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The Shakespeare Family History Site

Analysis of the Records Relating to

John Shakespeare, 'Shoemaker', of Stratford

It is an indisputable fact that there were two different John Shakespeares resident in Stratford on Avon in the latter half of the 16th century. One of these, at one time 'Bailiff' (ie 'Mayor') of Stratford, was the father of William Shakespeare, the celebrated Poet. The other, recorded in Stratford about a generation after the first record of the earlier John, is recorded as a 'Shoemaker' in the Parish Registers. There is considerable circumstantial evidence pointing to the the fact that these two individuals may actually have been father and son - for this reason, although there is no other relevance, historical or otherwise, these individuals will be referred to below as 'elder' and 'younger.'

The surviving Stratford Parish Registers begin in 1558, though are at times deficient eg the earliest record for John Shakespeare (elder) refers to a baptism of his daughter Joan in 1558, although she died at an early age - her burial is not recorded - and another daughter, also called Joan, is recorded as being baptised in 1559.

An examination of the facts regarding the two different John Shakespeares is presented below, with speculations recorded in red italics:

Apart from the records relating to the families of the two Johns there is only one other reference to the name Shakespeare in the Stratford Parish Registers at this time, in fact, there were no Shakespeare baptisms  recorded until after at least 1812, and the next occurrence of the name, outside members of the Poet's family is a marriage of an Elizabeth Shakespeare in 1700. This reference is to a baptism of Elizabeth, daughter of Anthony Shakespeare, of 'Hampton', in 1583.

No doubt someone will point out one piece of evidence which seems to preclude John 'the Shoemaker' being an older brother of the Poet which is quoted by S. Schoenbaum in 'William Shakespeare - A Compact Documentary Life' (1987 Edn. p39-40):
  • 'In a Bill of of Complaint in Shakespeare v. Lambert, 1588, the glover contended that John Lambert had on 26 September 1587 promised an additional 20 in return for delivery to him outright of the Wilmcote estate by John and Mary Shakespeare, and their eldest son William ('Johannes Shackespere et Maria uxor eius, simulcum Willielmo Shackespere filio suo').'

However, this ('their eldest') seems to be artistic license on the part of Schoenbaum: what the phrase seems to mean is: "simulcum Willielmo Shackespere filio suo"  - "witnessed simultaneously in the presence of William Shakespeare, their son" -  which indicates that as William could read and write and his parents could not he read the document, told them what it said and it was signed in his presence.

The 'Traditional' View on the Origins of John 'the Shoemaker'

An oft repeated idea is that John 'the Shoemaker' came from Warwick. This idea has it's origin with Victorian writers, and is based purely on the speculation that as Thomas Shakespeare of Warwick, who had a son John, was a shoemaker, then his son might also have carried on the same trade. However, another of his son's, Thomas - later to become Bailiff of Warwick - was a butcher, so this train of thought is pure speculation. Moreover, although research is ongoing, it can be demonstrated that this John Shakespeare married in Warwick in 1579, and was still living there at least up until  the time of the first record of the Stratford Shoemaker - for example, John and his brother Thomas were assesses for Poor Rate in 1582 (Book of John Fisher). The last record of him is his burial in Warwick well into the 17th century. What is needed is a record of him in the intervening period which shows him to have still been in Warwick during the recorded time of the Stratford Shoemaker to conclusively prove them to have been two different people. What does make this seem quite likely is that the Stratford Shoemaker was known to have been apprenticed to one Roberts, also a Stratford shoemaker, and even - a common occurrence for the time - married his widow (Margery) and took over his business on his demise. Now.......to have been an apprentice (the period of which was normally seven years) John would most likely not have been married - marriage was normally forbidden for apprentices - both facts are incongruous with the Stratford shoemaker being the John Shakespeare from Warwick, who had married there in 1579, and was still resident there in his own right (this is recorded, as opposed to living with his father) some years after.

What Other Clues Do We Have?

Here we must consider that John was apprenticed to Roberts the Shoemaker. The normal period of apprenticeship at this time was seven years (and usually from the age of 14), and also most apprenticeship agreements forbade the apprentice form marrying during this time. John married his master's widow, Margery Roberts, in 1584. Assuming John to have completed his apprenticeship prior to this this would give him a birthdate before 1563 - tantalisingly close to the start of the Stratford Parish Registers. How long before is difficult to determine, as exact dates of his apprenticeship are not known.

After his marriage to Margery John adopted the Robert's children.

Furthermore, there are two, similar, important clues to consider. Not one, but two surviving documents give the name of the Poet's father as 'John Shakespeare, Senior.' One of these documents, the inventory of Henry Field - neighbour of the Shakespeare's in Stratford, and father of Richard Field the London printer who first printed a number of the Poet's works - has even made it into printed form, and is mentioned by a small number of Shakespeare biographers who make no mention of the the significance of the wording. While the wording is not conclusive - similar phrases can be seen elsewhere merely to distinguish two individuals of the same name - it does imply the existence of a John Shakespeare 'Junior' which obviously refers to the Shoemaker.

What happened to the 'Shoemaker'?

In 1596 John Shakespeare who was a shoemaker or cordonnier by trade, sold his house at Oldiche and Dopkins Orchard (could the latter be the present-day "Dadkins"?) and other lands at Balsall, much of which had been in the family since the reign of Richard II.

Here we have the evidence that John survived after his disappearance from the Stratford records, and that whatever his parentage he was probably in the senior line of Shakespeare descendants: for him to hold land that had passed down from the earliest known Shakespeare ancestor he must have come from a fairly long line of 'eldest sons' for this was the usual way for a families main land holdings to pass down the generations.

Conclusion

While the circumstantial evidence points to the 'Shoemaker' being an hitherto unrecognised brother of the Poet, there are still nagging doubts that the 'Shoemaker. was indeed a member of the Warwick family: not least compounded by the fact that he held, and later sold, property in Balsall - including what may even have been the 'ancestral home' of the Shakespeares. Until the recent discovery of this fact it was thought that the only Shakespeare still holding land in Balsall (the rest of the families property there having been passed to the Wroxall Trustees about 1506 by William Shakespeare, of Wroxall, and his brother John Shakespeare, of Rowington, on the death of their cousin's husband Huddespit) was Thomas Shakespeare, of Warwick, who left his copyhold in Balsall to his widow in 1579.

Even here we remain confused, for there are indications that the Poet's father had connections with Warwick, not least of which is his serving on a jury there concerning a dispute in Rowington - whatever the relationship of the two Stratford John Shakespeare's it must have been pretty close. It must also be remembered that yet another John Shakespeare, also of Warwick, was apprenticed to Jaggard, the London printer whose most well known production was the celebrated 'First Folio' of the Poet's works.

Revised July 2005

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