There was a world beyond the house and garden of Henley Street. Stratford remained a deeply conservative and traditional society. At its centre was the small nuclear family, like that of the Shakespeares, which was closely knit and self-sustaining. Yet family was linked to family, and neighbour to neighbour, in organic fashion. A neighbour was more than the man, woman or child who lived in the same street. A neighbour was the one to whom you turned for support, in times of distress, and the one to whom you offered help in return. A neighbour was expected to be thrifty, hard-working and reliable.
Many inhabitants of Stratford were connected by marriage and kinship alliances so that the town itself might be viewed as an extended family. Friends were often known as “cousins” so that, for example, Shakespeare is noticed as “cousin Shakespeare” by those with whom he seems to have had no blood relationship. This also encouraged the ties of patronage and local community. In his capacity as mayor John Shakespeare was “father” to the town as well as to his more immediate progeny. The inheritance of place was a very powerful one. It encouraged a deep sense of settlement and of possession.
Henley Street may serve as an image of this relatively small and enclosed community. The traveller reached it from Bridge Street, passing the Swan and the Bear inns on either side of the thoroughfare; Bridge Street was divided into two by a line of buildings known as Middle Row. Fore Bridge Street and Back Bridge Street contained some of the more commodious shops as well as inns. By the High Cross, where John Shakespeare kept his stall on market-days, the street branched into Henley Street and a little southward into Wood Street. Henley Street itself contained shops, like that of John Shakespeare, cottages and houses. Like medieval streets in general, it was of mixed occupancy.
Shakespeare’s immediate neighbour, east towards Bridge Street, was the tailor William Wedgewood. His tailor’s shop was next to the glover’s, in other words. He owned two other houses in the same stretch of street, but was eventually compelled to leave Stratford when it was discovered that he had “there marryed an other wife his first wife yet living.” He was also accused of being “very contencious prowde & slaunderous oft buseing himself with noughty matters & quarrelling with his honest neighbours.”1 So, living next door, he may have been difficult. The young Shakespeare must have soon become acquainted with the vagaries of human conduct.
Next to Wedgewood’s house was the smithy of Richard Hornby who, among other things, forged the iron links to fasten local prisoners. He made use of the stream that ran past his house. The tailor Wedgewood and the smith Hornby seem to make an appearance in Shakespeare’s King John (1815-18) when a citizen, Hubert, remarks that
I saw a Smith stand with his hammer (thus)
The whilst his Iron did on the Anuile coole,
With open mouth swallowing a Taylors newes,
Who with his Sheeres, and Measure in his hand …
It is a moment of observation snatched out of time.
Hornby had five children, and indeed the street was altogether filled with children. One Henley Street family had seven, and another had fourteen. As an infant Shakespeare could never have been alone. It is the open life of the towns memorialised in Romeo and Juliet, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Taming of the Shrew, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. It irradiates the Venice of Othello and the Ephesus of The Comedy of Errors.
On the further side of the stream resided another glover, Gilbert Bradley. Since he became godfather to one of John Shakespeare’s other sons, it may be assumed that theirs was a friendly rivalry. Further down the street lived George Whateley, a woollen-draper, who was wealthy enough to endow a small school at the time of his death. He was a Roman Catholic, and two of his brothers became fugitive priests. Next to him was the haberdasher, and Shakespeare’s godfather, William Smith, who had five sons. Just beyond his shop, across the road at the corner of Fore Bridge Street, was the Angel Inn. It was owned and managed by the Cawdrey family, who were also staunch Catholics; one of their sons trained as a Jesuit priest in exile. This was a close community in every sense.
So the northern side of Henley Street was populated by clothiers of one kind or another, and is a token of that clustering of trades that took place in most market towns. Shakespeare grew up in an atmosphere of animated business. On the western end of the street John Shakespeare’s closest neighbour was another Catholic, George Badger, a woollen-draper whose principal business was in Sheep Street. He was elected as an alderman but was deprived of his office; he was even sent to prison because of his staunch Catholicism. His was not a model that John Shakespeare chose to follow. Beyond Badger lived a yeoman farmer, John Ichiver, about whom little is known. There were other neighbours in Henley Street. There were six shepherds’ families, for example, two of whom, the Cox and the Davies families, lived directly opposite the Shakespeares. John Cox was well known to the Hathaways, soon to be mingled with the Shakespeares. The shepherds in Shakespeare’s plays are not some pastoral invention.
On the same side of the street resided Thomas a Pryce, a “mettle-man” or tinker. John Shakespeare stood surety for his son when the young man was charged with a felony. Here also lived John Wheeler, an alderman and recusant Catholic; he owned four houses in the street as well as tenements elsewhere. There was also a wool merchant, Rafe Shaw, whose goods John Shakespeare appraised, and Peter Smart, whose son became a tailor. Already we can see the outlines of a close community, with many familial as well as religious and mercantile ties.
It would be otiose to prepare a roll-call of the townspeople of Stratford, except to the extent that they emerge in Shakespeare’s own life. So we find the Quineys, for example, visiting the dramatist in London and calling him “loving good friend and countryman.” One of them eventually married Shakespeare’s younger daughter, Judith, and so we can presume some degree of intimacy. They were fierce Catholics married into the Badger family who, as we have seen, owned a house next door to John Shakespeare. Adrian Quiney was a grocer who lived on the High Street and who was three times mayor of Stratford. In that capacity he knew John Shakespeare very well. It was his son, Richard, who formed the friendship with Shakespeare; the dramatist was probably godfather to his child, baptised William.
The Quineys also married into another family, the Sadlers, who were in turn closely connected with the Shakespeares. John Sadler, who lived in Church Street, was the owner of several mills and barns in Stratford; he was also a landowner and proprietor of the Bear Inn in Stratford. He had been bailiff of the town, and John Shakespeare voted for his second term.
The Bear Inn was eventually sold to the Nash family of Stratford; they too were Catholic, and they also married into the Shakespeare family. The host of the Bear Inn, Thomas Barber, was also a Catholic. A few months before his death Shakespeare was concerned to protect “Master Barber’s interest.” It is important to recognise the line of sympathies and affiliations beneath the surface of Stratford life. A kinsman of John Sadler, Roger Sadler, was also a baker; when he died, money was owed to him both by John Shakespeare and by Thomas Hathaway.
A member of the Combe family left money to Shakespeare in his will, and in turn Shakespeare bequeathed another Combe his sword. It may have been the ceremonial sword that he wore on state occasions, in his somewhat unlikely position as Groom of His Majesty’s Chamber, and therefore of some value. The Combes sold land to the dramatist, and shared with him an income from certain tithes. It was, in other words, a close-knit collaboration between two families. The Combes were described as “one of the leading Catholic families of Warwickshire,”2 but they also serve as an example of the conflicting religious commitments of the era; of two brothers, one was a Catholic and one a Protestant. There was also a family tradition of money-lending, not unknown among wealthy Stratfordians, as we have seen, and Shakespeare is popularly believed to have written some doggerel on the subject that was placed on the grave of John Combe.
In his last will and testament, drawn up as he lay dying in his home town, Shakespeare left 26s 8d each to Anthony Nash and John Nash, for the purchase of memorial rings. Anthony Nash farmed the tithe land that Shakespeare owned, and was close enough to him to act as his representative in various Stratford dealings. John Nash, too, acted as a witness on his behalf. They were Catholics who in characteristic fashion entered the network of marriage and kinship with the Quineys and the Combes and of course the Shakespeares. Anthony Nash’s son married Shakespeare’s granddaughter.
The dying dramatist left the same amount to “Hamlett” Sadler, as he calls him, and to William Reynolds. Reynolds was a fervent Catholic who shared prison with George Badger for his beliefs. A priest in disguise found refuge from his pursuers in Reynolds’s house. Shakespeare also left 20 shillings in gold to his godson, William Walker; he was the son of Henry Walker, a mercer and alderman who lived on the High Street. In the way of such things, his grandfather was very well acquainted with Shakespeare’s grandfather. Among the witnesses to the will was one Julius or July Shaw, a trader in wool and malt who lived on Chapel Street. His father, also a wool-dealer, had known John Shakespeare very well. So we have a group of generally affluent and no doubt sharp-witted businessmen, bluff enough but straightforward and practical. They must have been shrewd judges of markets and of people, used to saving money and driving bargains. This was the solution in which Shakespeare was formed.
So Stratford contained a very large Catholic constituency of which the Shakespeares were a part. This does not necessarily imply that Shakespeare himself professed that faith—assuming that he professed any—only that he found the company of Catholics familiar. It seems in certain respects to have been a clannish society. The family of Nicholas Lane, a Catholic landowner who lent money both to John and to Henry Shakespeare, bought their clothes from a Catholic tailor in Wood Street.3 In the same context, therefore, it also seems likely that affluent Catholics preferred to lend money to their coreligionists. In later years Shakespeare purchased his great house from a Catholic, William Underhill, who was compelled to sell as a result of the vast sums of money he had expended on recusancy fines. We may see in Shakespeare’s purchase a mixture of shrewd commercial calculation and semi-fraternal sympathy.
On any conservative reckoning it is possible to identify some thirty Catholic families within the town, and of course the available records are by their nature incomplete and inconclusive. There would have been many more papists, who concealed their private beliefs from the local authorities. They became, in the language of the day, “church papists” whose attendance at the Protestant churches masked their true faith. It has been speculated that the majority of churchgoers in Stratford were of this sort.
The religious situation in Stratford was in any case well known. Hugh Larimer, the reformer and Bishop of Worcester, declared that Stratford lay at “the blind end” of his diocese, and one of Latimer’s colleagues confirmed that in Warwickshire “great Parishes and market Townes [are] utterly destitute of God’s word.”4 One of his successors, John Whitgift, complained in 1577 that in the area around Stratford he could obtain no information on recusants; in a tolerant and like-minded community, neighbour would not denounce neighbour. The papistical images in the guild chapel were lime-washed, on the orders of John Shakespeare, more than four years after a royal injunction had ordered their removal. It only finally occurred after the leading Catholic family in the town, the Cloptons, had fled abroad for safety. In any case the lime-washing of the offending images was hardly in direct obedience with the administrative injunction to “utterly extinct and destroy” such images so that “there remains no memory of the same.” John Shakespeare merely covered them over, perhaps in the hope of better days.
Lying concealed upon the walls of the chapel were depictions of two local Saxon saints, Edmund and Modwena, for those who wished to celebrate the blessedness of their region; there was a fresco of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket, while kneeling at the altar of St. Benedict in Canterbury; there was a painting of St. George in mortal combat with the dragon, a princess standing behind him. Here also were images of angels and of devils, saints and dragons, monarchs and armed men in battle. Here in this Stratford chapel were hidden the images of the Catholic world. We will see some of them freshly revealed within Shakespeare’s plays.
Certain of Shakespeare’s schoolteachers were Catholic. If John Shakespeare had indeed espoused Catholicism, his example shows there was no hindrance to high office in the town, which in turn suggests a measure of quiescence or even sympathy among its leading citizens. But it represented a fragile compromise. External legislation, and the presence of religious commissioners, could create tensions within the community. Overtly partisan steps, like the concealment of renegade priests, could cause serious problems for those concerned. And in any case the general drift of the time was towards a grudging acceptance of the new religion and the steady abandonment of the practices of the old faith. By the early seventeenth century Stratford had become notably more Protestant in tendency. The town was never ruled by “precise fools” or “Scripture men,” as the more formidable Puritans were known, but it eventually came to accept the ambiguous orthodoxy of the Church of England. Yet in the latter half of the sixteenth century, despite royal injunctions and local purges, fines and sequestrations and imprisonments, the persistence of the Catholic faith in the town can clearly be seen.
This might have had a direct effect upon the Shakespeare household in one important sense. The dislike of the reformed religion meant that piety was transferred from the Church to the family. The children might now be obliged to attend the new forms of worship and listen to Elizabethan homilies. But the lessons of the old faith, and the rites of the once popular religion, might still be taught and practised in the home. It was the place of safety. Since Shakespeare’s eldest daughter, Susannah, remained a firm and prominent Catholic all of her life, can it be assumed that the Shakespeares themselves retained this familial tradition of inherited piety? It has been inferred that the community of Catholics was matriarchal in tendency, and that the woman’s “inferior legal and public identity afforded her a superior devotional status, a fuller membership of the Catholic Church.”5 Since the old faith is likely to have been transmitted through the women of the household, it throws an interesting light upon Shakespeare’s attitude towards his closest female relations.