Shakespeare’s Mother: The Secret Life of a Tudor Woman was partly a biography of a specific woman – Mary Arden, the mother of William Shakespeare. But there’s not really enough surviving detail about her life to get the full picture from, so the gaps were filled in with more general information about the sorts of lives women (and men) of the time lead. The presenter, Michael Wood, did a good job of stitching the two sorts of information into a coherent whole, so it didn’t feel disjointed or patchy.
Mary Arden is an interesting person to look at the life of, not just because of whose mother she is, but also because of when she lived and what sort of person she was. She lived through a time of great change – she was born around 1537 near the start of the English Reformation, and died in James VI & I’s reign having lived through the whole of the Tudor changes of religion. It’s easy to forget that these changes all took place within a lifetime. Her personal situation also changed a lot over this time, showcasing some of the increased social mobility of the era.
Mary was born the youngest daughter of a relatively well-to-do husbandman, and had seven older sisters. Her family were part of the local gentry so in marrying her John Shakespeare was moving up the social scale. John & Mary Shakespeare were a part of the growing middle class in England. John was primarily a glover, but also involved in other trades. They marry in the 1550s, and begin having children – Mary was to bear eight children in all, of whom 5 survived to adulthood. William was her third child, the first son and the first to survive infancy. The programme used this as a hook to explore the dangers of childbirth in this period for both mother & offspring, and infant mortality (and the effect it would have on the parents).
John and Mary rose in the world both socially and financially during the early years of William’s life. John is a respected member of the Corporation of Stratford upon Avon and eventually even becomes Mayor of the town. They owned land both in the town and outside – Mary had inherited her father’s land when he died. Which is particularly interesting as she was the youngest daughter – perhaps she was his favourite? Perhaps she was the best at the financial management necessary to run the farm? John Shakespeare was also involved in less respectable financial trading. He leant money at interest (strictly forbidden by the church), and also got involved in the illegal wool trade. This was a very lucrative business – all wool trading was supposed to be done through Crown approved channels at Crown approved prices, and paying duty on the trade. So there was money to be made by a middleman who avoided the official routes. Michael Wood speculated that Mary was also involved in the trading – in part because as the person who would be at the house most of the time she’d be the obvious point of contact. And in part because there are indications she was good at financial management.
The wool trading was to be the Shakespeare family’s downfall. There was a clampdown on this illegal activity, and John Shakespeare was one of those who was caught. The family were financially ruined, and spent several years living in fear of their debts being called in. John stopped attending church or the meetings of the town corporation, because those were places where his creditors might find him to demand their money. This, of course, had social consequences for the family. They also had to sell off land to pay back the debts that were called in, and even take young William out of school. The family’s fortunes only turned around after William had moved to London and begun to make a name for himself (and money!) as a playwright and actor. Once he had money he provided for his parents and so Mary lived on into a comfortable old age.
I was mostly interested in the tidbits of information about Mary herself so that’s what I’ve discussed most in this blog post, but the programme also did a good job of covering the social situation & changes of the time. For instance it looked at what the religious and social changes actually meant to the ordinary person of the time. And at some issues specific to women – childbirth in particular as I mentioned. Also how women lived in general – housework, household management etc.