On a Lonely Wife

We don’t know if Agnes married for love or not. Her husband was younger by seven years, and he was definitely a social riser. Since Agnes’s dad, a successful farmer, died and left her with somewhat of a dowry, she had been seen as a catch even if she was a bit older to have never married by age 25. However, the young man had gotten Agnes pregnant, and it seems her family insisted that he make “an honest woman” of her as they said back then. So, there were some incentives for him to make Agnes his wife.

That didn’t mean he would stay in the household. No, he left their Warrickshire home and went to London, he said, to find work so she could live a lifestyle she had grown up with. So, less than a year into a marriage she may or may not have wished, Agnes found herself with a child and no husband at home. Oh, he came for a visit every now and again, and, it seems, he left Agnes pregnant after some of his trips. She had twins, a boy and a girl, a few years after her daughter, Susannah, was born. Still, it was difficult to raise the kids and tend to the household alone; doing it herself was certainly different than having a husband and father around all of the time.

We have a bit of evidence about Agnes’s life in the form of a will from one of her father’s former shepherds. A man named Tom Whittington apparently left Agnes 40 shillings for distribution to the poor of her town. Now, the way that the wording is in this document could also suggest that it was Agnes herself who was the one referred to as being poor, and the man with the connection to her father was merely showing kindness to a woman he had known when she was young by giving her money because the worthless husband was nowhere to be found.

Agnes had to endure the usual pains and tribulations of family life alone most of the time. For example, the boy of the twins died in one of the plague years that came through the English countryside every few decades. On the other hand, she celebrated the marriage of Susanna to a local doctor named Hall; the union produced a granddaughter for Agnes, a bright child named Elizabeth. The girl twin, Judith, married a tavern owner. So, she bore the good and bad of the years largely alone with only infrequent visits from the absent husband.

Despite being older than the husband, he died first. In his will, he left her the “second-best bed” while granting most of his possessions to Susannah. He did not even mention Agnes by name. When she did pass, she made the odd request to be buried next to her husband. Oh, and Agnes is only one name the records of the time have for her. The other name listed for her is Anne. Her epitaph, written by her son-in-law, the good Dr. Hall, says,

“Breasts, O mother, milk and life thou didst give. Woe is me—for how great a boon shall I give stones? How much rather would I pray that the good angel should move the stone so that, like Christ’s body, thine image might come forth! But my prayers are unavailing. Come quickly, Christ, that my mother, though shut within this tomb may rise again and reach the stars.”

That lovely epitaph is on a plaque placed under the inscription:

“Here lies Anne, the wife of William Shakespeare.”

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