In this OUPblog series, Lena Cowen Orlin, author of “Detailed and Dazzling” The private life of William Shakespeare, explores the key moments in the life of the bard. Whether it’s asking when Shakespeare’s birthday was, his legacy of a “second best bed” or his own grave monument, you can read the full series here.
Was Shakespeare raised Catholic?
Biographical writing on Shakespeare began within 50 years of his death. In Stratford-upon-Avon there has been a cottage industry in local anecdotes and latter-day legends. The late 18th-century wheelwright and self-proclaimed antiquarian John Jordan was a particularly prolific source of Shakespeare stories. One concerned the religion of Shakespeare’s father.
In 1784 Jordan reported that almost 30 years earlier a mason had discovered a pamphlet in the rafters of the building we know as “Shakespeare’s Birthplace”. It was a form for any member of the “holy Catholic religion” who found himself on his deathbed without a priest to perform the last rites. The pamphlet lacked a front page, but Jordan called it the “last spiritual will and testament of John Shakespeare.” Each article of faith indicated that “I, John Shakespear, protest”, or “forgive”, or “pray”, as ordered. Because the pamphlet was quickly lost, we don’t know if a single hand wrote all the text, if a second hand filled in pre-designed blanks with John Shakespeare’s name, or if the closing subscription was a autograph. (If so, this would have been the only known example of a John Shakespeare signature; in all other documents he signed with a mark.) Publisher Edmond Malone published a transcript of the pamphlet, but skeptically, and he eventually concluded that she was unrelated to “any of our poet’s family members”.
Shakespearians have wondered if Jordan fabricated the “Spiritual Testament”, as he did other supposed relics. In 1923, however, Herbert Thurston established the modern authenticity of the tract when he discovered a Spanish translation attributed to the 16th century Cardinal San Carlo Borromeo and published in Mexico City in 1661. Other Mexican editions were later identified, the most of the 18th century. century. The version that finally brought us closer to John Shakespeare, who died in 1601, was an English text by Borromeo Testament of the soul printed in 1638.
This connection between John Shakespeare and Roman Catholicism will always be clouded by his origin story. Jordan gave conflicting reports of the ‘discovery’, the document was found in a building 150 years after John Shakespeare lived there, and with its loss every opportunity to check the paper, ink and hand came to naught. been lost. The Will gained popularity, however, when paired with a document discovered by the eminent archivist Robert Lemon and published by John Payne Collier in 1844. We were on much safer ground here, with an official report commissioned by the Queen’s Privy Council in 1592. Amid fears of a Spanish invasion, local authorities were tasked with identifying men and women who were not attending Church of England services (as this was mandatory at the time). Such “reluctance” seemed a likely symptom of Spanish sympathy. The list of suspect names returned by Warwickshire commissioners included that of John Shakespeare. Many biographers believe the report proves that John Shakespeare was a Roman Catholic.
That’s misinterpreting the document, which was a terrorist watch list. The commissioners separated their collection of names into risk categories. “Dangerous” and “seditious” recusants went to continental seminaries, lodged Catholic priests, delivered secret letters “between papists and papists”, refused to profess fidelity to the queen or took their children to “papist” priests to have them baptized rather than at the parish church. Most of these “obstinate” challengers were later noted in the margins of the report as having been “indicted.” John Shakespeare belonged to an entirely different category, being part of a group who “do not come to church for fear of a debt suit” – that is, to avoid being imprisoned for not repaid its creditors.
In Tudor England, it was illegal for sheriffs to enter private homes to make arrests; their sting operations were carried out in parish churches. From the late 1570s to the 1590s, when John Shakespeare was repeatedly sued for debt and several warrants were issued for his arrest, sheriffs would have waited for him at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford. In other words, he had good reason to stay away. For the Warwickshire Commissioners, describing John Shakespeare as a man who avoided church to avoid arrest was their way of saying he was not a “voluntary” challenger, that is to say not absent by choice. They put a confirmation check mark next to his name, not the word “charged.”
There are few other signs that John Shakespeare was a Maverick. He baptized eight children at Holy Trinity, for example. His retirement from public service in 1586 has sometimes been attributed to reluctance, but this too was a consequence of financial failure. He was asked to resign after he stopped paying his share of officers’ expenses. Whether her son was raised Catholic, neither the “spiritual testament” nor the report of the Warwickshire commissioners confirms it. Instead, the evidence shows that Shakespeare was raised by a man who had an initial spurt of success, but then suffered a business meltdown from which he would never recover.
Featured Image: Interior of Holy Trinity Church te Stratford-upon-AvonStratford-on-Avon The Parish Church-the Chancel via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)