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THE LIFE OF
By JAMES ORCHARD HALLIWELL-PHILLIPPS, F.R.S.
In the reign of King Edward the Sixth there lived in Warwickshire a farmer named Richard Shakespeare, who rented a messuage and a considerable quantity of land at Snitterfield, an obscure village in that county. He had two sons, one of whom, named Henry, continued throughout his life to reside in the same parish. John, the other son, left his father's home about the year 1551, and, shortly afterwards, is found residing in the neighboring and comparatively large borough of Stratford-on-Avon, in the locality which has been known from the middle ages to the present day as Henley Street, so called from its being the terminus of the road from Henley-in-Arden, a markettown about eight miles distant.
At this period, and for many generations afterwards, the sanitary condition of the thoroughfares of Stratfordon-Avon was, to our present notions, simply terrible. Under-surface drainage of every kind was then an unknown art in the district. There was a far greater extent of moisture in the land than would now be thought possible, and streamlets of a water-power sufficient for the operations of corn-mills meandered through the town. This general humidity intensified the evils arising from the want of scavengers, or other effective appliances for the preservation of cleanliness. House-slops were recklessly thrown into ill-kept channels that lined the sides of unmetalled roads; pigs and geese too often reveled in the puddles and ruts; while here and there small middens were ever in the course of accumulation, the receptacles of offal and every species of nastiness. A regulation for the removal of these collections to certain specified localities interspersed through the borough, and known as common dung-hills, appears to have been the extent of the interference that the authorities ventured or cared to exercise in such matters. Sometimes, when the nuisance was thought to be sufficiently flagrant, they made a raid on those inhabitants who had suffered their refuse to accumulate largely in the highways. On one of these occasions, in April, 1552, John Shakespeare was amerced in the sum of twelve-pence for having amassed what was no doubt a conspicuous sterquinarium before his house in Henley Street, and under these unsavory circumstances does the history of the poet's father commence in the records of England. But although there was little excuse for his negligence, one of the public stores of filth being within a stone's throw of his residence, all that can be said to his disparagement is that he was not in advance of his neighbors in such matters, two of whom were coincidently fined for the same offense.
For some years subsequently to this period, John Shakespeare was a humble tradesman at Stratford-on-Avon, holding no conspicuous position in the town; yet still he must have been tolerably successful in business, for in October, 1556, he purchased two small freehold estates, one being the building in Henley Street annexed to that which is now shown as the Birth-Place, and the other situated in Greenhill Street, a road afterwards called More Towns End. In the year 1557, however, his fortunes underwent an important change through an alliance with Mary, the youngest and fondly-loved daughter of Robert Arden, a wealthy farmer of Wilmecote, near Stratford-on-Avon, who had died a few months previously. A wealthy farmer, indeed, for those days, and one who would have been specially so distinguished in the contemporary provincial estimate. He possessed two farm-houses with a hundred acres or more of land at Snitterfield, as well as another one with about fifty acres at Wilmecote, the former being occupied by tenants and the latter by himself. In addition to these he owned a copyhold estate in the last-named parish, the extent of which has not been ascertained. But with all these advantages he was a farmer, and nothing more,-a worthy fellow whose main anxiety, as fully appears from the records, centered in the welfare of his family, and who had no desire to emulate, however remotely, the position of a country gentleman. The appointments of his dwelling were probably, however, superior on the whole to those which were to be found in other residences of the same class, including no fewer than eleven painted-cloths, a species of artistic decoration that was in those days a favorite substitute for the more expensive tapestry. Pictures of the kind that are now familiar to us were then very rarely indeed to be seen, excepting in palaces or in the larger mansions of the nobility. These painted-cloths were generally formed of canvas upon which were depicted the “Seven Ages of Man,” the “Story of the Prodigal,” and such like; grotesque accompaniments, in one or more of the rooms, to the “bacon in the roof."
The inventory of Robert Arden's goods, which was taken shortly after his death in 1556, enables us to realize the kind of life that was followed by the poet's mother during her girlhood. In the total absence of books or means of intellectual education, her acquirements must have been restricted to an experimental knowledge of matters connected with the farm and its house. There can be no doubt that the maiden with the pretty name, she who has been so often represented as a nymph of the forest, communing with nothing less æsthetic than a nightingale or a waterfall, spent most of her time in the homeliest of rustic employments; and it is not at all improbable that, in common with many other farmers' daughters of the period, she occasionally assisted in the more robust occupations of the field. It is at all events not very likely that a woman, unendowed with an exceptionally healthy and vigorous frame, could have been the parent of a Shakespeare. Of her personal character or social gifts nothing whatever is known, but it would be a grave error to assume that the rude surroundings of her youth were incompatible with the possession of a romantic temperament and the highest form of subjective refinement. Existence, indeed, was passed in her father's house in some respects, we should now say, rather after the manner of pigs than that of human beings. Many of the articles that are considered necessaries in the humblest of modern cottages were not to be seen,—there were no table-knives, no forks, no crockery. The food was manipulated on flat pieces of stout wood, too insignificant in value to be catalogued, and whatever there may have been to supply the places of spoons or cups were no doubt roughly formed of the same material; but some of the larger objects, such as kitchen-pans, may have been of
pewter or latten. The means of ablution were lamentably defective, if, indeed, they were not limited to what could have been supplied by an insulated pail of water, for what were called towels were merely used for wiping the hands after a meal, and there was not a single wash-hand basin in the establishment. As for the inmate and other laborers, it was very seldom indeed, if ever, that they either washed their hands or combed their hair, nor is there the least reason for suspecting that those accomplishments were in liberal requisition in the dwellings of their employers. But surely there was nothing in all this to have excluded the unlettered damsel from a fervid taste for oral romance, that which was then chiefly represented by tales of the fairies, the knights, or the giants,-nothing to debar the high probability of her recitals of them having fascinated her illustrious son in the days of his childhood,—nothing to disturb the graceful suggestion that some of his impressions of perfect womanhood had their origin in his recollections of the faultless nature of the matron of Henley Street.
The maiden name of Robert Arden's wife has not been discovered, but it is ascertained that he had contracted a second marriage with Agnes Hill, the widow of a substantial farmer of Bearley, and that, in a settlement which was probably made on that occasion, he had reserved to his daughter Mary the reversion to a portion of a large estate at Snitterfield, her step-mother taking only a life-interest. Some part of this land was in the occupation of Richard Shakespeare, the poet's grandfather, whence may have arisen the acquaintanceship between the two families. In addition to this reversion, Mary Arden received, under the provisions of her father's will, not only a handsome pe