Sunday, 13 August 2017

Mary Arden - Shakespeare's Mother

Mary Arden – a Tudor woman.

Mary Arden's son William
This is the story of a peasant’s daughter who rose to wealth and status, who buried three of her children and lived through four changes of her country’s religion, who survived the plague and gave birth to one of the world’s best known playwrights and poets. This is the story of Mary Arden, William Shakespeare’s mother.

Mary Arden was born into a time of change and turmoil, a time of radical transformation in both history and society. It was a time of war and violence, of class conflict and the tumult of the reformation overturning a thousand years of religious history and English Christianity in just twenty years.
What could it have been like to live through those times for any one, let alone a woman?

Mary Arden was one of eight daughters born to an old farming family in the heart of Warwickshire but Mary married out of life on the land for the challenges of the new world of the Tudor middle class.

Her children would become haberdashers and glovers, two even made names for themselves in the entertainment industry in London! and so Mary Arden’s own story can be likened to a mirror reflecting the changing times of the Tudor era.
Tudor England was a small country with only two and a half million people, ninety percent of whom worked on the land. Life expectancy was just 38! and a third of all children died before their tenth birthday. Mary’s father farmed in Wilmcote, just outside Stratford on Avon in the parish of Aston Cantlow.

The Farm

The Forest of Arden is still a name on the map and it was this place that gave Mary’s family her name. Although Mary’s father Robert was just a husbandman - a well to do peasant - her family could be traced back to before the Norman Conquest. Robert was born around 1480 effectively making him a man from the old world, whose daughters and descendants would welcome the new. Robert built his house in Wilmcote in 1515 and amazingly, under the skin of modernity, it is still surprisingly intact. Originally it was a traditional farming house, open to the ceiling, but the need for space, necessitated it being divided into an up and down stairs.

Mary Arden's House

 Robert and Mary’s mother, whose name is lost to history, were married in 1517 or 18 and the children started to appear very soon. Mary was the youngest of eight children: Agnes, Joan, Katherine, Margaret, Joyce, Elizabeth, Alice and then Mary, in about 1535 (some sources say as late as 1537) and was baptised in Aston Cantlow.  Although religiously it was a country in flux, England was still a Catholic country then and Mary could have been named after the Virgin Mary. The West Midlands is and was a deeply conservative area and religious change came slower there than to many places but after 1540 all this changed. In Aston Cantlow, the local guild was stripped of its silver plate and land. When the monasteries were dissolved all treasures and artefacts were confiscated to raise revenue for the king and realm. The change was also secular as the dissolution flooded the country with land and money, allowing the rise of a new middle class.

By a huge stroke of fortune a list of contents of Mary’s family house in Wilmcote survived, giving us a picture of her life at home. Animals, crops, 8 oxen, 2 bullocks, 7 cows, feather beds and mattresses, cushions, eleven painted cloths for the walls, miscellaneous chattels, total valuation £77 11 10
Mary grew up, as all girls did, multi skilling and was taught to do  essential tasks around the house hold, looking after children, cattle, swine, hens and sheep, then baking, brewing, making cheese, malting and all aspect of housekeeping.  Women and girls were also required to do harder labour, like helping with shearing, ploughing, gathering and threshing corn.
At meals, Mary and her sisters would sit on benches/forms as chairs were a sign of status. Robert, however, had three - one for him, one for his wife and one for an honoured guest. Her aesthetic sense would have been stimulated by the murals in the church, depicting religious scenes and almost three-d representations of ‘what would happen if you were bad’. These were whitewashed over when she was in her twenties, but revealed, still bright, in 1804. A favourite mural was also a pageant often enacted by the guilds at Stratford and that was St George and the Dragon and most people saw this at least once in their lifetime. In 1517 Robert joined the guild.
In 1547 King Henry VIII died and was followed by his pious but cold hearted son, Edward VI, who was surrounded by Protestant fundamentalists who would change the world forever. It was the beginning of the 'commotion time'. When Mary was in her teens, Mass was abolished and all the old rites and festivities were abolished.  The Ardens remained quietly loyal to the old faith. When Mary was about 12, Mary’s mother died and Robert remarried a younger widow, Agnes Hill, who brought he own brood of four children to live at Wilmcote. Joyce and Alice and Mary were still living at home . Living space was cramped and tensions ran high, so Robert drew up 'leases' to ensure his own daughters to ensure if he died they would still inherit.

In 1553, when Mary was about 18, Edward suddenly died and Mary Tudor came to the throne; she was a Catholic who was determined to turn the clock back!

In 1556 Mary’s father fell ill with what may be a fatal flu. He assembles his will. He invokes Virgin Mary and leaves his wordly good, surprisingly provides Mary with land and money - £6 13 4 ( a bit more than a skilled carpenter would earn in a year – roughly equating to £30,000 today.) Even more surprisingly  as she is the youngest, she is named as one of his executors, together with Alice, showing respect and trust and by implication, an acknowledgement that Mary is intelligent and honest. 

Amongst other items showing his generous and thoughtful nature, he leaves 4d to everyone in Aston Cantlow  who didn’t have a team of oxen

As legal executrix  she almost certainly had basic reading skills, but could she write? On later legal documents  she makes her signature with a beautiful calligraphy M. Her wax  seal has her personal emblem , a horse (some say a running horse.) The evidence suggests that she may have known how to write.  She would have been an attractive marriage proposition. There may have been a match already in mind with the son of one of her father’s tenants, John Shakespeare. John had moved from Snitterfield to Stratford  in the early 50s. He had done a 7 year  apprenticeship with a master glover Tom Dixon. He was a young man with prospects and would be an ideal catch. In Oct 1556 he buys 2 freehold properties in town.

Within weeks of his purchase he married Mary Arden in 1557. He was in his late 20s, she was about 22. Stratford then was a small market town with maybe 1200 people and a growing middle class serviced by tailors, and hatters and glovers. 'Home' at that point was just beginning to be a venue for social display and ambition... (i.e. beginning the keep up with the Joneses)  and he needed house to fit status.
They presumably wanted to start a family, but sadly Mary’s first two children died - little Joan aged just 2 months  and Margaret aged 1.

It may have been a comfort, who can tell how she would feel after the death of her babies? but at least her husband was doing well. His freehold in Henley Street entitled him join the corporation. Corporations had replaced the guilds in 1547 and they ran the town. His civic duties ranged from constable to ale taster and charity hand out to the poor. He was a man of credit. Someone they could trust.

In 1558 Mary Tudor died and Elizabeth came to throne, but she was Church of England and so the fourth change of religion in 20 years began. Soon there were risings against her religious policies and the government responded by removing all trappings of Catholicism. In 1563 Stratford council had to do the government bidding and in winter 2/- was paid for defacing images in the chapel so no memory of them remained and the chamberlain, John Shakespeare had to sign off the job.

In April 1564 William was born. On 28th May, Mary was purified at church, but when he was 3 months old the plague came to Stratford. Soon the town was living in fear. At the end of August the corporation held their meeting in the open air, but by then the situation was desperate.  With baby William it was best to get out if she could and Mary rode out to her sister in Wilmcote, 5 miles away where there were no deaths. Luckily William and his parents survived.  

After William, other babies born  and remained healthy; Joan, Anne, Gilbert and Richard and Mary spent time teaching them their ABC and reading prior to them going to school and telling them stories. Years later William would remember  tales of their legendry ancestor, Guy of Warwick. There is also a strong possibility that William would have seen the mystery plays that were still held.

John continued his rise in the council and in 1568 he was elected as mayor, making Mary was the wife of Alderman and High Bailiff, Mr. John Shakespeare.

Now they set out to use John’s position to make real money, investing in wool. It was the mainstay of the economy and was government controlled to prevent illegal dealers undercutting the market – and that is just what John was doing.

John’s web of contacts spread from the Cotswolds to Nottingham and down to Wiltshire. Mary would have dealt with business contacts in an informal capacity. It worked because of trust. But trust was a big issue in Elizabethan England and Elizabeth’s network of spies recorded John’s activities in the Exchequer Memoranda Roll 1572. A government informer, James Langrake, informed on John. This was not the first  time that  Langrake informed on John. The first time he informed about his illegal money lending and then in 1571 he reported him for a wool scam to the value of £210. When you  bear in mind that a waged labourer earned maybe £10 per annum and a house could be bought for £30, it shows just what an enormous sum of money is involved. This time John was able to pay off the informaer and got off with it.

Meanwhile as an alderman John was able to send his son to the Grammar school, the gateway of to university. In late 1570s the government suddenly turned on the illegal wool dealers with the whole force of the law and John’s whole informal network collapsed. Suddenly he had a network of debt everywhere with no network of income!

As the financial difficulties piled up, in 1570 their 7 yr old Anne died. The corporation book has an insight into the tragedy: 'for the bell and pall for Mr Shakespeare’s daughter for her funeral, 8d (pence)'.

Desperate to save money William was taken out of school to help John, losing him the opportunity of University.

Soon they were trying to raise money any way they could. They borrowed from friends and neighbours, inlaws and relatives. Then they start selling off land, including Mary’s 30 or 40 acre and cottage inheritance. John even divided the house up and leased half of it to neighbours who open a pub! Using the house called Asbie’s as security Mary raises £40 from her brother in law, but could not pay it back regrettably she had to forfeit the property.
Four months after Anne’s death she got pregnant again  and although by then in her mid forties, gave birth to Edmund. A couple of years later the teenage William got a 26 year old girl, Anne Hathaway, pregnant first with a daughter and then twins. The family was then squeezed into a third of their old house with William’s new wife and four new children to feed.
Worse was to follow 1583 the government discovered a plot to assassinate Elizabeth, the instigator being Edward Arden, a relative of Mary. Edward was head of the most important Catholic family in Warwickshire and after his arrest was put into the chamber called ‘The little Ease’ where you could neither stand up nor lie down and then all the men were tortured on the rack and condemned to death.

Around Stratford the secret police interrogated suspected Catholics and as Mary was an Arden and married to an ex mayor her household was almost certainly one of them. In 1586, having been protected by his fellow councillors for 10 years, John was struck off for non attendance. Mary’s family was now ruined

But there is a twist to the plot. William went to London to try to make it in the theatre. How he did it, we do not know, but in autumn, 1592 a famous metropolitan critic Robert Green poured scorn on the country boy taking the stage by storm. There is no such thing as bad publicity and suddenly William had made it and his box office earnings restored the family fortunes. In 1596 he bought a coat of arms for his father to make him a gentlemen, with (of course) a few rewrites of history, saying of Mary that she had been the daughter and heiress of Robert Arden Esq. and gentleman.
The family could hold their heads high again. William bought the big house near the chapel and John and Mary lived out their days in Henley street with their daughter Joan and her children. Mary had lived from Henry VIIIs reign, through Edward’s, Mary’s, Lady Jane Gray’s, Elizabeth’s and on into James’. She had known grief and disappointment but had held her family together during the commotion time. John died in 1601

John's death recorded in the Parish record

and Mary followed him in 1608, in her early 70s and was buried in the churchyard in Stratford.
Shortly after her death William finally published poems he had worked on for most of his life. The poems are imbued with a sense of the destructive power of time and the redeeming power of love. It is tempting to think that it was his mother who taught him how to feel the emotions contained within.
This biography of Mary Arden was written from copious notes taken whilst watching a fascinating documentary about Mary Arden, presented by Michael Wood.

Photographs from: 

© Diana Milne August 2017

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