The Childhood of William Shakespeare

On this, the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth, Sinead Fitzgibbon relates the bard’s childhood and eduction.

The works of William Shakespeare are, without doubt, the most studied and admired in the English language. Indeed, they have inspired such a level of acclaim that, in 1901, George Bernard Shaw came up with the term ‘bardolatry’ in an attempt to describe our collective tendency to heap acclaim on our beloved verse-maker. Despite this, and the fact that he has been the subject of innumerable scholarly researches and biographies, we actually know surprisingly little about the man himself.

James Brydges, the Duke of Chandos's portrait of William Shakespeare

In fact, William Shakespeare made only four appearances on various official records before he turned up in London in the 1580s – at the time of his birth, his marriage, and the birth of his children. This was not unusual for the time – lower levels of literacy meant that there was less emphasis on record-keeping and bureaucracy while, in many cases, those documents that did exist have subsequently been lost to the passage of time.

Another reason for this paucity of biographical information lies in the fact that the fashion for diary-keeping and memoir-writing (and the reading of these writings) only began to emerge in the mid-17th century, some forty years after Shakespeare’s death. And even then, no-one had the foresight to record for posterity the reminiscences of his last surviving daughter, Judith, before her own demise in 1662. As a consequence, William Shakespeare remains a ghost-like presence in his own story, a shadow that remains tantalizingly opaque. The first puzzling biographical detail we encounter is the question of his date of birth.


It has long been agreed that William Shakespeare was born on or close to April 23, 1564. There is pleasing synchronicity in this, considering he died fifty-two years later on the same date. The poetic resonance of this anniversary is further amplified when one realises that England’s national poet shares his birthday with the feast day of England’s patron saint, St George. The co-incidence is certainly compelling – or it would be, if it were true. Unfortunately, much like many other aspects of Shakespeare’s life, we simply cannot be sure of the veracity of this famous birth date.

Shakespeare's birthplaceThe problem can be traced to the 16th century preference for recording baptismal dates instead of birthdates. The recently-born William Shakespeare makes his first official appearance in the baptismal records of The Holy Trinity Church in the Warwickshire parish of Stratford-upon-Avon, on April 26, 1564. Due to high infant mortality rates, and considering the prevalent belief that a child who dies unbaptized could not enter heaven, it was thought imperative to get newborns to the baptismal font as soon as possible, usually between two and four days after the birth. In Shakespeare’s case, this would put his birthday somewhere between April 22 and 25.

Pictured: William Shakespeare’s birthplace, Henley Street, Stratford.

But the controversy does not end there. If we adjust this date range to reflect the fact that Shakespeare was born under the Julian Calendar (the Gregorian Calendar was not introduced until 1582), we find that his birth date falls somewhere in the first week of May. So the choice of April 23, it would seem, is completely arbitrary – and, in all likelihood, incorrect.


Luckily, there is no such uncertainty surrounding the identity of Shakespeare’s parents. His father, John Shakespeare, a maker of gloves and other soft leather goods, originally hailed from the neighbouring village of Snitterfield. He relocated to Henley Street in Stratford in 1556 or 1557, a move which coincided with his marriage to Mary Arden, the daughter of a relatively wealthy local farmer. William was the third of eight children, and the first to survive infancy. Indeed, the very fact that he lived to see his schooldays was something of an achievement – quite aside from the usual diseases like measles, smallpox and dysentery, an outbreak of plague hit Stratford when William was just three months old which carried away one fifth of town’s population.


Assuming his parents followed the conventions of the day, young William would have been sent to school around the age of seven. No educational records survive, but it is likely he would have attended the local grammar school, King’s New School, which accepted any boy from the town, provided he had rudimentary reading and writing skills. By this stage, Shakespeare’s father was fast becoming a respected member of the Stratford community, taking on a series of municipal jobs which would eventually see him rise to the post of chief alderman of the town. The increasing stature of the Shakespeare family makes it even more probable that King’s New School would have opened its doors to William.

Aside from its famous alumnus, King’s New School is remarkable for having a very highly-paid headmaster – the records show that he drew a salary of £20 per annum, a significant sum for the time, and, it is believed, more than the remuneration received by the headmaster at Eton. This suggests that King’s New School was a decent educational establishment, and the instruction the boy received was likely to have been better than average.

The 16th century curriculum was very unlike its equivalent today. The core subject was Latin, and students would have spent most of the twelve-hour school day learning to write, read, and speak this ancient language. There was little or no emphasis on other subjects – history and geography were both neglected, as was English, which could account for the infuriating lack of uniformity of spelling in Elizabethan literature.

If we continue with the assumption that young Shakespeare followed the custom of the time, he would have left formal education – furnished with fluent Latin but not much else – by the age of fifteen. At this point, circa 1579, he disappeared from the records completely for three years. We know he did not attend university like most of his fellow playwrights, a fact which Ben Jonson highlighted when he commented, somewhat derogatorily, that Shakespeare had ‘small Latin and less Greek’. So, what was his occupation during this time? Did he remain in Stratford, or move to London? Or did he travel even further afield? Unfortunately, we have no idea, as there is little evidence to support any speculations to the contrary.

Shakespeare IAHSinead Fitzgibbon

William Shakespeare: History In An Hour by Sinead Fitzgibbon, published by William Collins, part of HarperCollins, is available in various digital formats, only 99p / $1.99, and downloadable audio.

See also article on Shakespeare’s father, John Shakespeare.

Christopher Marlowe – a summary

Despite a writing career which lasted only six years, Christopher Marlowe was an early leading light in Elizabethan literary culture.  Ambitious and daring in both his life and his work, he is often regarded as the enfant terrible of the English Renaissance period.  Unafraid to experiment with literary form, his works, which include The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus and Dido, Queen of Carthage, influenced many playwrights who came after him, including William Shakespeare.

Christopher MarloweAccording to the baptismal records of St George the Martyr Church in Canterbury, Christopher Marlowe, known as Kit, was christened on 26 February 1564.  Kit was the second child and eldest son of John Marlowe, a cobbler, and his wife, Katherine. 

Despite being born in the same year and into the same social class as his more famous contemporary, Marlowe received a better education than Shakespeare.  While nothing is known of his early education, parish records show that, in January 1579, Kit won a scholarship to the prestigious choir school, King’s School, in Canterbury.  Just over a year later, at the age of 16, he was the recipient of another scholarship, this time to Corpus Christi College in Cambridge.  By 1584, he had gained a Bachelor of Arts, and in 1587, after six-and-a-half-years study, he earned his Master of Arts degree.

From Spy to Playwright

Although there is no hard evidence, it is now widely supposed that during his time at Cambridge, Marlowe was recruited into Sir Francis Walsingham’s wide network of spies. Unexplained and lengthy absences from University and trips to Catholic cities in France circumstantially suggest this, as does the fact that when the University threatened to withhold Marlowe’s degree, the queen’s Privy Council (of which Walsingham was a member) intervened on his behalf.  However, upon leaving university, Christopher Marlowe moved to London, where he took up writing for the theatre.

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Richard Burbage – a summary

Richard Burbage was the pre-eminent stage actor of the late Elizabethan era. He was also a successful theatre impresario and a long-time friend of William Shakespeare.  The two men were founding shareholders in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men theatre company, which would become the King’s Men following James I’s ascension to the English throne in 1603.  Burbage was the first person to play a number of Shakespeare’s now-iconic roles, including Lear, Hamlet, Othello and Richard III.

Born 6 January 1567, Richard Burbage was the son of James Burbage, an actor and theatre manager, and his wife, Ellen Brayne.  He was the younger of two surviving children, his older brother being Cuthbert Burbage, who also became an actor of some renown.


Richard BurbageIt is thought that Richard began his acting career in 1584, just as London’s theatre scene began to flourish.  Initially, he worked mainly for The Theatre, one of London’s first purpose-built playhouses, which had been built and was managed by his father.  Such was the power of his performances, he had gained widespread popularity by the age of 20.

When Burbage Senior died in 1597, a dispute arose between his sons and the owner of the land on which The Theatre was built.  When no resolution was forthcoming, Richard and Cuthbert dismantled the playhouse in 1598 and, having transported any salvageable materials across the Thames, they set about building The Globe theatre on a site known today as Bankside.  Construction was completed in 1599.

It was around this time Richard Burbage married Winifred Turner.  Winifred bore eight children, including one born after her husband’s death in 1619, only one of whom would live to see adulthood.

The Bard’s Will

Richard Burbage was mentioned in William Shakespeare’s will – the playwright left a small sum with the instruction that his friend buy a memorial ring in his honour.

Burbage would not long outlive Shakespeare, however – he died 13 March 1619, and is buried in St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch.  He was memorialized in an anonymous poem, part of which reads:

He’s gone and with him what a world are dead.
Which he review’d, to be revived so,
No more young Hamlet, old Hieronymus
Kind Lear, the Grieved Moor, and more beside,
That lived in him have now for ever died.

Shakespeare IAHSinead Fitzgibbon

William Shakespeare: History In An Hour by Sinead Fitzgibbon, published by William Collins, part of HarperCollins, is available in various digital formats, only 99p / $1.99, and downloadable audio.

See also article on John Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s father.

Bess of Hardwick and Hardwick Hall

Bess of Hardwick is probably best remembered for two things: having survived four husbands and having built Hardwick Hall, about which Elizabeth I’s advisor Robert Cecil quipped, “Hardwick Hall? More window than wall.”

Bess was born at Hardwick Manor in Derbyshire, probably on October 4, 1527, according to her biographer Mary Lovell. Hardwicks had been living there for two hundred years, and Bess, who was descended from Edward I and Eleanor of Castille, was a gentlewoman. But her father had died when she was a baby, her mother had remarried, and her stepfather was imprisoned for debt when Bess was about ten, so the family lived in genteel poverty.


Bess of HardwickAt around the age of twelve, Bess was sent to be a lady-in-waiting to her distant relation Anne Gainsford, Lady Zouche. This kind of service in noble households was the standard way in which well-born boys and girls were introduced to influential people who could help them rise in the world and to potential mates. Bess is a shining example of how effective this system could be.

Both Lady Zouche and her husband, Sir George Zouche, had been in the household of Anne Boleyn. Lady Zouche served Jane Seymour after Anne Boleyn’s death in 1536, and in about 1540, Sir George became a gentleman pensioner to Henry VIII. This elite group of attendants were never far from the king both in London and when he went on progress during the summer, and it’s likely that Bess was in London and around the court of Henry VIII during some very interesting times.

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Mary Queen of Scots – a summary

Mary Queen of Scots was born at Linlithgow in Scotland on December 8, 1542, the daughter of King James V of Scotland and Marie de Guise. Her father had been ailing for some time, possibly of a complete physical and mental breakdown and finally died six days after Mary was born. Mary was crowned Queen on September 9, 1543 at Stirling Castle. Mary’s great uncle, King Henry VIII of England, made it clear he wanted the baby Mary to marry his young son Edward when she turned ten, and come to England to be brought up. The Treaty of Greenwich confirmed the marriage.

Mary Queen of ScotsWhen, in January 1547, the nine-year-old Edward became King of England as Edward VI, his uncle Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, was appointed his Protector and ran his government. His regime was to harass the Scots unmercifully with the object of capturing the Queen. The government of Scotland decided the young Queen must be spirited out of the country and negotiated a treaty for her to marry the Dauphin of France, thus breaking the Treaty of Greenwich. She left Scotland for France where she grew up with the French royal children in the Catholic Faith. She and the Dauphin Francis were married in April of 1558. She was fifteen. Henry II, King of France died from a grisly jousting accident and Francis and Mary became King and Queen of France on July 10, 1559.

Make sacrifice of me

Francis suffered acutely from an abscess in his inner ear and died on December 5, 1560. Mary had been Queen of France for less than two years. It was decided her best option was to return to Scotland and take over her government. Before leaving she asked permission from Elizabeth I, who had been queen of England, and Ireland, since November 1558, to have safe passage through England if she was blown off course. Elizabeth refused permission. In response, Mary said if Elizabeth “shall have me in her hands to do her will of me; and if she be so hard-hearted as to desire my end, she may then do her pleasure, and make sacrifice of me; peradventure that casualty might be better for me than to live. In this matter, God’s will be fulfilled.” Little did she know she was predicting her own denouement.

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Francis Walsingham – a summary

Queen Elizabeth I had a triumvirate of intelligent, capable and industrious men who served on her council for many years. There was William Cecil, Lord Burghley who served as Secretary of State and Lord High Treasurer; Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, Elizabeth’s favorite and probably the love of her life who served faithfully and diligently as a Privy Councilor; and probably the least recognized of the three, Francis Walsingham, best known as Elizabeth’s “spymaster”.

Francis Walsingham was born, probably in Chislehurst, Kent c. 1532 into a wealthy Protestant family. He was a student at King’s College, Cambridge until 1550-1 when he began travelling on the Continent. He returned to England in 1552 and enrolled at Gray’s Inn to qualify as a lawyer. When the young, Protestant king, Edward VI, died in 1553, he was succeeded by his elder sister, Mary Tudor, a staunch Catholic. Many wealthy Protestants went into exile on the Continent, including Walsingham. While in exile, he continued his studies in law at universities in Basel, Switzerland and Padua, Italy.

Queen Mary died in 1558 and was succeeded by her Protestant sister, Elizabeth I. Walsingham returned to England and was elected to Elizabeth’s first Parliament. In 1562, he married Anne, daughter of Sir George Barne, Lord Mayor of London but Anne died in 1564. Walsingham was married again two years later to a widow with an ample estate named Ursula St Barbe with whom he had a daughter, Frances, in 1567.

The Ridolfi Plot

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Mistress of the Sea

My debut novel, writes Jenny Barden, is an epic Elizabethan romantic adventure set against the backdrop of Francis Drake’s first great enterprise: his attack on the Spanish ‘Silver Train’ in Panama.

Francis Drake, national hero

The focus of his campaign was the mule train loaded with bullion in transit from the mines of Peru to King Philip II’s treasury in Spain. Panama was the weak link in the long journey – the point where the treasure had to be transported by land across the isthmus dividing the Pacific from the Caribbean and the Atlantic, and the place where the might of the armada fleets could offer no protection. After more than eight months of failed attempts and set-backs, Drake and his allies, French Huguenot privateers and black runaway slaves called Cimaroons, together enjoyed a remarkable triumph. They captured the Silver Train near Nombre de Dios with little resistance and few casualties, and Drake was able to return home, with about thirty of the seventy-three mariners who had set sail with him over a year before, and a haul in treasure amounting to a sizeable fortune.

It was enough to swell Queen Elizabeth I’s coffers and establish his reputation as a national hero. His success was the first of many and seen as a blow for independence and religious freedom against the hegemony of imperial Spain; these sea-based victories ushered in the Elizabethan Golden Age, and they heralded the rise of England as a great maritime power.

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Desiderius Erasmus

According to accounts attributed to Desiderius Erasmus, he was born, 12 October 1466, the illegitimate son of Gerhard (or Geert, last name unknown) and a woman named Margaret.

Desiderius Erasmus’s early religious education in Holland was with the Brothers of the Common Life (a lay religious order) where he learned that to love God was more important than to know God, and this would guide his later thinking on religion. He enrolled in Paris among the Poor Students at the College of Montaigu. After graduating from Paris with a degree in theology, Erasmus traveled to England and met Thomas More and Dean Colet who both mentored him toward a path of serious religious study.

(The painting here of Erasmus, Portrait of Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam with Renaissance Pilaster, is by Hans Holbein the Younger. Click to enlarge)

The Greatest Scholar

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Which wife did Henry VIII love the most?

In a recent Facebook poll, run by History in an Hour, Jane Seymour was voted as the wife Henry VIII loved the most.

The poll attracted lots of interest with over 10,000 votes and the results are:

Catherine of Aragon 1,341 13%
Anne Boleyn 3,063 29.5%
Jane Seymour 5,449 52.5%
Anne of Cleves 88 0.8%
Catherine Howard 136 1.4%
Catherine Parr 292 2.8%

What is Love?

Henry VIIIThe problem with data from a choice like this is that we all perceive love in a similar but completely personal way.  In some respects it seems Henry was looking for an ideal in love that we still seek some 500 years later.  He tried again and again to marry for love not politics. With so many people all looking for something so unique and so personal, love is certainly far from one-size-fits-all and Henry was a complex, ever evolving character. As Prince Charles was to say over four and a half centuries later, ‘What is love?’

Many respondents pointed out that Henry had asked for Jane whilst on his deathbed and also insisted he must be buried beside her – which he was.  This, many argued, confirmed his love for her above the others. One comment read, ‘I think he loved her the most, not only because she gave him a son, but also because she was subservient and a good wife in his eyes.’  So, is the fact that someone will do precisely as we ask, how we define love? Or merely how Henry defined love?

Love of his life

When we consider runner-up Anne Boleyn, one comment read, ‘Anne Boleyn could be considered “the love of his life” their courtship was long and elaborate, and he risked and accepted Papal Excommunication in order to win her.’ Certainly Henry was prepared to, publicly, move heaven and earth to be with Anne.  He played a much more subservient role in this relationship.  Anne refused to become his mistress; it was wife and queen or nothing at all. When one considers him as a narcissistic and tyrannical king, it is surprising that he allowed such obvious dominance and defiance from Anne before the members of his court.  However we describe the emotion he felt for her, it was hugely powerful and all-consuming.

First and last loves

Responses for other queens included Catherine of Aragon, because ‘she was his first love’ and Catherine Parr because ‘she cared for him to the end.’

This of course returns us to the variance of perceptions of love.  As an onlooker to a relationship, is love measured by how much a person gives, as in the case of Jane Seymour and Catherine Parr?  Or is it the lengths someone will go in order to win their heart’s desire or a public declaration as in the case of Anne Boleyn? Or quite simply, do we feel that the first love is always ‘the real one’?

We know he had no affection for his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. He married her on the strength of a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger but when he met her for the first time the reality fell well short of the expectation. The marriage went ahead but was never consummated and was annulled within six months. Anne of Cleves, however, unlike Anne Boleyn, kept her head.

Many thanks to the 10,369 who voted, the most succinct comment being – ‘None of them he was narcissistic and only loved himself…I guess! ;)’

Julie Wheeler

Read more about the life of Henry VIII and his six wives in Henry VIII’s Wives: History In An Hour published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats.

John Calvin – a summary

John Calvin, the French theologian and pastor during the Protestant Reformation, was born 10 July 1509 in the cathedral city of Noyon, in north-eastern France. His family was on good terms with the city’s bishop, and it was this contact that gave Calvin the opportunity to associate with a family or two of nobility, and through these connections, develop his own sophistication and aristocratic tastes. It is thought that Calvin’s father steered him, from a very young age, through theological training toward what he hoped would be a career as an episcopal official with a lucrative income.

John CalvinWhen he was fourteen years old, Calvin was sent to Paris for an additional five years of studies that culminated with a Bachelor of Arts degree earned at the Collège de Montaigu which was notorious for its excessive moral and academic rigor. Here he ruined his health with an immersion in studies which included the learning of Greek and the intense reading of both the Greek and Latin Church Fathers.  But it became clear to John Calvin’s father he could no longer be assured that Church dignitaries would secure an important position for his son and he decided to send him to Orléans to pursue a career in law.

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