Stratford is a meeting place of roads crossing the Avon river; afon is the Celtic name for river. The area had been settled from the Bronze Age. There were barrows and stone circles, lying now neglected, and there were “lowes” or graves where meets or open courts once gathered. A Romano-British village was established on the outskirts of the present town, lending weight and substance to the weathered and enduring atmosphere of the place.
Stratford means a Roman straet, a paved road or highway, crossing a ford. In the seventh century a monastery was established, by the banks of the river; this was first in the possession of Aethelard, subordinate king of the Hwiccas, but was then transferred into the ownership of Egwin, Bishop of Worcester. Since this was soon after the conversion of the Saxons to the Christian faith, we may say that Stratford had a connection with the old religion from the earliest times. The church in which Shakespeare was baptised was erected on the site of the old monastery, and the dwellings of the monks and their servants were once on land now known as “Old Town.” The Domesday surveyors of 1085 carefully noted the presence of a village on this spot, comprising farmers and labourers as well as the ecclesiastical community; there was a priest, together with twenty-one “villeins” and seven “bordarii” or cottagers.
It began to prosper in the thirteenth century. A fair of three days was instituted in 1216; it was supplemented by four other fairs held at various times of the year, one of which lasted for fifteen days. A survey of 1252 reports 240 “burgages,” or properties held on a yearly rental from the lord of the manor, as well as numerous shops, stalls and tenements. Here were shoemakers and fleshmongers, blacksmiths and carpenters, dyers and wheelwrights, engaged in trades that Shakespeare would still have seen on the streets of his childhood. The medieval town itself was approximately the same size as it was at the time of Shakespeare’s birth. To be aware of continuity—to be settled within it—was in a real sense his birthright.
The open country beyond the town has been described as “tumbled down,” covered with thorn bush and populated by rabbits. There were few trees and no hedges, but flat land all around sprinkled with cowslips and clover and yellow mustard. This unenclosed territory comprised meadow land, arable land and rough pasture stretching towards the hills. Of all writers, Shakespeare has the widest vocabulary on the variety of weeds to be found in such places, disentangling the hemlock from the cuckoo-flower, the fumiter from the darnel.
There had been a church in Stratford, dedicated to the Holy Trinity, since the early thirteenth century. It was erected beside the river, of local undressed stone and yellow stone from the Campden quarries, in the utmost harmony with the landscape; it possessed a wooden steeple and was surrounded by elm trees, with an avenue of lime trees leading to the north porch.
Shakespeare would have known the ancient bone-house on the north side of the chancel, where the skeletons of the long-dead had been deposited; it had also been a dormitory for the singing boys and a study for the minister. Shakespeare and his contemporaries were familiar with death, although this did not prevent Juliet from crying out against the “Charnel house” with its “reekie shanks and yealow chaples sculls” (2259). Local legend suggests that the playwright had this bone-house in mind when he wrote this passage in Romeo and Juliet, and local legend may be right. His own grave was to be situated just a few feet from it, within the church itself, and his solemn curse against anyone who “moves my bones” acts as a reminder. There were other intimations of mortality: a college, or house for chantry priests praying in perpetual intercession for the dead, had been erected on the western side of the churchyard in 1351.
Of equal antiquity was the Guild of the Holy Cross, established in Stratford at the beginning of the thirteenth century. This was a society of lay people devoted to the festivals and institutions of their faith; it was a “friendly society” where, by payment of an annual subscription, its members would be assured of a fitting funeral. But it was also a communal society, with its own wardens and beadles who supervised the interests of the town as well as the benefactions of the church.
If Shakespeare knew one public building in Stratford thoroughly well, it was the chapel of this guild; it was erected beside the school where he was taught, and each weekday morning he attended prayers here. And then there were the bells. The little bell called the boy to school in the morning; the great bell tolled at dawn and dusk, and was “the surly sullen bell” of the sonnet that tolled at the time of dying and the time of burial. It eventually tolled for Shakespeare when he was laid in the Stratford ground.