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Shakespeare's Will and his Beneficiaries

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William Shakespeare's final bequest to the world first came to light in 1747 when Joseph Greene, vicar of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon found a copy1 of his will. The original will was later located in the Archbishop of Canterbury's court records in London and is now kept in the National Archive. It is the transcription of the National Archive original that has been used in this Entry. The spelling and punctuation have been modernised.

A brief guide to the family mentioned in the will: at the time of his death William was married to Anne Shakespeare née Hathaway, and had two children still living, Susanna his eldest daughter, married to Dr John Hall, and Judith, married to Thomas Quiney. Susanna and John Hall had one daughter, Elizabeth. Also still living were his sister Joan Hart and her three sons, William, Thomas and Michael.

The Start of the Will

The will is dated '25th January in the 14th year of the reign of King James 1616'. January is crossed through and March substituted. Commentators believe that the original document may have been drafted in January and when the final copy was made in March, Francis Collins the lawyer or his clerk accidentally copied January before correcting it2.

The first paragraph is a standard statement of the time:

'In the name of God amen, I William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon in the county of Warwickshire, gent. in perfect health and memory God be praised do make and ordain this my last will and testament in manner and form following that is to say first I commend my soul into the hands of God my creator hoping and assuredly believing through the only merits of Jesus Christ my Saviour to be made partaker of life everlasting And my body to the Earth whereof it is made.'

I Gyve and Bequeath unto my Daughter Judyth

His first bequest is to his second daughter, Judith. At first it is written 'unto my son in L(aw)' but this is crossed through and 'daughter Judith' is substituted. She is to receive £100 as her marriage portion and a further £50 if she surrender her right in a cottage in Chapel Street to her sister Susanna.

There is a further £150 left to Judith if she or any of her children are living three years after the date of the will. This bequest is hedged with conditions. The sum is to be invested by the executors and overseers of the will for her or her issue's best benefit but the capital is not to be paid whilst she is married, unless her husband make over to her possession lands to the value of the bequest.

If Judith or her offspring were not living at the end of the three years, the £150 was to be shared, £100 for William's granddaughter Elizabeth Hall (described in the will as 'neece', a common usage at this time), and £50 to be invested for the benefit of William's sister Joan and at her decease to be divided amongst her children.

He also leaves Judith his silver and gilt bowl.

The careful arrangements made to protect Judith's inheritance from her husband were undoubtedly added in March. Judith had married Thomas Quiney on 10 February, 1616. On 15 March, a woman named Margaret Wheeler and her newborn illegitimate son were buried, and on 26 March, the day after the will was made, Thomas Quiney was condemned by the Stratford-upon-Avon church court for fornication with her and sentenced to do public penance, later commuted to a small fine3.

I Gyve and Bequeath unto my Saied Sister Jone

To his only surviving sibling, Joan, William left £20 and all his personal clothing, and lifetime occupancy of the Henley Street property where she currently was living, for a nominal rent of 12d per year. This was the property that William had inherited from his father in 1601, the old family house. The major two-thirds of the property had been leased out for many years following the purchase of New Place and was doing service as an inn known as 'The Swan and Maidenhead'.

The small third to the east would be the section of the property that Joan lived in with her husband William Hart and their children. William Hart would be buried days before William Shakespeare on 17 April, 1616.

I Gyve and Bequeath unto her Three Sonnes

To Joan Hart's three sons, William leaves £5 each. He names William and Michael but cannot remember the name of the middle son and this is left blank. Joan also had a daughter Mary who had died aged four in 1607. Michael would die aged ten in 1618. William Hart never married. It is ironic that, concerned as William was to maintain his legacy for his future generations, his direct line died with Elizabeth and the only living descendants of John and Mary Shakespeare all derive from Thomas Hart, the nephew whose name William couldn't remember4.

I Gyve and Bequeath unto the Saied Elizabeth Hall

To his granddaughter Elizabeth, William leaves all his plate except for the silver and gilt bowl previously specified for Judith.

There is also just before these bequests a sentence crossed through which appears to be the commencement of a bequest to be invested to provide a marriage portion. To whom does this refer? It cannot be Joan who had been married 16 years, nor Mary her daughter who had died in 1607. Perhaps William was considering a marriage portion for Elizabeth but as she was eight at the time and Susanna was likely to have more children, he deleted it.

To His Friends

There follows a group of bequests:

  • To the poor of Stratford-upon-Avon he leaves ten pounds. In comparison, John Combe had left *pound;30 to the poor, plus additional bequests of £5 to the poor of Warwick and of Alcester, when he died three years earlier. He was a very rich moneylender who is the subject of a Shakespearean legend – Will had been asked to write an epitaph for him while he yet lived and had allegedly come up with:

    Ten in the hundred here lies engraved;
    A hundred to ten his soul is not saved.
    If anyone asks who lies in this tomb,
    'O ho', quoth the devil, ''tis my John Combe'.

    ('Ten in the hundred' refers to the legal upper limit of interest that could be charged.)

  • To Mr Thomas Combe, nephew of John Combe, William left his sword.

  • To Thomas Russell Esq he left £5. Russell was married to a widow, Anne Digges, whose son Leonard Digges wrote one of the dedicatory poems for the 1623 Folio.

  • To Francis Collins 13 pounds 6 shillings and 8 pence. He was the lawyer who drew up the will and was named as one of the overseers. He had also been involved in some of Shakespeare's property purchases over the previous ten years. How much of this bequest was a gift and how much the settling of the legal costs we will probably never know.

  • To Hamnett Sadler 26 shillings and 8 pence to buy him a ring. Hamnett Sadler had been a friend and neighbour of the Shakespeares for over 30 years and is believed to have been a godparent, with his wife Judith, to Shakespeare's twins Hamnet and Judith born in 1585. Richard Tyler the elder was also to receive a bequest but his name has been crossed through and Hamnett's added. Tyler had recently attracted much criticism for his handling of funds collected for the victims of the recent large fire in Stratford-upon-Avon5.

  • To William Raynoldes 26 shillings and 8 pence to buy a ring. He was a local landowner whose parents had been named in recusancy lists, as had William's father, John, many years previously. Recusants were persons who failed to obey the law requiring regular attendance at an Anglican Church, and would normally suggest a support of Roman Catholicism, although it was also at this time used for members of some Puritan faiths. Or sometimes, as has been suggested in John Shakespeare's case, to avoid being arrested for debt.

  • To William Walker who was Shakespeare's godson 20 shillings in gold6.

  • To Anthony Nash gent. 26 shillings and 8 pence. His eldest son Thomas Nash would marry Elizabeth Hall six years later.

  • To Mr John Nash 26 shillings and 8 pence. He was brother to Anthony and they had witnessed William's purchase of the Old Stratford freehold properties in 1602.

  • To his fellows John Hemmings, Richard Burbage and Henry Condell, 26 shillings and 8 pence each to buy them memorial rings. These three along with William were the last surviving members of the Lord Chamberlain's Men formed in 1594.

    Burbage would die in 1619 but Hemmings and Condell would honour William's memory by helping to publish the first folio edition of his plays in 1623, which included 18 plays never before published and thus saved for posterity.

I Gyve Will Bequeth and Devise unto my Daughter Susanna Hall

To his eldest daughter Susanna, William leaves all his real property. And then he adds the entail. All this property is hers and after her death it goes to her firstborn son and so down through this son's heirs male, and failing his having heirs male, to the second, third, and down to the seventh son and their heirs male. And if no male heirs are produced then the property goes to his granddaughter Elizabeth and her heirs, and if she produce none, then to Judith and her heirs. And finally if all these avenues are exhausted to any right heir of William's.

It is plain from this that William did not want the property he had built up to be dissipated by division amongst all the descendants. His bequest to Judith of an additional £50 had been conditional that she give up the right to her share in the copyhold cottage in Chapel Street. Copyhold was a medieval form of property 'ownership' in which the right to possession was recorded by the manorial court and a copy of the record was provided as title to enjoyment. This type of property had strict rules of inheritance and was to be jointly passed to the two sisters unless Judith gave up her right.

Shakepeare's purchase of the Gate House in Blackfriars shows a similar concern for the maintenance of the property in a single person. Under the law as applied in London, a wife had a dower right on widowhood to one third of the real property of her husband. Henry Walker's Blackfriars Gate-house was bought by Shakespeare, William Johnson, John Jackson, and John Hemming for £140. The deal involved 'elaborate arrangements, calling for trustees and a mortgage [whose] practical effect would be to deprive Shakespeare's widow of her dower right to a third share for life in this part of the estate; for in a joint tenancy, Chancery would not recognize Anne's privilege unless her husband had survived the other trustees'7.

To Susanna and John Hall

To Susanna and her husband John, William leaves all the rest of his goods, chattels, leases, plate, jewels and household stuff after his debts and legacies and funeral expenses be paid. And they are named as executors of the will. Amongst some of those persons who believe that William was not the author of the works that bear his name the absence of any mention of manuscripts or books appears to them to be evidence that he could not possibly have been a writer (or even perhaps a reader). This is not the place to enter into an in-depth discussion of this matter except to say that the detail of goods and chattels disposed in a will would be listed in an accompanying inventory.

Two gifts only of plate and household stuff are excepted from this general bequest. The silver and gilt bowl left to Judith as we have seen, and the most infamous of all, the bequest to his wife, Anne, of his 'second-best bed with the furniture'.

The Second-best Bed

When Shakespeare's will was discovered, there was much consternation at this bequest. For many this was the final conclusive evidence that William and Anne were not happily married. Taken with the suggestions that he had been trapped into marriage by a scheming older woman, whom he had left and stayed away from as long as possible, this confirmed that, at the end, he couldn't resist the ultimate insult, casting her off without a penny, and not even the gift of the best bed.

Others have since pointed out that the best bed would have been the one available for guests and would probably be 'on display' downstairs, the Jacobean equivalent of the Rolls-Royce parked in the driveway, not the garage. The second-best bed would have been the marriage bed, where William and Anne had slept, made love, where the children were born and where William probably died. Rather than a dismissive bequest it was a gift of love and affection.

And so it may well have been.

Sir Walter Raleigh advised his son not to leave his widow the marital bed because if she remarried it would be wrong for her to enjoy her second love in the same bed as her first. Anne was about 60 at this date, and it is probable this thought did not occur to William.

Many people have also been at pains to point out that at this time common law gave the widow the automatic right to a third of the property and lifetime occupancy of the family home, and as such there was no need for any further bequests to be made to her. This was only a custom in certain places such as York, Wales and London, hence the 'elaborate arrangements' in the purchase of the Blackfriars property.

According to some experts these legal rights of widows were explicitly denied in the nearby Vale of Oxford from the 1590s. Ms Spufford reports that it was normal for the customary rights of the widow to be expressed in the will to avoid misunderstandings, as Shakespeare's lawyer Francis Collins did in his will. She suggests that by deliberately naming Anne with only this bequest, William effectively denied her dower right to anything else. He deprives her of any control over the inheritance8.

Others are of the opinion that personal property might be willed away but real property could not, without taking account of the rights of the widow. Shoenbaum is of the opinion that 'With respect to land, custom appears to have operated fairly uniformly, the widow's right being recognised from early until modern times'9.

It would be wrong, even if she had no title to any land, to assume that Anne was 'cast off without a penny'. When she died, her epitaph, which may have been written by her daughter Susanna, translates from the Latin as:

Mother, you gave me the breast, you gave me milk and life;
Woe is me, that for so great a gift my return will be but a tomb.
... come quickly, Christ!
That my mother, though shut in the tomb, may rise again and seek the stars.

It is not unreasonable to believe that William could be assured that she would be well provided for in New Place by Susanna and John.

It is possible to suggest from the evidence explicit in the will that William was concerned to ensure that the estate remained whole and intact and vested in one person only. There is also the possibility that by not allowing Anne possession of any property he protected her from the danger of fortune hunters, looking out for rich but elderly widows.

The Witnesses to the Will

The will was witnessed by five people:

  • Francis Collins, the lawyer who drew up the will.

  • Juliyus Shawe, William's neighbour who lived next door to New Place, in Chapel Lane.

  • John Robinson, 'a labourer' possibly a servant of the Shakespeares or the Halls.

  • Hamnet Sadler, a long-time neighbour and friend of the Shakespeares as previously mentioned.

  • Robert Whattcott, also described as a labourer, possibly a servant of William Shakespeare or John Hall; he had represented Susanna at Worcester in her action for slander against John Lane10.

It has been suggested that some of the witness' signatures are suspiciously similar. Given the likelihood that Francis Collins was the only literate witness present, it would be no surprise to find that perhaps his clerk had signed on their behalf. In this era the lack of genuine signatures on wills did not seem to cause concern11.

Because William's properties and chattels were located in Stratford-upon-Avon and London, John Hall had to travel to the archbishop's prerogative court of Canterbury in London where the will was proved on 22 June, 1616, with a note 'Inventarium exhibitum'; inventory shown/produced.

The End of the Line

Ultimately William's plans to pass down intact the Shakespeare inheritance came to nothing. Susanna and John Hall had no more children and Elizabeth, though twice married, died childless in February 1670.

Judith and Thomas Quiney had three sons. Shakespeare Quiney died in infancy, and Richard and Thomas Quiney were buried within days of each other in 1639 and both were unmarried.

New Place remained in the possession of Elizabeth until her death (by which time she had become Lady Bernard and lived in Northamptonshire). By her will it was to be offered for sale to Edward Nash, her first husband's cousin. He evidently didn't take up the offer and it was eventually bought by Sir Edward Walker, at one time Secretary of War to Charles I, and then Garter King-at-Arms. He left it to his daughter Barbara, wife of Sir John Clopton, who eventually had the building renovated into a Georgian-style house. It was this renovation that the Reverend Gaskell had pulled down when he disputed having to pay property taxes on it.

The Blackfriars tenement had been reduced to ashes in the Great Fire of 1666. What right in it or its site remained, accrued to Edward Bagley, Elizabeth's executor and residuary legatee.

In her will Elizabeth also left small bequests to a number of her Hathaway cousins. Despite no mention of any of Anne's family in William's will, it seems that the Halls had maintained friendly relations with them.

As for the original Henley Street property, this went 'To my kinsman, Thomas Hart, the son of Thomas Hart, late of Stratford, all that my other messuage or Inne commonly called the Maydenhead, with the next house thereto adjoining, with the barne belonging to the same, now in the occupation of Michael Johnson; to Thomas Hart and his heirs, failing whom to his brother George Hart and his heirs, failing whom to her own right heirs for ever.' The Harts remained in possession of what is now known as The Birthplace until 1806.

1'Shakespeare's Lives.' S Shoenbaum p92. Shoenbaum suggests that this copy comes from the first half of the 17th Century and was perhaps made after the death of John Hall in 1635. It first appeared in print in the Biographia Britannica in 1763, with the bequest for Anne misread as 'my brown best bed'.2'William Shakespeare A Compact Documentary Life.' S Shoenbaum p297.3'Shakespeare and the Bawdy Court.' Brinkworth pp80-83.4'The Heritage of Shakespeare's Birthplace.' Levi Fox, Shakespeare Survey 1 (1948) pp 79-88 'Shakespeare a Life.' Park Honan p401.5On 9 July, 1614, 54 houses had been burned and £8,000-worth of damage done in less than two hours. 'Shakespeare A Life.' Park Honan pp385,397.6Another William, William Davenant, would claim in later years to be not only Shakespeare's godson but intimated that he was his natural son. The Davenants kept a tavern in Oxford and it has been suggested that Shakespeare may have lodged there on his journeys between Stratford and London. There is no evidence that he did, and if William Davenant had even been his godson would he not also have been remembered in the will, as William Walker was?7'A Compact Documentary Life.' S Shoenbaum p 274.8'Shakespeare a Life.' Park Honan p396.9'A Compact Documentary Life.' Samuel Shoenbaum p301.10Susanna had been accused of adultery with a man called Rafe Smith by John Lane. Robert Whatcott appeared before the court, John Lane did not and within two weeks had been excommunicated. It is generally held that the slander was part of a campaign by Lane against supporters of the current vicar of Holy Trinity amongst whom was Dr John Hall, Susanna's husband. 'A Compact Documentary Life.' Samuel Shoenbaum pp 289-90 and 306.11'Shakespeare in the Public Records'(HMSO) David Thomas and Jane Cox noted by S. Shoenbaum in the postscript to 'A Compact Documentary Life' p326.

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