John Shakespeare, The Hedgehog

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‘You spotted snakes with double tongue,
Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen’
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2.2

Edgar Fripp (1861 – 1931) once described “Alderman [John] Shakespeare” as being “curled up like a hedgehog at the approach of the dog”. Fripp, seeing the world, as he did, through a lens of strict Protestant belief, thought John’s behaviour reflected fear of Bishop Whitgift, the then Bishop of Worcester and later Archbishop of Canterbury. Whitgift, in an effort to enforce religious compliance and raise additional funds, established a “commission” to prosecute and fine those he considered to be extreme Protestants (i.e. anyone outside the Early Modern Church of England) just as Catholics had been penalized for their beliefs. I believe that Fripp correctly identified John Shakespeare’s sale of family assets as not being in response to sudden poverty but rather an effort to hide their wealth. The actual transfers were to family and friends for improbably small sums and John Shakespeare, like some citizen pursued by the modern taxman, was squirreling the money away.

Samuel Schoenbaum in his William Shakespeare A Documentary Life of 1975 had noted about these transfers:

‘The picture [of the supposed fall from financial grace] is of a piece; John Shakespeare incurred debts and exchanged land for ready money. […] On 14 November 1578 he borrowed £40 by mortgaging part of his wife’s inheritance – a house and fifty-six acres in Wilmcote – to her brother-in-law Edmund Lambert of Barton on the Heath, to whom he already owed money… when the borrowed £40 fell due at Michaelmas 1580, John could not pay it, so Lambert held on to the property. He was still in possession when he died seven years later. There followed litigation in the court of Queen’s Bench in Westminster, as the Shakespeares (John and Mary, joined by their eldest son William) tried to recover their holding from Lambert’s son and heir John. The plaintiffs claimed that John Lambert had promised an additional £20 in return for full title to the parental estate. Lambert denied making any such promise. In another suit ten years later, this time in Chancery, the Shakespeares insisted that they had offered Lambert the £40 for the property, only to be spurned – he wanted other money which they owed him. They never did get back this land, part of the Asbies estate. […] In November 1578 [the same month as the above transfer] John and Mary Shakespeare conveyed eighty-six more acres in Wilmcote, including meadows and pasture, to a Webbe relative for a period of years, after which the land would revert to the original possessors and their heirs; again a need for cash – immediate cash – seems to have motivated the transaction. […] The Shakespeares were also obliged to let go their ninth part in the two houses and hundred acres in Snitterfield, the property leased to Alexander Webbe. This they sold in 1579 to Webbe’s son Robert for the mean sum of £4.’

However, Schoenbaum in his analysis of these transfers did not ask two important questions:

1. Were these assets sold/leased for then fair market value? We know that William paid £320 in 1602 for just over a hundred acres of land. Granted that inflation was a feature of the final decades of the sixteenth century and that not all land is of like quality, these transfers are still at derisory rates. The only logical conclusion is that they are “friendly rates” reflecting the intention that the assets will return to the original owner. In other words they were only nominal transfers of title or control to achieve other results than the raising of cash.

2. If the Shakespeares were in the wrong over the “Asbies” transfer would they have been foolhardy enough to pursue the matter in expensive litigation for many years after the sale? I would argue they would not and being deprived of an asset they never truly intended to dispose of remains a much more credible explanation.

Certainly Fripp in his Shakespeare Man & Artist was in no doubt that John Shakespeare:

‘parted with his property outside [his immediate family]… trusting in one case to a brother-in-law [Lambert], who proved, it appears, a knave.’

John was simply manipulating his potential tax liabilities and protecting his assets. William, who himself was to be a tax avoider, needed no other teacher nor better example of the pitfalls inherent in this process than that of his father.

But if it were not just fear of Whitgift then why did the Shakespeare family’s volte-face of 1576 occur? Why did a model family suddenly drop out of Stratford’s civic scene and start camouflaging the family’s crown jewels?

Frederic Youngs in his The Proclamations of the Tudor Queens, drew attention to the fact that wool “broggers”, unlicensed (and therefore untaxed) wool dealers, were attacked by the Privy Council through the issuance of Proclamation 621/712 of 28 November 1576. 621/712 suspended wool trading licences for a year and banned even certain bona fide licensed traders from acting in the domestic wool trade. The timing of John’s “last” Council meeting in November 1576 can hardly be coincidental with the issuance of this Proclamation that imposed stringent penalties on those continuing in the trade.

Those unlicensed brokers with the most to lose were those whose business was large enough to attract both (tax) informers and subsequent prosecutions – both situations that applied to John Shakespeare. It must have seemed, at that moment, the Privy Council was intending to truly reform the entire wool broking industry.

John, had indeed become a hedgehog curled up at the approach of the dogs.

But just how he managed this financial manipulation and used religious recusancy as a shield for his continuing business are matters for the next blog.

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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.

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