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Elizabethan Stratford upon Avon

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

Life in Elizabethan Stratford upon Avon

There are many Stratfords and Stretfords in England and these towns and villages are all located at points where old Roman roads cross rivers.

The biography of William Shakespeare relates to the town of Stratford upon Avon - the Stratford upon the River Avon. The Roman road that crossed the Avon at Stratford-upon-Avon was the Salt Road to Alcester.

William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, a small country town in Warwickshire which was a little bigger than a village and boasted a weekly market. The main market cross, the medieval High Cross, stood at the junction of Stratford High Street and Bridge Street in the centre of the town. The Elizabethan market town of Stratford-on-Avon consisted of half - timbered buildings and was situated in rural England and surrounded by countryside and woodlands. Stratford town is situated approximately one hundred miles northwest of London, a journey of four days walking in Elizabethan England. The population of Elizabethan England was less than five million, London had a population of 200,000 and Stratford upon Avon had about 1,500 inhabitants. Towns grew in size throughout the Elizabethan era , as changes in agriculture during the period led to people leaving the countryside to search for employment in the town.

The wool trade became increasingly popular during the Elizabethan age, which meant that land which had been farmed by peasants was now dedicated to rearing sheep and a process known as land enclosure meant that the traditional open field system ended in favour of creating larger and more profitable farming units which required fewer people to work on them. This helps to explain why John Shakespeare, William's father, moved to the growing town of Stratford upon Avon to work, amongst other things, as a wool trader. Most of the  citizens of the market town Stratford earned their living by farming or by supplying farmers with the goods they needed. The family life of William Shakespeare was centred around the Elizabethan town and commerce of Stratford-upon-avon.

The life of William Shakespeare and his family was devastated by the Black Death ( also known as the Bubonic Plague and Black Plague ). The Biography of William Shakespeare provides full details of the effect of the Bubonic Plague on his family in the small English town of Stratford. It is no wonder that William Shakespeare was known to be terrified of the Bubonic Plague throughout his lifetime. This terrible disease was not confined to the main English town of London, it stretched out all over Elizabethan England claiming the lives of countless victims in the small towns and villages such as Stratford upon Avon. In 1564 alone, the black death aka the bubonic plague killed one out of seven of the 1,500 inhabitants of Stratford upon Avon. Please click the following link for more information on the subject of the Black Death / Bubonic Plague - Symptoms, effects, cures and treatments in Elizabethan England.

People did not travel around a lot during the Tudor and Elizabethan age. Travelling could be dangerous, money was necessary and a license, obtained from the Bailiff in the Guild Hall, was required by anyone who needed to travel around England. This ensured that the spread of disease, especially the plague, was contained as much as possible and that the poor and the homeless did not move from one village to another village. William Shakespeare would have required a license to travel to adhere to the law of the land and his decision to move to London would not have been a serious one and no doubt worried his family who he left in Stratford.

Law, crime and punishment in the town of Stratford was dealt with by the Justice of the Peace for Stratford. Many crimes during the Elizabethan era were due to crimes committed and the law broken due to the desperate acts of the poor. Every town parish was responsible for the poor and unemployed within that parish. The Justice of the Peace for each town parish was allowed to collect a tax from those who owned land in the town. This was called the Poor Rate which was used to help the poor during the Elizabethan period. The Tudor and Elizabethan governments made begging a crime and therefore illegal and 'poor beggars' would be beaten until they reached the stones that marked the town parish boundary. The beatings were bloody and merciless and those who were caught continually begging could be sent to prison and even hanged as their punishment. Those few peddlers, pilgrims, soldiers and actors, who actually preferred the travelling life were thought untrustworthy and potential law breakers.  At the very least they would have been viewed as potential carriers of the Bubonic Plague. Strangers were treated with suspicion and risked being accused of a crime and suffering the appropriate punishment. An interesting piece of information to consider as William Shakespeare made the decision to leave Stratford to become an actor.

Although there was a move towards town life people in a world of limited mobility people did not venture far away. For example, John Shakespeare moved to Stratford but still remained close to his father and family and although William and his brothers moved to London they still remained in close contact with the family in Stratford. It was quite unusual for the Shakespeare brothers to move from the security and roots in Stratford to a relatively uncertain life in London. In Stratford everyone knew everyone else. There were close family ties, brothers, sisters, uncles, cousins and marriages between other local people. This provided a good support mechanism if people fell on to hard times. The noble families also tended to stay static. Lands, titles and property were handed down from generation to generation and the same families would remain in the same homes just as the Shakespeare family did with their property in Henley Street in Stratford.

Life in Stratford was pretty much self-sufficient. There was no reason for the average person to ever travel further than half a day's walk. Everything was available from the people who lived in the town of Stratford. Water was not clean so people drank ale which was brewed and sold in Stratford. John Shakespeare's first civic duty was Ale-taster. He also owned a shop and traded in wool and farm produce and worked as a glover. His life was not so very different from his neighbours and so all sorts of trades were engaged in and a variety of provisions were available in the small town. Money was is short supply so the people would barter to obtain their requirements, it was therefore unnecessary to take dangerous journeys amongst strange people. There were, however, local market fairs when trade was brisk to obtain items in short supply by the exchange of surplus provisions.

Life changed with the seasons and the market fairs were not the only form of distraction or entertainment available to the folk of Stratford. It was the custom of the reigning monarch to go on ' progresses ' throughout the land. Royalty would progress from town to town stopping at various castles and manor houses throughout England. The Ardens of Park Hall (the family of William Shakespeare's mother, Mary Arden) might well have played host to royalty. Although this would be viewed as an honour the cost of entertaining royalty, together with all their accompanying households and retinues, had been known to bring families to near ruin due to the enormous expense incurred. Queen Elizabeth I was known to have visited Kenilworth Castle, near Stratford, when William Shakespeare was eleven years old. The Shakespeare family would have travelled to Kenilworth castle to see the Queen and the colourful scenes, sports and jousting which would have been arranged for her amusement. Stratford was often visited by travelling troupes of professional actors. Stratford was quiet after sundown and evenings were spent  in talk and games. On Sunday there was some free time. The townsmen met for church in the morning, with time to gossip, play games and enjoy a few pints of ale after the service was over. Women worked communally at sewing or spinning whilst men bowled, played skittles or ball games. Many enjoyed board games like nine man's morris, chess or draughts (checkers). This is a good reflection of what family life was like for William Shakespeare in Elizabethan Stratford. Please click here to for the section on the connection between William Shakespeare and the Acting troupes who visited Elizabethan Stratford.

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