John Shakespeare (c. 1531 – 7 September 1601) was the father of William Shakespeare. He was the son of Richard Shakespeare of Snitterfield, a farmer. He moved to Stratford-upon-Avon and married Mary Arden, with whom he had eight children, five of whom survived into adulthood. A well-to-do glover and whittawer (leather worker) by trade, Shakespeare was a dealer in hides and wool, and was elected to several municipal offices, serving as an alderman and culminating in a term as bailiff, the chief magistrate of the town council, before he fell on hard times for reasons unknown to historians. His fortunes later revived after the success of his son, and he was granted a coat of arms five years before his death, probably at the instigation and expense of his playwright son.
Career and municipal responsibilities
John Shakespeare moved to Stratford-upon-Avon in 1551, where he became a successful businessman involved in several related occupations. From 1556 to 1592, several official records identify him as a glovemaker, which was probably his primary trade, as tradition remembers him as following that trade even into his old age, but the records of his real estate purchases and legal expenses indicate an income much higher than that of a small-town tradesman. The administration of his father's estate in 1561 names him as a farmer. He inherited and leased agricultural lands and is on record as selling timber and barley. Court records also document him as a "brogger", an unlicensed—and therefore illegal—wool dealer. In addition, he bought and leased out houses. He was twice taken to court for violating the usury laws that prohibited charging interest higher than the legal limit of 10 percent.
By 1552 he was residing in a house on Henley Street. On 2 October 1556, he purchased a house on the same street now known as the eastern wing of what is traditionally referred to as the birthplace of William (now called Shakespeare's Birthplace). Whether it was the same house he was living in in 1552 is unknown. In 1576 he bought two houses to the west and joined the three together.
In 1556 he was elected borough ale taster, the first of several key municipal positions he was to hold in Stratford. In that position he was responsible for ensuring that weights and measures and prices were observed by innkeepers and publicans within the borough, and also by butchers, bakers and town traders. In 1558 he was appointed borough Constable — a position similar to an early police constable. In 1559 John became an affeeror, an officer responsible for assessing fines for offences carrying penalties not explicitly defined by existing statutes. This role led to his becoming a burgess, then a chamberlain. He would have been known as a 'Goodman', a title that recognised his growing social status within Stratford. By 1564, John was an alderman, a member of the Common Hall of Stratford, and it was in this year that William was born.
In 1568 John was appointed High Bailiff, the present-day equivalent of mayor, elected by the common council of burgesses and aldermen, which entitled him to be referred to as Master John Shakespeare. In that capacity he presided at the sessions of the Court of Record and at council meetings. For his borough the bailiff was almoner, coroner, escheator, and clerk of the market, and served as justice of the peace issuing warrants and negotiating with the lord of the manor on behalf of the corporation.
In 1569 John had applied for a coat of arms, which after a long period of dormancy was granted on 20 October 1596. Most historians believe that his son, William, re-opened the application following his literary and financial success in London.
Marriage into the local gentry
He married Mary Arden, one of the Ardens of Warwickshire, a local gentry family and reportedly a niece of John Shakespeare's father Richard Shakespeare. It is not known when they married, but a date around 1557 is assumed as there is a baptismal record for a "Joan Shakespeare, daughter to John Shakespeare" dated 15 September 1558. The Shakespeares had eight children: Joan (baptised 15 September 1558, died in infancy), Margaret (bap. 2 December 1562 – buried 30 April 1563), William (bap. 26 April 1564 – 23 April 1616), Gilbert (bap. 13 October 1566 – bur. 2 February 1612), Joan (bap. 15 April 1569 – bur. 4 November 1646), Anne (bap. 28 September 1571 – bur. 4 April 1579), Richard II (bap. 11 March 1574 – bur. 4 February 1613) and Edmund (bap. 3 May 1580 – bur. London, 31 December 1607).
Risk taking and financial problems
John fell on hard times in the late 1570s that would last until the early 1590s. He failed to attend council meetings, attending just once (on 5 September 1582) between January 1577 and 6 September 1586 when he lost his position as an alderman for non-attendance. In 1592 he was recorded as among several local men who stayed away from Church services for fear of being arrested for debt. Records indicate that he was also prosecuted in the 1570s for illegal dealing in wool and for usury, or lending money with excess interest. Such illicit trade would have been profitable to his glove business by avoiding the middleman. In 1570 he was accused of making loans worth £220 (equivalent to over £50,000 in 2007), including interest, to a Walter Mussum. Mussum was not a good risk; at his death his whole estate was worth £114, or barely half what John Shakespeare had seen fit to lend him. The financial risk was just one side of his potentially problematic business activity. The law described usury as "a vice most odious and detestable" and levied severe penalties for those caught in such practices, even in a small way. The law stated that anyone caught lending money with interest illegally would forfeit all the money lent, plus forfeiture of any interest due, face a fine on top and also possible imprisonment. John was also engaged in trading wool illegally in 1571, when he acquired 300 tods (or 8,400 pounds) of wool, a large consignment.
In 1576 John decided to, or was made to, withdraw from public life in Stratford. He had been excused levies that he was supposed to pay by supportive townsmen and business associates and they kept his name on the rolls for a decade, perhaps hoping that in that time he would be able to return to public life and recover his financial situation, but he never did so. He is mentioned in the local records once more in 1597 when he sold some property to George Badger, a draper.
John Shakespeare was buried on 8 September 1601.
Personality and beliefs
The only record that survives of his personality is a note written by Thomas Plume fifty years after his death. Plume records a conversation with Sir John Mennes (1599–1671), who stated that he had once met him in his shop and described him as a "merry cheeked old man" who said of his son that "Will was a good honest fellow, but he durst have cracked a jest with him at any time." As Katherine Duncan-Jones points out, this is impossible, since Mennes was two years old when John Shakespeare died. She thinks Plume may have been recording an anecdote related by Mennes taken from his father.
In the 18th century a tract signed by John Shakespeare, in which he pledged to remain a Catholic in his heart, was found in the rafters of the house on Henley Street. It was seen and described by the scholar Edmond Malone. Although it was subsequently lost, a very similar copy of the formulaic text came to light in the 20th century that showed the original to be very likely genuine. The only non-genuine portion was the first leaf of the document; it had been forged by John Jordan, a man who had acquired the manuscript and attempted to have it published.
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