The History of Stratford upon Avon
Our view of Stratford-upon-Avon is dominated by the town’s associations with Shakespeare ; otherwise its story would be one of peaceful development as a regional trading centre – though with a record of devastating fires which regularly changed its face.
Located by a ford across the Avon the site of what became Stratford-upon-Avon would have attracted humans to live there long before any village grew up; indeed we know from archaeological finds that Bronze Age man lived in the district. Likewise in the Roman era it is likely that a village or camp of some sort existed at the ford – the very name Stratford originally meant ‘Roman road at a ford’.
But Stratford was essentially a Saxon foundation, probably in the 7th century within the kingdom of Hwicce, then as part of Mercia: in 691AD a monastery of some form was established there.
Thanks to the decision of Wulfstan, the Saxon Bishop of Worcester (to which bishopric Stratford then belonged) to support William I , Stratford avoided the more violent changes much of England experienced after the Conquest .
By 1196 Stratford became a market centre, helped doubtless by its location on an old Roman road and the equally useful transport link provided by the Avon, a status confirmed by a charter granted by Richard I . This official sanction led to the building of a new trading centre in the town away from its old heart. The trade carried on there was in wool, sheep, and eventually in leather.
Stratford’s continued expansion and prosperity saw a grammar school founded in the 13th century, the same period that gave rise to The Guild of the Holy Cross, a grouping with both secular and religious reach to which prominent and ambitious residents belonged, this guild effectively governing the town for many years. The divide between the old and new towns was emphasized when this guild built its own chapel for the trading centre, the old part having Holy Trinity Church .
Locally born merchant (eventually Lord Mayor of London) Hugh Clopton financed improvements to the Guild Chapel in the 15th century, and the building of a stone bridge across the Avon in the closing years of that century.
Stratford’s face was changed by fires in 1594, 1595, 1612 and 1641 – indeed it even later lost one of its theatres in a fire in the early 20th century. And its population was hit by plague outbreaks, most especially in 1564 and 1645. Henry VIII ’s Reformation saw major changes too, including the ending of the Guild of the Holy Cross in 1547. Henry’s son Edward VI balanced this with the re-foundation of the grammar school in 1553, when he also approved the incorporation of the town.
The most significant date in Stratford’s history, however, is 1564 , when William Shakespeare was born there (probably on April 23). He attended that grammar school, and is known to have worked for his father and probably a lawyer in the town before marrying Anne Hathaway there when he was 18 (and she 25). Shakespeare quit Stratford for London in 1587, where he became an actor and our greatest writer, before eventually returning to retirement with his wife (left in the town) in his latter years at the splendid house The New Place his success had allowed him to build. He died there in 1616.
As with the Conquest so largely with the Civil War in Stratford, taken by Parliament in 1643, but escaping with one accidental explosion in the town hall and the planned destruction of the central arch of the old stone bridge as a defensive measure.
It was not until the great actor David Garrick intervened that Stratford began to exploit its Shakespeare links. His 1769 festival held in the town began the process that now sees it endowed with several theatres , not least of which is Elizabeth Scott’s 1932 masterpiece by the river. The railway arrived in the town in 1859, facilitating the growth of tourism that accelerated during the 20th century until today this town of about 24000 inhabitants hosts some three million visitors yearly.