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Chancery suit in 1597 by John Shakespeare and his wife to recover Asbyes:
their bill; the answer of John Lambert; and the replication of John and Mary Shakespeare. Probable result of the suit. William Shakespeare's annual visits to Stratford. Death of his son Hamnet in 1596. General scarcity in England, and its effects at Stratford. The quantity of corn in the hands of William Shakespeare and his neighbours in February, 1598. Ben Jonson's “ Every Man in his Humour,” and probable instrumentality of Shakespeare in the original production of it on the stage. Henslowe's letter respecting the death of Gabriel Spenser.
We have already mentioned that in 1578 John Shakespeare and his wife, in order to relieve themselves from pecuniary embarrassment, mortgaged the small estate of the latter, called Asbyes, at Wilmecote in the parish of Aston Cantlowe, to Edmund Lambert, for the sum of 401. As it consisted of nearly sixty acres of land, with a dwelling-house, it must have been worth, perhaps, three times the sum advanced, and by the admission of all parties, the mortgagors were again to be put in possession, if they repaid the money borrowed on or before Michaelmas-day, 1580. According to the assertion of John and Mary Shakespeare, they tendered the 401. on the day appointed, but it was refused, unless other monies, which they owed to the mortgagee, were repaid at the same time. Edmund Lambert (perhaps the father of Edward Lambert, whom the eldest sister of Mary Shakespeare had married) died in 1586, in possession of Asbyes, and from him it descended to his eldest son, John Lambert, who continued to withhold it in 1597 from those who claimed to be its rightful owners.
In order to recover the property, John and Mary Shakespeare filed a bill in chancery, on 24th Nov. 1597, against John Lambert of Barton-on-the-Heath, in which they alleged the fact of the tender and refusal of the 401. by Edmund Lambert, who, wishing to keep the estate, no doubt coupled with the tender a condition not included in the deed. The advance of other monies, the repayment of which was required by Edmund Lambert, was not denied by John and Mary Shakespeare, but they contended that they had done all the law required, to entitle them to the restoration of their estate of Asbyes: in their bill they also set forth, that John Lambert was “ of great wealth and ability, and well friended and allied amongst gentlemen and freeholders of the country, in the county of Warwick," while, on the other hand, they were “of small wealth, and very few friends and alliance in the said county.” The answer of John Lambert merely denied that the 401. had been tendered, in consequence of which he alleged that his father became “lawfully and absolutely seised of the premises, in his demesne as of fee.” To this answer John and Mary Shakespeare put in a replication, reiterating the assertion of the tender and refusal of the 401. on Michaelmas-day, 1580, and praying Lord Keeper Egerton (afterwards Baron Ellesmere) to decree in their favour accordingly.
If any decree were pronounced, it is singular that no trace of it should have been preserved either in the records of the Court of Chancery, or among the papers of Lord Ellesmere; but such is the fact, and the inference is, that the suit was settled by the parties without proceeding to this extremity. We can have little doubt that the bill had been filed with the concurrence, and at the instance, of our great dramatist, who at this date was rapidly acquiring wealth, although his father and mother put forward in their bill their own poverty and powerlessness, compared with the riches and influence of their opponent. William Shakespeare must have been aware, that during the last seventeen years his father and mother had been deprived of their right to Asbyes : in all probability his money was employed in order to commence and prosecute the suit in Chancery; and unless we suppose them to have stated and re-stated a deliberate falsehood, respecting the tender of the 401., it is very clear that they had equity on their side. We think, therefore, we may conclude that John Lambert, finding he had no chance of success, relinquished his claim to Asbyes, perhaps on the payment of the 401. and of the sums which his father had required from John and Mary Shakespeare in 1580, and which in 1597 they did not dispute to have been due.
Among other matters set forth by John Lambert in his answer is, that the Shakespeares were anxious to regain possession of Asbyes, because the current lease was near its expiration, and they hoped to be able to obtain an improved rent. Supposing it to have been restored to their hands, the fact may be that they did not let it again, but cultivated it themselves; and we have at this period some new documentary evidence to produce, leading to the belief that our poet was a land-owner, or at all events a land-occupier, to some extent in the neighbourhood of Stratford-upon-Avon.
Aubrey informs us, (and there is not only no reason for disbelieving his statement, but every ground for giving it credit) that William Shakespeare was “wont to go to his native country once a year.” Without seeking for any evidence upon the question, nothing is more natural or probable; and when, therefore, he had acquired sufficient property, he might be anxious to settle his family comfortably and independently in Stratford. We must suppose that his father and mother were mainly dependent upon him, notwithstanding the recovery of the small estate of the latter at Wilmecote; and he may have employed his brother Gilbert, who was two years and a half younger than himself, and perhaps accustomed to agricultural pursuits, to look after his farming concerns in the country,
while he himself was absent superintending his highly profitable theatrical undertakings in London. In 1595, 1596, and 1597, our poet must have been in the receipt of a considerable and an increasing income: he was part proprietor of the Blackfriars and the Globe theatres, both excellent speculations; he was an actor, doubtless earning a good salary, independently of the proceeds of his shares; and he was the most popular and applauded dramatic poet of the day. In the summer he might find, or make, leisure to visit his native town, and we may be tolerably sure that he was there in August, 1596, when he had the misfortune to lose his only son Hamnet, one of the twins born early in the spring of 1585: the boy completed his eleventh year in February, 1596, so that his death in August following must have been a very severe trial for his parents!
Stow informs us that in 1596 the price of provisions in England was so high, that the bushel of wheat was sold for six, seven, and eight shillings?: the dearth continued and increased through 1597, and in August of that year the price of the bushel of wheat had risen to thirteen shillings, fell to ten shillings, and rose again, in the words of the old faithful chronicler, to “the late greatest price?.” Malone found, and printed, a letter from Abraham Sturley, of Stratford-upon-Avon, dated 24th Jan., 1597-8, stating that his “neighbours groaned with the wants they felt through the dearness of corno,” and that malcontents in great numbers had gone to Sir Thomas Lucy and Sir Fulke Greville to complain of the maltsters for engrossing it. Connected with this dearth, the Shakespeare Society has been put in possession of a document of much value as regards the biography of our poet, although, at first sight, it may not appear to deserve the notice it is sure in the end to attract. It is thus headed :
1 The following is the form of the entry of the burial in the register of the church of Stratford :
“ 1596. August 11. Hamnet filius William Shakspere." ? Annales, edit. 1615, p. 1279.
3 Ibid, p. 1304. • Malone's Shakspeare, by Boswell, vol. ii. p. 566.
“ The noate of corne and malte, taken the 4th of February,
1597, in the 40th year of the raigne of our most gracious
Soveraigne Ladie, Queen Elizabeth, &c." and in the margin opposite the title are the words “ Stratforde Burroughe, Warwicke.” It was evidently prepared in order to ascertain how much corn and malt there really was in the town; and it is divided into two columns, one showing the “Townsmen's corn,” and the other the “ Strangers' malt".” The names of the Townsmen and Strangers (when known) are all given, with the wards in which they resided, so that we are enabled by this document, among other things, to prove in what part of Stratford the family of our great poet then dwelt: it was in Chapel-street Ward, and it appears that at the date of the account William Shakespeare had ten quarters of corn in his possession. As some may be curious to see who were his immediate neighbours, and in what order the names are given, we copy the account, as far as it relates to Chapel-street Ward, exactly as it stands.
CHAPPLE Street Ward.
5 In the indorsement of the document it is stated, that the Townsmen's malt amounted to 449 quarters and two “strike” or bushels, besides 9 quarters of barley—their peas, beans, and vetches to 15 quarters, and their oats to 12 quarters. The malt, the property of Strangers, amounted to 248 quarters and 5 strike, together with 3 quarters of peas. Besides malt, the Townsmen, it is said, were in possession of 43 quarters and a half of " wheat and mill-corn," and of 10 quarters and 6 strike of barley; but it seems to have been considerably more, even in Chapel-street Ward.