John Shakespare is generally accepted to be the son of Richard Shakespeare, a tenant farmer in Snitterfield, a village about four miles from Stratford. His father occupied land owned by Robert Arden of the nearby village of Wilmcote.
His earlier ancestry remains unclear. A grant of coat of arms to him in 1599 recounted that:
John Shakespere, now of Stratford upon Avon in the County of Warwick, Gentleman, whose Great Grandfather for his faithful and approved Service to ... King Henry Vii ... was advanced and rewarded with Lands and Tenements, given to him in those parts of Warwickshire, where they have continued by some Descents
Historians have been unable to confirm the earlier generations of his family, beyond the fact that Shakespeares (with various spellings) were living in Wroxhall, Rowington and other parts of Warwickshire by the late 1400s.
John moved from Snitterfield to Stratford sometime before April 1552, when he and two other men were fined one shilling each for allowing a dung heap to pile up in Henley Street.
He was a glover and whittawer by trade. His craft involved dressing soft leather and using it to make products such as gloves, belts, purses and aprons. According to local tradition, he was also "a considerable dealer in wool."
For a time he prospered, buying properties in Henley Street, including the house now known as Shakespeare's Birthplace, a garden and croft in Greenhill Street, and other local properties.
Marriage and children
John married Mary Arden, the daughter of his father's landlord in Snitterfield, probably in mid-to-late 1557. No marriage record has been found and none probably exists, as Stratford's parish registers do not survive earlier than March 1558. Their date of marriage is estimated based on the date of baptism of their first child in 1558.
Joan, baptised 15 September 1558 ("Jone shakespere Daughter to John Shakspere"), She is thought to have died young.
Margaret, baptised 2 December 1562 ("Margareta filia Johannis Shakspere"). She died in infancy and was buried 30 April 1563.
William, baptised 26 April 1564 ("Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere")
GIlbert, baptised 13 October 1566 ("Gilbertus filius Johannis Shakspere")
Joan, baptised 15 April 1569 ("Jone the daughter of John Shakspere").
Anne, baptised 28 September 1571 ("Anna filia magistri Shakspere"). She died at age eight.
Richard, baptised 11 March 1574 ("Richard sonne to Mr John Shakspeer").
Edmund, baptised 3 May 1580 ("Edmund sonne to mr John Shakspere").
Burgess, alderman and bailiff
In 1556 John Shakespeare was appointed one of the two ale-tasters of the borough of Stratford, a position that involved checking the quality, quantity and price of ale, beer and loaves of bread. In 1558, he was promoted to constable and then, not long afterwards, to be one of the 14 principal burgesses who formed part of the common council of the town of Stratford.
In 1561, he was chosen to be one of the two chamberlains of Stratford, with responsibility for the town's property and revenues. He was elevated to the office of alderman in 1565 and elected of bailiff of Stratford, the town's civic head, for the year 1568-9. The bailiff presided over council meetings and the court of sessions, as well as acting as the borough's almoner, coroner, escheator and clerk of the market.
Throughout his terms in public office, he signed official documents with a mark—usually a carefully drawn pair of glover's compasses. This might suggest he was illiterate, although it is not conclusive because there is evidence that some literate people chose to sign with a mark in Elizabethan times.
After serving as bailiff, John Shakespeare began the process of applying to the College of Arms for a coat of arms, to which he was apparently entitled due his term in public office. The application progressed to the point where he received a sketch of the arms, then faltered.
As the years passed, he fell on hard times. In 1570 he was twice prosecuted for usury, and in 1572 twice prosecuted for illegally dealing in wool. He stopped attending council meetings and by the late 1570s was in debt. In 1578 he raised £40 by mortgaging part of his wife's inheritance at Wilmcote and, when he failed to repay the money, became embroiled in lawsuits to recover possession of the 56-acre property. In 1582, he was fined £40 by the Court of Queen's Bench when he failed to provide security for his and another man's good behaviour.
Struggling to pay his creditors, he was replaced as alderman in 1586, and in 1592 recorded as recusant from church services "for feare of processe for debtte."
Coat of Arms
In 1596 he was granted a coat of arms, some 25 years after he first applied, His son William had risen to prosperity as a playwright and actor on the London theatre scene, and he is thought to have revived the application.
In 1599 John Shakespeare applied to quarter the Arden family's coat of arms with his coat of arms, but the application was probably never approved.
He was buried at Holy Trinity, Stratford, on 8 September 1601 and entered in the parish register in Latin as "Mr. Johannes Shakspeare."
Mary, his widow, survived him by seven years and was buried on 9 September 1608 at Holy Trinity, Stratford.
Although John Shakespeare outwardly conformed the Protestant Church, some scholars argue he was secretly a recusant Catholic. He lived in a period of rising religious tensions and harsh penalties for Catholics who failed to conform to the Protestant religion. In 1583 Edward Arden, a Catholic who is thought to be a relative of John Shakespeare's wife, was executed for plotting to assassinate Queen Elizabeth.
The debate about John Shakespeare's religious beliefs centres around an incomplete booklet, purporting to be his pledge to the Catholic faith, which was discovered in the rafters of a house in Henley Street, Stratford, in 1757. The booklet, known as "John Shakespeare's spiritual testament", has since been lost and its authenticity is disputed by some scholars.
John Shakespeare, the shoemaker
A second John Shakespeare also lived in Stratford in the late 1500s. He was a shoemaker (or corviser) and some 18th century scholars confused him with John Shakespeare, the father of William Shakespeare. His profile is here.
In recent years, some websites have speculated that John Shakespeare the shoemaker was the as yet unrecognized eldest son of John Shakespeare and Mary Arden, and that he was born in Stratford about 1556. The theory relies on the fact that Stratford's parish records do not exist before 1558, that the occupations of both John Shakespeares involved working with leather, and an assumption that it was customary for the eldest son to be named after his father. Academic scholars do not support this theory and consider him to most likely be the son of Thomas Shaxper, shoemaker, of Warwick (died abt 1577).
John Shakespeare the shoemaker is thought to belong to the Shakespeare family who held copyhold land at Oldich in the manor of Balsall, Warwickshire, since the reign of Richard II. In 1596 the court roll of the manor of Balsall records him disposing of land at Oldich and describes him as "John Shackspere de Stratford supra Avon in Com. Warr. corviser."
↑ Richard Savage, The registers of Stratford-on-Avon, in the County of Warwick, Baptisms, 1558-1652 , London: privately printed, 1897, page 20. Internet Archive (accessed 21 Apr 2020)
↑ 'Parish register entry recording Richard Shakespeare's baptism', 11 Mar 1574, Shakespeare Documented, Folger Shakespeare Library (accessed 21 Apr 2020)
↑ Richard Savage, The registers of Stratford-on-Avon, in the County of Warwick, Baptisms, 1558-1652 , London: privately printed, 1897, page 30. Internet Archive (accessed 21 Apr 2020)
↑ 'Parish register entry recording Edmund Shakespeare's baptism', 3 May 1580, Shakespeare Documented, Folger Shakespeare Library (accessed 21 Apr 2020)
↑ 'Record of a meeting of the Stratford-upon-Avon Corporation when John Shakespeare was elected an alderman' 4 Jul 1565, Shakespeare Documented, Folger Shakespeare Library (accessed 2 Apr 2020)
↑ 'Meeting of the Stratford-upon-Avon Corporation at which John Shakespeare was elected bailiff', 4 Sep 1568, Shakespeare Documented, Folger Shakespeare Library (accessed 2 Apr 2020)
↑ D L Thomas and N E Evans, 'John Shakespeare in The Exchequer', Shakespeare Quarterly, volume 35, number 3 (Autumn 1984), pages 315-318. JSTOR (accessed 13 May 2020)
↑ 'Meeting of the Stratford-upon-Avon Corporation at which John Shakespeare and John Wheeler are removed from the office of aldermen', 6 Sep 1586, Shakespeare Documented, Folger Shakespeare Library (accessed 2 Apr 2020)]
↑ 'Second certificate of the commissioners for Warwickshire showing John Shakespeare failing to attend church "for feare of processe for debtte"', 25 Sep 1592, Shakespeare Documented, Folger Shakespeare Library (accessed 2 Apr 2020)
↑ 32.032.1 Peter Holland, ‘Shakespeare, William (1564-1616), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn Jan 2013 (accessed 18 Mar 2020).
↑ Richard Savage, The registers of Stratford-on-Avon, in the County of Warwick, Burials, 1558-1622-3 , London: privately printed, 1905, page 56 Internet Archive (accessed 13 May 2020)
↑ 'Parish register entry recording John Shakespeare's burial', 6 Sep 1601, Shakespeare Documented, Folger Shakespeare Library (accessed 12 May 2020)
↑ Richard Savage, The registers of Stratford-on-Avon, in the County of Warwick, Burials, 1558-1622-3 , London: privately printed, 1905, page 76 Internet Archive (accessed 13 May 2020)