Page 6, 21st September 1962

21st September 1962
Page 6
Page 6, 21st September 1962 — Shakespeare's roots in the faith of Warwickshire

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Organisations: Stratford Grammar School


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Shakespeare's roots in the faith of Warwickshire


IT is odd that people can still maintain that "little is known -I. about Shakespeare." In the streets of magpie timbering that he knew so well, and the very houses Where he and his closest relations lived, you fell very close to the unforbidding genius who looks up, quill poised, with a thoughtful and almost amused expression from his portrait in Warwick Castle.

One of the strangest slanders about Shakespeare is that he was an ignorant country bumpkin, with "little Latin and less Greek." A glance at his life and family will dispel this idea (as well as giving us some unexpected sidelights Of his faith). On his mother's side he came of one of the best families in Warwickshire, the Ardens, while his father's kin were also widespread, Shakespeares being found in no fewer than twentyfive Warwickshire villages.

Among the Shakespeares who must have been of gentle birth was Isabella Shakespeare, Prioress of Wroxall denedictine Nunnery in 1500. A Jane Shakespeare was also sub-Prioress there at the Reformation, and one wonders what became of her when the nuns, as Dugdale says, were "exposed to the wide world to seek their fortune". One of Prioress Isabella's tenants was John Shakespeare, brother of the poet's grandfather.

The head of the Arden family in Shakespeare's time was Edward Arden, High Sheriff of Warwickshire in 1575 and, like all the Ardens, a staunch Catholic. He was hated by Leicester not only for his faith hut because he refused to wear the Earl's livery and called him an "upstart adulterer Leicester waited his chance; and it came in 1583, when Arden's sonin-law. John Somerville, deranged by the troubles of the times and the sufferings of Catholics, set off for London with a crack-brained plot to kill the Queen.


Somerville was caught and tortured. and on the rack was made to implicate Edward Arden as instigator of the plot. Though Obviously innocent, Edward and his wife, brother and daughter, together with Somerville's sister and the family chaplain, Father Hugh Hall, were taken to London and imprisoned.

Edward Arden was hanged, drawn and quartered, and his head set up on London Bridge; while Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote, the local heresy-hunter, combed Stratford for all traces of Pottery • • • Shakespeare's mother and her family were unquestionably Catholic. Anil the course of John Shakespeare's career gives us the clue to his father's faith too. John was an able. intelligent man, and even before his advantageous marriage to Mary Arden he was serving Stratford in such capacities as Juror of the Lee and Ale-Taster. He was later chosen Petty Constable and Chamberlain, and not only re-elected to the latter office but called in to audit the accounts of his successors. In 1586 he was chosen Bailiff, the highest office in the town.

From the mid-1570's the story changes. There are more and more frequent absences from Council meetings, there are debts, sales of land and unsuccessful legal actions.

We probably have the key to his troubles in the lists prepared by Sir Thomas Lucy of those who failed `to come monthly to church according to the law", and thereby incurred a monthly fine of £20 a considerable sum in those days.

lie made frequent appearances in these lists.


Positive evidence of John Shakespeare's faith was discovered in 1757, when a bricklayer found hidden under the roof tiles of his home in Henley Street a copy of his "Spiritual Will", a document distributed by the Jesuits and widely used by Catholics in the days of persecution, expressing their wish to the with the Sacraments, and if this should not be possible begging God to "anoint their senses both internal and external with the sacred oil of His infinite mercy".

From a Catholic home the young William Shakespeare went to a schi.ol where the atmosphere was largely Catholic. Hugh Ross Williamson ("The Day Shakespeare Died") gives illuminating informa

tion about the masters who presided at Stratford Grammar School — whose status was then higher than that of Eton — during Shakespeare's schooldays.

His first master, John Acton, was a Catholic; so was Simon Hunt, who taught him from his seventh to his eleventh year, and then Id: for Douai to become a priest. taking with him a pupil, Robert Debdale. who returned to martyrdom at Tyburn at about the time Shakespeare arrived in London. Another master. John Cottam, was also a Catholic, with a priest brother who also died at Tyburn.

It is interesting too,. to notice how many of the houses with Shakespearian links have also strong Catholic associations. It is said that the poet's wife's family, the Hathaways, who still lived under the deep thatch of their beautiful "cottage" at Shottery down to the present century, were also Catholics, and that the couple were married by an old "massing priest" at Temple Grafton (the place mentioned in the Worcester registers). •


Shakespeare is consistently said to have left Stratford on account of differences with Sir Thomas Lucy. But as there were no deer in Charlecote Park at the time for him to steal, it was probably the tyranny of Lucy's religious persecution that drove the poet to London and to fortune.

And considering his background, it is not surprising that we find in his plays an unusual sympathy with Catholic doctrine and practices, a respect for Catholic Religious coupled with contempt for their Protestant counterparts— and the lampooning of the hated Lucy as Justice Shallow.

Shakespeare's patron, Southampton, was an open Catholic, and at his house Shakespeare must have met not only the leading figures of the Essex and Gunpowder plots, but the poet-priest Robert Southwell, who dedicated a volume of his poems before his torture and death to 'my worthy good cousin Master W.S.' — which may have meant Shakespeare, as the two were distantly related through the Vaux and Throckmortons.

Shakespeare came back to his lovely Warwickshire at the end. It was probably the anti-Catholic feeling in high places that drove him, at the height of his powers, to "break his staff" and retire to Stratford, with the beautiful and wholly Catholic plea for prayers at his passing with which "The Tempest' closes.

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