Mary Arden married the playwright’s father, John Shakespeare, in 1557, when she was 20. The Ardens, who lived in the village of Wilmcote, just outside Stratford-upon-Avon, had been a prominent family in the area for hundreds of years and were well respected.
It is thought this social standing came into play years later when it was revealed that 26-year-old farmer’s daughter Anne Hathaway was pregnant and that 18-year-old William Shakespeare was the father.
Mary Arden, with her strict code of moral conduct, might well have had a major influence on the outcome for her son: marriage. Many historians believe that the union in 1582 between three months pregnant Anne and young William was a “shotgun wedding”.
In 1930, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which preserves buildings and records associated with the playwright, purchased a property in Wilmcote thought to be the home where Mary grew up. They named it Mary Arden’s House.
Images of the property became prolific, appearing on guidebooks in six languages, postcards, the wrapping for boxes of Mary Arden fudge and other tourist merchandise. About 100,000 visitors came to the house each year.
But research into the trust’s assets commissioned in 2000, involving detailed examination of 16th century property records, revealed that “Mary Arden’s House” was not Mary Arden’s house at all. She had lived 50 yards down the lane in a building known for years as Glebe Farm.
A Trust director said that the property was purchased in good faith on the basis of local tradition. After the truth became known Glebe Farm was renamed Mary Arden’s Farm and the 1930-purchased property was renamed Palmer’s Farm after a farmer called Adam Palmer who lived there in the 1570s.
Evidence relating to other properties, including Shakespeare's birthplace and Anne Hathaway's Cottage, has always been "absolutely conclusive,” the Trust insisted.
As luck would have it, the Trust bought Glebe Farm in 1968 when it came up for sale, not having a clue about its historic significance. They just wanted to protect the area from development.
Nick Walsh, estate manager at the Wilmcote site, said in 2000 after the dust had settled: ”Thank God the Trust decided to buy Glebe Farm. It could easily have become a housing estate or been demolished.”
The problem with Glebe Farm, now officially Mary Arden’s Farm, is that it is distinctly un-Shakespearean. By the 1800s it had evolved into a typical Victorian farmhouse and that’s just how it looks today. Palmer’s Farm, by contrast, is resplendent in Tudor design and furnishings.
Just after the change one tourist complained ruefully: "When you think of Shakespeare you think of the 1500s, not Victorian times. I'm not sure that Glebe Farm quite gives the right image. It's not atmospheric.”
Perhaps not a case, then, of All’s well that ends well . . .
Published: October 6, 2016
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