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"Stratford-super-Avon": Sir William Dugdale’s "Antiquities of Warwickshire"

Sir William Dugdale's "The Antiquities of Warwickshire" is one of the greatest county histories ever written, describing Warwickshire in terms of its history, topography, and genealogy. It contains an early reference to Stratford upon Avon as the birthplace of William Shakespeare.

Helen Hargest

Warwickshire is particularly fortunate to have Sir William Dugdale’s county history, The Antiquities of Warwickshire, which was first published in one volume in 1656. The early seventeenth century was a time of increasing interest in local history studies, assisted by a growing network of landowners who were collecting manuscripts connected to their families and land. It is one of the finest county histories ever written, and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust owns a number of copies of the first edition. In this important work, Dugdale described Warwickshire in terms of its history, topography and genealogy, hundred by hundred (the hundred being an important administrative unit of local government since the tenth century). In addition to detailed pedigrees and histories of county families, illustrations of coats of arms, and monuments and views by Wenceslaus Hollar, one of the famous engravers of the period, Dugdale’s county history contained accounts of places where these families had settled.

William Dugdale
Engraving of William Dugdale from 1656 edition of "Antiquities of Warwickshire"

Sir William Dugdale (1605-1686), a native of Warwickshire, was a small landowner who lived at Blythe Hall, Shustoke, near Coleshill in north of the county. He had a passion for antiquarian research, and his meeting with fellow antiquarian Sir Symon Archer of Tamworth paved the way for Dugdale to gain access to the records of Warwickshire gentry, providing one of the main sources of his county history. This in turn led to a meeting with Sir Christopher Hatton, comptroller of Charles I’s household, who offered to pay Dugdale for his research work, including expenses incurred in searching the public records in London, and it was to Hatton that Dugdale dedicated his work. In his Preface to the Second enlarged edition (1730) printed from a copy corrected by Dugdale, and edited by the Reverend William Thomas, Rector of Exhall, Dugdale informed the reader that his work was the result of a diligent search throughout the country for more than twenty years “into the vast Treasuries of publique Records, besides a Multitude of Manuscripts, original Charters and Evidences in private Hands” (Dugdale, 1730, 1).

Map of Barlichway Hundred
Map of Barlichway Hundred from a 1656 edition believed to have been owned by local antiquarian, Robert Bell Wheler

In Volume 2 of the second sedition, Dugdale described the Saxon origins of “this ancient Mannour “of “Stratford Super Avon” (Dugdale 1730, 680), and the Barlichway Hundred, in which the town was located, noting that this was known formerly as the Hundred of Ferncumbe [Fernecumbe] in 1066. His description developed John Leland’s earlier notes, mentioning the town’s Charter of 1199, its fairs, and the revenues of the Bishop of Worcester, the Lord of the Manor in 1299, as well as the Guild Chapel, Holy Trinity the parish church. In an early reference to Stratford being the birthplace of Shakespeare, Dugdale remarked; "One thing more in reference to this ancient Town is observable, that it gave birth and sepulchre to our late famous Poet, Will. Shakespere” (Dugdale, 1730, 697), and a slightly inaccurate engraving of Shakespeare’s funerary monument is included in Dugdale’s description of the parish church. This second edition of The Antiquities of Warwickshire included additional maps by the surveyor (Henry Beighton), an alphabetical index, an index of arms blazoned, and a supplemental index. Its continued value as a work of reference led to the publication of a third edition, a reprint of the first, issued in parts in 1765, by the Coventry-based publisher, John Jones, thereby providing a cheaper and more easily obtainable version.

Dugdale’s achievement was to bring together a wealth of information from primary sources located all over the country. His work showed evidence of an accurate use of sources, through the use of footnotes and marginalia. Some of these documents no longer survive, thereby adding to its value as a local history source to this day, illustrated by the number of facsimile editions available for consultation.