William Shakespeare’s father was John Shakespeare, born in 1531 to Richard Shakespeare, a farmer from the village of Snitterfield – about five miles from Stratford upon Avon. John Shakespeare was an ambitious man; not content with a life of farming he moved to the urban centre of Stratford before 1552 as an apprentice glover and tanner of leathers.
John Shakespeare prospered and began to deal in farm products and wool. It is recorded that he bought a house in 1552 (the date that he first appears in the town records), and bought more property in 1556 – one house on Greenhill Street and two adjoining houses on Henley Street.
Sometime between 1556 and 1558 John Shakespeare married Mary Arden, the daughter of the wealthy Robert Arden and owner of the sixty-acre farm called ‘Asbies’. It’s thought Shakespeare’s parents may have known each other from childhood as John’s father was a tenant farmer on land owned by Mary’s father, Robert Arden.
By the time William was born in 1564 John Shakespeare had progressed far in the political life of Stratford. A year after his marriage, at the age of 26, he was elected ale taster, responsible for ensuring that inns, shopkeepers, butchers, bakers and other traders were serving the regulations regarding weights and measures and prices. In 1588 he was given the position of Borough Constable, and from there progressed to Burgess and Chamberlain. At that stage he was enjoying the title ‘Goodman Shakespeare.’ He became an Alderman – a town councillor – in the year that his eldest son was born. He was appointed High Bailiff in 1568, a highly responsible position equivalent to Mayor, which effectively put him in charge of all public business. And now he was called ‘Master’ Shakespeare.
There is evidence that John Shakespeare was a closet Catholic. There is a document, believed to be genuine, found in the attic of his house in Henley Street – a tract signed by John, in which he pledged to remain a Catholic ‘in my heart’ for the rest of his life.
By 1578 John was behind with his taxes and had stopped paying the statutory aldermanic subscription for poor relief. In 1579, he was forced to mortgage Mary Shakespeare’s estate, Asbies, to pay creditors. In 1580 he was fined 40 pounds for missing a court date and in 1586 the town removed him from the Board of Aldermen due to a lack of attendance. By 1590, John Shakespeare was in somewhat reduced circumstance, with owned only his house on Henley Street and, in 1592 he was fined for not attending church.
The Shakespeare family were granted a coat of arms in 1596: it is thought that it was the influence of William Shakespeare that brought that about. Despite the heights his career had reached, and coat of arms it is likely that John Shakespeare was illiterate. John used a pair of glover’s compasses as his signature.
In 1599 John Shakespeare was reinstated on the town council, but died a short time later, in 1601.