Write till your ink be dry
The Parish Register
About the Item
This book tells many stories, but only lists names and dates. It’s a register, which comes from the latin word ‘regerere’ meaning ‘to record’. It was created and added to over a period of 200 years. Here we see the book form being used to keep information together and safe, a bit like a school jotter!
It is the Parish Register of William Shakespeare’s hometown, Stratford-upon-Avon and it was used to record baptisms, marriages and burials between 1558 and 1776. It is a very rich primary source that tells us so much about Shakespeare and his life and times. It tells us who Shakespeare’s father was (John Shakespeare) and how many brothers and sisters he had (seven surviving to adulthood). Most famously, it’s where we get Shakespeare’s birth date from - celebrated around the world on 23rd April - (as his baptism is recorded on 26th April 1564 in a time when baptisms took place in haste after birth). It also tells us that Shakespeare married young (only 18-years-old) and went on to have three children (a small family for the time) and that his wife, Anne Hathaway, and children, Judith, Susannah and Hamnet, all remained in Stratford-upon-Avon while William Shakespeare worked successfully in the London theatre scene.
It also reveals much about Shakespeare’s local community, such as outbreaks of plague and the most popular names (John was one of them), and how big the town was - about 2,000 people in Shakespeare’s childhood. This is quite a big town by Tudor standards, but small to us. Nowadays Stratford-upon-Avon is home to around 140,000 people.
The Parish Register has always been an important book and was made to last a long time and record information to inform government policy, similar to the registration of birth, marriages and deaths today. Look closely, the pages are not made of paper, but rather parchment; specially prepared animal skins! Parchment is much sturdier than traditional paper so it lasts longer.
To keep it safe and secure, the Parish Register would have been stored in a very large chest (like a treasure chest) in the local church, with three keys held by different Church officials! Today, it is kept in the vaults at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
If you look really carefully you can see that the binding of the register is imprinted with royal emblems and the brass corner protectors have an engraved Tudor rose on them. All these things show how important this special book is.
Click on the red tab that says 'See full record details' and then click on the image icon - there are over 80 images from the register to look at. Entries relating to William Shakespeare, his family, relatives, and descendants are marked with an 'x'.
You can take a look at Shakespeare’s family tree here. Have a go at drawing your own family tree. How much do you know about your family? Can you find out more by talking to people in your family? They might be able to show you some documents such as birth and marriage certificates.
Who looks after all these treasures in the vaults of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust? Meet two members of the team in this video and hear about why their jobs are pretty cool!
CC-BY-NC-ND Image Courtesy of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust