1.5. Interview via FAQs (2002)

Helen Moorwood 2013

1.5. (11) Mainly about John and Mary in Stratford and Lancashire

But John and Mary lived in Stratford.

How would they have met all her relatives in the North West?

There has been evidence for a long time that John had business contacts in many places, particularly through his wool-dealing (Schoenbaum, Thomas). It has also been long established that there was a brisk trade all over the country between wool-producing and weaving areas. Cotswold wool was prized for its quality and Lancashire weavers imported it. A close connection between the Coventry area and the Preston area (both expanding cloth-manufacturing towns in the 16th century) is proved by the appearance of several citizens of the Coventry area appearing as ‘Out Burgesses’ on the Preston Guild Rolls (Abram). So far no document has been detected which proves that John was personally involved in this Midlands-North West trade, but Stratford records see him keep disappearing from sight, not attending certain meetings, and then in early 1577 disappearing almost completely apart from the odd return visit until he and Mary finally returned at the end of the 1590s. In 1586 the town council finally and reluctantly, it seems, removed him from his rank as Alderman, because he had not appeared at council meetings for so long (Halliwell-Phillipps).

He must have been somewhere during all these periods, and some of the absences would be explained most logically by combining business with visiting relatives, particularly the very long absences after his marriage to Mary. Transport was no problem - they just hopped onto their horses or into their carriages and set off. The Derby Household Books (Raines) give a precise picture for 1587-90 of journeys up and down from London of this Stanley family and some of their friends, and the appearance of so many northern gentry in London records and Elizabeth’s officials in London regularly appearing in wills and court cases in the North gives the impression that they were constantly travelling up and down. The commonly perceived notion that people never moved more than a few miles from their home was certainly true for small tenant farmers and labourers (the majority of the population), but not for businessmen and the gentry. For them, Lancashire was nowhere near as remote from London (or Stratford) as has often been thought. It was just a few days on horseback up or down Watling Street, staying at their own houses, inns or the houses of relatives on the way. Read Bagley, Diaristsfor a description of some of these journeys (albeit later than Shakespeare’s life time, but still in the days of horses and carriages and before the first concerted road improvements of the late 18th century).

What about all the Johns who kept appearing in court cases in Stratford for debt in the 1580s and 1590s?

They were different Johns and one of the pieces of proof is similar to that mentioned above about Richard’s son John in Snitterfield. After his period as High Bailiff (the equivalent of Mayor) ‘our’ John was pretty consistent in insisting on ‘Mr’ or ‘Gent’ being attached to his name (Halliwell-Phillipps) and later received a coat of arms as the final stamp of approval. As a former mayor and one of the richest citizens of Stratford (Thomas)there is no way he would have been recorded as ‘husbandman’ or plain ‘John’. I elaborate on these conventions in my book.

Why do you claim he was one of the richest citizens of Stratford?

What about the regular claim that he came into financial difficulties in the late 1570s?

 I am afraid this has its roots in the 18th and 19th centuries, the great period of Shakespeare biographical research, which produced an enormous amount of invaluable documentation, but at the same time the birth of a few myths. When any local document referring to ‘John Shakspere/ Shaxper’, etc. was located, it was assumed that most of them referred to ‘our’ John. Because of John’s almost total absence from council records from early 1577 onwards, his mortgage or sale of Mary’s property during the following few years, the appearance of many recordings of Johns in financial difficulty, and ‘for fear of process for debt’ appearing on the recusant list in 1593, it was obviously logical to put all these together and assume poverty. This ‘myth’ became part of the ‘conventional’ story, with the stamp of approval by Sir Sidney Lee, and still lingers on today. However, since the 1980s this has been constantly queried, particularly since the discovery in the Public Record Office of documents that indicate he was not only solvent but rich during the period in question (Thomas). Very recently the document was discovered that proves he did actually pay his hefty fines in 1580 (Colin Jory in Enos, pp. 52, 60). It has been suggested by several since the discovery of the P.R.O. documents (Thomas) that a different explanation from poverty was required for the peculiar details of the sale and mortgage of Mary’s property and I agree.

What is your explanation?

When I first established to my own satisfaction that he became rich and stayed rich until the end of his life, the most logical story fell into place, as a ‘working theory’. This establishment had happened in parallel to the already extremely high probability of his ancestry in Lancashire, Mary’s definitive ancestry in Cheshire, their recent marriage in c.1575 and, of course, with the background of my lifelong knowledge of the ‘Shakespeare in Lancashire’ traditions and more recently acquired knowledge of the history of many Catholic Lancashire families. This included many details of how they tried to cope with financial problems during Elizabeth’s reign as a result of the hefty fines. One standard tactic was mortgaging or even giving away property to local friends or relatives, to avoid their confiscation, on the understanding that when the danger was over, they would receive them back again. Everything connected to produce an explanation that combined all of these elements.

If John was a Catholic, or at least had Catholic sympathies all his life, and if he had recently married into a gentry family that produced many Catholic priests, this might have reinforced his beliefs and finally prodded him to take some action. This would certainly explain the rather peculiar mortgages and sales of Mary’s property (and later some of his own in Stratford). Their disappearance from Stratford might quite simply have been to depart from a town where the recent anti-Catholic laws had produced a difficult situation in reconciling his civic responsibilities with his religious beliefs, and they decided to leave. Given their ancestries and affinities, there was no more logical place to depart to than the North West, still the most Catholic of areas, but where much protection from persecution was offered by the very sympathetic 4th Earl of Derby, who was related to most of the worst offenders. Every now and then there was a token round up of recusants but only the most recalcitrant suffered permanently. This would also explain the Hoghton tradition of young William suddenly popping up in their household out of nowhere. It would not have been out of nowhere, but because of long standing Catholic family connections.

Is this still your ‘working theory’?

Yes, although one question I asked myself very often was why he went to the Hoghtons and not to any of Mary’s other closer kinsmen’s households.

And your conclusion?

I don’t think we will ever know, so this is another case of a balance of probabilities. The relevant surrounding facts seemed to lie in the history of the Hoghton family, their status as the highest gentry family in Central Lancashire, the most peculiar will of Alexander Hoghton in 1581, their proximity to Preston and the strong presence of Shakeshaftes in Preston at the time.


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