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William marries Anne Hathaway

interior of Temple Grafton, Warwickshire
Temple Grafton Church
Contrary to many peoples' perceptions, Elizabethan England was, by modern standards, more Jerry Springer than spiritual golden age.

It is believed that as many as a third of Tudor women were pregnant when they married, and extramarital sex took place at every level of society. It is often said of America that an entire generation was conceived on the back seat of an automobile. In rural England during the 1500s, certainly the fields and woodlands were seeing some serious action.

In his teenage years it's likely that young Will's codpiece would be chafing a little, and his mind lingering on thoughts of love. In Shakespeare's time the small hamlet of Shottery was just a pleasant stroll from his home in Stratford, and it is likely that the 18-year-old met 26-year-old Anne Hathaway on one of these walks.

Anne shared the house with her brother following the death of both her parents. Doubtless the idea of a little afternoon delight in the comparative undisturbed comfort of an Elizabethan four poster bed proved attractive because in the late summer of 1582, Anne became pregnant.

At 26 Anne's unmarried state must have just been about to become an issue within this rural community where women generally married earlier. At eighteen, however, William was still a minor and in need of his parents permission to marry.

Church law at that time forbade marriage between Advent Sunday (December 2nd in 1582) and mid-January, and so on the 27th November a special marriage licence was obtained from the consistory court in Worcester.

On the marriage license Shakespeare's name was given correctly, but his bride to be was named as Anne Whately, and her address as Temple Grafton, which lay four miles to the west. This was most likely to have been a clerical error, by an overworked quill-pusher who had been dealing with another matter concerning a Whately that day.

This is not as romantic or downright fanciful as the other explanation proffered: That Anne Whately was Shakespeare's true love but that Anne Hathaway's pregnancy forced his hand. But to our eyes – a society every day troubled by bureaucratic slips, fudged coffee orders and computer glitches – it rings true.

It is also possible that Anne was staying in Temple Grafton to fulfil the conditions required for marrying in another parish at that time.

interior of Temple Grafton, Warwickshire
Temple Grafton Church
To heap intrigue upon intrigue, it is interesting to note that the man who would marry the poet and his bride, John Frith, was a man known to the State security operatives.

Described in a government spy's report in 1586 as "an old priest and Unsound in religion," and cropping up again in the reports of informers for ministering outside the rules of the Protestant Church, Frith appears to have been a man taking on board some elements of the new ways. But at heart he was still a Catholic ministering to the spiritual needs of his Catholic-leaning congregation.

So Shakespeare had purposefully - and probably with the blessing if not insistence of his and Anne's family - opted for a wedding almost sure to have ended in a Roman mass. In these spy-ridden times it was a flirtation with danger for the sake of a heartfelt belief. It would not be the last.

At eighteen, on paper at least, young William Shakespeare looks like a perfect candidate for the Jerry Springer show. He is a teenage father, perhaps pressured into marrying his older wife, living with her and their child in the cramped family home, without a job and unable now to go to university or take up an apprenticeship.

If he had previously had a life plan, it must now have changed.


William Shakespeare's marriage certificateMarriage certificate

Marriage certificate records held at Worcester Cathederal


sketch of Anne HathawayAnne Hathaway


Warwickshire landscapeShakespeare's England

Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-AvonStratford upon Avon, Warwickshire

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