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The Shakespeare Family History Site






By Peter Lee


As chairman of the local Family History Society here in North Warwickshire I am often asked to investigate families in my area of interest, helping people with problems they are having in making a further step back or finding long lost relatives throughout the world.   Usually such information discovered is of a commonplace nature, taking families back a couple more generations or putting long lost cousins in touch with each other. But one ancient family hereabouts– the Ensors – opened up a very interesting possibility, one that was entirely unexpected; that there are people living today by the name of Shakespeare that are direct descendents of one of William Shakespeare’s own immediate family.


The Ensor/Shakespeare Connection Mystery

I first became aware of an Ensor/Shakespeare connection when researching the Ensors in John Nichols  “History & Antiquities of the County of Leicester” Vol 4 Part II (published in 1811) where I found on page 602 in a family tree of the Purefoy family a note of a marriage between John Strong Ensor and Anne Purefoy in 1747. John Strong Ensor (1716-1768) was the son of James Ensor of Wilnecote (1681-1750) who married Sarah Strong (    -1721).


In reference at the bottom of page 602 it said:


Of John Strong Ensor – “whose sister was wife of the reverend John Dyer: and whose grandmother was a Shakespeare descended from a brother of every body’s Shakespeare. 


Biographies of  William Shakespeare and genealogical information which have previously been published on his family, are silent on any connection he might have had with North Warwickshire or Leicestershire – or if his brothers had male descendents who would give rise to such a connection. None of his three known brothers seem to have married, and only one said to have had an illegitimate son who died as a pre-pubescent youngster.  Two of his brothers were believed to be living in London at the same time as William.  Accepted published records can offer us no more than this.


The Rev. John Dyer married Sarah Ensor (1712 -1760). Sarah was the sister of John Strong Ensor. It was her second marriage.

Amongst the papers sent to me from an Ensor correspondent in America : "In 1756, Rev. John Dyer, wrote to William Duncan:-

'More of myself, which your good natured curiosity draws from me, is this, after having been an itinerant painter in my native country (South Wales), and in Herefordshire and Worcestershire, &c. &c. I married and settled in Leicestershire. My wife's name was Ensor, whose grandmother was a Shakespear, descended from a brother of everybody's Shakespear.'




John Strong Ensor was clerk to an attorney in the North Warwickshire town of Coleshill.   He married Anne Purefoy and went into partnership with George Purefoy his brother in law, Attorney at Law in Hinckley, Leicestershire.


In the Harpur of Burton Latimer collection at Northampton County Records Office -"Settlement by John Strong Ensor and Anne his wife of Mansion House of Exning, Suffolk; lands there and in Stoney Stanton, Narborough and Cosby, Leics."

The Exning estate passed down through later generations and a relationship to William Shakespeare appears to be preserved: The Morning Herald, "1857, June 2. Died at Hastings, aged 62 William Hammond, esq. of Camden Road villas, and Scott's-yard, London, and Exning, Suffolk, a magistrate for the County of Middlesex, and for upwards of forty years a respectable merchant of the City of London, He died in Jesus. The deceased was said to be one of the last lineal descendents of Shakespeare."

Another connection - "The Pauls of Wilnecote, who descend in common with Mrs. Dyer from Grace, [Shakespeare] but not from Strong, are familiar with an idea of relationship to Shakspeare." The Pauls inherited the Ensor’s property at Wilnecote in the 18th century, which had been in the latter family for at least 200 years.


William Shakespeare (1564-1616) had three brothers who we know from Stratford Upon Avon parish registers: Edmund or Edward Shakespeare. (1580 – 1607), believed to be the actor buried in Southwark; Richard (1574 – 1613) and Gilbert (1566 – 1612).  Gilbert became, in later life, a haberdasher in St Brides in London.


William Shakespeare’s removal, about 1590, to London appears to take place during the same period as a reversal not only in his father’s fortunes but increasing poverty for the residents of his hometown in Stratford. According to Vol.3 of the Victoria County History of Warwickshire P.249 “In October 1590 the Corporation (of Stratford on Avon) petitioned the Lord Treasurer for the nomination of the Vicar and schoolmaster and an additional fair, and offered for these and other franchises, a free farm and rent of £5 a year. The petition speaks of the town as ‘now fallen into much decay for want of such trade as heretofore they had by clothinge and making of yarn’.” 


William kept his family and property interests in Stratford. He purchased a house in the town, New Place, in 1597. He remained in touch with his family, frequently returning to look after his local affairs, and escape the plague in London when it closed the theatres.


According to the Monumental Inscriptions found in St. Bartholomew’s church at Little Packington, in North Warwickshire, near Coleshill, there is a memorial to the Shakespeare family who lived there until their small estate was sold to Lord Aylesford sometime in the early 18th century.


This memorial reads:

“Near this place was interred George Shakespeare of Packington Parva, Gentleman, Thomas Shakespeare, Gentleman and Grace his wife. Thomas Shakespeare, Gentleman and Mary his wife. Which Mary was daughter of William Lapeth  Gentleman.


They had also two sons and two daughters, Thomas, George, Mary and Grace.


George Shakespeare, he departed this life 27 May 1725 aged 43, by whom this monument was erected in pious regard to the memory of his great grandfather, grandfather, grandmother, father and mother, brother and himself, 1726”.



 The Strong Connection


In the Harpur material at Northampton is information on their dealings with other families into whom they married, the Purefoys previously mentioned, particularly, who were also landed people in Leicestershire and Warwickshire, and the Strongs of Sutton in the Elms also in Leicestershire.


A copy of the genealogy of the Strong family prepared in the 18th century by Lucy Strong was obtained – and this time my hunch paid off. Lucy told me what I needed to know. It strengthens the possibility that the poet had relatives living in North Warwickshire, which share his surname and genetic material, whose descendents are still known by the name Shakespeare to this present time. Until now this was not thought possible because it was always believed that anyone by the name of Shakespeare was related to that larger group of Shakespears who lived outside, but close to Stratford, in the parishes of Rowington and Warwick particularly.



Seeing the genealogical note of the Strong family in the hand of Lucy Strong written in the 18th century confirmed the connection. Despite the contemporary handwriting, spelling errors and words, which were hard to read. It was written as a note rather than a family tree, and I guess was addressed to one of Lucy’s cousins, the Harpurs: Where I have put a question mark the [?] writing is indistinct or indecipherable.


A full account of Lucy Strong’s family in her own hand reads:


“An account of some of our family as I had from my Grandfather Strong------

The Strongs came into England with King John but he sd all he remembered was his grandfather as follows, Tho: Strong of Sutton Bun [?] In Leicestershire Esqr: had a good estate & 3 sons & 3 daughters------------


Tho: ye first son married Jus: Cave daughter of Mr. Cave of Leir in Leicestershire & by her he had two sons – Tho: & Wm Esqr.: Tho: died Wm married a daughter of Sr. Sam’l Dashwood Barronet who: at ye request of his Bro: Sr Sam’l Dashwood took all his estate in Leicestershire & pd. Down 40 thousand a piece to ye Government: & forms, ye Excise his Bro: Dashwood was one of his partners & pd down ye like sum:Strong continues after a Commissioner till he died in ye end of Queen Ann: Reign he had two sons Tho: & John Esq.,

Tho: died: John never married had 4 daughters married -----

Martha: Mary:Hanna:Susana


Wm: ye second son married had issue Tho: a haberdasher of [?] ----in Southwark London: John a merchant at Hull: from him descended ye most remarkable Edmund Strong Sr. of Levining [?] of Oxon known by Mr. Crampton of Bosworth & many more in ye second of Queen Ann: Reign & many more descended from the branch of ye above Daughters one married Justice Neltrope [?]  in Lincolnshire: an other Robert of Sutton in Leicestershire  Esq. An other to Knight Esq also near Lin--------


Mic’3 son married Mary Cave an other daughter of ye affors; Cave Gent: Leicestershire She was Aunt to Dr. Cave fr, of Levining [?]  y’t married Lady Sidney daughter to ye Earl of Leicester he gave my father our first coach-------

Mic: had by Mary Cave Tho: my grandfather: & one more son Tho: married Phillipa Daughter of Adrian Shakespear of Stratford upon Avon in Warwickshire Gent. Her ancestors lie in tombs there by her he had 3 sons Tho: Strong Esqr. Wm: & George: Tho: my father married Sarah younger daughter of Louis ---[?] Gregory of Brinkloe Castle Esq. & Grandaughter to ye Earl Segrave: by her he had two sons: Gregory: & Tho: of ye middle Temple & myself Lucy-------------

Wm married had one son Tho: who died at Oxon: & two daughters Jane & Mary----

George married a Relation----------I think her name was Lord [?] & by her had one son Thos: of Fernivale [?] Inn: Daughter two Sar: & Eliz:


I value my selfe upon these things ye more ye Chansellor of Leichfield told me at Mr. Littleton’s table before all ye company: ye was a better family then ye Sr Willoby & sought to be better usd: my Grandfather was custod, of this county------

His younger Brother was a Judg’ about 50 years ago Mr Littleton remembers ye ----- & my uncle. “ 


Sarah Strong was born at Sutton in the Elms (near Broughton Astley in Leicestershire) to George Strong (1670-1728) and Sarah (maiden name unknown). George Strong was the son of Thomas Strong and Phillipa Shakespeare.  He had estates at Sutton in the Elms, Croft in Leicestershire, in the Borough of Tamworth and Wilnecote, so was a neighbour of the Ensors. From Lucy Strong’s note of her ancestors Phillipa appears to be the daughter of Adrian Shakespear of Stratford upon Avon, Gent.  


George Strong died on 15.11.1728 and according to  his will his devisees were to take the name Strong after their Christian name. He had a brother, William Strong who lived at Rugby. George was said, at one time, to have been the Collector of Excise at Lichfield.


George Strong, whose daughter had died, settled his estates on his grandchild John Ensor (1716-1768) who took the middle name Strong. He was then twelve years of age.


John Strong Ensor had a sister – Sarah Ensor (1712-1760). Sarah married first John Hawkins but had no children by him, and then sometime in the 1740’s, John Dyer the poet (1700-1757). Dyer had been to in Italy trying to earn a living as an artist but without much financial success returned to England in 1741. He was offered the living of Calthorpe in Leicestershire by one of the Harpurs (whose papers are lodged in Northamptonshire CRO) it must have been during this period that he met and married Sarah Hawkins (nee Ensor). He was her second husband. He lived there for ten years.  They had one son and three daughters all of whom received the Shakespeare genetic material passed on by his wife survived Dyer.    


What is there to be deduced from Lucy Strong’s specific statement: “Tho: married Phillipa Daughter of Adrian Shakespear of Stratford upon Avon in Warwickshire, Gent. Her ancestors lie in tombs there.”


I do not think there is any reason to doubt the probity of Lucy Strong’s  note. It is entirely possible that Adrian Shakespear was buried in the Shakespear family tomb in Stratford parish church, Holy Trinity.


 In the 17th century an earlier monument was replaced by one more befitting the great poet who was buried there replaced this: William Shakespeare with its bust and likeness, and the famous inscription:


“Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear

To dig the dust enclosed here.

Blessed be the man that spares these stones

And cursed be he that moves my bones.”


What we take today to be the resting place of the great man himself  was close to the tombs of other family members, his brothers perhaps, (his wife Anne, was in the next tomb), and other Shakespeare relatives, and Adrian?


Lucy’s comments do not indicate a connection with the bard. She does not mention William, whom she might not have known much about, since to a 18th century country girl with, perhaps, little contact with the stage or literature. Presumably his fame had not yet risen beyond academic or city circles, it did not occur to her to mention such a relationship, but to her relative through marriage John Dyer, an aspiring poet himself and literate country parson such a relationship was worth mentioning.



This research took another step forward on reading, “Shakespeareana Genealogica” compiled by George Russell French which was originally published in 1869 and re-printed in 1975. In this book there is a chapter on William Shakespeare’s immediate family, which suggests that there were two distinct Shakespear families living in 16th century Stratford upon Avon. One of the poet’s parents headed by his father John Shakespeare (?1530-1601) and another headed by a John Shakespeare, a shoemaker. The latter married (according to Stratford parish records) on 25th. November 1584. to Margery Roberts (     -1587). We know very little about this John but the dates suggest that he was about 30 years younger than William’s father.


The poet’s father, John Shakespeare must have been born in the 1530’s, and married Mary Arden (c.1535-1608). The parish registers for Stratford Upon Avon commence in 1558. We know that William’s father was a householder several years prior to 1558 as he was fined for having an illegal dunghill in the street outside his house in 1552. This would  indicate he had children prior to 1558 when the parish records start.  We know that during the period 1558-1580 John and Mary produce their documented offspring. There is a lack of information  of unrecorded parish events in the immediate years before 1558 when the younger John was presumably born. His birth is not recorded in the parish registers after 1558, or in the surrounding parishes.  There may well have been other children.  In Stratford Civic records John Shakespeare in anyone of the variety of spellings of his surname is most often referred to as Mr. John Shakespear. The younger John is referred to as “shumaker, corvizier, cordinarius.” It is also interesting to know that John senior’s trade was wool merchant, glover, whittawer [fine white leather worker] and dealer in animal skins, whereas John the younger is a shoe maker, i.e. a worker in leather. A trade not far removed from William’s father.  The younger John  increases in status over the length of time he is recorded in Stratford – eventually to become a master of the Companie of Shoemakers. He occupied a house in Bridge Street, Stratford upon Avon formerly occupied by his father in law Thomas Roberts – also a shoemaker. He also took over one of John senior’s duties. John senior was appointed ale taster in 1557, the younger John appointed ale taster in 1585.


It would also seem logical for William’s father to call his first son John, if  this shoemaker was so related?. In his Genealogica Mr. French says that John junior had left Stratford upon Avon by 1595. Could he have prospered and bought a small estate at Little Packington or elsewhere in North Warwickshire?


After Margery died John appears to have re-married. his  marriage to a Mary (surname unknown) yielded children as follows:


Ursula c.11.3.1589

Humphrey c. 24.5.1590

Phillipus c. 21.9.1591


According to French a lineal descendent of Humphrey, a George Shakespeare, was still living in Henley in Arden in 1864. Just how this connection passed through the Shakespeare lines has not been traced.


Another curiosity in Stratford Parish Records, regarding the burial of William Shakespeare’s younger brother Gilbert – Feb. 3 1611,12 Gilbertus Shakspeare, Adolescens – in Latin Adolescens means “young man usually aged 15-30 years of age” (Gilbert 1566-1611-1612) was 47/48 years of age. Might this internment not be the brother Gilbert, of  William who was then 47, but another younger relative. If Gilbert had been buried in Stratford he would have been brought there from London? Edmund the actor/player at the Fortune theatre who died in 1607 was buried in Southwark – not Stratford. According to Mr. J.O. Halliwell (Author of the Life of Shakespeare) there was an Edward Shakespeare (Actor) – not Edmund- living in London in the parish of St. Giles, without Cripplegate, in 1607, who is supposed by Mr. Collier to have been an actor at the Fortune Theatre.


Slowly but surely the pedigrees of the distant Shakespeares are converging but it is a difficult business. There are so many large voids. The evidence is very scattered. Recently I learned that the group that are now in Staffordshire but ultimately stem from Rowley Regis and Dudley are  descended from one Edward Shakespeare (?1580-1634). They went into the typical Black Country trade of nail making; however, this may have been the result of their removal from Warwickshire where their family’s trade might have been blacksmithing?  A prominent family of Shakespeares who  trace their ancestry back to Stepney (Shadwell) in London, and not further, stem from John Shakespear (1619-1689) a ropemaker. Interestingly this large and eminent family use the same arms granted to John Shakespeare in 1596 and claim descendency without firm proof of it from the Warwickshire family.


The grant of arms is a very specific award to John Shakespeare. (1530?-1601). Whilst he and his blood relatives in a direct line of descendency can use it unchanged, those in collateral branches are only allowed to use an altered form of it. So I am confused why descendents who use it subsequently, at a time when deference to such ancient rights and symbols were more adhered to than this throw away age. (Nowadays anybody by the same name seems to be able to buy a copy of a grant of arms from a stall on the market). In those days these matters were treated far more seriously.



Within the actual grant of arms to John Shakespeare is the wording:

“That it shall be lawfull for the sayd John Shakspeare, gent and for his children, yssue and postinte (at the times and places convenient) to bear and make demonstration of the said Blazon or Achievement upon theyre Shields, Targets, Escutcheons, Cotes of Arms, Pennons, Guydons,Ringes, Edefices, Buyldinges, Utensils, Lyveres, Tombes, Monuments, or otherwise…”  


It is also curious to note that the same family of Shakespeares to which Adrian Shakespeare, gent of Arley, Warwickshire appears to belong belong, and probably a relative of whom, George Shakespeare of Fillongley, has engraved on his tomb in the parish church in Fillongley,  those same arms granted to John Shakespeare, the poets father, in 1596. In the records of the Leatherseller’s Company in London there are entries of the apprenticeship of George, son of Thomas Shakespeare of Arley, co. Warwick and of George, son of William Shakespeare, also of Arley, in June 1732. Also on the floor of the nave of Fillongley church is a flat stone, inscribed – “To the memory of Thomas Shakespear of Fillongley, in the County of Warwick, gentleman, who departed this life May ye 7th, 1763, in the 73rd year of his age.


‘Afflictions sore long time I bore,

Physicians were in vain,

Till death gave ease and God did please

To ease me of my pain.’


‘Dear Christians for Jesus’ sake forbear

To disturb the dust that slumbers here’ “


(Note the similar last two lines to those on William Shakespeare’s own epitaph.)


Both the parishes of Little Packington and Fillongley are adjacent, and it should be noted that William Shakespear, the poet’s father was engaged as a wool and skin merchant, and that the younger John of Stratford was a shoemaker. Both “Leathersellers” in effect.


Which brings me further on to the subject of the grant of arms to William Shakespeare’s father John. It is said that an earlier attempt by John to obtain a grant of arms in the year 1560’s failed.


However, despite obvious financial problems at the start of 1590 his fortunes had returned sufficient to splash out on a grant of arms six years later. Who applied and paid for them?. John, apparently, was sufficiently impaired in the art of reading and writing to sign his name with a mark and not a written signature. This asks the question as to who actually put pen to paper in the very detailed submission which would be needed to qualify for these arms. Was it William, or another one of his brothers who applied for and obtained that grant of arms?


Mr. French in his Genealogica says: “No evidence has yet been found of the marriage of any one of the Poet’s brothers; the fair presumption, therefore, is that they died bachelors, an opinion which is strengthened by the fact of no allusions being made by the Poet in his will to any wife or issue of his brothers, and he was particular in caring for a remainder among his nearest kin, which is evinced in a remarkable manner by his naming the succession to his well earned property, first, to the heirs-male of seven sons, “one after another”, of his daughter Susanna Hall, should she have them; next, in default of such issue, to the heirs-male of his grand-daughter, Elizabeth Hall; failing them, then to the heirs-male of his second daughter Judith; and lastly in default of such issue, to his right heirs. As it happened, the Poet’s last surviving descendent, Lady Bernard, bequeathed some of her grandfather’s freehold property to her kinsmen, the Harts, who were the surviving nearest blood relations to the original testator, descended from his sister Joan.”    


This is the key problem with the theory that William had a brother who was the progenitor of later Shakespeares in the northern part of the county of Warwickshire and beyond.  That William did not leave him anything in his will. The will survives and its contents are well known. Mr French points out quite clearly he makes adequate provision for his children and gifts to friends and family. However, having said that it raised a few eye brows when he only left his wife Ann his second best bed. The inference being that Ann already had the matrimonial home and best bed, the second best was simply an afterthought. It could be, of course, that William, having a brother might not have needed to provide for him as he was adequately set up on his own small estate in Warwickshire.


John Shakespeare senior’s will does not appear to have survived which would, no doubt, have confirmed or destroyed these theories.


However, what is apparent is that there was a gap between the time John Shakespeare (1530?-1601) set up home in Stratford and was fined for having left an illegal dung-hill in the street outside in 1552, which suggests he was by then married as he was a householder, and six years later with the commencement of Stratford parish records in 1558. From these we know of the baptisms of his recorded children. It is hard to think that he did not start his family soon after marriage and may have produced as many as three more children by 1558.


John and Mary regularly produced children immediately after commencement of the parish registers in the year 1558, 1562, 1564, 1566, 1569, 1571, 1573 and finally 1580.


In 1709 Nicholas Rowe, one of the poet’s earliest biographer’s, mentions ten children, not eight, but does not say where he got this information from given that he was using the parish records which would have revealed just eight.  However, Mr. Rowe does talk of William being the oldest son which could only have been deduced from the parish register.


At the time he was writing it could be assumed that he had visited Stratford and spoken to descendents of people who knew the Shakespeares prior to the family dying out and their oral tradition was of ten children, but when Mr. Rowe visited the church and examined the parish register he only discovered eight and simply assumed from that that William was the oldest, and he never questioned the oral memories of the locals.


More on Shakespeare and the Ensor Family


Analysis of the Records Relating to John Shakespeare, 'Shoemaker', of Stratford