The Stratford of Shakespeare's era was very different from today's - in size, smell, noise and atmosphere. Here, Roger Pringle from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust looks at the thriving market town that was Shakespeare's Stratford.
Located in the centre of England, Elizabethan Stratford was an important river-crossing settlement and regional centre. Farmers and villagers from a wide area crossed the Avon on the fine medieval bridge to attend the weekly markets.
The main market cross, the medieval High Cross, stood at the junction of High Street and Bridge Street. From this spot, William Shakespeare's father, John, a trained glove-maker, and his fellow glovers sold their wares.
John Shakespeare married Mary Arden, the daughter of Robert Arden, a farmer from the nearby village of Wilmcote. In 1556 John bought the main part of the house in Henley Street which is now known as the 'Birthplace' and their family, including William, grew up there (see photo). John's principal business was that of a glover, but he also traded as a wool and corn merchant, and he is recorded in 1570 as being involved in money-lending.
Stratford received its borough charter in 1553, and John soon became a prominent member of the new council of aldermen and burgesses which governed the town. John Shakespeare played an increasingly important role on the town council and attained the highest office, Bailiff (Mayor) of Stratford in 1568.
William Shakespeare's education
As the son of a leading townsman, William almost certainly attended Stratford's 'petty' or junior school before progressing, perhaps at the age of seven, to the Grammar School, which still stands on the corner of Church Street and Chapel Lane. His plays reveal a detailed knowledge of the curriculum taught in such schools which were geared to teaching pupils Latin, both spoken and written. The classical writers studied in the classroom influenced Shakespeare's plays and poetry; for example, some of his ideas for plots and characters came from Ovid's tales, the plays of Terence and Plautus, and Roman history.
It is not known what Shakespeare did when he left school, probably at the age of 14, as was usual. In November 1582 he married Anne Hathaway, the daughter of Richard Hathaway, a local farmer. Her home, now known as Anne Hathaway's Cottage, still stands in the village of Shottery, a mile from Stratford. At the time of their marriage William was 18 and Anne was 26. Their first-born child, Susanna, was baptised on 26 May 1583 at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford. Two years later twins followed, Hamnet and Judith.
Drama in Shakespeare's Stratford
In Shakespeare's youth, Stratford was often visited by travelling troupes of professional actors. These players probably sparked his interest in the stage, and he may have entered the London theatre world though contacts made with them in Stratford. We do not know when or why Shakespeare left Stratford for London, or what he was doing before becoming a professional actor and dramatist in the capital. There are various traditions and stories about the so-called 'lost years' between 1585 and 1592, a period for which there is virtually no evidence concerning his life.
Shakespeare seems to have been influenced by the countryside around Stratford. His works contain many references to wild flowers, animals and birds, rural characters and country customs.
Growing success: Man of property
Shakespeare's success in the London theatres made him wealthy and in 1597 he bought New Place, one of the largest houses in Stratford. Although his professional career was spent in London, he maintained close links with his native town. Further property investments in Stratford followed, including the purchase of 107 acres of land in 1602.
Last years in Stratford
Shakespeare's elder daughter, Susanna, married John Hall a Stratford physician, in 1607, and gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, the following year. They lived in Hall's Croft in the street now known as Old Town. Shakespeare's other daughter, Judith, married Thomas Quiney, a Stratford vintner, in 1616. (Shakespeare's son Hamnet, twin brother to Judith, had died in 1596, aged 11.)
From around 1611 Shakespeare seems largely to have disengaged himself from the London theatre world and to have spent his time at his Stratford house, New Place. Shakespeare died in Stratford, aged 52, on 23 April 1616, and was buried in Holy Trinity Church two days later. Within a short time a monument to him was put up, probably by his family, on the wall close to his grave. His widow, Anne, died in 1623 and was buried beside him. Shakespeare's family line came to an end with the death of his grand-daughter Elizabeth in 1670.
(Image above shows Shakespeare's birthplace on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon.)