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Brothers & Sisters of William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

William was the third of eight children, although the two born before him had died. Details of all of his brothers and sisters follow, together with a Timeline detailing important dates and events relating to the life of each brother and sister. There are no records of exact birth dates of the siblings, however the dates of christenings of each brother and sister have all been recorded in the Baptismal Register of the Holy Trinity parish church in Stratford.

William was the first born son of Mary and John Shakespeare being one of eight brothers and sisters. The baptismal register of the Holy Trinity parish church, in Stratford, shows the following entry, in Latin, for April 26, 1564: Gulielmus Filius Johannes Shakespeare. Actual birthdays were not registered during the era, however, according to the Book of Common Prayer, it was required that a child be baptised on the nearest Sunday, or Holy Day, following the birth, unless the parents had a specific excuse not to do so. There is also another view that infants were baptised three days following their birth. The date Shakespeare's birth is, therefore, customarily set as the 23rd of April. This date is the feast day of St. George, the patron saint of England. John and Mary Shakespeare lived in a house in Henley Street, Stratford and it is safe to assume that this was the location of William Shakespeare's birthplace. The true birthday of the Bard can only remain a mystery but from an Englishman's point of view what better choice than on St. George's Day. The same birth date principle also applies to the dates relating to each of his brothers and sisters.

Mary and John Shakespeare had eight children giving the Bard seven brothers and sisters, large families were essential during the Tudor era due to the high mortality rates amongst children. The Baptism of children was undertaken quickly during Shakespeare's time as the life expectancy for children was so low. There was pestilence and repeated outbreaks of the plague (Black Death). Life must have been terrifying for the families of babies and young children. The following diverse lifespan, of Shakespeare's brothers and sisters, would have been an all too common pattern and reflected the dangerous times to which they were born. The details of some of his brothers and sisters can be attributed to the deadly disease.

1558 September 15 Joan ( sister of the Bard ), the first child of John and Mary was baptised (only
         survived two months)
1562 December 2 Margaret ( sister of the Bard ) was baptised - she died one year later
1564 April 26 William was baptised (died 1616 aged 52 )
1566 October 13 Gilbert ( brother of the Bard ) was baptised (died 1612 aged 46)
1569 Another daughter, also called Joan ( sister of the Bard ) was born (died 1646 aged 77)
1571 September 28 Anne was baptised ( sister of the Bard ) (1579 died aged 7)
1574 March 11 Richard ( brother of the Bard ) was baptised (died 1613 aged 39)
1580 May 3 Edmund ( brother of the Bard ) was baptised (died 1607 aged 27)
The above dates represent the approximate births of the brothers and sisters of the great Bard.

JOAN  ( Sister )
Joan, the first child of Mary and John would have brought great joy to the young, and ambitious couple, only to be dealt a terrible blow shortly after her birth. Joan was a popular name for the common folk in England at this time, being a derivative of the name Jane which would have been given to members of the nobility. Joan Shakespeare she was baptized in Stratford on September 15, 1558 at the end of the reign of Bloody Mary. Her father was a successful trader and had taken his first step on the political ladder and received a civic appointment in Stratford as Ale-taster. This might sound strange to us but in the Elizabethan era basic hygiene was practically unknown. People washed infrequently, men urinated in the living room and most houses had a refuse heap outside their front doors. The water was dangerous to drink at the best of times, so ale or wine depending on your class, was the safest option. But there was an even greater danger - the Black Death, also referred to as the plague. There were repeated outbreaks of the plague which was often transmitted by the fleas that lived on animals. So farmers and the retailers of farm produce, such as animal hides, were in constant danger of contracting the Black Death. The disease could also be air bound and transmitted from an infected person's breath. It was in this environment that the baby, Joan , lived and sadly contracted the deadly disease and died just two short months after her birth. An unknown sister to the Bard. There was political and religious turmoil in the country at this time, following the death of the staunch Catholic, Bloody Mary, however, Queen Elizabeth I acceded the throne on 17th November 1558 and the family of the Bard including all of his brothers and sisters moved from the Tudor era to the Elizabethan period.

MARGARET ( Sister )
John's rise in the Civic world continued and he was elected as Chamberlain of the Borough of Stratford in 1661.Mary became pregnant again and gave birth in 1562 to a second daughter, Margaret. Margaret, was born in 1562 and was baptized on December 2. This must have been a worrying time for the new parents following the tragic, early death of their first daughter, Joan. The name Margaret was also a popular name in England, a burst in the rise of popularity would have been due to the fact that it was the name of one of the sisters of King Henry VIII. Children called Margaret were often called Meg. Once again family life was shattered as the little Margaret only lived for one year. The exact details of her death are not known but it was highly probable that she died of the Black Death. Another unknown sister to the Bard.

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE (see full Biography)
William was the first born son of Mary and John. The baptismal register of the Holy Trinity parish church, in Stratford, shows the following entry, in Latin, for April 26, 1564: Gulielmus Filius Johannes Shakespeare. Following the earlier deaths of his two sisters the parents of William Shakespeare must have been in mortal fear for William's life. William attended school but left when he was thirteen to help with his father's business which in real trouble. When he was just 18 William Shakespeare, came home with the news that 26 year old Anne Hathaway was three months pregnant. The scandal to the family caused by the conception of a child, by a much older woman, outside marriage must have caused immense gossip in the community. The marriage between William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway must have been hastily arranged and a special licence had to be sought and issued by the Bishop of Worcester. The banns were only read once, instead of the conventional three times and William and Anne were married in November 1582. Due to the necessity of the swift marriage it can be assumed that William and Anne had no option but to move in with John and Mary. In May 1583, William became the father to Susanna Shakespeare. William probably helped with his father's businesses during this time and possibly also took work as a teacher and perhaps even worked with a lawyer. William's twins Hamnet and Judith were born two years later in 1585 but despite the arrival of more children, fortune continued to go badly with William. There are indications that William might have offended Sir Richard Lucy by poaching a deer on his grounds. What with this and what with the general misfortunes of the family it was about this time that William left Stratford to seek his fortune in London. And a fortune he did make (See Biography). He started work in Theatre and achieved fame and fortune. His roots and his family were in Stratford and William often returned to his home and family. He maintained and expanded his business interests and eventually retired from Theatre and returned to Stratford where he died April 23 1616. William's son, Hamnet, died at the age of just eleven years old leaving his two sisters Judith and Susanna to survive.

Two years after William' birth the Shakespeare’s' fourth child, Gilbert, was born, a brother for Will. Gilbert was baptized at Holy Trinity on October 13, 1566, at Holy Trinity. John Shakespeare had obtained a good standing with the other civic signatories of the village and it is possible that his second son was named after Gilbert Bradley, a Burgess of Stratford. Gilbert Bradley was also a Glover, so shared John's trade and he also lived in Henley Street. The dangers of life in Elizabethan times were a constant threat and records show that Gilbert Shakespeare contracted, but luckily survived, the plague. It is likely that Gilbert attended school with his elder brother William (see the Education of Shakespeare) as with his father's election to the position of Alderman came the benefit of free education for his children. By 1578 things had started to go seriously wrong for John Shakespeare. The boys were removed from school in order to help with the finances as John was behind with the taxes. It is likely that Gilbert helped with his father's business until he was able to strike out on his own taking the trade of a haberdasher. He followed his brother to London where he established a good and successful career. The Shakespeare sons were doing well and, due to the strong political and Royal patronage of William, their father also prospered. Gilbert's career would have received a huge boost when on October 20, 1596 by permission of the Garter King of Arms, John Shakespeare, and his children, were granted permission to display a coat-of-arms. The coat-of-arms was gold with a black banner bearing a silver spear. The motto was "Non sans droit" or "not without right". John, and his sons, were then entitled to put "gentleman" after their name, they were officially part the Gentry. This title was reserved for those who were below knights but who had been granted the right to bear arms. The coat-of-arms could be displayed on their door and all their personal items. Gilbert would, of course, taken full advantage of this new status and would have received increased trade and prestige because of it. Gilbert was definitely in London in 1597, at the same time as William, but it would appear that the Shakespeare brothers were part of a close-knit family as, like his other brothers, Gilbert often returned to Stratford. We know that in 1609 he appeared in Stratford court in connection with a lawsuit, but no further details regarding the matter are available. Gilbert never married and remained a bachelor until his death, in Stratford, on February 3, 1612. A close relationship for the brothers during the childhood years.

JOAN ( Sister )
In 1569, John and Mary Shakespeare gave birth to another girl, and named her after her first born sister, Joan. William was 5 years old and Gilbert was just 3 years old when their sister was born. It was not uncommon for children to be given the name of a previous, deceased, brother or sister and so it was with Joan. Joan Shakespeare had a different childhood to her brothers. She was known, like her parents, to be unable to read or write. Girls, outside of the Nobility, might occasionally received an education during this era but this was not the usual custom. Joan's childhood would therefore have been spent close to the family and helping her mother with the chores. Joan met and married a hatter called William Hart. Joan and William had four children, William and Michael, although the other two did not survive. The Shakespeare family were clearly very close and Joan's son William Hart (1600-1639) followed in his Uncle William's footsteps and became an actor, performing with the famous King's Men acting troupe in the mid-1630s. Joan's husband, William, died in April 1616, just a week before, the death of her brother William. William remembered his sister in his will leaving her the sum of £30 and permission for her to stay on, for a nominal rent, in the Western of the two houses on Henley Street. Joan, sister of the Bard, lived in the Henley Street house until she died in 1646, at the age of 77 a remarkable lifespan for this era. Her son, William Hart, never married but he is believed to have fathered an illegitimate son called Charles Hart who became a leading actor of the Restoration period. Joan's descendants stayed in Stratford until 1806. A much loved young sister of the Bard.

John and Mary Shakespeare’s fourth daughter, Anne, was born September 28 1571, when William was seven years old, Gilbert was five and Joan was two providing the three brothers and sisters with another sister. The horrors of the earlier deaths of the first two Shakespeare children, the unknown sisters of the children,  must have been fading but by 1578 things had started to go seriously wrong for the Shakespeare family. The boys were removed from school in order to help with the finances as John was behind with the taxes. Then came a crippling blow and another tragedy struck the family when in 1579 eight year old Anne Shakespeare died. The cause is uncertain but it is probable that Anne died of the Black Death, or the Plague. This must have been a terrible time for Mary and John and despite their mounting financial problems their young daughter Anne was provided with an expensive funeral. The grief felt by the family and the her young brothers and sisters culminated on April 4, 1579 when Anne Shakespeare was buried. 

John and Mary Shakespeare’s seventh child, Richard, was born 1574 and baptised on March 11, when William was 10 years old, Gilbert was 8, Joan was five and Anne was three providing the four brothers and sisters with another brother. Richard was probably named after his paternal grandfather who had died in 1561. Richard would have been only four years old by the time that the family's fortunes were in decline. In 1578 his elder brothers were removed from school to help with the business and it is therefore doubtful that brother Richard received much of an education. It is even possible that this brother of William Shakespeare could not even read or write, which would partly account for the fact that very little else is known about Richard. There are no records of any court proceedings involving Richard and he never married. It is probable that as all of his brothers went to pursue their lives in London that Richard stayed in Stratford working in the family business and caring for the family. The one other fact that is known about Richard is that he was buried on February 4, 1613, a year and a day after the death of his brother, Gilbert Shakespeare.  

And so we come to the last of the Shakespeare siblings. Mary gave birth to her eighth child in 1580 when she was forty years old and her husband was forty-nine. They christened him on May 3 and named him Edmund, probably in honour of his uncle Edmund Lambert. The brothers and sisters were joined by another brother. The family fortune was still in decline but Edmund had four, healthy, living siblings; brother William aged 16, brother Gilbert aged 14, sister Joan aged 11 and brother Richard aged 6. He was never to know his sister Anne.

No doubt that being the youngest of the family that Edmund was spoilt. Due to the poor state of the finances and his fathers decline in civic prominence he probably did not receive a very good education. He must have idolised his eldest brother, William, and been attracted by the stories told by his brother and of the colourful life in Theatres of London. His family regained prosperity by 1596 but his parents were getting on in years and Edmund must have craved for the excitement of London as opposed to the confines of Stratford. Not for Edmund the family business. He followed William to embark on an acting career in the capital. William was sixteen years older than Edmund and would have helped his youngest brother. No doubt Edmund appeared in many of his brother's plays. How exciting it must have been for Edmund and his brother to live in London at the time of the Gunpowder Plot and the execution of Guy Fawkes. It did not appear that Edmund became a great actor but his life was cut short by his early death in 1607 at the age of 27. There are no records of the reason for Edmund's early death but another terrible outbreak of the plague in London in 1608 was well documented and it is quite possible that the Black Death again claimed another one of the Shakespeare family. This must of been a very sad time for William. Edmund was the youngest of his siblings and he probably felt a sense of responsibility for his brother and a deep loss as he would have shared so much of his life. William would have arranged his brother's funeral and the attendance of many fellow actors. It was customary for funerals to be conducted in the afternoon, as was the showing of plays, so records show that Edmund's funeral was conducted in the morning. Edmund was buried in St. Saviour's Church, in Southwark, on December 31 1607. His funeral was expensive, probably financed by his brother, and tolling bells were heard across the Thames. It is not known whether any other members of the family including his brothers and sisters were present at the burial.

1558 September 15 Joan, the first child of John and Mary was baptised (only survived two months)
1562 December 2 Margaret was baptised - she died one year later
1564 April 26 William was baptised (died 1616 aged 52 )
1566 October 13 Gilbert was baptised (died 1612 aged 46)
1569 Another daughter, also called Joan was born (died 1646 aged 77)
1571 September 28 Anne was baptised (1579 died aged 7)
1574 March 11 Richard was baptised (died 1613 aged 39)
1579 April 4, Anne Shakespeare dies
1580 May 3 Edmund was baptised (died 1607 aged 27)
1607 December 31, Edmund was buried
1612 February 3 Gilbert was buried
1613 February 4, Richard was buried
1616 April 23 William was buried
1646 Joan Shakespeare dies 
The above dates represent the approximate dates for the births and deaths of the brothers and sisters of the great Bard.

The Brothers & Sisters of William Shakespeare

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