Visiting Shakespeare's Ancestral Home: Stratford-upon-Avon Today

Updated on July 21, 2018
Glenis Rix profile image

Glenis lives in England and enjoys English history. She majored in Shakespearean studies. Join her on a tour of his delightful home town.

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Clopton BridgeThe canalised river at Stratford- Upon- AvonSpeciality shops on Henley Street, Stratford -Upon- AvonCanal boat on the River Avon, Royal Shakespeare Theatre in the backgroundShakespeare's Memorial by the River Avon
Clopton Bridge
Clopton Bridge | Source
The canalised river at Stratford- Upon- Avon
The canalised river at Stratford- Upon- Avon | Source
Source
Speciality shops on Henley Street, Stratford -Upon- Avon
Speciality shops on Henley Street, Stratford -Upon- Avon | Source
Canal boat on the River Avon, Royal Shakespeare Theatre in the background
Canal boat on the River Avon, Royal Shakespeare Theatre in the background | Source
Shakespeare's Memorial by the River Avon
Shakespeare's Memorial by the River Avon | Source

The Other Place: A Theatre and Café Bar

Stratford-upon-Avon is a delightful town. I prefer to visit before the main tourist season when it isn't too busy and was last there in mid-April. Luckily, the weather was glorious. It was a hot, sunny day, and the rain held off (unusual in England during April). After a leisurely stroll along the riverside path, we crossed over the road for a light lunch and a glass of wine in the modern and distinctive industrial-style environment of Susie's café bar, located within The Other Place.

  • The 200-seat theatre provides a platform for new, adventurous work by contemporary writers.
  • Free live music and spoken word events on Thursday evenings.
  • Family drop-in activities on some Saturday afternoons.
  • Page to Stage tours, with the opportunity to meet directors and actors and to see costumes and props close up.
  • The Other Place houses the RSC costume hire facility.
  • Susie's cafe bar has a range of tasty, light meals at reasonable prices.

The Other Place is the home of the RSC costume hire. A Midsummer Night's Dream costumes were on display in The Other Place at the time of our visit.
The Other Place is the home of the RSC costume hire. A Midsummer Night's Dream costumes were on display in The Other Place at the time of our visit. | Source
Exibits in the gallery of The Other Place
Exibits in the gallery of The Other Place | Source

The Early Settlement of Stratford-upon-Avon

  • The Saxons invaded the area of England now known as Warwickshire in the 7th century AD and established a settlement where an old Roman road crossed the river.
  • The name Stratford is derived from two words: Straet is Old English (from the Roman via strata, which means straight road). Ford is Old English and means a shallow crossing place in a river or stream
  • Avon is a Celtic word meaning river or water.
  • The settlement by the river remained a small village until the late 12th century when the Lord of the Manor, with a view to developing the local economy, laid down plans to develop the area on a grid system to allow for the construction of shops and tradesmen's premises. At the same time, a Royal Charter was granted to allow a weekly market to be held, giving the settlement the status of a market town.
  • A wooden bridge was constructed in 1318, later to be replaced, in 1480, by Clopton Bridge - which is named for the man who paid for its construction.

Shakespeare's Family Roots in the Warwickshire Countryside

Shakespeare's mother and father both came from farming stock that had been rooted in the Warwickshire countryside for generations. They were descended from yeomen who were a class of society that lived in peasant houses, farmed 100 acres, and owned horses, barns, and ox teams.

Mary Shakespeare (family name Arden) was born in the outlying village of Wilmcote and the man who became her husband, John Shakespeare, was born nearby in Snitterfield. The Stratford-upon-Avon open top hop on hop off sight-seeing bus visits both of these villages.

Some confusion over Mary Arden's birthplace led to the acquisition of a neighbouring farmhouse by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in 1930. It was refurbished and maintained in the Tudor style. This building, which was owned during Mary's lifetime by Adam Palmer, together with the farmhouse later identified as Mary Arden's birthplace, is now open to the public as ''a working Tudor farm', with many rare breeds on display.

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Palmer's Farm, Wilmcote, Stratford-upon-Avon, WarwickshireThe Arden farmhouse, also known as Glebe Farm, Wilcote, Stratford-upon-AvonChurch of St James the Great, Snitterfield
Palmer's Farm, Wilmcote, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire
Palmer's Farm, Wilmcote, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire | Source
The Arden farmhouse, also known as Glebe Farm, Wilcote, Stratford-upon-Avon
The Arden farmhouse, also known as Glebe Farm, Wilcote, Stratford-upon-Avon | Source
Church of St James the Great, Snitterfield
Church of St James the Great, Snitterfield | Source

The Shakespeare Trail in Stratford-upon-Avon

A
Canal Basin and Visitor Information Centre:
Waterside, Stratford-upon-Avon CV37 6BA, UK

get directions

B
Shakespeare's Birthplace Henley Street:
Henley St, Stratford-upon-Avon CV37 6QW, UK

get directions

C
New Place, Chapel Street:
22 Chapel St, Stratford-upon-Avon CV37 6EP, UK

get directions

D
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Southern Lane:
Waterside, Stratford-upon-Avon CV37 6BB, UK

get directions

E
Mary Arden's Farm :
Station Rd, Wilmcote CV37 9UN, UK

get directions

F
Anne Hathaway's Cottage:
Cottage Ln, Stratford-upon-Avon CV37 9HH, UK

get directions

G
Snitterfield Church:
Church Rd, Snitterfield, Stratford-upon-Avon CV37 0LF, UK

get directions

H
Hall's Croft:
Old Town, Stratford-upon-Avon CV37 6BG, UK

get directions

I
Holy Trinity Church:
Old Town, Stratford-upon-Avon CV37 6BG, UK

get directions

William Shakespeare's Middle-Class Family Background

William’s father, John Shakespeare, relinquished his interest in the family farm at Snitterfield and moved to Stratford-upon-Avon, where he became apprenticed and trained to become a highly skilled glover. He rose to occupy prominent positions in the town and eventually became the mayor of Stratford-upon-Avon.

Shakespeare's First Home

William Shakespeare, arguably the world's greatest poet and playwright, arrived into the world in a house at Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon, on or around the 23rd April 1564. On the 26th of the month, he was baptized in Stratford Parish Church. It was the place where he would later be buried, having returned, after his spectacular career in London, to spend his last years in the town of his birth.

At the time of William's birth, the town and outlying hamlets had a population of just under 2000 souls and around only 100 good houses. His birthplace, in those days a relatively prosperous home, has survived for over four centuries and nowadays is a museum dedicated to the memory of England's National Bard. It is perhaps the place to which most first-time visitors to this delightful small town gravitate.

Shakespeare's birthplace, Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon
Shakespeare's birthplace, Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon | Source

Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon

Set in tranquil surroundings close to the banks of the River Avon, the stunning Stratford Parish Church dates back to the 13th century. It is here that Shakespeare and his children were baptized and it is here that he and his family lie buried. Apart from the Shakespeare connection, the church is sure to delight all who are interested in ecclesiastical architecture. On the day of my latest visit, a classical singer was performing to a piano accompaniment and enthusiastic volunteer guides were available to answer questions and point out the interesting features of the building.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-AvonThe altar in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon- AvonSpectacular painted glass windows in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon. At first glance, the visitor might believe the windows to be stained glass but look closely and you will see that the paint on some of the faces has faded.
Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon
Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon | Source
The altar in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon- Avon
The altar in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon- Avon | Source
Spectacular painted glass windows in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon. At first glance, the visitor might believe the windows to be stained glass but look closely and you will see that the paint on some of the faces has faded.
Spectacular painted glass windows in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon. At first glance, the visitor might believe the windows to be stained glass but look closely and you will see that the paint on some of the faces has faded. | Source

The Grammar School at Stratford-upon-Avon

There has been a school on the site of the existing selective grammar school since the 13th century. In 1553, the school was endowed in the charter granted by King Edward VI that established Stratford-upon-Avon as a borough.

William Shakespeare's father, as the bailiff of Stratford, was entitled to enroll his son in the town's free grammar school. In those days, boys normally started school at the age of seven. They were expected to already be able to read and write basic English and have some reading skills in Latin.

The historian Michael Wood postulates in his book In Search of Shakespeare that William most likely learned his basic handwriting skills at the petty school held in the guild chapel; and that his teacher most probably used the first English book on handwriting, published in 1570, in which a sample of the 'secretary's hand' is similar to William's handwriting style. Wood goes on to say that circumstantial evidence suggests that William went on to the grammar school, and attended there for seven years from 1571 (ibid.p49-50).

Guild Chapel and King Edward V! Grammar School in Stratford-upon-Avon
Guild Chapel and King Edward V! Grammar School in Stratford-upon-Avon | Source

If we infer William's personal attitude to school from his texts, it seems that he may have been a less than enthusiastic pupil.

And then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like snail

Unwillingly to school

— William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7

The Marriage of William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway

In November 1582, at the age of eighteen, William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, a woman eight years older than him. The marriage was arranged in haste, as Anne was pregnant at the time. To avoid scandal and speed up proceedings Shakespeare applied to the Bishop's Court in Worcester for a license to marry outside of the parish of normal residence. It is not known where the ceremony took place but it seems likely that the special license was granted in the interests of secrecy and the avoidance of embarrassment. Shakespeare was a minor at the time and would have needed parental permission for the marriage to take place. William's first daughter, Susannah, was born six months after the wedding; and on the 2nd February 1585 his newborn twins, Judith and Hamnet, were christened in Holy Trinity Church.

William's married status meant that he would not be able to complete an apprenticeship. "Necessity is the mother of invention" is an old English proverb. Was it necessity that impelled William to seek work on the London stage, leaving his family behind? Sadly, there is no surviving documentation regarding his reasoning, so we will probably never know.

Anne Hathaways' Cottage at Shottery. Anne Hathaway's family home was still occupied by the Hathaway family in1892 , when it was acquired by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. The cottage is on the route of hop on hop off tour bus.
Anne Hathaways' Cottage at Shottery. Anne Hathaway's family home was still occupied by the Hathaway family in1892 , when it was acquired by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. The cottage is on the route of hop on hop off tour bus. | Source

Shakespeare's Return to Stratford-upon-Avon

We do not know why and precisely when Shakespeare first left Stratford for London, where he lived the life of a single man for almost twenty years, returning intermittently to his hometown for family and business matters. He became a shareholder in the Globe Theatre, writing and collaborating in the production of scripts for plays that were performed by the King's Men theatre company before thousands of people each week.

The London theatres were sometimes closed for extended periods in attempts to restrict the spread of the plagues which intermittently broke out. At these times it is likely that Shakespeare spent time in the country. In August 1608 the theatres were closed once more and did not reopen until late in 1609 or early in 1610. There are records of various family and business events in Stratford during this period. His mother died and was buried in Holy Trinity Church, a nephew was christened, and on the 16th October Shakespeare took on the role of godfather to William Walker, the son of an old family friend. It seems highly probable that Shakespeare was in Stratford for all of these events.

William amassed sufficient wealth from his writing and shares in the theatre to acquire New Place on Chapel Street in Stratford-upon-Avon, at a cost of £60. Formerly owned by the Clopton family (who built the bridge over the Avon) it was reputed to be the second largest dwelling in town. William purchased the house in 1597 and lived there once he had retired from the theatre. It is where he died, on the 22nd of April, 1616, after which it passed to his daughter Susannah. The house was demolished in 1759 but nowadays there are fascinating exhibitions in the on-site visitor centre and a delightful garden to enjoy.

If your appetite has been whetted to discover more about the life of Shakespeare then Bill Bryson's delightful, easy-read Shakespeare is a good place to start. Described as 'witty and infectiously enthusiastic,' it is a charming biography that is not remotely academic.

Hall's Croft, Stratford-upon-Avon. The home of Shakepeare's daugher Susannah and her husband, Doctor John Hall.
Hall's Croft, Stratford-upon-Avon. The home of Shakepeare's daugher Susannah and her husband, Doctor John Hall. | Source

Searching for Shakespeare's House

Shakespeare's Grave in the Chancel of Holy Trinity Church

The Shakespeare Monument in Holy Trinity Church. It is reported that his widow, Anne, commented that it was a good likeness.
The Shakespeare Monument in Holy Trinity Church. It is reported that his widow, Anne, commented that it was a good likeness. | Source

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre

In 2006 the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and the Swan Theatre closed their doors in preparation for a four-year renovation project that cost £112.8 million. The complex that emerged was not without controversy and it has been questioned whether Stratford on Avon needed the huge utilitarian concrete tower that forms part of the building. However, the new theatre, home to the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), has been described as the 'best performance space for Shakespeare in the world'.

If you are unable to fit a performance into your schedule, the Theatre offers daily Behind the Scenes tours. Afterward, why not relax with a drink or a cup of tea on the outdoor terrace that overlooks the River Avon, as we did on our last visit.

Bibliography

Wood, M. (2003). In Search of Shakespeare. 1st ed. London: BBC Worldwide Ltd.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 GlenR

    Comments

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    • Glenis Rix profile imageAUTHOR

      GlenR 

      2 weeks ago from UK

      LOL :) Thanks for visiting Lawrence.

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 

      2 weeks ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Glenis

      My favourite memory of Stratford on Avon is the wonder my then girlfriend (now wife) showed at seeing houses that didnt have one straight line in them!

      Thank you for the quick tour.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 

      5 weeks ago from SW England

      Lots of great information here, Glenis. I love Stratford; it's so pretty and the buildings are wonderful, a true picture of historical England.

      I never liked the new RSC theatre as it didn't seem to fit in to the landscape well. However, I love to see the RSC performing. We used to go frequently when I was studying as Coventry College of Education, now part of Warwick University at Canley.

      The area has such beautiful countryside around it and cycling over to Kenilworth was a favourite pastime.

      Thanks for this detailed picture of one of our important towns.

      Ann

    • Glenis Rix profile imageAUTHOR

      GlenR 

      6 weeks ago from UK

      Thanks for visiting, Jo. What a pity you didn’t know more about Skakespeare’s family home when you visited. It makes the visit so much more enjoyable, especially for Shakespeare fans, to know the history. I hope that you have an enjoyable visit to North Yorkshire. Whilst you are in the area, the Royal Armouries in Leeds are well-worth visiting. And why not stop off at the beautiful cathedral city of York. The Yorvik Centre and York Castle are fascinating.

    • jo miller profile image

      Jo Miller 

      6 weeks ago from Tennessee

      Great article, Glenis. Just the type of information I would have enjoyed reading before our visit there a few years back. It makes me want to visit again. We are planning a visit to the UK this fall, but I doubt we'll be returning here. We're going to visit the Bronte home in Yorkshire this time. Just a short trip.

    • Glenis Rix profile imageAUTHOR

      GlenR 

      6 weeks ago from UK

      Thanks for visiting, Peggy. I read somewhere that his wife asked to be buried in the same grave but such was the curse that permission was refused and she was buried next to him instead.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      6 weeks ago from Houston, Texas

      Thanks for writing this most interesting article and showing us all of the photos. That is so interesting that Shakespeare did not want his bones moved and even wrote that blessing / curse to keep his body and bones in the same place that they were buried inside of that church. Nice to be able to see a good likeness of him.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      6 weeks ago from The Caribbean

      Shakespeare and Stratford on Avon are almost sacred in my memory, given the homage paid to them by the English Literature teachers in my early Caribbean education. Thanks for these interesting details.

    • Jacqueline Stamp profile image

      Jacqueline Stamp 

      6 weeks ago from UK

      A real pleasure to read; thank you Glenis.

    • Glenis Rix profile imageAUTHOR

      GlenR 

      7 weeks ago from UK

      Thanks. Glad you enjoyed a walk down memory lane.

    • CYong74 profile image

      Kuan Leong Yong 

      7 weeks ago from Singapore

      Great hub! Thanks for the memories too. I visited near 20 years ago and could barely remember the day. Yet I recognize your picture of the Bard's birthplace right away.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      7 weeks ago from Ontario, Canada

      This brought memories of when I brought my students there about 30 years ago. I was so preoccuipied then that it is a joy to do this tour now. It is a place to spark creativity in the soul.

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