Early in this context is taken to mean prior to 1600. Why this seemingly arbitrary date? Well....., this seems to be the point at which the Shakespeares began to spread far and wide - prior to this most Shakespeares are to be found within the county of Warwickshire.
At the present time there seems to be only two families with a proven unbroken descent in the male line from an ancestor living prior to 1600, and curiously these both occur outside Warwickshire being descendants of the 'Black Country Shakespeares' and the 'Stepney Shakespeares.' Further researches will probably add to this list: it is now fairly certain that the 'Black Country' family originated in Wroxall, Warwickshire, as did the ancestor of the 'Aston' Shakespeares.
Among the earliest Shakespeares is Adam Shakespeare, of Baddesley Clinton. Stopes tells us (Chapter 2, page 7) that ' "Woldiche," "Oldyche" and "Oldwich" are the same, being a farm in the hamlet of Balsall, in the parish of Hampton in Arden, and about three miles from Knowle.'
Henry Norris, who wrote his book on Baddesley Clinton in 1897, has quoted that he had found Shakespeares in an early court roll of Baddesley Clinton as early as 1389. This is often quoted (see below) as the earliest reference to the name in Warwickshire. Baddesley Clinton was a seat of one branch of the Ferrers family who had extensive estates throughout the Midlands. There seems to be a close relationship between the various generations of the Ferrers families and the Shakespeares, particularly with regard to the leasing of land, culminating in the personal effects of one of the last descendents of this branch of the Ferrers [Thomas Ferrers of Baddesley Clinton 1713-1760)] passing into the hands of one of the last direct descendents of the Rowington Shakespeares [William Shakespeare, gentleman, of Knoll (Knowle) Hall ( - 1762)] who was appointed his trustee. William, who had married Ann Ives of Rowington on 2nd February 1741 was buried at Rowington on August 17th 1762. Ann was sole executor of his will on his death.
Both Stopes ('Shakespeare's Family', Chapter 2) and E K Chambers ('William Shakespeare,' Appendix E) give details of Adam Shakespeare's descendants, using similar sources, which culminate in the land held by him in 1389 being passed on to the Wroxall Charity Trustees in 1506, by one William Shakespeare, of Wroxall, and John Shakespeare of Rowington. Although we cannot yet prove the connection of the later generations of the the family in these two places, we do have clues that they were all related, such as use of the same seal by later descendants down as far as the mid- eighteenth century. It is only in Wroxall and Rowington that we find Shakespeares in Warwickshire before they commenced their gradual spread into the surrounding countryside during Tudor times, although Warwick has records of the name in the very late 1400's.
Adam Shakespeare, contrary to information which is widely repeated, is not the first bearer of the illustrious surname recorded in Warwickshire. This honour belongs to a convicted felon! Chambers informs us (Appendix E., page 355) that 'the bailiffs of Coventry account for the property of Thomas Shakespeare, a felon who had fled the country,' in 1359. He could conceivably be another son of Adam 'of Oldediche' or a son of the second Adam.
It can be conjectured that the families in the neighbouring counties of Gloucestershire and Leicestershire, both bordering Warwickshire, probably derived from that county - the first continuous records for both counties begin in the mid to late 1500's (although there is a record of a 'William Sakspere', of Clopton, Gloucestershire, being hanged for robbery(!) in 1248).
Both Stopes and Chambers cite a number of Shakespeares in places further afield, who may or may not share a Warwickshire origin. For genealogical purposes these may be dismissed, for their descendants appear to 'die out' within a very few generations, and no modern Shakespeares can trace their ancestry to these individuals: many centuries were to pass before the surname reappears in these areas, and these can families can be proved to derive elsewhere. One exception to this might be the London Shakespeares, in which place the first record occurs in 1413, although other instances of the name seem to occur from at least several generations later, and are not continuous, meaning that these too could have been random migrations from elsewhere. It is not until the marriage of Matthew Shakespeare, ancestor of the 'Stepney Shakespeares' in 1569 that there is anything like a continuous descent of any families in the capital. After this, as might be expected, the appearance of the surname multiplies in the metropolis, but many of these are probably later migrations.
These same two authors give a number of early instances of the name outside Warwickshire, including a significant number prior to the existence of Adam 'of Oldediche.' What this means is that, as rare as the name is, it may have come into existence in several places quite independently. However, as mentioned above (with the possible exception of London) none of these earlier Shakespeares left progeny beyond a few generations, so it is fairly conclusive that all (London possibly excepted) Shakespeares share common ancestry.
Michael Wood - 'In Search of Shakespeare' says that:
"The Shakespeares' ancestors came from around the village of Balsall with its old chapel and hall of the Knights Templars. Down Green Lane, shrouded by thickets of ash and silver birch, across a ford that runs deep in Winter there is still a red-brick farm house where Adam of Oldeditch lived in the 14th Century. His son gave himself the surname Shakespeare. There were still Shakespeares at Oldeditch 100 years later, and almost certainly the clan descended from them".
Additions to this page will be made as new discoveries are made
Revised September 2004