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Shakespeare's Friends: Burbage, Combe and Sadler

You could say that a will is an opportunity to find out who your friends are and the will of William Shakespeare does feature his friends as well as his family members. But who were these people that he left possessions and money to?

Victoria Joynes
Portrait of Richard Burbage
(sbt-1993-46) A portrait of the actor Richard Burbage (painted c.1890-1925 by Charles Fullwood)

Richard Burbage (c.1571-1619)

Along with John Heminges and Henry Condell, Burbage received 26 shillings and 8 pence in Shakespeare's will. He was one of William Shakespeare’s theatre friends from London. Burbage was younger than Shakespeare, he was from a theatrical family with his brothers also actors and his father had built the first ever structure designed solely for the presentation of plays, The Theatre, built in 1576. Shakespeare wrote his greatest leading roles specifically for Richard Burbage including Richard III, Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, Prospero. Shakespeare and Burbage worked together as part of Chamberlain’s Men and performed in the Theatre until they dismantled it, moved it across town, over the river, and renamed it the Globe in 1598. The two men acted onstage together and lived near each other in Shoreditch before Shakespeare moved closer to the Globe. The two men were great sources of inspiration to each other and great friends.  Burbage was a most beloved actor and extremely popular, his brother wrote that he had a 35 year career on the stage. His face would have been well-known to everyone from the monarchs, Queen Elizabeth I and King James I, to the regular playgoers at the Globe. All London mourned when he died probably quite suddenly at the age of 50 and his death came at the same time as Queen Anne, completely overshadowing her. 

Combe Conveyance
(ER27/1) The Combe Conveyance.

Thomas Combe (1589 –1657) 

Photo: (ER27/1) The Combe Conveyance. Feoffment from William and John Combe to William Shakespere of Stretford uppon Avon, gentleman, for £320, of 4 yardland of arable land in the parish fields or town of Old Stratford containing 107 acres, and also common pasture in the fields of Old Stratford belonging to the said 4 yardland, in the tenure of Thomas Hiccoxe and Lewes Hiccoxe.

Thomas Combe received a sword in Shakespeare’s will; Thomas was aged 27 when he received this exciting bequest! He was related to Shakespeare’s friend John Combe (c.1561 – 1614). The Combe family were close friends of William Shakespeare, they were a wealthy family of landowners and lawyers. When John Combe died in 1614, Thomas's brother William Combe was heir to all the family's property and took immediate action to claim it by enclosing the common fields of Welcombe. Enclosure was feared as it would most likely add to the hardship of towns-folk who were already suffering from frequent fires in the town. Enclosure meant converting arable tracts to sheep pastureland and it was feared that this would reduce income and employment and force up the price of grain, vital to many townspeople. Thomas and William fought the council who objected to this appropriation of public lands. Shakespeare’s tithes which he had invested in included some of this contested property, but the Combes’ agent assured Shakespeare’s agent, Thomas Greene, that they would compensate Shakespeare for any loss to his tithes. The enclosure issue is documented in several of the Shakespeare documents that we hold in our collections including the Replingham Agreement which ensured Shakespeare’s compensation and Thomas Greene's Diary which details the heated discussions and events of the enclosure controversy. The Combes had caused quite the political rumpus complete with protesters who filled in trenches and cut down hedges to prevent the land from being parcelled up. William Combe harassed and imprisoned his tenants after a judge ruled against the enclosure.Thomas Greene’s diary suggests that William Shakespeare “was not able to bear the enclosing of Welcombe”. It was the older generation that Shakespeare was closer to: John Combe was William Shakespeare’s close friend and sold him 127 acres of land in Stratford in 1602; the record of this transaction is the Combe Conveyance which we have in our collection of Shakespeare documents. This document would have been something that Shakespeare kept with his possessions. The Combes were high in social and economic status and were important public figures in Stratford. The younger generation caused great upheaval and the sword may have seemed like an appropriate bequest for the controversial Thomas Combe. It is also thought, however, that the sword could have had a more sentimental attachment, perhaps had Shakespeare’s son Hamnet not died he may have inherited the sword. In bequeathing it to Thomas Combe he may have been showing him affection, indicating that he saw him as a something of a surrogate son.  

Hamnet Sadler vs. Anne Nash
(BRU/15/7/84) Summons in a suit in the Court of Record, Anne Nashe [Nash] v. Hamnet Sadler, on money matters

Hamnet Sadler (c.1562-1624)

Hamnet Sadler was close to William Shakespeare in age and his family lived near the Shakespeare family in Stratford. The two friends married and had children at around the same time; Hamnet married Judith and when William and Anne gave birth to twins they named them after the couple. When William moved to London and began his successful career, Hamnet Sadler’s life took a different turn. He had inherited his father’s bakery, but in 1595 it burned to the ground in one of the town’s disastrous fires. Between 1580 and 1599 Hamnet and Judith Sadler had 14 children, however six died in their infancy. In 1597 he travelled with Richard Quiney to collect money for fire relief, but the money collected did not seem to help him and he was constantly sued by creditors. The following year he and Judith had a child and named him William - this was around the time that William Shakespeare had purchased New Place. From the late 1590s and through the 1600s he was involved in disputes with townsmen over non-payment of debts. In 1594 and 1603 he was presented for baking household bread and cakes contrary to the statute, The Assize of Bread. In 1608 he was also presented for having a muckhill in front of his house which annoyed the market traders. In 1611 Hamnet’s house was reported as being out of repair, and three years later Judith died and Hamnet was left alone with three children under 18 in his care, his fortunes very different to Shakespeare’s. Hamnet is recorded as a witness on Shakespeare’s will and is thought to have replaced Richard Tyler who was accused of failing to account for money he had collected for fire relief, Hamnet replaces him perhaps as an afterthought. The two friends grew up together and took different paths, however they were connected until the end. Sadler died in 1624, the year after Shakespeare’s First Folio was published.


Edmondson, Paul and Wells, Stanley (eds.) The Shakespeare Circle. (Cambridge University Press: 2015)
Pogue, Kate Emery. Shakespeare's Friends. (Praeger: 2006)

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