The Tudor Society

26 April – Shakespeare and the Plague

On this day in Tudor history, 26th April 1564, the Bard, William Shakespeare, was baptised at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire. This was just three months before the plague hit the town, wiping out a fifth of its population. Fortunately for him, and us, Shakespeare didn't catch it - phew!

Find out more about the plague and its outbreak in Stratford-upon-Avon in today's talk.

Also on this day in Tudor history, 26th April 1540, Catherine Carey, daughter of Mary Boleyn and niece of the late Queen Anne Boleyn, married Francis Knollys.

It is not known whether the marriage was a love match, but it appears to have been a very happy and successful marriage, and resulted in 14 children. You can find out more about them in last year’s video:

And on this day in 1536, in the lead up to Anne Boleyn's fall, Queen Anne Boleyn met with her chaplain, Matthew Parker. The words that she spoke to him that day had such an impact on him that they stayed with him for the rest of his life. Find out more about this in my video on 26th April 1536:

Also on this day in history:

  • 1546 – Death of Sir Ralph Ellerker, soldier, in a French ambush while serving as Marshal of Boulogne for Henry VIII. He was buried in St Mary's Church in the town.
  • 1589 – Death of Andrew Perne, Dean of Ely and Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, at Lambeth while visiting his friend, Archbishop John Whitgift. He was buried at Lambeth Parish Church.
  • 1596 – Burial of Henry Hastings, 3rd Earl of Huntingdon, at St Helen's Church, Ashby-de-la-Zouch.


On this day in Tudor history, 26th April 1564, the Bard, William Shakespeare, was baptised at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire. We don’t know the exact date of Shakespeare’s birth, but it is traditionally celebrated on 23rd April as babies at that time were usually baptised within a few days of their birth.
The church where he was baptised is also his resting place, and if you visit Holy Trinity, you can see copies of the register entries of his baptism and death in the parish records on the wall, and also the font which would have been used to baptise Shakespeare in 1564. It’s also lovely to pay your respects at his grave and see a bust of Shakespeare on the wall which dates back to 1623 and which was erected by his widow Anne and his family and friends.
As I said, Shakespeare was baptised on this day in 1564 and he was lucky to survive that summer. In July 1564, the plague hit Stratford-upon-Avon, where little William lived with his parents, John Shakespeare and Mary Arden. The first death in the parish was recorded on 11th July 1564 by John Bretchgirdle, vicar of Holy Trinity. The name of the victim was Oliver Gunn, an apprentice weaver who died in what is now The Garrick Inn in the town’s High Street. The words "hic incepit pestis" ("Here begins the plague") are scribbled next to the burial entry, although they may have been added to the burial entry at a later date.
But what was this plague that could have killed Shakespeare?
Well, plague is a bacterial infection caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which is spread in various ways:
• in the air,
• by direct contact
• by contaminated food
• and from being bitten by infected fleas.
Bubonic plague was spread via fleas from the black rat, and pneumonic plague was spread via droplets from people coughing. Symptoms included necrosis of the bite, swelling of lymph nodes in the neck and armpits, headache, fever and delirium. Its deadliest form, pneumonic plague, affected the lungs and was highly infectious.
It has been estimated that the Black Death, an epidemic of bubonic plague, wiped out 60% of Europe's population in the 14th century and the last major English epidemic of bubonic plague was from 1665 to 1666 in London where it is said to have killed a quarter of London’s population. There were numerous outbreaks of “plague” in England throughout the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. Including the one I mention in Stratford. In Stratford, the bubonic plague epidemic lasted six months and killed over 200 people in the parish, around a fifth (some say a seventh) of the population. William Shakespeare’s family were very fortunate in escaping the plague.

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26 April – Shakespeare and the Plague