The “Lost Years” Debate?

One particular Stratfordian academic theory highlights the Catholic leanings of the Shakspere family and the so-called “the lost years” and “the lost facts” that biographers over the years have attempted to shed light on. For example Anthony Holden in his “William Shakespeare” (pub: Little, Brown & Company 1999) has defined them as being from the age of 21 (1585) until the age of 28 (1592) when his name is first mentioned in the London theatres. Other Shakespearean scholars insist that it dates from the day he was born 1564 to 1592. Anthony Holden then concedes that the so-called “Lost Years” could in fact have been from the year he left school (1579), if he ever attended one, until he is recorded as working in the London theatres in 1592. Holden then goes on to cite the will of Alexander Hoghton Esq. Of Lea, Lancashire who is urged by his half-brother Thomas to leave some provision to Fulk Gyllome and William Shakeshafte (dated 15th August 1581). William Shagspere (aka: Shakeshafte) was then 15 years old and along with eleven other servants had presumably received an annuity of £2:00. John Aubrey substantiates Holden’s supposition with “In his younger years Shakespeare was a schoolmaster in the country”, saying it was the actor William Beeston’s oral reminiscences of his father’s (Christopher) own recollections. But, but since we have six examples of his personal signatures why has his name changed from Shagspere to Shakeshafte? Holden then suggests that surnames were often spelled differently in Elizabethan times and as we know there are in fact a dozen or more ways that Shakespeare was spelt and the scribe could have misheard the name when drawing out the will.

Shakespeare’s 6 “shaky” signatures are accepted as evidence that he could also write plays and poetry.

He makes reference to another recipient of Hoghton’s will, namely John Cotham or Cottam, the brother of Thomas Cotham who was executed at Tyburn on 30th May 1582 along with the recusant Edmund Campion. John Cotham was a schoolmaster in Stratford-upon-Avon when Will Shagspere was apparently in attendance but relocated to Lancashire in 1581 soon after his brother was executed. The theory continues that Will Shagspere followed him there and began work as a schoolmaster himself before going to London to work as a playwright. Hocus pocus and hey presto! The “lost years debate” resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, or was it?

Shakespeare’s Coat of Arms

The historical sources, although insubstantial suggests that William Shakspere’s ancestor some 300 years ago previous, named William Saksper lived in Clopton and was found guilty of robbery then summarily arrested and hanged. In the 15th – 16th century Stratford-upon-Avon was like many other shires subject to a number of transitions, socially and economically due to Henry VIIIth’s attitude to Church property and the requirements of the Reformation. Land enclosures, particularly in the Midlands were extremely common because land previously owned by the church was abandoned and then re-designated as belonging to the Crown, the local council, perhaps adopted by some Lord or Earl or some converted for use as common land. In other words lots of land suddenly became up for grabs by anyone who was audacious enough to enclose it. Shakspere’s descendant, William Shakspere was born in the sleepy, rural town of Stratford-upon-Avon (population around 2,500), the son of John Shakspere of Wilmcote and Anne Hathaway of Shottery. He was baptised on the April 26th 1564 according to the parish register in Stratford-upon-Avon. But due to the eleven days discrepancy between the Julian and Gregorian calendar, the myth or legend that he was born and died on the 23rd of April, (St. George’s Day) is also untrue when we actually do the maths! Incidentally, both his parents were illiterate according to records found, John simply signed any documents with an “X”. His grandfather, also illiterate was Richard Shakyspere, a glover and tenant farmer in Snitterfield who moved from Budbrooke. Richard farmed land owned by Robert Arden of Wilmcote, a gentleman Warwickshire landowner. After Robert Arden’s death (1556) John Shakspere married his daughter, Mary in the church of Aston Catlow and as a result acquired a substantial piece of farmland some 150 acres. By this time John Shakspere already owned two properties on Henley Street, Stratford along with his friend Adrian Quiney. However, John Shakspere’s brother Henry died in 1596 but after his marriage to Mary, she gave birth to eight children, namely Joan Shakspere (b. 1558), Margaret (b.1562), then William (b. 1564), Gilbert (b.1566), Anne (b.1571), Richard (b.1574) and Edward (b.1580). After her marriage to William, Anne Hathaway in turn gave birth to Susanna (1583) and later to twins, Hamnet, and Judith in (1585). We must presume that as a child William would have gone to school although there is no evidence of this in the records of the local school. We know that Judith went on to marry Thomas Quiney, presumably a descendant of Adrian Quiney. Susanna went on to marry John Hall and they had a child Elizabeth and that William’s sister Joan married William Hart and they had four children, namely, William (1620-39), Mary (1603-07), Thomas (1605-1670), and Michael (1608-1618). The only descendant to have issue was Thomas Hart whose descendants were Thomas and George. George Hart in turn had three children named Joan, Susanna and Shakespeare whose descendants are still living. Similarly, in an attempt to cash in on the Shakespeare name, Judith and Thomas Quiney named their children Shakespeare (1616-17), Richard (1618-39), and Thomas (1620-39). Unfortunately, none of them survived long enough to reproduce any heirs. That leaves Susanna’s child with John Hall named Elizabeth (1608-1670) who married Thomas Nash (d. 1647) but again no children. Elizabeth then married Sir John Bernard who died in 1674.

There is no corroborating evidence to substantiate the claims and suppositions that Will Shaxpere, as a 7-year old child had an education although many academics writing on the subject have simply imagined he attended the local school from 6am-6pm, and for five days a week he was studiously examining his “horn-book.” Despite the absence of any written records, F. E. Halliday (Shakespeare & His World) imagines him attending the local grammar school, which was free up to the age of sixteen. Similarly, Nicholas Rowe presumes, without a shred of evidence that he attended King’s, the Free-School in Church Street, located behind the Guild Chapel a few hundred yards from his family home in Henley Street. Having swallowed whole that presumption we are expected to imagine Will Shakspere graduating to an advanced education by the year 1571, when the still illiterate John Shakspere became Chief Alderman in the Parish Council of Stratford. However, again no records exist to support any of these well-tuned theories that Will Shakspere acquired the rudiments of Latin, French or Greek as would have been the case for any budding poet or playwright. To add further to this gaping chasm of an illiterate childhood there appears to be no record even of a religious education such as would have matured with reading the various versions of the Bible (eg: The Vulgate, Geneva or Book of Psalms etc). We are implored nevertheless that such an education would have been made available to the young boy through sheer in-born talent or literary genius and this would have been the basis of his subsequent accomplishments that gave him the means to become a leading poet and playwright by the age of say 28-30 years old and able to assiduously write several history plays, early comedies and occasional tragedies. That is without a patron, mentor or teacher he was, in some academics able to recite and translate poetry from birth, just as Napoleon was born with some of his teeth!

A 16th century map of Stratford-upon-Avon

William Shakspere’s fortunes were somewhat enmeshed in the life of his father John who was born 1530 in Snittefield, Warwickshire. By 1552 he was living in Henley Street, and trading as a glover having made enough money to buy the eastern house on Henley Street and another on Greenhill Street by 1556. The following year he had married Mary Arden and was also managing the Snitterfield Farm with the help of his brother Henry when his father died in February 1561. Henry was equally a reprobate failing to pay debts with Nicholas Lane although he had many financial assets, causing affrays, fighting with a constable and disputing tithes then finally being imprisoned. From 1558 John as a lapsed Catholic was Constable of Stratford monitoring and assessing property and finance while the Guild Chapel were making way for the transition to Protestantism. For a period of time he was an ale-taster in the town and became well-known. Consequently he became a committee member of the Parish Council replacing William Bott as an alderman in 1565. In the same year he was appointed Bailiff (Justice of the Peace) and in 1568 became Chief Alderman through to 1571. It would appear that in 1569, a touring group of players came to Stratford to stage plays-most likely the Queen’s players and Worcester’s Men which may have been an inspiration for William to consider working in drama through his Stratford connections. Meanwhile, John Shakspere, who in character was the archetypal wheeler-dealer, in order to ascend to positions of influence and power and to further his own personal status and career. I suspect that his son William, a chip off the old block, was of a similar inclination and persuasion. By 1572 it seems that John Shakspere was no longer in office and was visiting London with Adrian Quiney where they sought to bring a case of Common Pleas at Westminster on his own account for the relief of taxes. No doubt this also had something to do with his status and his wife’s spurious relationship with the Ardens of Park Hall. In 1575 he bought two more properties in Stratford and by 1577 had applied for a coat of arms on the basis that his wife, Mary Arden was related to the distinguished Ardens of Park Hall (Arden Estate), whose descendants go back to the Norman Conquest and not in any sense related to the Ardens of Wilmcote, although the former vehemently denied any direct connection to Mary Arden. As evidence the College of Arms manuscript clearly indicates a rejection with the words “Non Sanz Droict”.

It seems expedient here to summarise the main chronological connections between significant events. In 1572 John Shakspere (1530-1601), as mayor of Stratford-upon-Avon arranged for Sir Robert Dudley’s drama group to perform at Stratford Guild Hall where James Burbage was first hired as a joiner. Much later James Burbage became a major shareholder in the Theatre at Shoreditch when Shakspere was a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. The theatre at Shoreditch was then dismantled and relocated south of the river and renamed The Globe, Bankside where the actor Shagspere acquired a 10 percent share in it. This being the time that Edward de Vere returned from his European tour, especially Italy and poured investments into the theatrical revival of London to match and emulate that of Rome. This was around the same time that John Shagspere was being threatened and obstructed by the ardent Protestant Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote (1532-1600) nearby who knew that he was illegally acquiring assets and property while carrying on with prohibited practices such as wool-brogging which was banned by Queen Elizabeth. Lucy strongly opposed Shagspere’s attempt to acquire a coat of arms on quite legitimate grounds, namely that the Shakspere’s family had no noble genealogy through the Arden line. John Shagspere also secretly received the Catholic recusant Edmund Campion to his home and assisted him in holding secret meetings where not only did they plan the assassination of Queen Elizabeth but conspired with the Gunpowder terrorists to blow up Parliament much later in 1605 (See Robert Catesby-1573-1605)). “A Spiritual Testament” (Borromeo) was discovered by workmen hidden in the eaves of his Henley Street property in 1757. It may be that secret Catholic leanings were really more of a matter of business expediency than of religious faith in John’s case. These treasonous plots are thickened with yet another as yet unproved conjecture that Anne Hathaway was really the mistress of John Shagspere before she conveniently became the wife of the under-aged William Shagspere (1582). John already had both a pregnant mistress and a wife so William Shakspere must have agreed to the deception in order to preserve the security and status of the family in Warwickshire. That is yet another reason why Shagspere had to apply and pay for a special licence and post a bond of £40:00 to wed Agnes Hathawaye of Shottery. Where they were actually married is uncertain but, the lack of records suggests that Holy Trinity Church would not have entertained such a request. Nevertheless, we know that William Shakspere was supposedly entombed at Holy Trinity Church but his remains have never been found. This remains a mystery since ground penetrating radar has revealed nothing but dust and rubble below his gravestone. So, there is no physical body of Shakesperare, no evidence of an education, no original hand-written manuscripts and more importantly no library containing 3,000 books, that is the literary sources required to write the 7 volumes of poetry and 36 plays. No wonder then that William Shagspere spent the majority of his mature career working in London and visiting Stratford on occasions. Amongst those Stratfordian academics already mentioned who supported this fallacious theory were: Oliver Lawson Dick, E.A.J. Honigmann, Oliver Baker, S. Schoenbaum, Eric Sams, F.E. Halliday and Richard Wilson to name but a few. 

The links to my publications “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry, “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


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