Shakespeare’s mother Mary was buried in Stratford-upon-Avon on 9 September 1608 at the end of a long and eventful life. Mary Arden was from a farming family considered to be part of the local gentry in Warwickshire. She was born during the reign of Henry VIII in Wilmcote, a small village with one main street surrounded by over 700 acres of open fields. She grew up during the reigns of Edward VI and Mary I.
In 1557, just before Elizabeth I came to the throne, Mary Arden married John Shakespeare, whose father rented land from her father. They had eight children between 1558 and 1580: Joan, Margaret, William, Gilbert, Joan, Anne, Richard and Edmund. William Shakespeare was the first child in his family to survive infancy. His two older sisters, Joan and Margaret, had died by the time he was born. John and Mary Shakespeare brought up their family in Stratford-upon-Avon in a house on Henley Street. John Shakespeare worked as a glover and tanner, and was actively involved in the local council. Between 1561 and 1563, he served as chamberlain and in 1566 became acting chamberlain. In 1568, when Shakespeare was four years old, John Shakespeare was elected bailiff and took up the highest office in the town.
Mary Arden was still alive when James I came to the throne. Throughout her life, England had experienced great religious and political upheavals, and she herself had experienced many personal tragedies. Despite a long history of civic leadership, her husband did not always enjoy financial prosperity or social security. Between 1570 and 1590, John Shakespeare often absented himself from town council meetings and, because he was afraid he might be harassed for the debts he was unable to repay, he also stopped attending church. During those years, he was prosecuted for unlicensed dealing in wool, for charging interest above the legal limit of 10 per cent and for recusancy. As well as losing two of her children in infancy, Mary’s grandson, Hamnet Shakespeare, died when he was eleven years old in 1596. She also lived to see her youngest son, Edmund, buried in London in December 1607 and her husband buried in Stratford-upon-Avon in September 1601.
There would have been much to celebrate in her life as well. Mary Arden would have seen William Shakespeare’s success as an actor, playwright and shareholder in London. His playing company enjoyed the patronage of both Elizabeth I and James I, and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men was the first company to own their own playhouse in London. Shakespeare bought the second-largest house in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1597 and purchased a lease of the Stratford tithes in 1605. Mary Arden would have also known of the marriage of her granddaughter, Susanna, to a respected doctor in June 1607. She died in September 1608, five years after James I became king and just a year before the King’s Men were given permission to use their indoor playhouse at Blackfriars.
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