William Shakespeare: father's legal skirmishes shed light on bard's early years

Newly found documents in the National Archives show the playwright’s father John was harassed by Crown informers, which may have influenced his attitude to power and class

Long-forgotten documents revealing how William Shakespeare’s entrepreneur father John was victimised by informers who wanted to extract money from him have been discovered in the depths of the UK’s National Archives.

Depicting events which are believed to have shaped the teenage Shakespeare’s attitude to power and morality, later explored in plays from King Lear to Macbeth, the 21 previously unknown documents were discovered by Professor Glyn Parry from the University of Roehampton, and are “of the utmost importance” to our understanding of the playwright, according to the National Archives’ head of early modern records, Dr Katy Mair.

Although William Shakespeare’s baptism is recorded in April 1564, and his marriage in December 1582, further details of the playwright’s early life have had to be gleaned from records of his father John Shakespeare’s colourful career, with previously uncovered manuscripts revealing that John had been accused of illegal moneylending and wool-dealing by professional informers between 1569 and 1572. Scholars have assumed the cases were settled out of court by 1573, but the newly found documents show that John – whose lines of work stretched from glover and leather maker to alderman, magistrate and more – was in financial and legal trouble until around 1583, when William was 19.

Writ of attachias to the Sheriff of Warwickshire to seize [the goods and chattels of] John ‘Shakespere’ of Stratford upon Avon.
Writ of attachias to the Sheriff of Warwickshire to seize [the goods and chattels of] John ‘Shakespere’ of Stratford upon Avon. Photograph: Crown Copyright, courtesy of The National Archives

Parry, who is co-writing a book about Shakespeare’s life up until 1592, said that until he began digging into the National Archives, 150 years of research had produced fewer than 15 documents relating to John Shakespeare. He was “not happy” with the story that John had settled his prosecution for usury and wool-dealing out of court, around 1573, so delved into the National Archives’ list of Exchequer documents.

He began ordering boxes of documents down from the salt mines in Cheshire where little-used papers are sent for safe-keeping, and started going through the writs for Warwickshire, beginning with the dates of John’s court cases.

“I had identified just over 100 possible boxes, and inside each box there could be between 100 and 1,000 writs and associated documents, depending on how many had survived,” he said. “Quite quickly I turned up one writ, then more, working through May into early June. In August I found more … It was very exciting to have an educated hunch pay off, which is quite rare when working in the less-used parts of any archive. It’s a bit like that Christmas morning feeling as a child, unwrapping the box and finding the perfect, longed-for present.”

The documents Parry found include multiple writs against John Shakespeare, and record his debts to the Crown, including one for £132 – around £20,000 today. They reveal how his property remained at risk of seizure by the Crown, hampering his credit as an entrepreneur, and that this continued until 1583.

Undercover work … some of the many thousands of documents stored in a Cheshire salt mine.
Undercover work … some of the many thousands of documents stored in a Cheshire salt mine. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

They also connect Shakespeare’s family with what Parry calls “a national scandal: the use of informers to enforce economic and social legislation”. Professional informers were part of a corrupt system which ultimately enriched the Queen and her courtiers. “A lot of people grumbled but settled. For some reason in two cases John Shakespeare did not, and ended up targeted by the Exchequer collection system, which damaged his local credit. If he bought wool on credit to sell for cash the wool might be seized by the Crown. If people borrowed money from him that debt could also be seized by the Crown, which had much more aggressive collection methods than John Shakespeare,” said Parry.

“So John Shakespeare fell victim to a perfectly legal kind of persecution, which ruined his business through the 1570s, and William grew to adulthood in a household where his father had fallen in social and economic rank, which sociologists and psychologists tell us leads to anger. They call it ‘downranking’. Again, it was all according to the letter of the law. It was just unjust if you were on the receiving end.”

Parry believes that the situation would have influenced the teenage Shakespeare’s attitude to “power politics”, particularly when coupled with his schooling; it is believed that he studied Latin texts by Ovid, Horace, Livy and Tacitus while at Stratford Grammar School. The Roman authors “mourned the loss of republican virtues and the moral decline of political life under the emperors”; combined with his difficult family life, this would have all “informed his political outlook, a sceptical sideways look at power and its pretensions,” said Parry.

Sense of place … John Shakespeare’s business troubles must have overshadowed his son’s early life.
Sense of place … John Shakespeare’s business troubles must have overshadowed his son’s early life. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

“William Shakespeare learned in the schoolroom what he experienced at home, that, under monarchy, men who served the monarch immorally could flourish. There’s a deep desire for justice and equity, not the strict letter of the law, that runs through all his writing, and a critical view of the pretensions of the mighty.”

The academic says he has “no doubt” that there are more Shakespeare materials to be found in the National Archives, many parts of which have no detailed catalogues, lists or indexes, and he intends to keep looking.

Mair said: “It is often believed that there are no new documents relating to Shakespeare left to be found, but Professor Parry has shown that there are still discoveries waiting to be made here in the reading rooms at the National Archives.”

Parry’s findings will be included in Shakespeare Documented, an online collection of primary-source materials about the life of William Shakespeare.


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Researchers read sealed 17th century letter without opening it
‘Virtual unfolding’ is hailed a breakthrough in the study of historic documents as unopened letter from 1697 is read for the first time using X-ray technology

Alison Flood

02, Mar, 2021 @3:18 PM

Article image
When Milton met Shakespeare: poet's notes on Bard appear to have been found
Hailed as one of the most significant archival discoveries of modern times, text seems to show the Paradise Lost poet making careful annotations on his edition of Shakespeare’s plays

Alison Flood

16, Sep, 2019 @2:17 PM

Article image
David Severn's best photograph: men hunting rabbits for beer
‘They’re out on the site of the old Newstead Colliery. They do eat the rabbits they catch – or trade them for beer. Thirty years ago, they would have been miners’

Interview by Henry Yates

16, May, 2019 @5:00 AM

Article image
Wasteland wanderer: how Tish Murtha captured the beating heart of Tyneside
Kids at rubbish tips, adolescents on the dole, sex workers in the street … the photographer made marginalised lives matter. But recognition came too late. Now her daughter’s making a film about her extraordinary life

Diane Smyth

30, Mar, 2021 @2:54 PM

Article image
Cambridge University is right to explore links with slave trade | Letters
Letters: Graham Gosling highlights the achievements of former students in ending the slave trade, Eric Banks says the historic plight of the working classes should also be studied, Michael Cross has a plan for profits, while Angela Sherlock takes issue with the ‘pilgrim fathers’ story


03, May, 2019 @3:56 PM

Article image
Birmingham library brings Shakespeare to life in dozens of languages
The largest Shakespeare collection in a public library is launching Everything to Everybody, with films and readings in most of the city’s 93 languages

Jessica Murray Midlands correspondent

04, Feb, 2021 @11:39 AM

Article image
The floating church: inside the holy vessel bringing salvation to Hackney hipsters
The area around London’s Olympic Park is a regeneration hothouse with micro-breweries, tech startups and cocktail speakeasys. Now their spiritual needs are being met – with a beautiful chapel on a barge

Oliver Wainwright

19, Oct, 2020 @5:00 AM

Article image
Chris Killip, hard-hitting photographer of Britain's working class, dies aged 74
Influential artist, hailed by Martin Parr as a ‘key player’ in British photography, captured human dignity amid industrial decline in England’s north-east

Sean O’Hagan

14, Oct, 2020 @7:19 AM

Article image
Evelyn Waugh letters shed light on his abandoned first novel
In correspondence going to auction this week, the writer describes how he burned a manuscript titled The Temple at Thatch

Alison Flood

02, Dec, 2019 @4:13 PM

Article image
Spy report that criticised Marlowe for 'gay Christ' claim is revealed online
British Library releases ‘Baines note’ in which playwright Christopher Marlowe scandalously suggests Christian communion should be smoked in a pipe

Andrew Dickson

30, Mar, 2017 @11:01 PM