In this OUPblog series, Lena Cowen Orlin, author of the “detailed and dazzling” The Private Life of William Shakespeare, explores key moments in the Bard’s life. From asking just when was Shakespeare’s birthday, to his bequest of a “second-best bed,” to his own funerary monument, you can read the complete series here.
Was Shakespeare raised Catholic?
Biographical writing about Shakespeare began within 50 years of his death. In Stratford-upon-Avon, there arose a cottage industry in local anecdotes and latter-day legends. The late eighteenth-century wheelwright and self-styled antiquarian John Jordan was an especially prolific source of Shakespeare stories. One concerned the religion of Shakespeare’s father.
In 1784, Jordan reported that, nearly 30 years earlier, a bricklayer had discovered a pamphlet in the rafters of the building we know as “Shakespeare’s Birthplace.” It was a formulary for any member of the “holy Catholic religion” who might find himself on his deathbed without a priest to perform the last rites. The pamphlet lacked a first page, but Jordan called it the “Spiritual Last Will and Testament of John Shakespeare.” Each article of faith indicated that “I, John Shakespear, do protest,” or “pardon,” or “pray,” as ordained. Because the pamphlet was soon lost, we do not know whether a single hand had written the entire text, whether a second hand had filled in pre-devised blanks with John Shakespeare’s name, or whether the closing subscription was an autograph. (If so, it would have been the only known instance of a John Shakespeare signature; in all other documents, he signed with a mark.) The editor Edmond Malone published a transcript of the pamphlet, but sceptically, and he eventually concluded that it had no connection to “any one of our poet’s family.”
Shakespearians asked themselves whether Jordan had fabricated the “Spiritual Testament,” as he had done other supposed relics. In 1923, however, Herbert Thurston established the early modern authenticity of the tract when he discovered a Spanish translation attributed to the sixteenth-century cardinal San Carlo Borromeo and published in Mexico City in 1661. Other Mexican editions were then identified, most from the eighteenth century. The version that finally brought us closest to John Shakespeare, who died in 1601, was an English-language text of Borromeo’s Testament of the Soul printed in 1638.
This link between John Shakespeare and Roman Catholicism will always be shadowed by its origin story. Jordan gave contradictory reports of the “discovery,” the document was found in a building 150 years after John Shakespeare had lived there, and with its loss went all opportunity to verify paper, ink, and hand. The Testament gained biographical traction, however, when paired with a document discovered by the eminent archivist Robert Lemon and published by John Payne Collier in 1844. Here we were on much surer ground, with an official report commissioned by the Queen’s Privy Council in 1592. Amid fears of a Spanish invasion, local authorities were charged to identify men and women who did not attend Church of England services (as was compulsory at the time). Such “recusancy” seemed a likely symptom of Spanish sympathy. The list of suspect names returned by Warwickshire commissioners included that of John Shakespeare. Many biographers believe that the report proves John Shakespeare to have been a Roman Catholic.
This is to misread the document, which was a terror watch list. The commissioners separated their collection of names into risk categories. “Dangerous” and “seditious” recusants travelled to Continental seminaries, harboured Catholic priests, delivered secret letters “between papist and papist,” refused to profess loyalty to the queen, or took their children to “popish” priests for baptism rather than to the parish church. Most of these “obstinate” recusants were later noted in the report’s margins to have been “indicted.” John Shakespeare was in a different category entirely, one of a group who “come not to church for fear of process for debt” – that is, to avoid being jailed for failing to repay his creditors.
In Tudor England it was illegal for sheriffs to enter private homes to make arrests; their sting operations were conducted at parish churches. From the late 1570s through the 1590s, when John Shakespeare was sued repeatedly for debt and multiple warrants were issued for his arrest, sheriffs would have waited for him at Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church. In other words, he had good reason to stay away. For the Warwickshire commissioners to describe John Shakespeare as a man who avoided church in order to avoid arrest was their way of saying that he was not a “wilful” recusant—that is, not absent by choice. They placed a confirming checkmark next to his name, not the word “indicted.”
There are few other signs that John Shakespeare was a non-conformist. He baptised eight children at Holy Trinity, for example. His withdrawal from civic office in 1586 has sometimes been attributed to recusancy, but this, too, was a consequence of financial failure. He was asked to step down after he ceased paying his share of the officers’ expenses. If his son was raised Catholic, neither the “Spiritual Testament” nor the Warwickshire commissioners’ report confirms it. Instead, the evidence shows that Shakespeare was raised by a man who had an early spurt of great success but who then suffered a business collapse from which he would never recover.
Featured image: Interieur van de Holy Trinity Church te Stratford-upon-AvonStratford-on-Avon The Parish Church-the Chancel via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)