In Search of Mary Arden

The only time I’ve seen Michael Wood was when he came to give a lecture in Hull University’s Middleton Hall and the projector could only project stamp sized images on to the massive screen in front of an eager audience. He was, understandably, furious, stamping his feet and prowling around the stage. The projector was finally replaced and he began his lecture.

He is a formidable producer of historical documentaries. I was fascinated by his hour-long programme in search of Mary Arden, Shakespeare’s mother, even though I realised I had seen it at least once before. It traced her family from the time of Richard III (recently disinterred from under R painted on a parking lot in Leicester– the most

Mary Arden's birthplace

Mary Arden’s birthplace

unbelievable discovery ever !) until his youngest daughter died about the same time as Elizabeth I, early in the 17th century. Mary was the youngest of eight daughters born to a husbandman. He owned a farm with outbuildings more extensive than his own hall house (where his daughters slept on a ledge at one end above the ground floor bedroom for their parents) and a small acreage.

Michael Wood showed us documents us that revealed that Mary’s parents were hardworking and frugal. The daughters all worked in the house and farmyard helping their mother with household tasks and the poultry, while the older ones also worked

Mary in the kitchen with her sisters!

Mary in the kitchen with her sisters!

with their father sowing, hoeing and harvesting. Only the scything of wheat, barley, oats or hay would be carried out by hired male labourers.

Mary was the youngest daughter. Michael Wood found it strange that she, and Alice, the next sister to her, were made executors of their father’s will after their mother died, but that was, I suspect, because Mary’s older sisters were married. She inherited a good portion of her father’s money, £30,000 worth in today’s money, and some fields. What’s more, Michael Wood proved she could read and write – not common for countrywomen in Tudor times.

She would have been a good match for John Shakespeare, who came from the same country background but had moved to nearby Stratford-on-Avon to serve be apprenticed to a glover. He proved a good businessman and had already bought a house by the time he married Mary. They lived in colourful but tumultuous times, from Henry VIII trying to secure a male heir with one of his six wives, through Edvard VI’s and Mary Tudor’s reighs to Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen – the most colourful royal soap opera the world has ever known? Look at the mountain of books on the Tudors, not to mention the amazing popularity of Wolf Hall.

William was Mary and John’s first surviving child, his two elder sisters dying before

Mary's first surviving child

Mary’s first surviving child

they were a year old – not uncommon then. He must have visited the Ardens at Wilmscot, three miles from Stratford. There is a Forest of Arden, where William’s imagination could wander freely.

Crowds flock to Stratford-on-Avon, not just for the theatre on the banks of the Avon but to visit the town of only 1200 inhabitants when John Shakespeare married Mary Arden. The British Isles had then a population of only three million – now sixty-four! I’ve visited more than once the houses where William Shakespeare lived as a child, the room where he was born and the house he retired to. I went out to Ann Hathaway’s cottage with the most perfect cottage garden and remember the high-backed settle where he is supposed to have proposed to the 26-year-old when he was 18, probably because they had a child, and then twins. But never to Mary Arden’s house, probably because a better preserved Tudor house, Palmer’s Farm, was mistaken for the Arden’s farmhouse which had been encased in bricks in Victorian times.

What struck me then, and even more now, was how close Shakespeare’s world was to that of our grand or great grandparents, before motor cars and combine harvesters . William would have been at home in one of Thomas Hardy’s novels. In a world of hard toil on the land, of conviviality, or entertainment provided on dark winter evenings by anyone with talent. My father couldn’t read music, but he had a fine pitch and light tenor voice that all liked to hear. As a student I met an Austrian my age who invited me to her home in the mountains above Salzburg. I couldn’t speak German. We conversed in stilted French, but her family, the older ones illiterate, sat round the edge of what seemed to me a large hut and, after a meal of sausages and cabbage, out came their string instruments and they played and sang the evening out. Some of us went outside to dance in the moonlight.  Mozart would have been delighted to hear his notes wafting into the mountain air above his native town. Pure, unadulterated delight.



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