•The Black Death•
We measured our days by the ringing of bells—bells calling us to Sunday worship, sounding the close of the Thursday market, warning us off the streets at the nightly curfew. Joyfully pealing bells heralded weddings and christenings. Muffled, mournful bells announced deaths.
In the terrible year of 1564—the year the plague swept across England—the death knell tolled more than two hundred times in Stratford-upon-Avon, our town of some fifteen hundred souls a hundred miles from London. Here in the heart of Warwickshire the Black Death carried away one life of every seven, leaving six behind to grieve.
On the twenty-sixth of April in that year, before the plague and the fear that traveled with it had reached us, our family attended the christening of the firstborn son of John and Mary Shakespeare at Holy Trinity Church. Standing by the stone font, Vicar Bretchgirdle poured holy water over the infant’s head and named him William.
The Shakespeares were well known in Stratford. John was a glove-maker and wool-trader, and Mary a daughter of the prosperous Arden family. Thanks to his wife’s inheritance of property in the nearby village of Wilmcote, John was a man of means. Mary Shakespeare and my mother had been dear friends from childhood, and when the service had ended and the bells rang out, our family was among the well-wishers invited to call at the Shakespeare home next to John’s shop in Henley Street.
Mary, still pale from the rigors of childbirth three days earlier, rested on a wooden settle made comfortable with pillows. Next to her the babe lay in a handsome cradle. His mother watched over him tenderly as John received their friends. The table in the parlor was spread with a white linen cloth on which fine pewter servers were heaped with meat pies, aniseed cakes, and marchpane. Guests drank to the health of the infant. He had slept through most of the goings-on and now suddenly awoke, wailing lustily. I stood by the cradle and rocked it gently, as I’d often rocked my infant sister. But the babe howled even louder, until his mother picked him up.
That was my first introduction to Will Shakespeare. I was seven years of age.
There were five in my family: my father, Richard Hathaway, a yeoman farmer; my mother, Agnes, for whom I was named; my ten-year-old brother, Bartholomew, whom we called Tolly; my sister, Catherine, called Catty, barely a twelvemonth; and I. We lived at Hewlands Farm in the hamlet of Shottery, two miles from Stratford by the field path. Our thatched and half-timbered cottage sat amid lush gardens, blossoming orchards, fields of barley, and pasturage for flocks of sheep and goats, a team of oxen as well as a few cows and horses, and a garth clamoring with chickens, ducks, and geese.
Within weeks of William Shakespeare’s christening, our lives changed in ways I could not then have imagined. The plague arrived in our town, the seeds carried, it was believed, by an apprentice lately come down from London. In July the vicar entered in his burial book the Latin words Hic incepit pestis: "Here begins the plague."
Just days past my eighth birthday on August first, Mary Shakespeare came to Hewlands Farm to talk to my mother. She said that she was taking the infant William to stay at her family home in Wilmcote until the danger was past and urged my mother to move me and my sister, Catty, to safety. "For their sake, and for the sake of your unborn babe!" Mary begged. My mother’s belly was already big with her sixth child—two had died in infancy before Catty was born. This one was due in November.
I remember the loveliness of that day. Warm sunshine and a gentle breeze teased the delicate blue flowers of the flax field as the two women walked together in my mother’s herb garden, Mary pleading, my mother making an effort to be cheerful.
"But where would we go?" my mother asked. "There’s none of my family left in Billesley. Besides, we’re as safe here at Hewlands as you will be in Wilmcote. Surely we must trust God to protect us, wherever we are." She didn’t mention her two dead infants or Mary’s two, turned to dust in the churchyard.
The friends embraced and kissed each other, and Mary Shakespeare took up her swaddled infant William, whom I’d been holding as they talked. She carried him away, while my mother waved to her bravely from our garden gate. I clutched her hand and wept, fearful that my mother was wrong, that we were not safe.
The death knell continued to toll. Fires were built in the streets to drive away the pestilence, and we carried flowers and sweet herbs in our pockets to protect ourselves from bad odors that carried the disease. Yet, despite the danger, the law required everyone to be present at church each Sunday. Obediently we took our accustomed places and listened as Vicar Bretchgirdle exhorted us from the pulpit to rid ourselves of the sin that he believed to be at the root of the plague.
"The Black Death is God’s vengeance upon His disobedient people!" the vicar thundered. My parents glanced fearfully round the church, remarking the number of empty seats, wondering who among us might be carrying the seeds that could infect us and who might next be struck down. Later, at our Sabbath meal, my father and mother spoke of those absent, among them our nearest neighbors, Fulke and Martha Sandells and their daughter, Emma, who was my closest friend. Emma and I were nearly the same age. Fulke and Martha had stood as godparents at my christening, my parents at hers. Often we walked together to Holy Trinity and home again after the worship.
"I’ll go over today and see about them," my mother said. "Mayhap they’re ill," she worried. "Martha has never been strong."
"Nay," my father said firmly. "I’ll go." He fixed me with a stern eye when he saw that I meant to go with him, eager to see Emma. "Agnes," he said, "stay here with your mother."
He returned with the welcome news that all was well with our neighbors. "Fulke says he’ll keep his family at home, away from the pestilence, regardless of the law. He says he’ll pay the fine, if it comes to that."
"Mayhap he’s right," my mother suggested.
But the next Sunday we attended church as usual.
There was no harvest festival that year, on account of the plague. We offered grateful prayers that we had survived thus far and went about our lives as best we could. When the nights grew cold, my mother and I sat by the fire, distaff of wool in one hand, drop spindle in the other, while she taught me how to draw out the fibers and twist them into yarn. Catty slumbered on her pallet nearby.
One evening in October, when the first heavy frost was expected and my father and Tolly had gone out to see to the lambs, my mother complained of a headache and laid aside her spinning. Even the light of a single rush candle seemed too bright for her to bear. By the time my father and brother had come in from the sheepfold, she was trembling with fever and chills.
For the next few days I scarcely left my mother’s bedside. Too frightened to weep, I did what I could for her, bathing her face with cool cloths dipped in lavender water, bringing her barley water to swallow when she was able. Swellings appeared on her body, under her arms and on her neck, and she cried out from the pain. My mother writhed and raved as the swellings grew larger—as big as my fist—then turned black and finally burst, and the reeking pus poured out of them. I prayed passionately for her recovery, but as her suffering increased and nothing brought her relief, I began to pray even more earnestly for her merciful death. That prayer was s...