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Going Digital: The Birth and Burial Records of William Shakespeare

Robyn Greenwood takes a look into the baptismal and burial records of William Shakespeare in honour of the release of the "EYE Shakespeare" app. These treasured items are kept in the archives of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust itself.

Robyn Greenwood

In anticipation of the Bytes app —now appropriately named EYE Shakespeare’s— release, I would like to share an extraordinary treasure featured in the app and held in the Trust’s archives: the baptismal and burial records of William Shakespeare.

Locked within our vaults, the parish register is truly one of the Trust’s most outstanding objects. This handwritten book records the baptisms, marriages, and burials performed at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, between 1558-1776 and includes those of the poet and playwright William Shakespeare.

In 1538 parish registers were ordered to be kept by churches, but many of them were made of paper and were not well looked after. In 1598, these early registers were replaced by more durable ones and all entries since 1558 were copied into them. This occurred in Stratford as well, and the entry of Shakespeare’s baptism was therefore copied in 1600 by a clerk from a lost original, as were those of his children, and the burial of his son Hamnet in 1596. There is no reason to doubt the accuracy of these entries, however, as each page was signed by the Vicar and Churchwardens in 1600 (Richard Bifield, Francis Smith, James Elletes, John Sheffield, and Robert Monmouth) to show that they were a truthful copy.

According to the Church’s register, Shakespeare was baptised on the 26th of April 1564. This entry is recorded in Latin—the language of the old church— and reads ‘Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere" (William son of John Shakespeare). Fifty-two years later, the register also records William’s death in English—the language of the reformed Church, or The Church of England—on the 25th of April 1616. Both of these entries are vital to our understanding of Shakespeare and his times, as they provide the only piece of evidence to accurately calculate his entire life span. Although the exact date of his birth is unknown, Shakespeare’s baptismal entry in the parish register allows us to accurately estimate his birth to have taken place sometime in late April, as in the sixteenth century baptisms were typically performed within three days of birth. Likewise, burials tended to happen two to three days after death. As a result of this tradition, many speculate that Shakespeare was born on the same day he died— the 23rd of April 1564 and the 23rd of April 1616.

Baptismal Record for Shakespeare
Baptismal Record for William Shakespeare
Burial Record for William Shakespeare
Burial Record for William Shakespeare

In addition to photographing these records for the app, we also took our camera to Holy Trinity Church to discover this beautiful building and the treasures it holds relating to Shakespeare’s life and death. Watch Reverend Martin Gorick, the Vicar of Holy Trinity, explain the history behind the building and the church’s astonishing connection with Shakespeare's life and times:

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