John Shakespeare and Wool

Posted on Updated on

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 …?’




Posted on Updated on

A pair of 16th century gloves
A pair of 16th century gloves


Gloves were an expensive luxury in the 16th century. They were often made with kid, sheep or deer leather, and richly decorated. Gloves were worn on the belt rather than hands as they were a symbol of wealth and status: the more ornate the glove on show, the wealthier the owner. Gloves could be jewelled, embroidered, laced and even scented. If scented gloves were too expensive, people could use scented oils or rose water.The style of cuff on the glove could change according to fashion, and glove makers would often unpick the stitching and attach new cuffs onto a pair of gloves, particularly if the leather was expensive.


The exchange of gloves was also common, particularly in deals, as payment, bribes or as a token of love. In The Merchant of Venice, when Portia is disguised as a lawyer she asks for Bassanio’s gloves as a token of thanks for having saved the life of his best friend, Antonio.


On the other hand, if a glove was thrown at or to someone, this was an insult and a challenge for a fight. In the history play Richard II, the Duke of Aumerle throws down his glove at Bagot in order to challenge him to armed combat. Have a look at this passage from the tragedy, now considered a problem play, Troilus and Cressida. Troilus and Cressida are two young Trojan lovers, who have just spent their first night together. The following morning they are told that Cressida must leave Troilus to join their enemies, the Greeks, as part of a peace deal. In this passage, the two lovers say farewell to each other, and Troilus asks Cressida to be true to him.


Hear me, my love: be thou but true of heart–

I true? How now! What wicked deem is this?

Nay, we must use expostulation kindly,
For it is parting from us.
I speak not ‘be thou true’ as fearing thee –
For I will throw my glove to Death himself,
That there’s no maculation in thy heart –
But ‘be thou true’ say I, to fashion in
My sequent protestation: ‘Be thou true,
And I will see thee’.
(Troilus and Cressida, 4.5.57-67)



thou = you
deem = thought
expostulation = conversation
thee = you
maculation = stain of unfaithfulness
fashion in = introduce
sequent = following





Shakespeare also uses gloves in a metaphorical sense. Consider this passage from the comedy Twelfth Night. In this passage, Viola (a girl dressed up as a boy to conceal her true identity) talks to Feste, the clown or fool. When Viola encounters him, Feste is playing the tabor (a small drum). He loves to confuse people by playing with language, and below is an example of this:



Save thee, friend, and thy music. Dost thou live by thy tabor?

No sir, I live by the church.

Art thou a churchman?

No such matter, sir. I do live by the church for I do live at my house, and my house doth stand by the church.

So thou mayst say the king lies by a beggar if a beggar dwell near him, or the church
stands by thy tabor if thy tabor stand by the church.

You have said, sir. To see this age! A sentence is but a chev’rel glove to a good wit,
how quickly the wrong side may be turned outward.
(Twelfth Night, 3.1.1-13)


Save thee = May God preserve you (traditional greeting)
Dost thou = do you
Art thou = are you
dwell = live
To see this age! = Look what the world has come to!
chev’rel = kid, a very soft, pliable leather
wit = intelligence


Very few people these days know what a “chev’rel glove” is. What modern object would you choose to make Feste’s statement about language today?