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 …?’


Bronze Skillet

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  • Made from bronze stood on a tripod base
  • An example of quality Tudor kitchenware
  • Used for preparing dishes over heat

Click the links below to discover more:
Use of metal kitchenware
Kitchenware in Shakespeare


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  • heart brooch A decorative pin used to fasten garments together and act as an ornament
  • Shakespeare usually has lovers and families exchange jewels in his plays
  • Another token of affection between couples

(To learn more about another brooch in our collection click here.)

Click the link below to discover more:

Jewellery in Shakespeare


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Atmos Clock

The Millennium Atmos Clock

Click the links below to discover more:

Atmos Clocks

Time and Clocks in Shakespeare





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King John became King of England in 1199 at age 33 after the death of his elder brother, Richard I, sometimes knows as Richard the Lionheart. John was infamous for having lost the Northern French territories in battle and spending unfeasible amounts of money and resources seeking to reclaim them. After taxing and alienating the nobles of England, the barons colluded against John and forced him to seal a charter that would limit the King’s power to impose laws and taxes throughout England. Although an early failure to adhere to the rules of the Magna Carta led to a civil war, it was renewed under subsequent monarchs and still is considered to be the starting point of the guarantee of civil liberties in the modern world.



Shakespeare’s King John was written in 1596, and is the earliest period covered in the history plays, despite not being the first history play that he wrote. During the course of the play, King John gains an ally in the form of Richard I’s illegitimate son, the Bastard Falconbridge, who leads the English troupes in the battles against France. John fails to broker an agreement with the King of France and is excommunicated by Cardinal Pandulph after insulting the Pope. This leads to a war with France and the kidnapping of Prince Arthur – the legitimate heir to the throne. Arthur is killed in a failed escape attempt, leading the English barons to feel distrust and anger towards King John. After offering their allegiance to Louis the Dauphin, the barons engage in a civil war with John’s army. When the barons are defeated, they defect back to John who, in the meantime, has been poisoned by a rebellious monk. John dies of this poisoning and bequeaths his kingdom to his only son, Prince Henry.



On display is a copy of Holinshed’s Chronicles of England from which Shakespeare took much of the plot for his dramatic re-telling of King John’s history. To find out how Shakespeare deviates from Holinshed, follow this link:

Although King John is not frequently staged, it was a relatively well-known play throughout the 19th century. To find out more about the Victorians and King John, read this blog: You can see an image of the actor Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree playing King John in a lavish production from 1899. This was also the very first performance of Shakespeare to be filmed. The silent, black-and-white footage of King John dying of poisoning can be seen here:



Tree’s production also doubled as a celebration of the Magna Carta. During the action, Tree inserted a tableau that depicted John handing over the document to the barons. King John actually sealed rather than signed the Magna Carta, and you can discover more about seals by clicking here.


King John and the handing over of the Magna Carta in Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s 1899 production


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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.


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Elizabethan gold angel2 1578
A gold angel
Gold half sovereign
Gold half sovereign
A Gold crown
A gold crown
Half gold crown
Half gold crown

In the Tudor period there were two ways of making coins:  hammering and milling, a newer method that was introduced in the reign of Elizabeth I.

Hammered coins were made by placing a flat, round, blank piece of metal between two dies which were then struck with a hammer. The man who struck the coins was called a moneyer. Hammered coins were never perfectly round and could be clipped easily. Forgers would collect clippings from lots of coins, melt them down and forge new coins. The punishments for being found guilty of forging coins included the removal of fingers, hands or ears!


Under Elizabeth I, the method of milling coins was introduced to England from France. Coins produced in this way were called mill money. The metal used to make the coins was flattened into a strip by heavy rollers which were powered by a wind or horse-driven mill. Coin blanks were then cut from the strip and stamped by dies in a press. It was also at this time that coins began to show their date of issue.

Milled coins were of better quality than hammered ones because they were more regular in shape. Coins are still produced in this way today, albeit sans horses and wind.

There were more denominations of coins minted in Elizabethan times than there have been at any other time in history. Altogether twenty different coins were in use, all made of gold or of silver.

As you see, there are gold coins on display. Gold coins came in different varieties:

Half Crown

2 shillings and 6 pence

Quarter angel

2 shillings and 6 pence


5 shillings

Half angel

5 shillings


10 shillings

Half pound sovereign

10 shillings


15 shillings

The basic denominations were pounds,shillings and pence. The written abbreviation for pound is £, for shilling is s, and for penny/pence is d. (Pence, not pennies, is the plural of penny).


12 pence make 1 shilling

12d = 1s

(1s = 5p nowadays)

20 shillings make 1 pound

20s = £1


Shakespeare makes numerous references to money and coins throughout his works. In the comedy The Merchant of Venice (1596), The Moroccan Prince makes reference to a specific coin:


         […] They have in England
A coin that bears the figure of an angel
Stamped in gold (2.7).


Another fascinating usage of the term ‘coin’ appears in the tragedy Julius Caesar (1599). Brutus and Cassius are trying to lead an army together, but they keep fighting. In this passage, Brutus accuses Cassius of failing to send him money, which he urgently needs to pay his soldiers:


[…] I did send to you
For certain sums of gold, which you denied me:
For I can raise no money by vile means:
By heaven, I had rather coin my heart,
And drop my blood for drachmas, than to wring
From the hard hands of peasants their vile trash
By any indirection: I did send
To you for gold to pay my legions,
Which you denied me: was that done like Cassius? (4.2).


drachmas = a type of money or currency
peasants = farmers, or poor people
indirection = devious means
legions = companies of soldiers


Here Brutus demonstrates his nobility by claiming that money ought to be properly sourced rather than taken by force from the already impoverished people. He would rather sacrifice his own heart and blood to raise gold in an honourable fashion.

Can you find references to coins and money in the plays or poems with which you are familiar?