Stratford-upon-Avon on the west bank of the River Avon in Warwickshire, is known all over the world for its association with William Shakespeare. It is not to be confused with Stratford in East London, where the 2012 Olympic Games were held. It is probably England’s prime tourist centre outside London and yet retains the essential character of a Warwickshire market town. It is a beautiful town, which was set out as a new town in 1196 on a medieval grid system, demonstrated by today’s straight streets. By 1196, the Bishop of Worcester had granted the town the right to hold a weekly market. Its later prosperity has increased considerably by its association with William Shakespeare, the greatest of all writers who, although being born over 400 years ago, still enthralls audiences around the world with his plays and poems. William Shakespeare wrote:-
“There is a history in all men’s lives”
(Henry IV, Part II)
Where better to bring this history alive than in a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare was born, went to school, had a family home and died in 1616?
Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, close to the bank of the River Avon, features strongly in Shakespeare’s life. It dates from 1210, although people have been worshipping on the site from 713. The oldest sections are the tower, transepts and nave pillars, which support the tower and spire. Here, William Shakespeare was baptised on 26th April 1564 and copies of his parish baptism register can be seen, as well as the original font where he was baptised. It was customary to baptise a child three days after birth and Shakespeare’s date of birth is always regarded as being 23rd April 1564. William Shakespeare died on his 52nd birthday at his house ‘New Place’, in 1616. The cause of his death is not known, but there was an outbreak of fever in 1616 in Stratford. His gravestone is in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church, together with those of his wife Anne, his daughter Susanna, her husband John Hall and his granddaughter’s first husband, Thomas Nash. Strangely enough, there is not a name on Shakespeare’s grave, (apart from one added for tourists’ benefit) only an inscription which includes the curse:-
“Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.”
In 2016, Archaeologists from Stafford University, not frightened by the curse, have used a scanning machine (ground penetrating radar) to look into Shakespeare’s grave. It enabled them to see below the ground without disturbing the grave. The investigation coincides with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in April 2016. Surprisingly, a skull could not be traced, which gives credence to a story which was published in “The Argosy Magazine” in 1879, which claimed that Shakespeare’s skull had been stolen from his shallow grave. Both Shakespeare and his wife, Anne, were not buried in deep vaults, but shallow graves, less than 1 metre deep.
William Shakespeare was born in the family home in Henley Street in 1564, one of eight children. He had three brothers and four sisters. This child, later to be known as the “Bard of Avon”, the unofficial national poet of England, was born to John and Mary Shakespeare. Mary’s maiden name was Mary Arden. John was a glove maker. Gloves were a major fashion accessory in those times and the Shakespeare home also served as a shop at one end of the building, with a barn and workshops in the backyard. A two roomed cottage was added to the main building after the house was built. William and Anne, his new bride, who was three months pregnant, may have lived in the cottage when first married. Visitors may view the workshop, hall, parlour and bedrooms, which are furnished with authentic items and look as they did in the late 16th century. When his father died in 1601, William inherited the house, which became an inn called the “Swan and Maidenhead”. Family ownership continued until the late 18th century, but the building became in need of serious repair in the early part of the 19th century. It was put up for sale and in 1846, a national campaign, organised by the Shakespeare Birthday Committee, (now the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust) raised the funds necessary to buy the house for the nation in 1847. Charles Dickens was a prominent fundraiser. Behind Shakespeare’s family home, there is now a garden featuring many plants mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. A short walk from William’s home, is King Edward VI Grammar School in Church Street, which he is likely to have attended from the age of seven. Also in Church Street are the Almshouses, founded by the Guild of the Holy Cross in the 15th century.
Anne Hathaway’s Cottage is on the outskirts of Stratford-upon-Avon at Shottery, in a small wooded valley. In William Shakespeare’s day, it would have consisted of fields and farms, but is now more built-up. This picturesque romantic family home, is where the 18 year old William courted Anne, who was 26 years old and the daughter of Richard Hathaway, a wealthy farmer. The Hathaways were close family friends of the Shakespeare family. The cottage was a farmhouse, dating from the 1460s. Massive curved oak timbers support the roof and walls, which are made of traditional wattle and daub. Early in the 17th century, Anne’s brother, Bartholomew, added a taller section to the cottage at the end of the building where the orchard is now. The cottage contains the Hathaway Bed, a late 16th century bed with canopy, which Anne’s father, Richard, specified in his will in 1581, was to remain in the cottage during the lifetime of his wife and two sons. The gardens are a perfect example of an English cottage garden, but in Anne’s young days, the cottage garden would have been more like a farmyard.
During the late 1580s, Shakespeare left Stratford and found his fortune in London. By 1592, he had become an established playwright and author of at least seven plays. In 1597, Shakespeare was able to afford a grand new family home back in Stratford-upon-Avon. This was the second largest house in the town and known as “New Place”. It was a medieval house built around 1490, by Hugh Clopton. It was very spacious, with extensive gardens and orchards. It is likely that Shakespeare wrote many of his plays in his study here from 1597. When Shakespeare died at New Place in 1616, the house passed to his eldest daughter, Susanna and her husband, Dr. John Hall. Their daughter, Elizabeth, married Thomas Nash, who owned the house that adjoined Shakespeare’s New Place. Elizabeth died childless in 1670 and William Shakespeare’s direct line of descent, therefore, ended. New Place was demolished by the Reverend Francis Gastrell in 1759. He did this, it is claimed, because his tax was increased and his request to extend the garden was rejected by the townspeople. The angry inhabitants eventually forced him to leave Stratford-upon-Avon. Today, the site of the building can clearly be seen.
Susanna, Shakespeare’s eldest daughter, who was obviously conceived before William and Anne’s rushed marriage in November 1582, married John Hall, a wealthy physician in 1607. He used treatments made from plants, herbs and animal extracts. Susanna and John Hall lived in the fine timbered building of Hall’s Croft, which was constructed in 1613. The garden at the rear of Hall’s Croft is planted with medicinal plants listed in Dr. Hall’s notebook. The building was opened to the public in 1951.
The Royal Shakespeare Theatre is a thousand seat theatre, owned by The Royal Shakespeare Company, situated on the bank of the River Avon, adjacent to the Bancroft Gardens. Following major renovation work, the theatre re-opened in November 2010. The complex now has a viewing platform, 105 feet high, (32 metres) on a Tower which gives views across Stratford-upon-Avon and the surrounding area. The RSC also own the Swan Theatre on the same site, which formerly housed the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, which burnt down in 1926. It is used for many types of drama, not only the works of William Shakespeare.
In Rother Market, there is a clock tower which was given to the town by George W. Childs of Philadelphia, USA in 1887. On two corners there are American Eagles, but English Lions on the other two. Although it is a clock tower, it is known as The American Fountain. At one time it had a drinking fountain on it.
Harvard House in High Street, between Ely Street and Wood Street, dates from 1596. Thomas Rogers built the house. Their daughter, Katherine, married Robert Harvard of Southwark, London. Their son, John, founded Harvard University in the USA, which now owns Harvard House.
Bancroft Gardens are attractive gardens located on the River Avon, adjacent to The Royal Shakespeare Theatre. They were originally an area occupied by canal wharves, warehouses and a canal basin, built in 1816, but refilled in 1902. The canal basin was the terminus of the Stratford to Birmingham Canal.
The Gower Memorial is situated in Bancroft Gardens and has a statue of William Shakespeare overlooking figures of characters from his plays – Prince Hal, Lady Macbeth, Hamlet and Falstaff. The memorial was presented to the town in 1888, by Lord Ronald Sutherland Gower.
The Tramway Bridge across the River Avon, was constructed in 1826 to carry The Stratford and Moreton Tramway, a sixteen mile long horse-drawn carriageway, from the Canal Basin at Stratford-upon-Avon to Moreton-in-Marsh in Gloucestershire. It has nine arches. It is now only a footbridge, accessible on one side from Cox’s Yard, a restaurant and bar complex. The carriageway did not prosper. In 1851, steam traction was tried on part of the line, but the tramway company went bankrupt in 1868. During the First World War, the track was lifted and finally abandoned in 1926, one hundred years after it opened. The Tramway Bridge is not to be confused with the Clopton Bridge, built by Sir Hugh Clopton, between 1480 and 1490. It has fourteen arches and carries the main road into Stratford-upon-Avon.
The Shrieve’s House and Barn, is the oldest lived-in house in Stratford-upon-Avon. The first recorded building on the site, is from 1196. This timber-framed building is now a private museum, trading under the name of “Tudor World”. There is a section of cobbled courtyard, which is the oldest in the town, dating back to William Shakespeare’s time. “Tudor World” claim that Shrieve’s House is the most haunted building in England and consequently, provide regular “ghost hunt evenings”. The name of the house is derived from William Shrieve, who is the first recorded tenant of the house in 1536. He was an archer to Henry VIII. In the 16th century, the building was an inn, known as the “Three Tuns Tavern”. The landlord was William Rogers, who, it is claimed, was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s comic character, Sir John Falstaff, who appears in three Shakespeare plays – The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV, Parts I and II. In the 19th century, the building was the home of Edward Gibbs, known as the “Shakespeare Architect”, who renovated Shakespeare’s Birthplace in the 1860s, so that it more resembled the original Tudor farmhouse. The building had become the Swan and Maidenhead Inn.