Select Shakespeare Surname Genealogy

The name Shakespeare derived from the Middle English shakken, meaning "brandish" or "shake," and  speer or "spear."  It would be a nickname for a spearman or a belligerant person.  Shakespeare was thus not necessarily a good name to have.  Hugh Shakespeare changed his name to Hugh Saunders at Oxford in 1487 “because of its base repute."

The spelling of the name had not settled down by the time of William Shakespeare.  In his lifetime and for many years after, his name could be spelt as Shakespear, Shakspeare or Shakspere - as well as Shakespeare. 

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England.  The first recording of the name was that of William Sakespere in the old charters of Gloucestershire in 1248.  He may have been the same William Sakespere who was hanged for theft in the same county in 1284.  By the 16th century, however, the Shakespeare name was to be found much more frequently in Warwickshire than anywhere else.

The name first appeared in Warwickshire at Wroxall, with Elizabeth Shakespeare being recorded there in 1417.  John and Alice Shakespeyre were at Rowington nearby in 1464.  In the next century this family was living at Mowsley End in Rowington.  Thomas Shaxpere held the manor until his death in 1591.  William Shakespeare was living at Knowle Hall in the 1760's.

In terms of William Shakespeare's direct ancestors, the earliest probable candidate was Richard Shakespeare, recorded in 1535 as a tenant farmer at Snitterfield near Stratford.  He would have been William's grandfather.  The story his son John gave that Richard and his father fought for Henry VII during the Wars of the Roses seems to have been a contrived one.  Richard died in 1561.  Richard's son John moved to Stratford in 1551, prospered and married Mary Arden of the Arden gentry family at Park Hall.  However, John later fell on hard times and had to withdraw from public life in Stratford.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) had no direct descendants.  William's sister Joan, who died in 1646, was the only member of his family whose known descendants continue to the present day.  Some suspect that William might have had an elder brother, John a shoemaker in Stratford.  But this line is unknown.

Outside of the playwright, one notable Shakespeare line - as reported in Burke's Peerage - began with the marriage of Humphrey Shakespeare and Elinor Scale in 1649.  They lived in Ipsley in Warwickshire.  These Shakespeares remained in Warwickshire until the 19th century when two Baptist ministers, Benjamin and his son John Howard, made the move to London.   John's son Geoffrey Shakespeare was the Liberal MP for Norwich in the inter-war years.  He was made a baronet in 1942.

Another Shakespeare line, commencing with the John Shakespear who married Martha Seeley in 1654, was London-based.  This family lived for many generations in Stepney.  John Shakepear was a London Alderman in the 18th century.  Sir Richard Shakespear saw service with the British army in India in the mid-19th century.  Captain William Shakespear, one of the last of the great Victorian explorers, made his name in Arabia where he was the first westerner to meet its ruler Ibn Saud.  

There were also Shakespeare lines to be found at Kingswinford in Staffordshire and around Breedon-on-the-Hill and Ashby de la Zouch in Leicestershire.  In the 1881 census and again a hundred years later, Shakespeare was still primarily a name of the West Midlands and of Warwickshire in particular. 

Caribbean.  David Shakespear, from the Stepney line, came to Jamaica as a merchant in the late 18th century and settled at Hodges Pen.  Probably through him, there are Afro-Caribbeans who bear the name. Sly and Robbie is a Jamaican reggae group where the Robbie is Robbie Shakespeare. 

Select Shakespeare Miscellany

If you would like to read more, click on the miscellany page for further stories and accounts:

Select Shakespeare Names

William Shakespeare, born in Stratford-on-Avon in 1564, was the famous playwright.
Captain William Shakespear was a Political Agent in the Middle East in the early 1900’s and the first westerner to meet the Arabian ruler Ibn Saud.  

Select Shakespeares Today
  • 4,000 in the UK (most numerous in Warwickshire)
  • 1,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)

PS.  You might want to check out the surnames page on this website.  It covers surname genealogy in this and companion websites for more than 800 surnames.

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