The Stratford mace is made of silver-gilt iron and probably dates back approximately 1475. It was made for the Guild of the Holy Cross in Stratford, which was a church organisation and a social power within the town of Stratford. It prospered during the 15th century, building a new guild hall, a school and almshouses for the poor and infirm. However, Henry VIII’s reformation led to the suppression of religious organisations like the Guild, and all its properties were confiscated by the Crown until they were granted to the newly chartered (and Protestant) Corporation of Stratford-upon-Avon in 1553. The Corporation decided to use the Guild’s old mace in their own ceremonies, but they ordered the silver gilt to be added, as well as their own coat of arms.
Consequently, this mace reflects the religious upheavals throughout England in the 16th century. Another interesting connection to Shakespeare is the fact that his father, John Shakespeare would have used this mace during his time as the High Bailiff of Stratford from 1568 to 1569 to invest his person with the legitimate power of the mayor of Stratford – as one prop of ‘ceremony’.
Here is Henry, formerly Prince Hal of Eastcheap, now king of England, about to engage the French in a battle he is almost certainly going to lose. Having just felt the temperature of his troops the night before the battle, he muses about the difference between kings and commoners. Other than ceremony, he concludes, it really is the care for his country that sets kings apart, but it is those symbols of power, “the sword, the mace, the crown imperial” that are visible to the people.
[…] I know
‘Tis not the balm, the sceptre and the ball,
The sword, the mace, the crown imperial,
The intertissued robe of gold and pearl,
The farced title running ‘fore the king,
The throne he sits on, nor the tide of pomp
That beats upon the high shore of this world,
No, not all these, thrice-gorgeous ceremony,
Not all these, laid in bed majestical,
Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave
(Henry V, 4.1, 2105-2114)
Symbols of power are an easy means to visualise and translate any governor’s claim to rule to the common people. Whoever wears the crown, sceptre and orb is furnished with political power and privileges, and Shakespeare makes ample use of these props in his histories.
The same symbolism underwrites the use of a ceremonial mace, a sceptre-like object which was carried in front of town representatives – like mayors and bailiffs – at official occasions. Originally proper medieval maces were used in close combat as a slightly more sophisticated kind of a club, but ceremonial maces like the one in the current Trust Treasures exhibition started to lose the visual connection to medieval weaponry and became ever more decorative, as its function became purely symbolic.