John Harvard, Boston and the Shakespeare Association of America

John Harvard

Today the Shakespeare Association of America’s fortieth anniversary meeting begins in Boston. It will be the largest meeting the Association’s ever held, with over 1000 people signed up.

I’ve had a few days to soak up its history of this great city, where you can still see many places associated with the American Revolution including the house from which Paul Revere began his historic midnight ride to Lexington in 1775 to warn of the arrival of British troops.

Most visitors while in Boston also visit Cambridge and the site of one of the USA’s most famous and historic universities, Harvard. This place also has a link with Shakespeare’s home town of Stratford-upon-Avon.

Harvard House

Harvard House in Stratford is the home of Katherine Rogers, the mother of John Harvard. In 1605 she married Robert Harvard, a man much older than her, a butcher and tavern-keeper, at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford.

The couple moved to London where on 26 November 1607 their son John was baptised in St Saviour’s Church, Southwark. Only a month later on 31 December Shakespeare’s young brother, Edmund, was buried in the same church, which was close to the Globe Theatre. Shakespeare must have known Katherine and Robert, and they could hardly have avoided knowing him as a leading member of the King’s Men and the writer of plays for performance before the King.

John Harvard inherited his mother’s estate (she had become quite wealthy through marrying and outliving two husbands) and emigrated to America in 1637 but died only a year later, aged 30. Having no children he left half his estate and his library of books to the planned new college in Cambridge Massachusetts. It was decided to name the college after him, its first major benefactor.  For more on this history, click on this link.

In Harvard Yard stands a statue to John Harvard under which visitors stand to have their pictures taken. It seems to be particularly popular with parents with young children, who touch the toe of the statue, perhaps hoping it will bring them the luck to be able to attend Harvard themselves.

The plaque and stonework from St Saviour's, Southwark

Nearby stands Harvard Memorial Church. In its wall is embedded a piece of stone from St Saviour’s Church in Southwark where Harvard was baptised, a link with the country of his birth, and, unwittingly, a link with William Shakespeare.

Harvard’s parents, like Shakespeare’s, had few advantages, but he was lucky in that his mother became wealthy enough for him to study in Cambridge University in England where he took holy orders before emigrating to America. But like Shakespeare, his is a story of a boy from a humble background who, with the benefit of a grammar school education, was able to make a success of his life and to leave a legacy of which he could never have dreamed.


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