John Shakespeare’s grants of arms in 1596 & 1599

Analysis of crucial text 1596 & 1599

Helen Moorwood  [April, 2013]

Immediately following is a composite version of the relevant text in the two draft documents of 1596, confirming the previous grant of arms about twenty years earlier and the draft document of 1599, which allowed the impalement of his wife Mary Arde(r)n(e)’s arms. Photographic facsimiles and the most reliable full transcriptions are in B. Roland Lewis, The Shakespeare Documents, 1942. (Having scrutinised all myself, and read all Lewis’s comments on previous questionable interpretations, I confirm that these transcriptions are the most accurate possible. There are minor but irrelevant deviations from the texts given in Nichols’s text: 1596 and Nichols’s text: 1599 from 1863, the first full transcriptions of all documents together.) When reproducing the texts transcribed by Nichols, they were divided into the following sections:

[1] Preamble

[2] Important personal details

[3] Rigmarole

[4] The description of the coat of arms

[5] Concluding rigmarole.

We are concerned here only with [2].

Wherefore being solicited and by credible report informed. That John Shakespeare [nowe] of Stratford vppn Avon in the Counte of Warwik [Gent.], whose parent[es] and late antecessor[s] [Grandfather, great grandfather] were for theyre [his] faithefull and valeant [approved] service advaunced and rewarded [with landes and tenements geven to him in those partes of Warwikeshire] by the most prudent prince King Henry the Seventh of famous memorie, sythence which tyme they have continewed [by some descentes] at those partes, being of good reputacion and credit. And that the said John having maryed Mary one of the heyres of Robert Arden of Wilmcote in the said counte gent reputation and credit. And also produced this his Auncient Cote of Arms heretofore Assigned to him whilst he was her majesties officer & Baylefe of that Towne. In consideration of the premesses and for the encouragement of his posterite (contd.)

[Details in brackets indicate revisions and additions to the two documents of 1596 until the final version in 1599: College of Arms MS R. 21 (formerly G. 13), p. 347)]

Analysis of changes

The text above provides all the useful information, but at some point the texts and transcriptions should be juxtaposed and re-examined. These reveal the following new elements, insertions above the line and crossings out/ replacements. Notable changes and additions are given in the last column. The line numbers are the 10 lines as reproduced above.







Lewis, Document 101

‘Preliminary draft of grant of the Shakespeare coat of arms’ (p. 210)


Lewis, Document 102

‘Second and revised copy of draft of grant for the Shakespeare coat of arms’

(p. 211)


Lewis, Document 144

‘Draft for impalement of the Arden coat of arms on the Shakespeare coat of arms’

(pp. 301-2)

Changes & additions in footnotes



Being ^  hereunto





That John Shakespeare

Th[at] John Shakespeare

That John. Shakespere.


spe(a)re [i]


of Stratford vppon Avon

of Stratford vppon Avon

nowe of Stratford vppo[n] Avon

Now [ii]


in the Counte of warw[icke]


in the Countie [of] Co War

in the  Counte of warwik Gent.

Gent. [iii]


   parent[es] & late

whose ^ antecessors

Grandfather   parent[es ?] . . . antecessors 

     great Grandfather    late

whose parent ^ and ^ Antecessor


great Grand-father [iv]


were for they[r]e


were for their


  for his

their/his [v]


valieant & faithfull service

faithfull & va[leant] . . . .

faithefull & approved service



advaunced & rewarded

. . . .  (missing) . . . .



by the most Pruden[t] Prince king Henry the seventh of famous memorie

. . . . Prince king Henry the seventhe o[f] . . . .


the ^ most prudent

to ^ king H. 7 of most famous memorie.




was advaunced and rewarded w[i]th Land[es] & Tenement[es] geven to him in those p[ar]t[es] of warwikeshere

All added in 1599 [vi]


sythence which tyme they

. . . .



                    at those p[ar]t[es]

have continweed ^ in good

. . . . [t]hose p[ar]t[es]

            in these p[ar]t[es]

continewed ^ of good reputac[i]on

where they have continewed


by ^ descent[es] in good reputac[i]o[n] & credit

continued at/in those/these partes by some descents [vii]


And that the said John

. . . . [s]aid John

And for that

^ The said John.Shakespere.



having maryed the Mary

hathe maryed the

having maryed the



daughter & one of the heyres of Robert Arden of Wilmcote in the said counte

daughter . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Counte

daughter & one of the heyrs of Robert Arden. of welling Cote in the said Countie.




                                this his

And also produced a certyne


Auncient ^ of Arms heretofore Assigned to him

          her ma[ies]ties officer

whilst he was ^ [?] & Baylefe of that Towne.

New in 1599 [viii]


gent reputac[i]on & credit


gent. . . .


Gent/Esq, omitted in 1599 [ix]


In consideration whereof & for encouragement of his posterite (contd.)

And for the encouragement of his posterite aforesaid (contd)

                    of the premesses

In consideration whereof. And for the encourageme[n]t of his posterite (contd)


[i] Shakespe(a)re change in spelling in 1599.

[ii] Now inserted in 1599.

[iii] Gent. inserted in 1599.

[iv] parentes and late antecessors in 1596(1) refined to parent[es] Grandfather (antecessors) in 1596(2) and further refined to parent Great-grandfather and late antecessor in 1599.

[v] their in 1596 changed to his in 1599 in accordance with the change from plural parents/ antecessors to singular (late) Great-grandfather.

[vi] was advaunced and rewarded moved later because of change in syntax; w[i]th Land[es] & Tenement[es] geven to him in those p[ar]t[es] of warwikeshere added to make it much more specific as to what the reward had been: lands and tenements in Warwickshire.

[vii] continued at/in those/these partes by some descents. Some (cousins) were obviously still living (in 1599) in the same area in Warwickshire as the original grant by Henry VII.

[viii]And also produced this his Auncient Coteof Arms heretofore Assigned to him whilst he was her majesties officer & Baylefe of that Towne was added in 1599, pertaining to a note added below the whole text in 1599.

This Joh[n] sheweth [?] A patierne therof vnder Clarent Cooks hand.

                 ≈ [in] paper. xx years past

                                                      Towne officer & cheffe of the Towne

A Justice of peace that And was ^ Baylife ^ of Stratford vppo[n] Avon xv or xvj years past

     That he hathe Land[es] & tene[men]ts of good wealth & Substance 500li.

     That he mar[ried]. . . . . . . [The MS is mutilated]

[ix] Gent. in 1596(1) changed to Esquire in 1596(2) and omitted in 1599.


[i] Shakespe(a)re change of spelling in 1599.

Explanation. This is irrelevant. The spelling of all names in this period was phonetic, producing renderings which often appear whimsical to modern eyes. The only relevance elsewhere is the inclusion of a hyphen, as in his name SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS in the title of the publication of the Sonnets in 1609 and M. William Shak-fpeare in the publication of King Lear in 1608. The hyphen is (I surmise) because the origin of the family name was Shakeshafte (when in Lancashire) and Shak(e)spe(a)r(e) (when in the Midlands and London).

[ii] Now inserted in 1599.

Explanation. The obvious implication of this is that he was now, i.e. in 1599, living in Stratford-upon-Avon, but at some time previously had been living elsewhere. This already deviates from the ‘conventional story’, which sees John as having moved to Stratford as a young man and always lived there, through his marriage, the birth of all his children, hiding somewhere in Stratford during the years when he was undergoing financial difficulties, during the years when his son William achieved great success in London and finally when he died and was buried there. He obviously visited London on at least two occasions, to present his claims to Kings of Arms William Dethick in 1596 and to Dethick and William Camden in 1599. Each visit would presumably have resulted in at least several days away from home, but not long enough to warrant the inclusion of now of Stratford. No lengthy stays away from Stratford have ever been previously proposed. I now propose several shorter absences and one rather lengthy period away from Stratford in the 1570s and 1580s, with another lengthy period in London in the 1590s, any or all of which could warrant the insertion of “nowe of Stratford” in 1599. (This will be dealt with in detail in John’s Time-line.)

[iii] Gent. inserted in 1599.

Explanation. The only puzzle is: why was this not included in 1596, but was in 1599? As far as we know, his circumstances had not changed during this period. The main change in the family was the ever-increasing fame of his son William. One suggestion on my part is that, given that he was claiming the right to impale his wife Mary Arde(r)n(e)’s arms, and given that she was from an old landed gentry family, he felt the need to emphasise that this armigerous lady had married a ‘gentleman’ and not a ‘mere’ yeoman or husbandman. He might well have thought that this would also by no means harm the social acceptance of his son William Shakespeare, who was increasingly consorting with the aristocracy. It might also have been in support of the status of his son Edmund (born 1580), who might well have joined his brother William in the London theatre-world between 1596 and 1599.

[iv] parentes and late antecessors in 1596(1) refined to parent[es] Grandfather (antecessors) in 1596(2) and further refined to parent Great-grandfather and late antecessor in 1599.

Explanation. This change seems rather clear as the ever-more precise defining of exactly which ancestor had performed some service for Henry VII, for which he had been rewarded with land and tenements. If one accepts the conventional birth-date of John as c.1530, and c.25-30 as the average number of years per generation between father and son & heir (or second son), one arrives at the following approximate birth-dates and ages in 1599:          

John’s father born c.1500-05, therefore 95-99 if still living in 1599 - possible but unlikely;

John’s grandfather born c.1470-80;

John’s great-grandfather born c.1440-55.

Interestingly, this would give his great-grandfather an age of c.30-45 at the time of the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, the occasion when several thousand soldiers in the Stanley Lancastrian armies won the throne for Henry VII. On the field Henry promised that he would reward everyone who had fought for him that day. Baron Thomas Stanley of Lathom, Lancashire, the senior leader of the victorious armies, was elevated to 1st Earl of Derby (3rd creation) and many others from Lancashire were awarded an annual pension (if they were already land-owners) and/or lands. Might John’s great-grandfather have been one of these? This question has been asked before, but because it seems likely that any document that might prove it has disappeared forever, it must remain as a surmise. At the same time, however, it remains the most likely way in which John Shakespeare’s great-grandfather might have performed a service for Henry VII - playing some significant role as a soldier in the battle. The most likely explanation is that his surname was Shakeshafte (a Lancashire surname) when awarded the lands in Warwickshire but later, surrounded by many Midlands Shakespeares after the move, he or his son or grandson finally gave in and adopted the name Shakespeare. (See What’s in a name?)

[v] their in 1596 changed to his in 1599 in concordance with the change from plural antecessors to singular Great-grandfather.

Explanation. This is further confirmation that it was one particular ancestor, John’s great-grandfather, who had been rewarded with lands in Warwickshire.

[vi] was advaunced and rewarded moved later in the sentence because of change in syntax; w[i]th Land[es] & Tenement[es] geven to him in those p[ar]t[es] of warwikeshere added to make it much more specific what the reward had been.

Explanation. This speaks for itself. With the addition of more detail, an attempt was made to replace a clumsy sentence with one rather more explicit.

[vii] continued at/in those/these partes by some descents. Some (cousins) were obviously still living (in 1599) in the same area in Warwickshire as in the original grant by Henry VII.

Explanation. If some were still living in the same area, a re-examination of all Shakeshaftes and Shakespeares documented in Warwickshire during the whole of the 16th century should reveal the candidates for John Shakespeare’s grandfather, father and cousins. It is obvious that John himself did not inherit the family lands, which implies that he was a younger son, or that his father or grandfather had been a younger son, who had to fend for himself and thus moved away from the family estate.

[viii]And also produced this his Auncient Coteof Arms heretofore Assigned to him whilst he was her majesties officer & Baylefe of that Towne was added in 1599, pertaining to four lines of footnotes added below the whole text in 1596(2).

This Joh[n] sheweth [?] A patierne therof vnder Clarent Cooks hand.

                             ≈ [in] paper. xx years past

                                                    Towne officer & cheffe of the Towne

A Justice of peace that And was ^ Baylife ^ of Stratford vppo[n] Avon xv or xvj years past

  That he hathe Land[es] & tene[men]ts of good wealth & Substance 500li.

  That he mar[ried]. . . . . . . [The MS is mutilated]

The “xv or xvj (15 or 16) years past” takes us back from 1596 to 1580/1. In one line above, “xx years past” has been added. These seem rather definite. Given the specific mention of (Robert) Cooke, Clarenceux Herald, and the various offices held by John Shakespeare in Stratford, the dates of these might narrow down the period when the arms were first awarded. John Shakespeare was regularly referred to as Master after 1565 in Stratford Corporation records. He was High Bailiff (= Mayor), “chief of the town” of Stratford in 1568-9. In 1580 (State Papers, Domestic, Elizabeth, cxxxvii, 68-69, 1580) John Shakespeare was listed among the gentlemen and freeholders of the County of Warwick: “In Stratford on Avon John Shaxpere and at Rowington Thomas Shaxpere April 1580.” (Lewis, p. 209). These dates made John eligible for a coat of arms well before and during the whole of the period 1576-81, the dates actually referred to in the document.

Robert Cooke was Clarenceux Herald from 1567 until his death in 1593. Although he conducted Visitations of several counties, he never actually conducted one of Warwickshire. However, his journeys to several other counties might well have taken him through Warwickshire. Indeed, Antony Wood noted that he had seen a list of coats of arms awarded by Cooke in Warwickshire, but this was no longer to be found in the 18th century (Malone, Vol. 1). B. Roland Lewis devoted so much time and thought to this matter that it is worth quoting from his section at length.

He [Cooke] had had his visitation committee in Warwickshire in 1568, the very year in which John Shakespeare became High Bailiff of Stratford. As High Bailiff, John was a Justice of the Peace and hence a Queen’s officer. Now one of the functions of a committee of visitation was to pull down or deface any tombs which carried arms on them for which there had been no lawful grant by the College in London. And another function was to seek out such persons as were qualified and to encourage them to take the initiative to secure a grant of arms. (Lewis, pp. 209-12).

In view of several Shakespeare-Stanley connections, it is interesting that “as acting Garter, Cooke, assisted by Robert Glover, Somerset Herald, accompanied the Earl of Derby to France to invest King Henri III with the Order of the Garter in 1584.” (Cooke’s biography on Wikipedia, giving references.) The Earl of Derby at that time was Henry Stanley, 4th Earl, patron of Derby’s Players, father of Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange, patron of Strange’s Players. It is generally accepted that William Shakespeare was an actor in one of these troupes at that time and therefore possible that William Shakespeare’s father’s grant of arms by Cooke was a topic of conversation between Cooke and Derby. Also with them in the embassy to Paris was the highly regarded Herald Robert Glover, at that time acting as shadow Norroy King of Arms to his father-in-law William Flower. The Earl of Derby’s second son William Stanley (a Shakespeare Authorship Candidate) joined them in the embassy to Paris (Leo Daugherty, William Stanley’s biography, Oxford DNB, 2004). With this constellation of luminaries it seems well nigh certain that some of the details of John Shakespeare’s “pattierne” of a coat of arms, drawn up by Cooke within the relatively recent past, was rather well known to some or all of them. The only residual puzzle is: why did it take John until 1596 to have these arms officially confirmed at the College of Arms; and another three years to have his wife’s arms officially impaled? I attempted to answer these in Some mysteries explained.

[ix] Gent. in 1596(1) changed to Esquire in 1596(2) and omitted in 1599.

Explanation. Gent. was certainly appropriate, given that John’s achievements met all the conditions required to bear a coat of arms. His elevation to Esquire, whether officially justified or not, was almost certainly because John had married Mary Arde(r)n(e), from an extremely old  landed gentry family.

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Summary, extrapolations and conclusions

From an examination of these College of Arms documents alone it is obvious that John Shakespeare’s great-grandfather was awarded lands and tenements in Warwickshire by Henry VII and that the most likely reason for this would have been his participation in the Stanley armies from Lancashire and Cheshire at Bosworth in 1485. Almost by definition this would mean that John’s great-grandfather was most likely from Lancashire or Cheshire. Given that John’s grandfather has never been found in the Stratford area or anywhere in the Midlands, this opens up a new possibility for research, to say the least. 

It is also obvious that some descendants of this great-grandfather were still living on the same lands in Warwickshire in the late 1590s. John himself was living in Stratford, and not on the ancestral family lands, which immediately implies that he himself was not the eldest son of the eldest son of the eldest son. The relative who could claim this descent was the one who had inherited the lands, with his family still living there. John must therefore have been a second or younger son, or his father or grandfather a second or younger son. As such he would have needed to make his own way in the world, although perhaps/probably given more than a little help by the family. This help may or may not have come from his Shakespeare ‘cousins’ in Warwickshire.

It is also obvious that John of Stratford was the first one in this family to claim a coat of arms. We know from the text that his first step in this direction had been in 1576, when the arms were granted by Robert Cooke, Clarenceux Herald at the time. This was already several years after serving as High Bailiff of Stratford in 1568/9, and also other positions which already gave him the automatic right to be called and call himself Mr. The coat of arms would merely have provided a public confirmation of this. One question must be: why did he wait so long?

The main question that arises, however, is whether or not something important might have happened in his life between September 1568 when he was elected High Bailiff (= Mayor) and 1576-81. For this we need to consult the Stratford Records on John Shakespeare’s Time-line. He served as High Bailiff until September 1569 and two years later was elected Chief Alderman, serving from September 1571 till September 1572. After this he still appeared regularly at Council meetings, present three times as an Alderman in late 1576. Then, however, he was recorded as absent from Council meetings throughout the whole of 1577. He was also absent from meetings during 1578, although he did appear as Alderman on a list on 29 January of charges for the local militia: “the furniture of the pikemen, ij. billmen, and one archer”. On this evidence of his presences and absences alone it would indeed seem that something rather important had happened in his life. We can even pin-point this rather more accurately to some time not too long before the end of 1576.

John’s children’s baptisms and burials in Stratford Parish Church up to this time are also of interest. By 1568 when he became High Bailiff he had baptised Joan(1) (15 September, 1558); Margaret (2 December, 1562, buried 30 April 1563); William (26 April, 1564); and Gilbert (13 October, 1566). So in 1568 he had one daughter and two sons living. This pattern continued with Joan(2) (5 April, 1569), on the assumption that Joan(1) had died in the meantime, although no burial was recorded at Stratford; Anne (28 September, 1571); and Richard (11 March, 1574). So in late 1577 he had five children living: three sons, William aged 13, Gilbert aged 11 and Richard, aged 3; and two daughters, Joan(2) aged 8 and Anne aged 6. Apart from the four-year gap between Joan(1) and Margaret the others had all been born at intervals of two-and-a-half years. One might expect to find the next baptism two-and-a-half years later, or even four years later, but no! The next baptism after Richard in March, 1574 was over SIX years later, with Edmund (3 May, 1580). By this time daughter Anne had died (buried 4 April, 1579). This therefore left John in late 1580 with five children living: sons William aged 16, Gilbert aged 14, Richard aged 6 and baby Edmund and daughter Joan aged 11. Intriguingly, this period includes 1576, the year that saw the ‘pattierne’ awarded by Herald Cooke.

One other intriguing fact within this period on John Shakespeare’s Time-line is that in 1578 he mortgaged lands in Wilmcote, not far from Stratford, to Edmund Lambert of Barton-on-the-Heath. The latter was the husband of Joan Arden, sister of Mary Arden, daughters of Robert Arden of Wilmcote, who had died in 1556. Incidentally this is the earliest evidence, by implication, of John being married to Mary. Given the evidence listed above, some suspicious soul might even wonder whether or not the dramatic change in his life sometime before the end of 1576 was because he had shortly before married Mary as his second or third wife. This is not a suspicion grasped out of thin air, but it was actually reported by an early investigator that John had three wives and eleven children. “The confusions caused by the two John Shakespeares - the poet’s energetic father credited with three wives and eleven children - was successfully sorted out by the close of the eighteenth century through the industry of Edmond Malone, greatest of Shakespeare scholars.” (Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: a Compact Documentary Life, 1987, p. 13). Could it be that Malone had ‘sorted out the confusions’ – but wrongly? With the best will in the world it is difficult to imagine that the memory of relatives and Stratford locals within the following century would have included several dead infants. Surely the number that persisted in memory would have been that of the number of survivors? From Stratford Parish Records the number of survivors was just five, and even with the three who died very young the number only comes to eight. Further confirmation of a larger number already came from William Shakespeare’s first biographer Nicholas Rowe in 1709, who credited John with ten children. These puzzles would have a ready explanation if John married widow Mary, who brought several children from her first marriage with her into the Shakespeare family. All these points are examined more closely in “John Shakespeare had ten children”.

It is also evident from the coat of arms documents that John Shakespeare waited twenty years or so before he went to the College of Arms in London to follow up the award and have the arms granted officially. Four centuries on it is unlikely that we will ever know the reason. However, we do know that first he re-established his own Shakespeare arms and that three years later he received permission to impale his wife’s arms: those of the Ardernes of Alvanley and Harden, Cheshire. Perhaps before coming to any more tentative conclusions we should take a close look at all we know about this family? If you haven’t read it already, start with Introduction to the Cheshire Ardernes.

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