William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon
was to bring lasting lustre to a surname long held to be an embarrassment.
In 1487, on becoming a celibate don at Merton College, Oxford, one Hugh
Shakespeare had changed his name to Hugh Sawnders. 'Mutatum est istud
nomen eius, quia vile reputatum est,' records the College register:
'He changed that name of his, because of its base repute.'
For all its ripe phallic imagery, shared with similar names like Shakestaff and Wagstaff, Shakespeare survived as a fairly common surname (in all manner of different spellings) in Warwickshire and its environs throughout the late Middle Ages, particularly in the thriving city of Coventry and a cluster of villages in what was then the Forest of Arden, a dozen miles north of Stratford-upon-Avon. In 1284 a William Sakspere of Clopton, Gloucestershire, was hanged for theft; a century later, in 1385, another William Shakespeare served on a coroner's jury in Balsall.
Between 1530 and 1550 tenant farmers called Richard Shakspere, Shakespere, Shakkespere, Shaxpere and Shakstaff were penalised on numerous occasions for non-attendance at the manor court at Warwick, choosing to pay the 2d fine rather than lose a day's work making the six-mile walk each way. In fact, of course, they were all the same man: the poet's grandfather.
From 1529 to his death in 1561, Richard Shakespeare was a tenant farmer in the village of Snitterfield, four miles north-east of Stratford on the main Warwick road. We can conjure a picture of his workaday life from its petty irritants, still preserved in Stratford amid the legal records of the day: penalised in 1535 for overburdening the common pasture with his animals; ordered in 1538 to mend the hedges dividing his land from that of one Thomas Palmer; fined in 1560 for not yoking or ringing his pigs, and letting his livestock run wild on the public meadow. In October that year, only months before his death, the collegiate church of St Mary, Warwick, gave all its tenants a two-week deadline to create a hedge and dig a ditch between 'the end of Richard Shakespeare's lane' and 'the hedge called Dawkins hedge'.
Evidently, Richard Shakespeare had become a senior citizen of Snitterfield over a life long by the standards of his day. Several times he was chosen to take responsibility for valuing the estates of deceased friends and neighbours. In 1560, when Sir Thomas Lucy held an 'inquisition' in Warwick into the estates of Sir Robert Throckmorton, Richard 'Shakyspere' was a member of the jury. At the time of his death in February 1561, he owned the land between his house on the High Street and the stream which flowed through the centre of Snitterfield. His estate was valued at £38 17s — a not insubstantial sum, when compared with the £34 left three years earlier by the vicar of the parish, Sir Thomas Hargrave.
The traditionally accepted view is that this Richard was the grandfather of the Poet. However, there is a strong argument that this is incorrect!