Share this page

John Shakespeare was the father of William Shakespeare. John was probably born in the 1520s, the son of successful farmer Richard Shakespeare from Snitterfield (a village around two miles from Stratford-upon-Avon). We know John had moved to Stratford by 1552 because on 29 April he is recorded as having paid a fine of one shilling for creating an unwarranted ‘midden heap’ (muck heap) in Henley Street.

John began to acquire property in Stratford in 1556 on both Greenhill Street and Henley Street – the latter containing the plot where Shakespeare's Birthplace still stands. He went on to marry Mary Arden from Wilmcote in 1557 and together they would have eight children. Their two daughters born before William did not survive infancy and another daughter died while still a child.

This acquisition of freehold property marked the start of a prosperous climb for John. In 1556 he was appointed to the envious position of ‘ale taster’ for Stratford. This was the gateway to many civic positions including chamberlain, constable in 1558, alderman in 1564 (shortly after William Shakespeare’s birth), and high bailiff in 1568 (a position equivalent to Mayor).

John Shakespeare as Bailiff
Precept of John Shakspeyr, a Justice of the Peace and Bailiff of Stratford, to take Richard Walcar to answer to the suit of William Shottyswell in a plea of debt

Alongside his fatherly and civic roles, John kept a trade as one of the 22 glovemakers in Stratford. Gloves were in high demand in Tudor England for practical uses as well as markers of status for the elite, and the government protected the trade from foreign competition. John was also a ‘whittawer’ who made his own leather from the skins of deer, horses, goats, sheep, and hounds. The skins would have been tanned in pits outside the property and steeped in unpleasant substances such as urine! William Shakespeare displays some familiarity with the craft in his plays, for example referencing ‘a glover’s paring knife’ in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Kid Gloves
Seventeenth Century Man's Kid Gloves

John was a busy man. He also found time to operate as a ‘wool brogger’ – an unlicensed, and therefore illegal, wool dealer. This occupation had been restricted to state approved merchants only, following an Act of Parliament from 1553. Initially this appears to have been very profitable, with alleged sales of up to 400 stones of wool at a time being attributed to John in 1571-2.

From the 1570s, John’s life took a turn towards trouble. His wool dealings landed him an appearance in court in 1572 on charges of illegal wool purchases. He stopped appearing at council meetings, and in 1578 was exempted from paying levies such as towards poor relief. In the same year he began to start mortgaging land with a transaction of 48 acres, heralding the start of money problems which would endure for the next decade. These culminated in 1592 when he failed to appear in church due to his growing debts—although some have interpreted this as an indication that he had dissenting Catholic views.

In 1596 John was awarded a coat of arms, now displayed on the monument above the Shakespeare grave in Holy Trinity Church. Versions of the Shakespeare coat of arms can also be seen on Shakespeare’s Birthplace, outside of the Shakespeare Centre, and above the entrance to Shakespeare’s New Place.

The final ten years of his life were more peaceful by comparison. When John died in 1601, 37 year old William Shakespeare inherited the entire property now known as Shakespeare's Birthplace. Already living in the sizeable New Place, William followed in his father’s money-making footsteps. He leased part of the house to Lewis Hiccox who extended it as an inn, later known as ‘The Swan and Maidenhead. The inn only closed in 1846, after which the whole property was purchased by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. 

Further reading:

John Shakespeare: A Papist or Just Penniless? - Robert Bearman, Shakespeare Quarterly Vol. 56, No. 4 (Winter, 2005), pp. 411-433

Shakespeare's World in 100 Objects: #98 Glovers Pairing Knife

Shakespeare's World in 100 Objects: #40 A Pair of Gloves

Help keep Shakespeare's story alive

Donate Online

More like this

Shakespedia Index

Go behind the scenes

Read our blogs
Where Shakespeare's story started Relive Shakespeare's love story Walk in Shakespeare's footsteps