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In the sixteenth century there were Shakespeares all over the country, in Essex, Staffordshire, Worcestershire, Nottingham, but chiefly in Warwick.

There the family had spread rapidly. But it is only the first half of the century that concerns us at present. There have been Shakespeares noted in Warwick, Alcester, Berkswell, Snitterfield, Lapworth, Haseley, Ascote, Rowington, Packwood, Beausal, Temple Grafton, Salford, Tamworth, Barston, Tachbrook, Haselor, Rugby, Budbrook, Wroxall, Norton-Lindsey, Wolverton, Hampton-in-Arden, Hampton Lucy, and Knowle.

Most students, recognising Warwickshire as the ancestral home of the poet’s family, exclude the town of Warwick from the field of their consideration, and select the Shakespeares of Wroxall, partly because more is known about them, and partly because what is known of them suggests a higher social status than is granted the other branches. From the “Guild of Knowle Records” we learn that in 1504 the fraternity was asked to “pray for the soul of Isabella Shakespeare, formerly Prioress of Wroxall," that the name of Alice Shakespere was entered, and prayers requested for the soul of Thomas Shakespere, of Ballishalle, in 1511; and in the same year Christopher Shakespere and Isabella, his wife, of Packwood, Meriden, are mentioned. The name of “Domina Jane Shakspere” appears late in 1526. She is often spoken of as another Prioress. Now, it is important to notice that Dugdale mentions neither of these ladies. He records that D. Isabella Asteley was appointed July 30, 1431, and that D. Jocosa Brome, daughter of John Brome, succeeded her. She resigned in 1524, and died on June 21, 1528.

Agnes Little was confirmed Prioress November 20, 1525, and at the dissolution of the house a pension of L7 10s. was granted her for life. The rest of her fellow nuns were exposed to the wide world to seek their fortunes. Now Dugdale, with all his perfections, occasionally makes mistakes. He either mistook Asteley for Shakespeare, or another Shakespeare prioress intervened between the two that he mentions. The “Guild of Knowle Records” give unimpeachable testimony as to the existence and date of the Prioress, Isabella Shakespeare. In the edition of Dugdale’s “Warwickshire” by Dr. W. Thomas, 1730, and the edition of his “Monasticon,” published 1823, there is mentioned in a note that a license for electing to the office was granted Johanna Shakespere, Sub-Prioress, September 5, 1525. So she might have had the empty title of Domina, without the usual pension allowed to the Prioress on dissolution.

After the name of Domina Johanna Shakspere in the Knowle Records occur those of Richard Shakspere and Alice, his wife; William Shakespere and Agnes his wife; Johannes Shakespere and Johanna his wife, 1526; Richard Woodham and Agnes his wife, who was the sister of Richard. This Richard Shakespere was probably the Bailiff of the Priory, who shortly before the Dissolution collected the rents and held lands from the Priory. He, however, was replaced in his office by John Hall, who received a patent for it on January 4, 26 Henry VIII. Among the tenants of the dissolved Priory were mentioned “Richard Shakespeare,” “William Shakespeare,” and “land in the tenure of John Shakespeare, demised to Alice Taylor, of Hanwell, in the county of Oxford.”

Mr. Yeatman transcribes a grant of land in Wroxall by the Prioress Isabella Shakespere to John Shakespere and Elene, his wife, in 23 Henry VII. (Richard Shakespere on the jury). But there seems to be some error in the date, as the “Guild of Knowle Records” distinctly state that Isabella the Prioress was either dead in 19 Henry VII. or had retired from office.

Elena Cockes, widow, late wife of John Shakespere, and Antony, her son, appear about this land in a court held by Agnes Little, Prioress of Wroxhall, April 21, 25 Henry VIII. William Shakespeare and Agnes were concerned in it, Alice Lone, and many other connected names. A Richard Shakespere was on the jury, and a Richard Shakespere was appointed Ale-taster. The Subsidy Rolls do not give a John resident in Wroxall at any date, but in 14, 15, and 16 Henry VIII. John, senior, and John, junior, were resident in the adjoining village of Rowington, and in 34 and 37 Henry VIII. there was one John Shakespeare there. In 16 Henry VIII. there was a Richard Shakespere in Hampton Corley. The name also occurs at Wroxall in that year and in Rowington in 34-5 Henry VIII. There were also a Thomas and a Lawrence (mentioned as a cousin in a will of a John Shakespere, 1574), at Rowington at that time, and the name of William appears repeatedly in Wroxall. A Robert Shakespere was presented for non-suit. Rev. Joseph Hunter gives a rental of Rowington 2 Edward VI. Among the free tenants of Lowston End was John Shakespere; at Mowsley End, Johanna Shakespere, a widow, who seems to have died 1557, as her will, though lost, is mentioned in the index at Worcester; a William Shakespere and a Richard Shakespere are also mentioned. In 3 Elizabeth Thomas Shakespere held a messuage in Lowston. In Rowington End John Shakespere held a cottage called “The Twycroft,” and Richard Shakespere a messuage in Church End at the same time. In the reign of Edward VI. a Richard Shakespere was on the jury for Hatton, a Court in the Manor of Wroxall. The Wroxall Parish Registers begin too late to be of any use (1586). The Wroxall Court Rolls mention in 1523, Richard of Haseley; 1530-36, Richard and William; 1547, Ralph of Barston.

Ralph Shakespere was on the jury for Berkswell November 11, 4 Edward VI. and 5 Edward VI. In 1560 Laurence was presented, because he overburdened the commons with his cattle. John is mentioned in a transfer of property. Mr. J. W. Ryland gives us invaluable help in his publication of “The Records of Rowington.” John Shakespeer and Robert Fulwood, gent., are mentioned as feoffees in the will of John Hill of Rowington, September 23, 1502. John Shakespeare elder and younger are frequently mentioned in the Charters of Rowington as feoffees or as witnesses, and a John had a lease of the Harveys for twenty-one years in 1554. A Joan Shakespeare, widow, and her son Thomas, lived at Lyannce in Hatton in 1547. In the Rental of Rowington, 1560-1, there are mentioned Thomas, William, John and Richard. Mr. Hunter mentions a Richard Shakespeyre, at Mansfield, co. Notts, about 1509; a Peter, in 1545; and a John at Derby, 36 Henry VIII. A Richard Shakespere was assessed at Hampton Carlew 16 Henry VIII.; Richard Woodham and Richard Shakspere had a farm at Haseley. The Haseley Registers begin in 1538, and are interesting for the fact that they record on October 21, 1571, the death and burial of “Domina Jane,” formerly a nun of Wroxall, who would seem to have been the last sub-prioress, probably connected with Richard Shakespere, the Bailiff. In 1558 a Roger Shakespere was buried by some supposed to be the old monk of Bordesley who received 100s. annuity.

The earliest Shakespeare will at Worcester, proved at Stratford, was that of Thomas Shakespere, of Alcester, 1539, who left 20s. each to his father and mother, Richard and Margaret. He had a wife Margaret and a son William. Among other Worcester wills is that of Thomas Shakespere of Warwick, shoemaker, May 20, 1557, who left his wife Agnes lands in Balsall for life; his daughter Jone, wife to Francis Ley, L4; to his sons Thomas and John 4 nobles each; and his son William was to be his heir. Richard Shakysspere of Rowington, weaver, June 15, 1560, left his property to his sons Richard and William. His brothers-in law John and William Reve were executors and Richard Shakespeare was a witness. In 1561 this William Reve in his will left a sheep to Margaret Shakspere, and in 1565 Robert Shakespeere of Rowington made his will.

But among all these Shakesperes we cannot certainly fix upon any one that is directly connected with our Shakespeare. It seems almost certain that John Shakespeare was son of Richard Shakespeare, of Snitterfield. And yet many doubt it on grounds worthy of consideration, which are treated later in the notice of John Shakespeare. Mr. Yeatman found that an Alice Griffin, daughter of Edward, and sister of Francis Griffin of Braybrook, married a Shakespeare. He takes it for granted that she married Richard of Wroxall, and that it was he who came to Snitterfield. We must beware of drawing definite conclusions, of making over-hasty generalizations. We only collect the bricks to help future investigators to build the edifice.

The Sir Thomas Schakespeir, Curate, of Essex, Bristol and London, who died 1559, is treated later among the Essex Shakespeares.

There is one curious mention of the name which no student seems to have worked out. A certain Hugh Saunders, alias Shakespere, of Merton College, Oxford, became Principal of St. Albans Hall in 1501. He was Vicar of Meopham, in Kent, Rector of Mixbury, Canon of St. Paul’s, and Prebendary of Ealdstreet, in 1508; and Rector of St. Mary’s, Whitechapel, in 1512. He died 1537. Now, such an alias was common at the time, when a man’s mother was of higher social station than his father. We may therefore, seeing he was somehow connected with Shakespeare, imagine Hugh Saunders’ mother to have been a Shakespeare. He is styled “vir literis et virtute percelebris.”