11a. The Asbies Litigation 1579-1597

previously unpublished; © the estate of eric sams


(Numbers in bold refer to the Documents section and bibliographical citations refer to the Bibliography of The Real Shakespeare II, on-line edition)



   When Shakespeare purchased New Place in May 1597 (231) his wife Anne and his two young daughters presumably moved there and left the Henley Street home. The application for his father's coat of arms, which would one day become his own, had been renewed and duly granted; the next step was to reactivate the claim for land and property mortgaged by his father in 1578, which he would also have expected to inherit. 'The expense of the case was undoubtedly borne by the dramatist; particularly evidencing the famous son's involvement are the significant attorneys and Masters who become enmeshed in the action.' (Knight 1973, 194). Nevertheless, this suit was apparently unsuccessful. It began with a Bill of Complaint which is worth reproducing entire as a helpful if not always accurate summary of the previous history (further details and facsimile in Knight op. cit.; transcript there and in Halliwell-Phillips 1887 i.).


24 November 1597: To the right honourable Sir Thomas Egerton knight, Lorde keper of the greate seale of Englande.


In most humble Wise Complaining sheweth vnto yor goode Loppe yor dailye Orators John Shakespere of Stratford upon Avon in the County of Warwicke and Mary his wief That whereas yor saide Orators were lawfully sezed in theire desmesne as of Fee as in the rightes of the said Mary of and in one Mesuage and one Yard Land Wth Thappurtenances lyinge and beinge in Wylnecote in the saide Countye. And they beinge thereof so sezed for and in consideracon of the some of fowerty poundes to them by one Edmounde Lamberte of Barton on the heath in the saide County paide yor saide Orators were contente that the saide Edmounde Lamberte should have and enioye the saide prmisses untill suche tyme as yor saide Orators did repaie unto him the said some of fowertie poundes By reasone whereof the saide Edmounde did enter into the premisses and did occupie the same for the space of three or fower yeares and thissues and profyttes thereof did receyve and take After which yor said Orators did tender unto the saide Edmounde the sayde some of fowerty poundes and desired that they mighte have agayne the saide premisses accordinge to theire agreemt w[hi]ch money he the sayde Edmounde then refused to receyve, sayinge that he woulde not receyve the same nor suffer yor sayde Orators to have the saide premisses agayne  Unless they woulde paye unto him certayne other money w[hi]ch they did owe unto him for other matters  All w[hi]ch notwthstanding nowe so yt ys and yt maye please yor good Loppe That shortelie after the tendringe of the saide fowertie poundes to the saide Edmounde And the desyre of yr sayde Orators to have theire Lande agayne from him, he the saide Edmounde att Barton aforesayde dyed, After whose deathe one John Lamberte as sonne and heire of the saide Edmounde entred into the saide premisses and occupied the same After wch entrie of the sayde John yor saide Orators came to him and tendred the saide money unto him and likewise requested him that he woulde suffer them to have and enioye the sayde premisses accordinge to theire righte and tytle therein and the promise of his saide father to yor saide Orators made w[hi]ch he the saide John denyed in all thinges and did wthstande them for entringe into the premisses and as yet dooth so contynewe still And by reasone that certaine deedes and other evydences Concerninge the premisses and that of right belonge to yor saide Orators are coume to the handes and possession of the sayde John he wrongfullie still keepeth and detayneth the possession of the saide premisses from yor saide Orators and will in noe wise p[er]mit and suffer them to have and enioye the sayde premisses accordinge to theire righte in an to the same And he the saide John Lamberte hathe of late made sondrie secreate of the premisses to dyvers p[er]sons to yor saide Orators unknowen whereby yor saide Orators cannot tell againste whome to bringe theire Accons att the Coen Lawe for the Recovery of the premisses  In tender Consideracon whereof and for so muche as yor saide Orators knowe not the certaine dates nor contentes of the saide wrytinges nor whether the same be contayned in bagge boxe or cheste, sealed locked or noe, and therefore have no remeadie to recover the same evydences and wrytinges by the due course of the coen Lawes of this Realme And for that also by reasone of the saide secreate estates so made by the saide John Lamberte as aforesaide and want of yor saide Orators havinge of the evidences and wrytinges as aforesaide yor saide Orators cannot tell what Accons or againste whome or in what Manner to bringe theire Accon for the Recoverie of the premisses att the Coen Lawe And for that also the sayde John Lamberte ys of greate wealth and ability and well frended and Allied amongest gentlemen and freeholders of the Country in the saide Countie of Warwicke where he dwelleth And yor saide Orators are of small wealthe and very fewe frendes and Alyance in the saide Countie  Maye yt therefore please Your good Loppe to graunt unto yor saide Orators the Queenes Maties most gracyous writte of Subpna to be directed to the saide John Lamberte Comandinge him thereby att a certaine daie and under a certaine payne therein to be Lymytted p[er]sonally to appeare before yor goode Loippe in her Maties highnes Corte of Chauncerie then and there to answer the premisses And further to stande and abyde suche order and direction therein as to yor good Loippe shall seem best to stande wth righte equytie and good Conscience and yor sayde Orators shall daylie praye to god for the prosperous healthe of yor good Loippe wth increase of honor longe to contynewe.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                   [signed, in a different hand, J. Stowell]


     No one seems to have commented on this manuscript. Who penned it? The signature 'J.Stovell' is surely in a different hand; nor in any event would a distiguished attorney act as his own law-clerk. But one law-clerk (RS1 39-43, etc.) above all others had the details of this case at his finger-tips, from bitter and prolonged personal experience, because it was his own law-suit about the recovery of his own patrimony. Further, it took affluence as well as status and confidence to plead before the highest court in the realm. It was surely William Shakespeare himself who in 1596 had renewed the application, in his own cursive drafting hand, for his father's coat of arms. Here in 1597 is another renewed application, this time written in a legal secretary hand suitable for official documents such as affidavits and depositions. Again it must at least have been Shakespeare himself who supplied the data, which are (whether deliberately or through inadvertence) misrepresented. Thus it was not 'shortly after' the original transaction that Edmund Lambert had died but a full seven years later; and it was a full five months later still that any approach had been made to the heir John Lambert. He was Shakespeare's cousin; his mother Joan Lambert née Arden, who had died in November 1593, was the sister of Mary Shakespeare née Arden. But these rather relevant relationships remained unmentioned, although they may have fuelled the slow fires of resentment. The petition ends with a pathetic contrast between the rich and influential John Lambert and Shakespeare's impoverished and isolated parents; and this may well have had much justification if those Catholic parents (RS1 26-7, 32-5) were suffering socially and financially for their persecuted faith. No doubt the Shakespeares, and their legal advisers, would deem the background of family and religious feuding insufficiently elevated for the high Court of Chancery, and indeed prejudicial to their own cause. But their entitlement to land, as to honours, was surely a serious matter for the dramatist himself, as his works arguably witness. In addition to the many references to the loss of land by a father (RS1 26 etc.), The Taming of the Shrew is outspokenly personal. 'I'll answer him by law...I'll not budge an inch...' (Ind.i.14); 'Am not I Christopher Sly, old Sly's son of Burton-heath...? Ask...the fat ale-wife of Wincot if she knows me not.' (Ind.ii.18-21). These are the local names and no doubt pronunciations of Barton on Heath where the Lamberts lived and Wilmcote where Mary Shakespeare's inherited estate was situated.

     The two families had once been united; William's younger brother Edmund, christened on 3 May 1580, was no doubt named after his uncle by marriage, to whom Mary's property had then just been mortgaged. There was no ill feeling at first; that arose only when the attempts to buy back the estate proved unsuccessful. Edmund was the historical name of the eponymous Ironside, c.1588; but by 1605 that forename must have seemed just right for the sly villain of King Lear, whose mind (much like Shakespeare's own) muses on gullible fathers, status and entitlement to lands – 'non sans droit', as his family motto puts the point (Chapter 9). These are Edmund's own obsessions, from his first appearance: 'I must have...land' (I.11.16), 'A credulous father…Let me, if not by birth, have lands by wit' (I.iii.179, 183); and that father is soon seen arranging to convey that land away (II.i.83-5).

     Viewed in that light, what of the 1597 submission to Chancery, which seeks recovery and asks for justice? No doubt the Shakespeares had some right on their side, as well as much resentment. But their case, pursued at common law from 1588 to 1590 and in Chancery from 1597 to 1599, came to nothing; after a reply from John Lambert and further protestations from the Shakespeares, again no doubt inspired by William himself, the archives fall silent. Perhaps the case was settled out of court in 1599. But it was fundamentally flawed in its reliance upon Edmund Lambert's unrecorded refusal to accept a proffered £40 on the due date, twenty years before.

     In the meantime, Shakespeare had received some training in legal handwriting, and also acquired and signed a copy of the legal text-book Archaionomia, compiled by the William Lambarde to whom Queen Elizabeth would later complain about seditious performances of Richard II. Lambarde himself, furthermore, was a Master in Chancery, specialising in equity and property alienations, at the time of the Shakespeares' Bill of Complaint to that court (Knight 1973, 183-227). So that document, reproduced there in facsimile (op.cit., between pp. 182 and 183) might profitably be analysed by handwriting experts.

     Its chief characteristic is its unprofessionally quirky and rather unclerkly variability. It is serenely unconcerned about such minutiae as consistency in its letter-forms and spellings. Thus an initial C may be capital or minuscule, for any part of speech (Complaining, Concerning, Conscience, Commanding; certaine, contentes, contayned, cheste) or indeed for the same word (Consideration, consideration), which may also be variously spelt (County, Countye, Countie). Even the arbitary abbreviations are inconsistent; the initial syllable 'per-' is sometimes set down as those three letters, sometimes as one single symbol. The latter is indicated by 'p[er]' or 'p[ro]'. Square brackets elsewhere also show an omission, e.g. 'w[hi]ch'. 'Lordshippe' always ends thus, but either the last three letters or the last four may be superscribed. In the same position above the line, 'r' may stand for 'ur'; thus 'yor' means 'your', and 'Corte' is 'Courte', although 'Orators' no doubt means 'orators' throughout. The latter capitalisation is consistent, but other initial letters, like 'C', often appear in a definitely majuscule form despite a minuscule context. Some expected formulae are absent altogether; thus 'and' is always that word, never an ampersand. The transcription above seeks to reproduce all the document's idiosyncratic features except punctuation, which is often too faint for confident identification; this can only be studied in the actual document and has accordingly been omitted here. The letter-formations are strongly and strangely variable, as in the Edmund Ironside MS; in each document, for example, the letter 'a' appears in a dozen distinguishable guises. There are dozens of other detailed correspondences and no detectable significant consistent differences.