Catholic History

`William Shakespeare, he wrote, 'died a papyst.'


By Kevin Hilferty

WAS Shakespeare a Catholic or a Protestant? No one knows. Over the centuries Catholics, Anglicans and agnostics have claimed him.

The Anglicans point out that he and his children were baptised in the Anglican Holy Trinity church in Stratford on Avon, Shakespeare is buried there and that his plays show a knowledge of the English Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. Catholics respond that Holy Trinity had been a Catholic church for centuries, the clergyman who baptised him was known to be Catholic at heart, Shakespeare's plays display a considerable knowledge of Catholic teaching, doctrine and practice and his sympathies are generally Catholic.

A recent BBC TV series, In Search of Shakespeare, by Michael Wood and a fine accompanying book examine the facts, such as we know them. The best response the author can offer is that Shakespeare was a man of his turbulent times, he kept his religious beliefs (if any) very much to himself and so he survived.


But the Catholic connections of his family were known and brought down on them the power of the law, in the form of heavy fines and even execution for refusing to conform to the new State religion of Protestantism.

When Shakespeare was born in Stratford-on-Avon in April 1564 England had been a Protestant country for more than 30 years. So it was to remain. Shakespeare's life and his rise to eminence as a playwright came under Elizabeth I and James I, who both repressed Catholics.

They employed a network of spies, informers, bounty hunters and double agents. Their detailed reports into every aspect of peoples' lives can still be seen in the Public Record Office in London.

Michael Wood is a skilled historian and documentary-maker; readers may recall his series on Alexander the Great and the Spanish Conquistadors. This series has the advantage of lush photography of the English countryside and ancient buildings as well as the Royal Shakespeare Company performing excerpts from the plays. While the recorded facts about Shakespeare's life are limited to some church and legal documents, Wood and the BBC researchers have turned up some fascinating items that cast a new light on his times.

The Shakespeare and Arden families: The poet's father, John Shakespeare, was a glover and wool-broker and a local alderman and bailiff (equivalent to mayor) of Stratford. He was a Catholic and a few months before the birth of William, the town council commissioned him to destroy the medieval paintings that covered the walls of the guild chapel, next door to the guildhall and the school. But John and the council left the stained glass in place, partitioned off the chancel to preserve the paintings there and thinly coated the others with whitewash. They were uncovered in 1804 and some of them can still be seen today.

John's wife, Mary Arden, of Wilmcote, Warwickshire, came from an ancient Catholic family. She was one of seven daughters of a prosperous farmer. They would have sent young Will to the excellent local grammar school, where the curriculum was aimed at creating conforming members of the Protestant state. Two of the six teachers during Shakespeare's time were Catholics and one went to a seminary in Douai and became a Jesuit.

It is easier to get older
than to get wiser.

But trouble was looming for John Shakespeare. In 1572 he was fined for breaking the laws protecting the monopoly of the Staple of Wool Merchants. He had been shopped by a government informant as a 'brogger' - an illegal wool dealer. In 1576 Elizabeth began a new drive against her Catholic subjects. Anyone who held civic office had to swear allegiance to the Queen in matters of religion. This led to John and his Catholic friends leaving their posts on Stratford Council. Recusants - Catholics who absented themselves from the Protestant communion and service - were to be fined or imprisoned. For this offence, John was fined heavily.

In 1757 workmen in John's old home in Stratford found concealed in the roof a six-page Catholic testament of faith in English, signed on each page by John Shakespeare. The document, since lost, was long dismissed as a forgery. It is now recognised as genuine and a 16th century translation of a spiritual testament composed in Latin in the 1570s by Cardinal St Charles Borromeo of Milan. Called The Last Will the Soul, it was for Catholics threatened with religious persecution. The Jesuit missionaries Edmund Campion and Robert Persons stayed with the Cardinal on their way to England and may well have taken copies with them.

In his testament John sought the protection of the Virgin Mary, asked his family to arrange for Masses for his soul after his death and promised 'that I will patiently endure and suffer all kind of infirmity, sickness and, yea the pain of death itself' rather than abandon the Catholic faith.'

In 1583 Shakespeare's family was caught up in tragedy. The head of the Arden family (of which the poet's mother was a member) was Edward Arden, a prominent landowner of Park Hall, Warwickshire. He was a Catholic who maintained a priest, Father Hugh Hall, disguised as a gardener, to say Mass. He had a powerful enemy in Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Elizabeth's enforcer in the Midlands.

Arden's son-in-law, a deranged young man called John Somerville, was arrested in October, 1583 in a village on the road to London. It was claimed that he had waved a gun around and made threats against the Queen. The news attracted the interest of Elizabeth's Secretary of State and spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham. Always ready to exaggerate (or invent) a plot, Walsingham acted swiftly. Arden was arrested and joined Somerville in the Tower as did his wife Mary Arden, their daughter Mrs Somerville and Father Hall all accused of plotting to kill the Queen and high treason.

Arden and Hall were tortured on the rack. Then, despite a total lack of evidence against them, Arden, Somerville, Father Hall and Mrs Arden were condemned to death. Somerville was found dead in his cell, strangled either by his own hand or more likely that of a paid killer. Arden was dragged behind a horse on a hurdle (a type of sledge) from Newgate Prison to the execution place at Smithfield where he was subjected to a prolonged ritual of death: briefly hanged then cut down and ritually butchered.


Shakespeare"s birthplace in Stratford

A diary written by a priest imprisoned in the Tower that year records his death in these words: 'December 20. Edward Arden was led to the scaffold and there hanged, protesting his innocence of that which he was accused and claiming that his real crime was profession of the Catholic faith, with his usual high spirit, protesting to the last his innocence of anything save being a Catholic: Father Hall died in prison and Mrs Arden was released.

Shakespeare the actor and playwright: William Shakespeare appears in the records in November, 1582 when he married Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior and pregnant at the time. The marriage did not take place in Stratford, where the vicar was a staunch Protestant, but in the village of Temple Grafton where the vicar was an old priest suspected of being a Catholic.

Their daughter Susanna was christened at Holy Trinity on May 26, 1583 and twins Hamnet and Judith on February 2, 1585; they were named after their neighbours and godparents, Hamnet and Judith Sadler, both Catholics. With his father in financial difficulties, William Shakespeare became the family's principal earner. He appears to have left Anne and his children with his parents while he set out to make his mark.

After the birth of the twins, there is no report of Shakespeare until 1592 when a jealous reference by a rival showed that already he was a playwright of repute, having written Richard II. His historical plays, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, featuring the character Sir John Falstaff were great hits. They touched a nostalgic chord with their audience as they looked back at England's history with its splendours and cruelties and mediaeval Catholic past.

The police records show Shakespeare living in London, with a French Huguenot (Protestant) family in the theatre district around Shoreditch and in the parish of St Helen's, Bishopsgate. According to a diarist of the time, Shakespeare went home once a year, during Lent when the theatres were closed. He kept in touch with his origins, using Warwickshire dialect in his plays and took the names of his characters from tombstones; two names in Henry V, Bardolph and Fluellen, appear in a list of Stratford recusants.

Shakespeare acquired as a patron the Earl of Southampton and joined a new company of players founded by Lord Hunsdon, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, as an actor and playwright.

It was common for great men to found such companies. The astute Sir Francis Walsingham knew that the theatre was the main form of public communication. In 1583 he founded the Queen's Men who were to tour the country to spread Protestantism and royalist propaganda.

By 1596, at 32, Shakespeare was recognised as England's greatest poet (for Venus and Adonis) and playwright. In August of that year his son Hamnet died and within a few months Shakespeare had acquired for his family one of the biggest houses in Stratford, New Place.

Anne Hathaway's cottage in the village of Shottery.

New hits followed with Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream. In 1599 Shakespeare and his backers put together funding and built the Globe Theatre in Southwark, on the south bank of the Thames and not far from the present reconstruction of the Globe stands today. The original Globe held 3,300 people - more than twice the number that can be accommodated in the new building on Bankside.

The Globe opened with Julius Caesar followed by As You like It then in early 1601 Twelfth Night, Troilus and Cressida and his great drama, Hamlet. In September of that year John Shakespeare died and was buried in the Stratford churchyard. By this time William was becoming rich and he acquired land and houses in and around Stratford.

Shakespeare and his company were commissioned each Christmas to entertain Elizabeth with his newest plays at Hampton Court. But in 1603 the old Queen died and was succeeded by James I. It was noticed at the time that Shakespeare did not produce a new poem to commemorate either event. The Lord Chamberlain's Men became the King's Men and Shakespeare became a Gentleman Groom of the Privy Council.

In 1605, as Shakespeare was writing King Lear, the defining event of James' reign, the Gunpowder Plot was revealed. This was claimed to be a Catholic attempt to blow up Parliament and the King. Guy Fawkes was arrested and the principal plotters were hunted down and killed. Show trials of some of the conspirators underlined the official line that the plotters had been spurred on by the Jesuits. Powder Day was initiated to commemorate the plot and, transformed with its anti-Catholic message into Bonfire Night, it is still celebrated in parts of England and Ulster.

A new law was passed under which everyone had to receive Protestant communion at least once a year or pay a huge fine of 20 pounds in the first year, 40 pounds in the second year and 60 pounds in each succeeding year. Among the 21 people brought before the church court at Stratford in May 1606 for not receiving communion at Easter were the poet's daughter, Susanna, and many of his old friends including Hamnet and Judith Sadler, the godparents of his twins.

For and against

To his brother `Bobus': 'Brother, you and I are exceptions to the laws of nature. You have risen by your gravity, and I have sunk by my levity.'

- Sydney Smith, [1771-1845] wit, co-founder of the Edinburgh Review and Anglican Clergyman, quoted in The Smith of Smiths, by Hesketh Pearson, 1934.

Shakespeare was back in Stratford in 1607 for the marriage of Susanna to Dr John Hall, a moderate Puritan. In 1608 Shakespeare made another shrewd move into theatrical real estate. The Globe had proved a poor venue during the long, cold winters so he and his friends leased the indoor theatre at Blackfriars as their winter home. On the north side of the Thames, not far from St Paul's, it was a great success for them.

In a burst of creativity between 1599 and 1606 he had written at least 14 plays. This was to continue into his closing theatre years, with The Tempest, Cymbelline and Pericles. In 1613, he was back in London arranging to buy the gatehouse at Blackfriars, adjacent to the indoor theatre. The property had long been known to the authorities as a Catholic safe house, protected by a maze of tunnels and passages - a puzzling purchase.

Also in 1613 the King's Men put on a play based on the life of Henry VIII - the break with Rome, his divorce from Katherine of Aragon and his relationship with Anne Boleyn. It was initially performed in Blackfriars, where Henry's court had sat to hear the King's divorce process and where his Black Parliament had authorised the break with Rome. It would have been impossible to stage this play in Elizabeth's time, with its sympathetic treatment of Katherine. The play is known today as Henry VIII but Shakespeare called it All Is True.

In April, 1616 Shakespeare died and was buried in Holy Trinity Church. His life had encompassed a time of great change in England, from a land of simple Catholicism to a fiercely aggressive Protestantism, imposed as the old hymn used to say by Dungeon, Fire and Sword. There is some interesting testimony from Archdeacon Richard Davies, a 17th century Gloucestershire clergyman and historian. 'William Shakespeare,' he wrote, 'dyed a Papyst.'

But until further evidence shows up, the question of Shakespeare's religious convictions must remain open. There is no record that, unlike his father and daughter, he was fined or charged as a recusant.

Danger in generalising

IF I say 'England defeated Australia in 1954' it is merely a matter of cricket. But if I say 'Germany defeated France in 1940' it is an affair of whole armies and nations and thousands of people killed. In other words, even national names like these are apt to be ambiguous, and still more so are words like Peace or Freedom or Democracy. A more serious danger than ambiguity, however, is that some of these abstract terms may not stand for any real entity at all. People are so used to coining words like these that they can too easily imagine that they have only to invent a new word and a new entity will automatically come into existence. Words like England or France denote bits of the Earth's surface, and they also denote real societies of human beings, bound together by common language traditions and loyalty. But it does not follow that we can take any other bit of the Earth's surface, call it by one name and assume that that too will become a single society of men and women. Names like Nigeria, Sudan or India are by no means on all fours with names like Britain or the US, and one result of imagining that they are is that people may try to give what they call self-government to a purely imaginary nation. The attempt cost a great deal of bloodshed between India and Pakistan, and it may yet have the same effect in Nigeria and Sudan. Indeed, that very word 'self-government' is a dangerous one - even where a more or less homogeneous society is concerned. For no society really governs itself. It is governed by human rulers; and to give what is called self-government to people who are not united by a common loyalty is more likely to give them tyranny or anarchy or civil war.

- Green-Armytage, quoted in Taking Stock, Collected Writings of A.H.N. Green-Armytage, ed. Janet Kovesi Watt, Perth 2001 [available from 1 Kott Tee, Claremont WA 6010. $28 includes postage anywhere in Australia].

I went to hear Michael Wood speak about his book and TV series in Bath in 2003. He gave an informative and entertaining account of how he had gone about his research then told of an intriguing piece of evidence that emerged too late to be included in the book and TV series.

This concerned the poem, The Turtle and the Dove, a love elegy attributed to Shakespeare in 1601. Scholars have different opinions about this work and there were doubts about its authorship.

Recent textual research has established that Shakespeare wrote it to commemorate a Catholic widow, Mrs Anne Line, executed at Tyburn on February 27, 1601 - Shakespeare's only elegy.

But Anne Line was more than just a simple widow. She was born in Dunmow, Essex, in the late 1560s. Her parents, William and Anne Heigham, were ardent Calvinists who had become rich from the spoils of the suppressed monasteries. While Anne and her brother William were still in their teens they became Catholics so her parents disinherited them and drove them from home.

Soon after this, Anne married Roger Line, also a convert. In 1585 Roger, then 19, and Anne's brother William were arrested for assisting at Mass. Roger was sent into exile in Flanders where he died in 1594 and William became a Jesuit brother in Spain.

Anne, although still young, was an invalid. But she accepted an invitation from a Jesuit missionary, John Gerard, to administer a house he had established in London for priests. She managed the finances, did the housekeeping, answered inquiries, taught children and embroidered vestments. After Gerard's arrest and subsequent escape from the Tower in 1597, the house was no longer safe.

So she moved to another house where she took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. On Candlemas Day, February 2, 1601, she invited an unusually large number of Catholics to Mass. The crowd attracted attention and the constables arrived. The celebrant, Francis Page SJ, escaped but Anne and some of the congregation were arrested.

On February 26, she was tried before Lord Chief Justice Popham and sentenced to death for harbouring a priest. But as the priest had not been found, the charge was unproved. In the climate of the times, such legal niceties did not trouble the authorities and the next day Anne was dragged on a hurdle to Tyburn where she was hanged. Martyred with her were two priests, Blessed Mark Barkworth OSB and Blessed Roger Filcock SJ, who had long been a friend and confessor of Anne. Anne was beatified in 1935 and canonised as St Anne Line in 1970; her feast day is February 27.

The executions would have been the talk of London at the time and highlighted the risks of being known or suspected as being a Catholic or even a sympathiser. Yet Shakespeare - on this evidence - seems to have taken this risk.

It all adds to the mystery of Shakespeare and his allegiance or otherwise to England's Old Faith.

The ABC ran the TV series of In Search of Shakespeare over four Sundays in October, 2004 beginning at 2pm - hardly prime time. But the DVD and videos of the production are available from ABC Shops for $40.95. Wood's excellent book from Random House with its fine illustrations is widely available at $29.95. It is worth checking your local library for the book and DVD.

KEVIN HILFERTY is a Sydney journalist with an interest in English Catholic history and is a regular contributor to Annals Australia.

From "Annals Australasia" March 2005

Portal to all Annals Australasia and Dr Leslie Rumble files


Sean Ó Lachtnáin's Home Page