John Shakespeare Behind the Parapet

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Photo: BardontheBeach

‘Cry ‘Courage! to the field!’ And thou hast talk’d
Of sallies and retires, of trenches, tents,
Of palisadoes, frontiers, parapets’
Henry IV Part 1, 2.3.

A Tudor Statute of 1523 required commissioners to return nominal listings of all those taxed to the Exchequer. This followed a joint “muster” and fiscal assessment of the previous year. This was an initiative to calculate national wealth, military capability and to determine who actually controlled the military. One practical application of this was the allocation of “forced loans” i.e. a form of compulsory taxation.

In early modern England if you were male and aged between sixteen and sixty you were “available” for military service. Live in a small town such as Stratford-upon-Avon and you would be called to the “Musters”. Here, in theory, a man presented himself equipped with his own weapons and armour according to his income and social position. “Muster Rolls”, a list of names created at these gatherings, are the tangible result and a large number still survive at the Public Record Office.

In March 1570 Musters “of men, horses, armour and weapons” took place in Stratford. These assemblies were often used as a technique to signal public authority to the citizenry in times of potential political unrest. The costs of these exercises, plus the replacement of any war materials, were distributed according to perceived wealth. The higher position on the “Roll” of the “well-to-do” then the greater one’s potential liability to contribute both in terms of forced taxation and paying for the militia.

As Edgar Fripp (1861 – 1931) noted, John Shakespeare’s name appeared near the top of “Gentlemen and Freeholders” in Stratford drawn up at the time of the 1570 Musters i.e. he was identified as someone who would be required to contribute in relation to this position.

Visibility in the community came with a corresponding cost. Officeholders were expected and required to contribute to the needs (usual or extraordinary) of their locale in proportion to title and perceived wealth. Holding any civic office could result in very large “contributions”. In 1990 R.M. Wunderli, in Evasion of the Office of Alderman in London 1523-1672, set out the history of tax dodging in London through the refusal of public office. Wunderli’s conclusion was that in times of relative peace and prosperity offices broadly could be expected to bring the recipient reasonable income relative to the charges placed upon the “honour”. However, in times of war, civil unrest or public health issues, then the costs were heightened and for many individuals office dodging became an attractive alternative. Declining a position usually resulted in fines payable on non-attendance, or court proceedings being initiated. John Shakespeare from November 1576 was the rare case of an individual who absented himself – in his case from the Borough Council – and had these charges waived. Later, in 1626, William Shakespeare’s son in law, John Hall, was less fortunate for as Joan Lane in John Hall and his Patients noted, “he was fined £10 rather than be knighted by Charles I in 1626.”

Another complication of visibility came with self-appointed tax inspectors, in reality bounty hunting informers, initiating legal cases against John’s business hoping for a share of any fines. In 1570 John was dragged into court twice as a by-product of his business dealings. But it was Proclamation 621/712 of 1576 which attacked illegal wool broggers, that precipitated his immediate withdrawal from public life. In Early Modern England what the authorities could not see they could not fine or tax. The pattern was set and for the next forty years the Shakespeares were invisible to the tax-man. Even the process of applying for “gentlemanly” status was to be suspended till 1596.

But how did John manage to withdraw so completely and still stay in business? The answer, as articulated by Fripp, comes from his outstanding civic service to that date coupled to the fact that the only method available to the Government in enforcing edicts at a local level was through the local Justices of the Peace. In other words, the town worthies had to peach on their own friends, neighbours and fellow aldermen to the central Government – never a likely outcome. However, there is also a deeper reason why someone might be shielded by one’s fellow citizens, that of religion.

From the safety of the twenty first century the shifts in dogma from acceptable scripture to heresy may appear clear-cut but the truth is that people do not change overnight. The Shakespeare family were friends and did business with those of every religious hue. Doing business with the Grant family who later supplied one full-fledged member of the Gunpowder plot through to Protestants who would count amongst their extended family the first benefactor of what became Harvard University. Reserving one’s religious views through avoiding church, essentially being a paper recusant, was a very effective means of avoiding taxation, justifying secrecy and obviating the need for business licenses – providing you were on good terms with your J.P.s and the local “great men”. Recusancy fines were never, ever evenly enforced in every county. In the summer of 1577 Bishop Whitgift made “visitation of his diocese in the hope of catching recusants” with the intent of extracting fines wherever practicable. Fripp in his Shakespeare Studies of 1930 quoted from a letter Whitgift sent to Lord Burghley that illustrates Whitgift’s exasperation:

‘two kinds of men delighted in molesting and troubling him, namely “the contentious Protestant and the stubborn Papist” …both with backing from “great men”.’

He could have added to the end of this “and lesser locally elected men”.

In 1576 John was in a perfect position to duck behind the parapet, a technique his son also used as a perennial non tax-payer in later adult life. No duels or brandings for William like his friend Ben Jonson or being stabbed like Kit Marlowe.

William, from his father, learned to keep his head down and protect his winnings.

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David studied Law at Aberdeen University before embarking on a career in finance. Retiring in 2001, he pursued his interest in the arts studying at Plymouth College of Art & Design, Dartington College of Arts and the University of Exeter where he took his masters degree in Staging Shakespeare. He completed his Ph.D on the finances of the Shakespeare family in 2011.
  • Diana Owen

    Enjoyed this very much,David, and it makes tax dodging in our times look easy by comparison!

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