Visiting Shakespeare's Ancestral Home: Stratford-upon-Avon Today
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 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.
The Shakespeare Trail in Stratford-upon-Avon
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Searching for Shakespeare's House
Shakespeare's Grave in the Chancel of Holy Trinity Church
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.
Wood, M. (2003). In Search of Shakespeare. 1st ed. London: BBC Worldwide Ltd.
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