The Shakespeares and the Court Family (2007)

[The Court family still flourishes today, and I was happy to give them permission to reprint this article in their newsletter.]

On July 5,1559, with the Stratford Bailiff Robert Perrott sitting on the bench at the Court of Record, and William Court on hand as the Steward [1], John Shakespeare sued Richard Court for a debt of six shillings eight pence [2]. It appears that John Shakespeare, known as a money-lender, made a loan to Richard who did not pay up in a timely manner. The case was continued to August 19when it was continued again. However, since there are no further records of the case, it was likely settled out of court.

John sued Richard Court again on January 20, 1563, this time for an unspecified debt. A second hearing was held on February 3 and the parties came to agreement through arbitration [3]. On this occasion William Court, the Steward, was absent, very rare for him.

About the Courts, Edgar Fripp says this: “Richard Court alias Smith was a brother of Christopher Court alias Smith and of William Court alias Smith, the late Steward. He and Christopher married sisters, Juliana and Margery Dickson, daughters of the late Alderman Dickson of the Swan.” [4]

Fripp, however, cannot be correct in referring to this William Court as the Steward. Mark Eccles gives the Steward’s dates as 1549-1634 [5]. That cannot be correct either. If this William Court represented the Corporation in 1559, he would have been ten years old—a very young lawyer indeed. The solution to this conundrum is quite simple. It is known that a William Court, who was a lawyer, had a son named William who was also a lawyer. So it must be that William Court the Steward was the father of Richard, Christopher, and William junior, if, as Fripp says, these three were brothers. Therefore, the Steward was born long before 1549, probably during the late 1520’s, and it was the son whose dates is 1549-1634. It would be nice if someone at Stratford, parish register in hand, could certify these things for us.

Richard Court was fined at a View of Frankpledge October 5, 1560, for “gevenge the Constabulles obprobryous words & revylynge the Constabulles” [6]. The Court Roll of May 4, 1561, indicates that Richard was fined twelve pence for “leyenge muke [muck] at Wm Whoodes barne in Henley stret” [7]. He was elected Taster on September 7, 1569 [8], and constable on September 5, 1571 [9]. He was reelected constable January 9, 1572 [10], October 5, 1576 [11], and October 4, 1577 [12].

Richard Court was elected Burgess October  3,1578 [13] and served in that capacity until his death. On March 11, 1578/9, he made the account for the wards of Wood Street, Church Street, and Bridge Street, for the levy for furnishing three pike men, two bill men, and an archer. In the same record Richard is instructed to account for “money collected by him for the hygh waye,” amounting to seven shillings eight pence, which he did in fact pay the Corporation [14].

On September 5, 1582, Richard Court was elected Chamberlain [15], and again on September 4, 1583 [16]. In this capacity he made the Corporation accounts for 1582 and 1583 [17]. He was paid a fee of 20 shillings for collecting the rents of the town properties. [18] “He made his will on 5 January 1587 and was buried 10 January…. His daughter Alice was wife to George Badger.” [19]

Christopher Court appears in the records as “Christopher Court alias Smith,” “Christopher Smith alias Court,” and “Christopher Smith” as well as “Christopher Court.” I have not collected all of these notices together, and only guess that they refer to the same person. He must have been a trustworthy individual. At the council meeting of 4 December 1577, he and Simon Biddle were “elected Collectors for the poore accordinge to the forme of the statute.” [20] Christopher Court died two months before his brother Richard and was buried November 13, 1586 with the bell and the pall. [21] Attached to the will of Christopher Court is a list of debts owed him that includes the item “Henry Shaxspere of Snytterfild oweth me vli ixs. [£5 9s.]” [22] Henry Shakespeare, as everyone knows, was John’s brother, who farmed at Snitterfield and Ingon, and appears to have either been perpetually in debt or a miser.

William Court senior, the Stratford Steward, represented the Corporation at meetings of the town council, View of Frankpledge, and Court of Record. He began his stewardship on February 15, 1559, and made his final appearance on February 15, 1566. Court’s wages amounted to £3 six shillings eight pence [23], but he was occasionally given additional compensation for ancillary duties.

The identity problem now rears its head again. We know a number of things about the William Courts. The problem is that only in a single instance is one of them designated “junior”. This problem proves more difficult to sort out than the other one, not that I claim to have sorted it out.

To illustrate the confusion, in one place Fripp says, “William Court alias Smith, who was presumably a Protestant, lived in Alveston parish on the south bank of the Avon.” Here Fripp is undoubtedly speaking of William Court senior. [24] In another place, he says that William Court lived in Corn Street opposite New Place. “His office, the old gatehouse [25], had been ‘burned to the ground’ in the Fire (which spared New Place) of 1594; but it was reported ‘newly re-edified and tiled’ in April 1599. He occupied it until his death in 1634. Few inhabitants can have been more familiar to Shakespeare than Master Court.” [26] William senior died long before 1634. He was likely a contemporary of John Shakespeare. Therefore, William junior either took over the gatehouse from his father or had possession of it to begin with.

On June 17, 1556, Thomas Siche (or Suche) sued John Shakespeare for £8. That John is noted in the record as a “glover” suggests that he, then in his twenties, purchased some skins on credit and was in no hurry to make payment. On July 15 he appeared on his own behalf and petitioned a continuance to the next court. On July 29 William Court, certainly William Court senior at this date, representing Siche, petitioned a continuance to emend Siche’s declaration. On August 12 Siche defaulted, the judgment and court costs being awarded to John Shakespeare. In this case against John Shakespeare, Master Court was not successful.

February 15, 1566 marks Court’s final meeting as Steward. Henry Higford of Solihull was hired to replace him. Higford would later sue John Shakespeare. [27]

In 1587 William Court (senior? junior?) represented John Shakespeare in the fifth and sixth sittings in the case of Lane v. Shakespeare. Nicholas Lane, son of Richard Lane, was a prosperous farmer and moneylender of Bridge Town. “Once at least he had the honour of being appointed on a commission with Sir Thomas Lucy, and he contributed with a neighbor the cost of a light horseman to Tilbury against the Spaniards in 1588… He was capable at times of personal violence. He was fined in 1592 for assaulting Francis Jackman of Henley-in-Arden with a crab-tree cudgel and wounding him so seriously that for a time his life was despaired of. Lane died in 1594.” [28]

On June 4, 1586, Henry Shakespeare borrowed £22 from Lane, with John Shakespeare becoming surety for his brother to the extent of £10. Henry’s note was due On Michaelmas Day (September 29), 1586. Henry defaulted so Lane was forced to sue John in the Court of Record. Failing to pay, John was arrested but obtained bail from Alderman Richard Hill. John denied responsibility for the debt and resisted the suit through all of the sittings. When judgment was given in favor of Lane, William Court had the case removed to the Queen’s Bench in London, by certiorari, for an appeal. Nothing further is known about the suit. But one thing is certain: it was very difficult indeed to wrench so much as a farthing from John Shakespeare.

There is a deed, drawn up on August 14, 1591, which is the source of our knowledge that John Shakespeare’s house was located in Henley Street next to the home of Robert Johnson. The deed is a conveyance of the house between Shakespeare’s and Johnson’s from George Badger senior to John Court of Oldborough, Worcester, and William Court (senior? junior?) [29] John Court must be a relative of the Courts.

On January 26, 1597, John Shakespeare sold a strip of land to George Badger. The plot was one-half yard wide, 28 yards long. Badger was apparently building a wall. The deed was written by William Court (senior? junior?). [30]

William Court (senior? junior?) represented John Shakespeare in the 1599 Walford suit which is explained in my article “Solved.”

William Court (likely junior) was a complainant with William Shakespeare, Thomas Greene, and numerous others in the 1609 tithe case [Richard] Lane and others v. Lord Carew. Court had the lease of two tenements to the value of £3. The case is explained by Tucker Brooke: “A very elaborate document reciting the intricate history of the lease of Stratford tithes, interests in which are held by some forty different persons [including old friend William Walford] besides the three complainants. The entire property is subject to a yearly rent of £27. 13s. 4d. to John Barker’s assignee [his son], Henry Barker, who will be legally entitled to recover possession if any part of this is unpaid. Shakespeare’s holding—about an eighth of the entire property—is by his deed charged with £5 as his contribution toward Barker’s rent, and the same amount is charged against the other half-portion of Shakespeare’s particular tithes held by the Combe family, and to which Thomas Greene has a reversionary title that will become effective in 1613; but the Combes family decline to pay. In the cases of the other three-dozen odd persons concerned no agreement concerning the quota to be paid by each toward Barker’s rent has been arrived at, and certain lawless spirits among them—notably Lord Carewe of Clopton—use their influence to dissuade anyone from paying at all.” [31]

On September 16, 1624, William Court was a witness to the will of Bartholomew Hathaway, grandson of Richard Hathaway. This is the sole instance where a William Court is designated “junior”. [32]


  1. The Steward was an attorney who represented the Corporation.
  2. J. O. Halliwell-Phillipps, Outlines of the Life of Shakespeare, II, 218.
  3. Op. cit., II, 221.
  4. Minutes and Accounts of the Corporation of Stratford-upon-Avon, III, 132, n. 6.
  5. Mark Eccles, Shakespeare’s Stratford, 32.
  6. Minutes and Accounts, I, 104.
  7. Op. cit., I, 117.
  8. Op. cit., II, 29.
  9. Op. cit., II, 52.
  10. Op. cit., II, 65.
  11. Op. cit,, II, 109.
  12. Op. cit., III, 3.
  13. Op. cit., III, 22.
  14. Op. cit., III, 31-2.
  15. Op. cit., III, 100.
  16. Op. cit., III, 129.
  17. Op. cit., III, 132-8, 146-50.
  18. Op. cit., III, 138.
  19. Op. cit., IV, 12.
  20. Op. cit., III, 9.
  21. Op. cit., IV, 15.
  22. Outlines, II, 211.
  23. Minutes and Accounts, I, 121.
  24. Op. cit, I, xlvi.
  25. Formerly occupied by William Brace.
  26. Unfortunately, I misplaced the reference for this quote, searched my sources hard, but could not find it. But it is surely from Fripp, probably in the Minutes and Accounts.
  27. For this case, see my article “Solved.”
  28. Edgar I. Fripp, Shakespeare’s Stratford, 30.
  29. Halliwell-Phillips, Life of Shakespeare, 36.
  30. Outlines, II, 13.
  31. Tucker Brooke, Shakespeare of Stratford, 59-60.
  32. Outlines, II, 196-7.