A year ago we helped design an exhibition about this theme and, noticing the subject mentioned in today’s news, I thought it would be appropriate to revisit the occasion of William and Anne’s marriage. It’s not a straightforward story…
William Shakespeare was an early developer, sexually. He married at eighteen, before he came of age, and at a time when the average age for men to marry in Stratford-upon-Avon was twenty-four. His case of pre-marital fornication (for that was the church’s view then) stands out prominently in the town’s records. Between 1570 and 1630 there are only three men (out of 106 cases) who married under the age of twenty-four. Of those three, Shakespeare was the youngest, and was the only one whose wife to be was already pregnant. It’s precisely this kind of documentary fact (this one gleaned from Jeanne Jones’s informative Family Life in Shakespeare’s England) that allows an individual to walk forth from the pages of history, to take on a vivid biographical reality. It’s also the kind of fact that contradicts the cliché that those of us connected to Shakespeare’s Birthplace often hear: that very little is known about Shakespeare’s life and that that which can be known can be written on the back of a postcard.
Shakespearians might talk about the so-called ‘lost years’ (usually meaning 1585-1592), but there’s nothing unusual about them. Nor is it strange that the kinds of personal papers we should like to survive (letters and diaries) do not seem to have done. Of course there are gaps in the record, and so there are for anyone alive during Shakespeare’s time, except aristocrats and royalty, and we don’t know everything even about them. The ‘lost years’ are really a symptom of biographical disappointment and are not historically significant in themselves. The fact is we know a great deal about the times in which Shakespeare lived. Comparatively, we know quite a lot about Shakespeare of Stratford himself: his growing fame as a writer, the plays he acted in, his theatrical shareholding, his financial investments, how his work was praised by other writers of his day, how he thought and how he developed as a poet and dramatist.
Centuries of biographers have asked: where did Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway marry? How answerable is that? Some registers do not survive, but there are tantalising clues.
The Worcestershire Record Office has the ‘marriage bond’ and the registration of the marriage license. The bond is dated 28 November 1582 and grants permission for ‘William Shagspere and Anne Hathwey of Stratford in the Dioces of Worcester maiden’ to marry, so long as there were no lawful impediments. The entry for the marriage licence is ‘inter Willelmum Shaxpere et Annam Whateley De Temple Grafton’ (a village about five miles from Stratford, and four miles from Shottery where Anne Hathaway lived). Anne ‘Whateley’ has haunted some biographers. Anthony Burgess even goes so far as to suggest that she was a different person and that Shakespeare was forced into a shot-gun wedding, or should that be (as Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells has joked) ‘a Shottery-gun wedding’? The licence register has several mistakes in it; a completed legal case involving a Whateley was entered earlier that same day. The name, then, might be plausibly wrong, but the church (St Andrew’s, Temple Grafton) might be right.
Several other alternative parishes, though, have plausible claims including St Martin’s, Worcester (the register survives, but the crucial pages are missing); Luddington (there is a report that the register holding the crucial entry was burnt by the curate’s housekeeper to boil a kettle in the nineteenth century); Stratford-upon-Avon (the entry needs to have been missed out for this) and Bishopton (where Thomas Quiney, Shakespeare’s son-in-law, performed public penance in 1616 for his own ‘pre-marital fornication’ with Margaret Wheeler; both mother and child died in childbirth). But then there’s All Saints’, Billesley, where Shakespeare’s granddaughter chose to marry, possibly following in her grandparents’ steps. It’s likely that William and Anne avoided the Stratford church to avoid public scandal.
Precisely when and where William and Anne married remains a mystery, so today – 28 November – is a way of reminding ourselves of the delicacies (and pitfalls) of Shakespearian biography.
Happy Anniversary William and Anne Shakespeare, wherever and whenever you tied the knot!