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Who were the Hathaways?

Find out about the family of Shakespeare's wife

Medieval Warwickshire was full of Hathaways. It was such a common family name that Hathaways started to use aliases to distinguish themselves (Anne’s family used ‘Gardener’). The Hathaway family that William Shakespeare's wife was descended from were prosperous sheep farmers, who had been established in the hamlet of Shottery (about a mile and a half away from Stratford-upon-Avon) for generations. 

John Hathaway (thought to be Anne’s grandfather) was an active member of the community and can be found in the records in many different roles during his lifetime. These include appearing as an archer on the muster of roles, serving as a church beadle and a constable, and working as an affeeror (assessor of fines) for the parish. In 1543 John acquired the lease for Hewlands Farm, The 90 acre farm included the house now known as Anne Hathaway's Cottage and began farming a substantial estate. John must have quickly made a success of sheep farming, as in 1549 his annual income was £10 (one of the highest in the area).

Anne was the eldest of seven surviving children, born to Richard Hathaway. It is thought that Richard was the son of John, as he is the next occupant of Hewlands Farm. 

The portrait shows Anne Hathaway with light-brown straight hair, on which she wears a grey and white rolled band. Her face is pale, her eyes wide and dark, her nose long and straight, and her mouth is small and slightly pursed. She wears a lace collar.
Portrait of Anne Hathaway

Richard was a prosperous yeoman and appears to have farmed sheep successfully at Hewlands, as he died wealthy enough to leave each of his children a monetary sum or dowry in his will. The dowry of £6.13.4, would have helped Anne in the early years of marriage to Shakespeare. The match between them was not unequal, as the Shakespeares and the Hathaways were of similar social rank. But while Shakespeare’s father’s finances were on the decline, Anne’s families were on the rise. This, combined with the fact that Anne was average age for marriage at the time, meant she was quite the catch. 

By 1610, the Hathaways appear to have enjoyed considerable wealth from their estate. Bartholomew Hathaway (Anne’s brother) was able to raise enough funds to buy the freehold of the farm from the Manor of Old Stratford.  The estate at that point comprised of a farmhouse (now known as a cottage), two and a half yardland (each about 30 acres of field), another house, a toft, and three closes (Hewlands Close, Hewlyns Close and Palmers Close). Throughout the seventeenth century the Hathaways remained wealthy, and it is during this decade that major renovations were completed on their farmhouse. Sadly, the financial comfort the family enjoyed through 1600s began to fade as the century came to a close.

Bartholomew Hathaway's Will. It is neatly written with very small writing, and in the illustration is completely illegible.
Will of Bartholomew Hathaway (1624)

The estate passed from Bartholomew to his son John in 1624. It then passed to John’s son Richard in 1666, and then Richard’s son John in 1692. At which point the estate was comprised of three houses, the main one occupied by the Hathaway’s, the other two by tenants, Thomas Lambe and Edward Sands.

The turn of the eighteenth century saw the family experience financial hardship. John Hathaway had to borrow £320 in 1700 from Giles Roberts (the husband of his aunt Ursula) on the security of two of the houses and some of the farming land on the Hathaway estate. John died in 1701, passing the estate and his debts to his younger brother Robert. Robert had no choice but to surrender the two houses and farming land to Ursula. She settled the estate on her great-nephew (another John Hathaway) on condition of his marriage to her grand-daughter (also called Ursula).

Robert’s ownership of the Hathaway estate was a disaster for the family. In 1722 Robert sold another yardland to John and Ursula Hathaway, and then in 1726 he sold a cousin the last remaining yardland. He also mortgaged another three acres to his sister Elizabeth in 1705. By the time Robert died, all that was left of the Hathaway estate was the main house and two closes.

On Robert’s death in 1728 the cottage and the last of its land passed to his son, John. John died unmarried in 1746, but stipulated in his will that his mother (Sarah) was to have the house for life, and then it was to pass to his three, then unmarried, sisters (Sarah, Elizabeth and Susanna Hathaway).

The eldest sister Sarah remained unmarried until her death in 1770, leaving her share in the house to her sister Susanna. Susanna and her husband William Taylor left a request that the house pass to their son John Hathaway Taylor. In 1795 the eldest son of Elizabeth (the youngest sister) Richard Stanley sold his share to John. This returned the ownership of the cottage to one person.

Shakespeare fanatics began making pilgrimages to Stratford in the late eighteenth century, visiting places connected with all parts of Shakespeare's life. Around 1792, prolific travel-writer and Shakespeare collector Samuel Ireland visited the cottage on the hunt for ‘Shakespeare’s Courting Chair’ (thought to have been passed on to the Hathaway family via Shakespeare’s granddaughter). Samuel visited Shottery and purchased ‘the chair’ and a beaded purse supposedly owned by Anne, but despite hard times the family refused to sell the famous Hathaway Bed.

Mary Baker stands on the path in front of the cottage. She wears a white apron over a long dark dress, and her white head-covering which rests on her shoulders looks much like a nun's wimple. the path is edged on both sides by tall shrubs.
Mary Baker (c. 1885)

John Hathaway Taylor died in 1820, leaving the house to his wife Mary for life, and then to their son William Taylor. William sold the property to Thomas Barnes in 1838, but he remained in occupation in a portion of the cottage as tenant. His eldest daughter, Mary Baker, wife of George Baker, also became a tenant of the cottage and lived there for the rest of her life.

Mary Baker was the most successful descendant at connecting the Hathaway home to the Shakespeare legacy. Now only a tenant of the cottage, Mary had begun giving popular cottage tours. The success of sharing the family home with visitors caught the eye of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and in 1892 they purchased it from Thomas Barnes’ executors. Mary and her family stayed on as the Property’s first custodians, so she cared for and lived in the cottage. She was paid to conduct tours for excited visitors, and sold a large proportion of her family furniture to the Trust. Mary Baker remained as custodian of the house until her death in 1899. Mary’s son William was the last Hathaway to live in the cottage, but in 1911 (after 368 years of Hathaways) he too left. Yet descendants of the Hathaways still live locally to the cottage today

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