1.5. Interview via FAQs (2002)

Helen Moorwood 2013

1.5. (10) Mainly about the Shakespeares’ Catholicism

 Were the Shakespeares Catholic?

There seems very little doubt to me and many others that they were. So many early reports stated this explicitly and so many other documentary details associate him explicitly with known Catholics. It might be appropriate to mention here (at the risk of repetition elsewhere) that I was reared in a Congregationalist community, with a fairly solid Non-conformist ancestry (in some cases back to Shakespeare’s life-time), including a strong Methodist element, and was even (I regret to report) discouraged from playing with local Catholic children, not that they were too thick on the ground in our street. I hope that this already establishes that I have no Catholic axe to grind and am just interested in the facts and whatever final story might emerge from these.

Which early reports associated the Shakespeares with Catholicism?

Let us take as our starting point the bare documentary facts reported by Schoenbaum, who is regarded (quite rightly) as one of the most authoritative scholarly commentators in the late 20th century on Shakespeare biographical details. He approached all from a scrupulously secular stance and, perhaps inevitably, came to non-sectarian conclusions.

(1) William was associated in print in his lifetime with Robert Parsons, the leading Jesuit in Rome (Speedin 1611).

(2) Two independent reports were written down within a couple of generations after his death that he ‘died a papist’ (in Fuller’s Worthies in 1662 and by Rev. Richard Davies around the same time).

(3) In 1613 he bought Blackfriars Gatehouse. (Schoenbaum neglected to mention that this was a building renowned as a hiding place for Catholic priests, and that this purchase was together with three Catholics.) 

(4) John Shakespeare and William’s daughter Susanna both appeared on recusant lists (John in 1580 and 1592 and Susanna in 1606).

(5) One piece of hard evidence is John Shakespeare’s ‘Spiritual Testament’, hidden in the rafters of the Shakespeare house in Henley Street in Stratford, presumably sometime in the late 16th century during the most virulent anti-Catholic campaigns, but in any case found there in 1757 during renovations. The full text and story is in Schoenbaum, who reports on various previous doubts but concluded that there was no longer any doubt that it was authentic. Despite reporting the facts above he concluded they were conforming Anglicans. What he neglected to report was:

(6) John Shakespeare paid a Catholic teacher (William Allen from Lancashire) in Stratford out of his own pocket in 1564 (Milward, Enos).

(7) Catholic tradition tells us that William was educated by a Benedictine monk Dom Thomas Combe/ Coombes from 1572 onwards (Joseph Gillow, A Bibliographical Dictionary of the English Catholics, 5 Vols, London, 1885-1902).

(8) It was claimed at the time that most actors were ‘papists’ and the theatre was associated totally by the Puritans with ‘papistry’.

(9) Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton and dedicatee of his two long poems in 1593 and 1594, was Catholic.

What are your conclusions?

It hardly seems to require a great leap of imagination, in the light of the facts above, to conclude that the Shakespeares might well have been Catholic and if you put together all the dates, we find not just isolated incidents but a lifelong commitment that was well known to a large number of people. The surprising thing is that it has taken so long for so many to accept this. I can only conclude and explain this because of a general reluctance for so long to accept the importance of Catholicism and various Catholic individuals in the mainstream of English history. They were excluded from any public functions during Elizabeth’s reign unless they swore the Oath of Allegiance, which many committed Catholics found difficult or impossible, as it placed Elizabeth above the Pope. Similar laws were enforced after the Glorious Revolution, and they continued to suffer until the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, and even long after this from prejudice if not before the law. The way they survived with their beliefs intact was mainly by keeping their heads down and not attracting too much attention. All this, it seems, led to a reluctance by Victorians to accept that the National Poet was not an adherent of the national religion, even as all the facts listed above become known, and this prejudice has lingered on until today.

How do your findings contribute to this?

Mary’s ancestry provided her with endless kinsmen who were Catholic and Jesuit priests, including John Arderne, who escaped from the Tower with Jesuit John Gerard(another kinsman), brother of one of the closest friends (Thomas Gerard of Bryn) of Mary’s cousin (Thomas Arderne), who both accompanied the Earl of Derby to France in 1585 (Coward). The history of a Catholic network throughout the country is well documented and well known (Fraser), but it was never known until now quite where Mary’s family fitted in. One important set of relatives were these Gerards of Bryn near Wigan, notorious recusants involved in several plots to free Mary, Queen of Scots (Baines, Farrer); their daughters married into all the local Catholic gentry families, including the Ardernes and the Hoghtons (Ormerod, Baines, Farrer). Another important family (who were Mary’s ancestors and close kinsmen via other Stanley-Arderne marriages) was the Stanleys of Hooton in Cheshire, the senior line of the family whose junior line became the Earls of Derby (Ormerod).The most famous/ notorious Elizabethan member of this family was Sir William Stanley‘The Adventurer/ Traitor’ (depending on which side you were on), who provided the Catholic sword when Cardinal William Allen(from Lancashire) provided the Catholic word from the community in exile.

But does just being related to these mean that she actually knew them?

As mentioned above, the Catholic network ensured that many of them did stay in regular contact. Anyone who has studied the history of this period and taken a close look at Visitation Pedigrees knows that these families made sure they stayed allied by arranging a marriage every few generations with the same families. This was partly for ancestral reasons and, of course, partly financial, by raising the chances of lands staying in the same families even in the case of a male line dying out. Bearing or quartering the same coat of arms also provided affinities, and several Stanley families quartered the Arderne arms, including the Stanleys of Weever in Cheshire and Elford in Staffordshire (Ormerod). There is documentary proof of these families staying in touch over generations, including Mary’s great-grandfather Thomas popping back to Cheshire from Leicestershire in 1500 for a Stanley land transaction, marrying his son and heir to a Gerard of Bryn, the Cheshire family retaining a memory of their branch in the Midlands in 1580 when they added them to their own Visitation Pedigree (Ormerod, Earwaker,Rylands) and the public acknowledgement of Mary’s ancestry in the Cheshire family in the coat of arms grant of 1599 (Gough Nichols, Howard).

And your final conclusion?

 No other conclusion makes sense of the facts above but that the whole family was Catholic and Mary’s Midlands family stayed very much in touch with their relatives in Lancashire and Cheshire.


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