five other siblings – Gilbert, Joan, Anne, Richard and Edmund.
By this stage, John had expanded his business into wool trading and money lending. The family’s fortunes continued to improve when he was elected to various municipal positions. An early job as the borough’s ale-taster led to an appointment as Constable of Stratford in 1558. He later enjoyed other public positions including a burgess (akin to a present-day MP), a chamberlain (a job which involved supervising the town’s finances) and high bailiff, before finally being elected chief alderman in 1571.
However, this upward trajectory came to an abrupt halt in the early 1570s when John’s business activities began to blur the legal boundaries. His began illegally trading wool, and was prosecuted for usury. He soon began to experience financial difficulties and was forced to mortgage land his wife had inherited, which was repossessed when he failed to make payments on the loan. Before long, he had become a virtual prisoner in his home, afraid to venture outside for fear of being dragged off to debtors’ prison.
Thankfully, his son William’s success as a poet and playwright came at just the right time to prevent John from sliding further into debt and disgrace. By 1596, John’s reputation had been completely rehabilitated – his family was granted a coat of arms, which afforded him and his sons the status of ‘gentlemen’.
A secret Catholic?
During his years of financial difficulties, John Shakespeare did not attend church regularly. This led to accusations of recusancy – or refusal to accept Protestantism as the one true religion. We do not know if John was, indeed, a secret Catholic, or if his reluctance to go to church services was an attempt to avoid his creditors. Certainly, his wife hailed from an old Catholic family, so her husband may well have been of the same faith. Interestingly, in 1757, a document was purportedly discovered in the old house on Henley Street which, it was claimed, proved John’s Catholicism. Unfortunately, this supposed discovery soon disappeared and so was never authenticated.
John Shakespeare died on 7 September 1601, aged 70. He is buried in Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church.