Shakespearian Popery?

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The Pope’s visit to England makes this seem a suitable time to look again at the old question about whether Shakespeare’s father John Shakespeare was a Roman Catholic. If the Pope of his day had sailed up the Thames to meet the Queen (prior to her excommunication in 1570, when she became fair game for an assassination by any Roman Catholic) would John have been keen to take his family down to London to greet him and his entourage, and perhaps to present them with pairs of hand-made gloves?

It’s a difficult question with lots of conflicting evidence. We don’t know for certain when John was born, but it was probably before 1530, that is to say before the English Reformation, and if so he would inevitably have received a Roman Catholic upbringing. But we don’t know if he retained, or reverted to, his Roman Catholic faith during Queen Elizabeth 1’s reign, when it would have been both illegal and highly inconvenient to do so. If he did, it would mean that William was brought up in a covertly Roman Catholic household.

This is perfectly possible. Throughout the sixteenth century and beyond, Roman Catholics practised their faith in Warwickshire and in many other parts of the country, sometimes secretly, sometimes openly, risking prosecution and persecution. They were called recusants, and they paid a substantial monthly fine rather than attend Protestant services. So if John Shakespeare was a crypto-Roman Catholic, he was not alone.

But was he? His children were all baptized, and he was buried in 1601, with Anglican rites. He accepted public office, as, successively, burgess, alderman, and bailiff – mayor – of Stratford-upon-Avon which would have made it impossible for him to avoid attending church services at that time. Under his auspices as Acting Chamberlain in 1564, the painted images in the Guild Chapel were ordered to be defaced as part of the process of change from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism, and in 1571, as chief alderman, he attended the council meeting at which it was ordered that ‘Romish’ vestments and copes remaining in the Guild Chapel should be sold off.

In 1592, however, after he had fallen on relatively hard times, he was in trouble for not attending church services. It was reported that this was because he feared that if he showed himself in public he would have been in danger of being prosecuted for debt. The alternative theory is that he was a recusant. But two certificates issued by the Commissioners for recusancy in Warwickshire in 1592 distinguish clearly between those suspected of absence from church services for religious reasons and those suspected because there they might easily be served with warrants for their arrest, and in both lists John is among those of whom ‘It is said that [they] come not to church for fear of process for debt.’

The principal support for the belief that John was a recusant is a document of uncertain provenance known as the Borromeo testament. The first evidence of its existence dates from 1789 when the vicar of Stratford, James Davenport, told the scholar Edmond Malone of a six-leaf manuscript lacking its opening which is now referred to as the Spiritual Last Will and Testament of John Shakespeare. It derives from the ‘Last Will of the Soul, made in health for the Christian to secure himself from the temptations of the devil at the hour of death’ composed, probably in the 1570s, by Cardinal Carlo Borromeo at a time of terrible plague. It is assumed that John Shakespeare acquired a copy of this formulaic document, filled his name in the blanks (or, since he appears not to have been able to write, got someone else to do it for him), and hid it (though the final paragraph asserts the writer’s intention to carry it continually about him and to have it buried with him.) Malone, assured by Davenport of the authenticity of the Stratford version of this document, decided to print it. In 1790 the Stratford poet and wheelwright John Jordan, who also acted as a self-appointed purveyor of Shakespearian anecdote and legend, sent Malone a collections of papers concerned with Shakespeare which included a manuscript copy of the will. This had now acquired a manuscript opening clearly invented by Jordan, who claimed that in 1757 a master-bricklayer, Joseph Mosley, had found the will in the rafters of John Shakespeare’s house. Suspicion about its authenticity, however, is cast by the fact that Jordan invented its opening.

So all in all this must remain yet another topic on which scepticism seems appropriate.

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Author:Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells is Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells or visit his website
  • Dom

    August 16th – October 8th available 7 days a week. October 9th – October 31st available Sunday – Thursday night only (activities available Fridays). Based on availability.

  • Cookrb1

    Excellent summary of the evidence for John Shakespeare's most likely Anglican practice.

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