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The town where Shakespeare grew up has a long history.

Stratford-upon-Avon is not an ancient town by English standards. Although the Romans built a road through Stratford, a permanent settlement did not appear until the Middle Ages.

The Anglian Tribe the Hwiccas (a Germanic tribe that settled after the Romans) were the first Stratfordians. Around the sixth century their settlement was absorbed into the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom, explaining the Saxon etymology of ‘Stratford-upon-Avon’.

Between 693 and 717 the first explicitly written reference to Stratford appears, naming the town as ‘Aet-Stratford the isles of the ford’. Presumably it was the establishment of Holy Trinity Church that drew written attention. Stratford then consisted of the church, a monastery, a watermill, and a flourishing community of about 20 families. Unfortunately little survives of the first Stratfordians, as Danish raiders burnt every house in Warwickshire in 1015.

Across the river, the Tower and spire of Holy Trinity church. The bulk of the church is hidden by trees along the far river bank, and a sapling with red foliage is in the foreground on the left.
Holy Trinity Church

During the eleventh century the church was rebuilt in stone, and life passed relatively peacefully for the townsfolk in spite of the Norman Conquest. The twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries, however, were significant for Stratford. This is when the settlement developed a feudal system and became a ‘planned town’. A grid of wide, regular streets and evenly dispersed 'burgage plots' (houses on a long, slender plot of land with narrow street frontage) were built. Even today Stratford has mostly maintained this 900-year-old layout.

In around 1269 the Guild of the Holy Cross took municipal responsibility and remained in control until 1547. It was around this time that John De Stratford became the first Stratfordian to attend university, graduating in 1311. He eventually rose to be the Archbishop of Canterbury and a great benefactor of Stratford, generating funds to pave the streets and renovate Holy Trinity Church.

The fifteenth century saw another string of significant events for Stratford. In 1415 the status of ‘collegaite’ was awarded to Holy Trinity by King Henry V. At the end of the fifteenth century Sir Hugh Clopton had built several landmarks that are recognisable today, such as the house that would become New Place, the Guild Chapel, and - most significantly - the bridge across the Avon. The bridge linked the land on the Avon with the Cotswolds and Feldon, encouraging passing trade and helping with the development of the sheep industry. By the end of the century Stratford thrived, attracting both craftsmen and tradesmen and contributing to its reputation as a burgeoning market town.

The effects of the Reformation were not as violent in Stratford as other parishes. Catholicism had flourished, but the townspeople were quick to accept the frequent changes in religion that characterised the next 100 years. It was not until the sixteenth century that religious resentment began to show. The people of Stratford were unhappy with the abolishment of their George and the Dragon pageant. The pageant was initially established to raise funds for the upkeep of Clopton Bridge, but after the Reformation it was pronounced profane and the bridge was repaired through a rise in rates.

In 1547 the Guild of the Holy Cross was abolished and their property sold. This left the town without local government for six years. Eventually the guild system was replaced by the Corporation, with the townspeople taking ownership of the guild’s property and Stratford becoming essentially self-governing.

The introduction of the wool trade had a profound effect on Stratford.  As more people turned to sheep farming, the need for labourers reduced. This led to unemployment among the poorest members of the community.  For others in Stratford (including John Shakespeare) sheep farming was a positive development. Located close to the Cotswolds, Stratford was a major centre for the processing, marketing and distribution of sheep products, which offered a wealth of new business opportunities to the locals. By the time William Shakespeare was born in 1564, Stratford was a successful town.

Despite its increase in trade, however, Stratford barely grew geographically between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries. The impact of the Civil War in England should not be underestimated. Physically, Stratford remained fairly intact during the course of the war (with the exception of the Town Hall). But the townspeople still suffered from lootings by passing soldiers, minor skirmishes, and local divisions. They also witnessed violent altercations in their neighbouring parishes.

It is not until the eighteenth century that Stratford experienced substantial growth. Following the introduction of several parliamentary Enclosure Acts, what had previously been common land could become private property. The first and largest new development was by John Payton. Payton developed land on the north side of the old town, creating several new streets. The population of Stratford started to increase, as did the geography of the town. In 1769, David Garrick organised the Shakespeare Jubilee, the first festival to celebrate Shakespeare in his hometown. By the end of the century, Stratford had become an attraction for bardolators, sparking the start of the Shakespeare tourist industry.

The nineteenth century saw a number of improvements to Stratford’s infrastructure. A canal opened in 1816, gaslight was introduced  in 1834 and a sewage network in the 1850s, a railway station arrived in 1859, and a drinking fountain in Rothermarket in 1887. These modern amenities meant that the quality of life improved, as did the trade and commercial potential.  Not only was Stratford now accessible to tourists, but the establishment of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust provided cultural capital to attract them.

In the twentieth century Stratford’s tourist attractions continued to grow with the continued expansion of the Trust. Stratford is now the second most visited location in the UK after London.  

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