Stratford-upon-Avon was a busy town long before William Shakespeare was born. In 1196 King Richard I granted Stratford the right to hold weekly markets. A lively town in the heart of the country, trading wool, with many craftsmen such as blacksmiths, carpenters, shoemakers, brewers and bakers. By the 13th century Stratford also had a small grammar school.
The town is full of interesting old buildings which must have seen many transformations over the centuries, ending up as hotels or designer shops.
In 1557 a glover from Stratford Upon Avon named John Shakespeare married Mary Arden, the daughter of a well-to-do farmer. Their son William was born on or about 23 April 1564 in a house in Henley Street. And it is this house I had the chance to visit recently. After a varied history the house was purchased by a charitable trust in 1847, sponsored by well known names such as Charles Dickens.
Luckily it was a fine day when I was there; the gardens are very pretty and you can sit and listen to costumed actors who will take your requests for speeches.
Inside the house costumed guides are there with plenty of snippets of information or domestic details. Dinner was eaten at 11am; as the son of a middle-class citizen William would have attended the grammar school. He went to school at 6am then came home for his dinner. Sumptuary laws in Tudor times aimed to keep class distinctions and prescribed what people could eat. The Shakespeare family were allowed two courses, but each course included plenty of dishes.
Upstairs you can see the marital bedroom where William was born, even the likely spot near the fire, with his mother probably using a birthing stool. Younger children shared with their parents, a truckle bed being wheeled out from under the parents’ double bed and did not sleep in a separate room until they could be trusted with a candle. Wooden houses with rush floors were a great fire hazard. For the same reason all domestic fires had to be put out at sunset; the risk of a spark while everyone was asleep was too great. Doorways were small, not because people were much shorter, they weren’t, but to keep the heat in. The long nights of winter must have been uncomfortable, especially as people slept sitting up with a bolster and pillows. They believed if the Devil saw them lying down he might think they were dead and take their souls.
Read more about my trip here.