In 1930 the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust purchased a property in the village of Wilmcote near Stratford-upon-Avon, made some improvements to it, added some authentic Tudor furniture and other contemporary everyday items and declared it to be the birthplace and home of William Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden. This belief was based on supposed historical evidence dating back to the 18th century, when a historian unearthed records of the Arden family in Wilmcote who made the connection with the property based on the rather flimsy fact that Mary’s father, Robert was a wealthy farmer who lived in the village.
For many years after that the Trust proudly showed thousands of tourists and school children around the beautiful half timbered house facing the road in leafy Wilmcote, telling people all about the time when Mary Arden lived there in the sixteenth century. The image of the lovely house (top of page) was on chocolate box lids, tea towels and postcards and tourists bought dozens of mementoes of Mary Arden’s House to take home with them. This for example was a jigsaw puzzle box lid from the 1940s:
My first visit to the house was on a school trip from the Hillmorton County School near Rugby, also in Warwickshire, on a day visiting Shakespeare’s town of Stratford sometime in the 1960s. I don’t have any real recollection of that trip because it was over forty years ago but I do remember visiting with French town twinning guests from Evreux in 1977 and later taking visitors there when I lived in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1986 to 1987 on every occasion sticking to the official Mary Arden Story.
On 12th February 1995 I took my ten year old daughter Sally to visit Stratford and naturally included a visit to Mary Arden’s House which by this time was also a countryside and agricultural heritage museum and inside the house Trust members were on hand to provide a comprehensive historical narrative. A very comprehensive narrative indeed by an elderly gentleman and one that went on at great length about Tudor life and how Mary Arden had sat in front of the fire in the Great Hall, helped prepare food in the kitchen and had slept in one of the bedrooms on the first floor. It was all very interesting information but it subsequently turned out to be a lot of old nonsense!
In 2000 the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust had a huge shock because during routine timber treatment, it was discovered that the wood used to construct the house was dated too late to be linked to Mary Arden’s early life and this couldn’t therefore be her house after all, she hadn’t sat in the Great Hall or helped out in the kitchen and further historical research revealed that the large house actually belonged to a family called Palmer, and had to be promptly re-named Palmer’s Farm.
For a while it was thought that Mary Arden’s family home was lost to history and the Trust had lost a valuable asset and tourist trap. Lucky for them then that another small house on the estate which they had purchased in 1968 with a view of demolition and close to Palmer’s Farm, was also wood tested and technology was able to pin point the time the wood in this house was cut. The Birthplace Trust declared this to be the Spring of the year 1514, the dates tallied with Mary Arden and the members of the Trust breathed a huge collective sigh of relief.
This time the Trust carried out more thorough research and what the records revealed was that Shakespeare’s grandfather, Robert Arden, had bought the land in Wilmcote in 1514 and built the house that had sat next to Palmer’s Farm, The house that for hundreds of years was largely overlooked and ignored because it was considerably less interesting than the farm house. Mary Arden’s house had been there in Wilmcote all the time, smaller and more modest than anyone had thought.
The last time I visited Mary Arden’s house (the real one that is) was in 2010 and as I paid my admission charge I was minded to ask for a refund on all the previous visits on the basis that I had been seriously misled and provided with false information on several previous visits. Sadly however, although the Birthplace Trust itself is now clear about which house belonged to who many other tourist web sites still show a picture of Palmer’s Farm instead of Mary Arden’s house because it is significantly more picturesque and interesting.