John Shakespeare and Wool

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John Shakespeare was, on more than one occasion, in trouble with the law because of his illegal dealings in wool. There was an extraordinary amount of legislation in Britain surrounding the sale of wool. This was simply because it was such a valuable commodity. It provided the country with an income because it could be exported abroad and provided employment at home. As a result there were many laws and regulations regarding its sale. John Shakespeare spent a considerable amount of money on wool which he then appears to have sold on to others. Since he did not have the right licence to sell wool, he got into trouble with the law.




Guardian article on the discovery of John Shakespeare’s wool dealings:


Kate Pogue. Shakespeare’s Family. Greenwood Publishing group, 2008.

  1. 18 ‘In 1572 John Shakespeare was brought before the courts twice on charges of illegally dealing in wool. The wool industry was hugely important to England’s prosperity; it gave the country a major export as well as a crucial industry at home, and it was severely regulated. John Shakespeare was not licensed to trade in wool. He was charged and fined for purchasing “a couple of tons” of wool for £210, an
  2. 19 enormous amount of money when one remembers that the two houses he recently bought cost him £40.he scrambled to find money to pay the fines.’


Entry on Finding Shakespeare concerning the ‘wool-broggers’, their shady dealings and their connection to Shakespeare:


‘The Shakespeares were illegal wool brokers, or broggers. Nicholas Rowe, in 1709, in William’s first biography described his father John as “…a considerable dealer in wool” and materials showing him to be a truly national level dealer have been uncovered. Changes in the regulation of the wool brokerage market, combined with an earlier shift from the export of raw wool to the manufacture and export of whole cloth, profoundly changed the family business. To succeed, indeed just to stay in the large trade end of the business, a brogger needed London representation from the mid 1580s.

Francis Langley became an Alnager in 1585. An Alnager, with his ability to certify the quality and length of adulterated cloth, was the most useful of contacts to a brogger. Of course, this is only true if the Alnager was a crook.

If Langley the Alnager was important to Shakespeare, it appears that Shakespeare was equally important to Langley. Otherwise why would Gardiner have his stepson name Shakespeare first in the suit? Shakespeare’s value was twofold: in the theatre and in the wool and cloth trade.’

Stephen Greenblatt. Will In The World. Random House, 2012.

  1. 63 ‘In the wake of the wool shortages in the mid-1570s, the authorities decided that the fault lay with the “broggers”, men like John Shakespeare who had already been twice denounced for illegal transactions …

[He was bound over to keep the peace] “Binding over” – roughly equivalent to a restraining order – was a key low-level policing and crime-prevention method in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Upon someone’s swearing an oath that he feared for his life or well-being or the well-being of the entire community, the court could issue an order requiring the suspected malefactor to appear in order to guarantee his good behaviour and to post a bond – a surety – to this end. The surviving records do not reveal who swore an oath against John Shakespeare or why. Was it because of his wool brogging …?’



The Tankard

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Tankards epitomise the ‘everyman’ figure of the British drinker, as seen in Falstaff from Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 with his quarts of ale and disquisitions on drink, whose very name reflects his fondness for alcohol.


John Shakespeare’s appointment as ale-taster hearkened back to a medieval tradition and he was invested with the power to take a brewer to court if the ale was deemed to be of poor quality. He may have taken a formal oath to undertake the duties which would also have included the authority to set the price of the ale locally dependent upon the quality of the product. His task would have been fairly straightforward. He would have been invited to test the ale at a particular tavern and been given a tankard of it to drink, perhaps like the one on display. Despite the popular legend that ale-tasters were required to wear special leather breeches and sit in a puddle of untested beer there is no evidence for this. As part of his duties, John Shakespeare would simply have had to drink a sample of the untested ale rather than sit in it for half an hour to see if it stuck to his trousers.





‘Ale taster’ or ‘Ale conner’

From: The Oxford Companion to Beer. Eds Garrett Oliver & Tom Colicchio. OUP, 2011.

p.28 ‘The ale-conner, also known as the “ale founder” or more grandly as the “Gustator Cervisiae,” was to go from one ale house to the next, tasting the beers and certifying them to be of good enough quality to drink. If the quality of the ale was found wanting, the ale-conner was empowered to drag the offending brewer to the manor court to make restitution. Depending upon the rules of the particular manor, the ale-conner was sometimes also allowed to set the price at which a batch of ale could be sold, or to enforce a manor-wide fixed price for ales …

There is a commonly believed legend that ale-conners once roved the land wearing specially made leather britches. The ale-connor was said to have tested ale by pouring some of the beer on a wooden bench and sitting down in the puddle. A half-hour later he would rise from his seat, and if the beer stuck his britches to the bench, this was a sign that the beer was improperly brewed … there is no solid evidence that beer puddle-sitting was ever actually part of the assaying process’

Ian Spencer Hornsey. A History of Beer and Brewing. Royal Society of Chemistry, 2003.

  1. 284 ‘Outside of London, the ale-conner tended to be known as the ale-taster’
  2. 286 ‘Not all civic authorities appeared to demand an oath as a pre-requisite for being an ale-conner [unlike London] … the “Cyte of Worcestre” [only] … demanded … that the prospective ale-conner should be “grave and wise” … [and to be] “sadd and discrete persones”’

Nathalie Vienne-Guerrin. Shakespeare’s Insults: A Pragmatic Dictionary. Bloomsbury, 2016.

  1. 68 ‘His name, Jack Falstaff relates him to a tankard, a vessel as a Jack is “A vessel for liquor, (either for holding liquor, or for drinking from … a (leathern) jug or tankard” (OED)’ [A Jack tankard was named after its construction, namely being formed from leather that had been soaked in hot water and then dried]

Shakespeare’s Will

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William Shakespeare died on the 23 April 1616. He was a man of considerable means and in possession of substantial property. His ‘last will & testament’ was drawn up by the local lawyer Francis Collins, using legal language typical of the period. The will lays out the bequests Shakespeare intended for his friends and immediate relatives.

This will dates from January 1616 with revisions made on 25 March of the same year. New research conducted by The National Archives suggests certain elements may date from 1613, following Shakespeare’s purchase of the Blackfriars Gatehouse.

Shakespeare signed the will three times, at the bottom of pages one and two and more elaborately on the final page ‘By me William Shakspeare’. In all only six examples of his signature survive.

This transcript of the will reveals how the document evolved over time, drawing attention to additions, omissions and notable beneficiaries.




Will 1

Will 2

Will 3

Shakespeare’s Family

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Scroll down to find your object/ portrait…


Anne Hathaway

Anne Hathaway
Imagined Portrait of Anne Hathaway



John and Susanna Hall

Unknown couple
Portrait of an Unknown Couple



 The Tankard 


Woollen Tapestry  

Woolen tapestry
Fragment of woollen tapestry 



Ceremonial Mace


Stratford Town Mace


Portrait of Ben Jonson

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Fulwood’s portrait of Ben Jonson 




  • Ben Jonson was a prolific and well-respected playwright and friend of William Shakespeare, who certainly acted in many of his plays.

Jonson Folio Catalogue
Catalogue from Jonson’s Complete Works (1616)
  • Jonson’s complete works were published in 1616 – an unusual achievement for a playwright at this time.

  • In Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623) Jonson provided a eulogy that included the now oft-quoted line ‘he was not of an age but for all time!’.







Click here to listen to Jonson’s story from the Shakespeare Circle website.  You can purchase a copy of The Shakespeare Circle from the SBT Bookshop. 

The Shakespeare Circle 






Watch the very catchy Ben Jonson rap



George Carew

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Lord Carew
George Carew attributed to Marcus Geeraerts


Lord Carew was Earl of Totnes, Baron of Clopton, President of Munster and a great favourite of Queen Elizabeth.

In 1580 he married the daughter of a prominent Stratford family, Joyce Clopton.

After his death in 1629, he was buried in an elaborate monument at Holy Trinity Church.





Richard Quiney’s Seal

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Seals were used by monarchs, clergymen, aristocracy and merchants throughout Europe in the Elizabethan period to authorise important documents. Family or private seals were also commonly used to finalise and seal letters.


For important documents, security was the main concern. Without a seal, a document was neither complete nor safe from prying eyes. Documents were either tied together with ribbon and sealed, or a strip of paper was cut from the letter and sealed onto the rest of the document. For a document to be official, it had to be sealed.


Seals had distinctive features so that they could not be easily forged. They often had initials, a motto, or a heraldic design. The seal moulds were made from copper, bronze and sometimes lead, stone or slate. The seals could be attached to wooden or metal handles, or to rings and pendants. To use the seal, hot wax was poured onto the document and impressed with the seal.


seal impression 2
Sketch of seal impression

Shakespeare’s characters often speak of sealing bonds and letters, and are able to recognise from whom a document has been sent by scanning the seal impression. In the comedy The Merchant of Venice, the Jewish moneylender Shylock refers to the sanctity of his bond or contract which has been made official by a seal. Shylock has lent a large sum to Antonio, a Venetian merchant. The bond (the document they have both signed) says that if Antonio fails to pay back his debt, he must give Shylock a pound of his own flesh. At this point in the play, Antonio is bankrupt and there is a court case, in which Shylock demands the pound of flesh. Antonio’s friend Graziano has just railed (i.e. shouted abuse) at Shylock. This is Shylock’s response:


Till thou canst rail the seal from off my bond,
Thou but offend’st thy lungs to speak so loud:
Repair thy wit, good youth, or it will fall
To cureless ruin. I stand here for law.
(The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1)



In the last two lines, Shylock compares Graziano’s wit to a damaged house, saying that it will fall down if he doesn’t repair it: If Graziano doesn’t make an effort to think of more intelligent comments now, he will become more and more stupid as time goes by. By referring to the seal on his bond, Shylock is affirming the irrevocable and official status of seals on documents.


Curiously, Shakespeare employed the image of the familial seal in his comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Hermia is in love with Lysander. Her father wants her to marry Demetrius instead, and complains to Duke Theseus that his daughter is disobedient. According to the law, if Hermia refuses to follow her father’s wishes, he may kill her. Theseus responds by suggesting that Hermia is like a ‘form in wax’ which has been ‘imprinted’ by her father. Here, Shakespeare refers directly to the seal and its impression into warm wax:


What say you, Hermia? Be advised, fair maid:
To you your father should be as a god;
One that composed your beauties, yea, and one
To whom you are but as a form in wax
By him imprinted and within his power
To leave the figure or disfigure it.
Demetrius is a worthy gentleman.
( A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 1, Scene 1)


composed = made, put together
yea = yes
figure = the image left on wax once you have pressed a seal onto it
disfigure = wipe out, make ugly



Can you think of more uses of seals or images of sealing in Shakespeare’s works?



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Thomas Greene (? – 1640)

Hamnet Sadler  (1562 – 1624)

Richard Quiney  (1550s – 1602)

 The Combes:

William Snr (1551 – 1611) 

John Combe, William’s nephew  (1561 – 1614)

Thomas Combe, William’s nephew  and John’s brother (? – 1609)

William Combe Jnr,  William’s Snr’s nephew  lawyer (1586 – ?)

Richard Field (1561 – ?)

Ben Jonson (1572 – 1637)

Michael Drayton (1563  -1631)

Hamnet and Judith

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Hamnet Shakespeare (1585 – 1596)

Hamnet Shakespeare was named after Hamnet Sadler, a local Catholic man and friend of the Shakespeare family. Hamnet Sadler was remembered in William’s will.

The cause of Hamnet’s death is unknown, and it is not clear whether his father was able to attend his funeral in Stratford. Many scholars argue that the pain of losing a beloved son is echoed most strongly in the words of  Constance in the history play, King John:


Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?
Fare you well: had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do.
I will not keep this form upon my head,
When there is such disorder in my wit.
O Lord! my boy, my Arthur, my fair son!
My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!





Judith Shakespeare (1585 – 1662)

Judith was Hamnet’s twin sister, and named after Hamnet Sadler’s wife, Judith Sadler.


At age 31, Judith married Thomas Quiney, the son of a prominent local family. Thomas, aged 26, married the much older Judith in Lent of 1616. Scandal ensured when, one month after the wedding his lover, Margeret Wheeler, gave birth to his son and both, tragically, did not survive.  As a result of his conduct, Thomas was sentenced to perform penance clad in a white sheet before the congregation for three Sundays, and he gave 5 shillings to the poor.


Susanna was left much more than her younger sister in her father’s will. Judith received £150 and a silver gilt bowl, plus additional money if she and her children survived another 3 years.  In 1616, shortly after her father passed away, Judith gave birth to a son named Shakespeare. Sadly, all three of her sons died before adulthood.