Corporation mace of Stratford-upon-Avon

About the object

© The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust
© The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

The mace

The mace is made of iron and gilded with silver. It has a bowl-shaped head with a damaged crown made of strawberry leaves. Inside this bowl is a plate with the Tudor royal coat-of-arms: a quartered shield with fleur-de-lis and three lions flanked by ostrich feathers, which were originally enamelled. At the other end of the shaft are flanges decorated with cupids and foliage.

The Guild of the Holy Cross

The mace was originally made for the Guild of the Holy Cross in Stratford-upon-Avon. It was used on ceremonial occasions as a symbol of the Guild’s authority to conduct its business and of its status in the town. Guilds were associations of prominent citizens formed for mutual support, to promote members’ interests and for the pursuit of shared purposes. The first mention of the Guild of the Holy Cross is 1269 when it was granted the right to build a hospital to care for sick priests. The Guild prospered, becoming a powerful force within the town, and during the AD 1400s built a new guild hall, a school and almshouses. It administered the education of local children and maintained Clopton Bridge, a crucial trade route for the town. It also had a Guild Chapel, richly decorated with colourful frescoes showing the search for the True Cross on which Jesus was crucified. It is to this period that the shaft of the mace belongs and its head surmounted by a crown.

The Guild and the Reformation

During the Reformation of the mid-1500s, religious guilds such as the Guild of the Holy Cross were suppressed. The Guild’s extensive property, including the Chapel, was confiscated by the Crown. However, an effect of the suppression of guilds was that townspeople across the country were left without an organised voice. In 1553, a royal charter established a new organisation called the Corporation of Stratford-upon-Avon. The town was granted the right to hold markets and the power to set bye-laws and nominate 14 aldermen or burgesses who could act on behalf of the townspeople. The Corporation was also granted all the property of the former Guild of the Holy Cross.

The new Corporation accommodated men of both conservative and more reformist views, whose priorities were to establish ‘a body politic composed of men of sufficient substance’, which by the 1560s had gradually moved to a more firmly established Protestant persuasion. Many of the members of the Corporation were descendants of former patrons of the Guild, lending the change an air of transition rather than revolution. The appropriation by the Corporation of significant objects used by the Guild may have added to this and is most notably illustrated by the mace. In the 1560s the mace was remodelled with the addition of gilding, the flanges and the insertion of the royal coat of arms within the bowl. A second mace was made and the two together were used as symbols of the Corporation’s power of governance.

In 1563 – 64, John Shakespeare, acting chamberlain and an ambitious member of the Corporation, supervised the whitewashing over of the frescoes in the Chapel of the Guild of the Holy Cross and the removal of the rood screen. Shakespeare was subsequently elected High Bailiff of Stratford-upon-Avon. He may well have carried this mace, or had a mace-bearer walk in front of him on official occasions. His position meant that his son, William, could be educated at no charge at the King’s New School, the school formerly set up by the Guild of the Holy Cross, in the old Guildhall.

More information

Background on the mace
Background on the mace from Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Stratford’s ceremonial maces


Chapel of the Guild of the Holy Cross
Background on the Chapel of the Guild of the Holy Cross.

Medieval wall paintings
Paper on the digital reconstruction of the medieval wall paintings in the Chapel of the Guild of the Holy Cross.

Overview of the Reformation from the BBC


A wooden sculpture from the Guild Chapel


A brief overview of guilds


The destruction of stained glass during the Reformation


Shakespeare in 100 objects
Use the ‘older entries’ link to find further objects in the series.

Next section: A bigger picture

Corporation mace of Stratford-upon-Avon