History of Stratford-upon-Avon

Mother Earth Travel > United Kingdom > Stratford-upon-Avon > History

Stratford owes its existence as a thriving market town to an early bridge which provided an excellent crossing point of the River Avon, thus enabling trade to flourish from Roman times. The town grew greatest in prosperity, however, during the sixteenth century with the granting of its charter by Edward VI in 1553 and a boom in agriculture and cottage industry. To this day cattle and street markets survive, and indeed remain an important part of the local economy, but it is of course the Shakespeare Industry that is responsible for much of Stratford's current wealth.

William was born into the prosperous family of John and Mary Shakespeare in an upstairs room of a large house on Henley Street, known today as 'The Birthplace'. It is this attraction and the many other sites sharing a place in the history of the Bard's life which draw tourists in their thousands, and upon which the livelihoods of many have been built. The town is full of references to the great man: from the Shakespeare Bookshop to the Shakespeare Hotel, from the face staring out from a thousands of postcards to the t-shirts piled high bearing lines from his plays, there is no escape from the name and visage of England's finest writer.

Besides the birthplace, other famous sites in and around the town include: Nash's House and New Place, the latter building being the property Shakespeare bought in 1597 and where he is said to have died; Mary Arden's House in Wilmcote, the pre-marital home of Shakespeare's mother; Hall's Croft, where Shakespeare's daughter and her husband, Sir John Hall, lived; and Anne Hathaway's Cottage. This latter site is located a mile west of the town, in the village of Shottery, and also offers a prime example of a traditional country cottage garden. All these properties are fully open to the public, whilst Holy Trinity Church and the King Edward VI Grammar School, also with Shakespearean connections, still maintain their primary functions and so access (to the latter especially) is restricted. The school buildings drip with history, and many of the fifteenth century examples are still in use today. The church is where Shakespeare was buried on 25th April 1616, two days after his death, and his gravestone bears his famous curse designed to protect this final resting place against desecration.

Despite Shakespeare'ss death, however, it soon became apparent that he would be eternally associated with the town, and remembered by it. The rebuilding of the Town Hall in 1767 led circuitously to one of the finest actors this country has ever seen, David Garrick, establishing a festival in honour of the Bard that is continued to this day. The Shakespeare Birthday Celebrations began as a Jubilee in 1769, organised by Garrick after he had been asked to provide funds for a bust of Shakespeare to be placed in an empty niche of the new town hall. The initial festivities lasted for three days, and in modern times the event usually takes place on the weekend nearest to the 23rd April. Tourism was responsible for the later tremendous growth of Stratford's Shakespeare Industry, and the arrival of the Great Western Railway in 1860 brought trippers from the nearby populous industrial cities of Birmingham and Coventry, as well as Warwick and the many other West Midlands' towns, so helping the town's wider economy grow.

Such a success was Garrick's jubilee that it later led to the establishment of the Shakespeare Club and a desire for a permanent theatre to be set up, worthy of putting on the plays of the town's most famous son. First came the New Royal Shakespearean Rooms in 1844, which were modernised to become to Theatre Royal in 1869. That building was demolished, however, just three years later to make way for gardens for New Place and it was 1879 before the new and ornately Victorian Memorial Theatre was opened. But that too was to be relatively short-lived, most of it burning to the ground in 1926 and its successor, built in 1932, is the building we now know as the Royal Shakespeare Theatre on the banks of the Avon.

Stratford's long history will forever be bound with that of Shakespeare, yet few in the town seem to mind. Not, at least, for as long as tourists flock here in their droves to witness one of the country's most attractive and fascinating sites, a living and working monument to one great man.