Shakespeare: Catholic Or Madness?

In 1535, at about the same time Shakespeare’s father John was born, William Tyndale, translator of the Bible into English, was strangled by imperial officers. Henry VIII, who had tried to have him kidnapped, also wanted him silenced. Also in 1535 Henry demanded that Thomas More should swear the Oath of Supremacy declaring that Henry was the head of the Church of England. More refused and was executed; as were Fisher and, among others, the abbots of three of the monasteries that Thomas Cromwell had seized. In 1547-53, under Edward VI, Henry’s son by his third wife, Jane Seymour, Protestantism was doctrinally established. In 1553, Catherine of Aragon’s daughter Mary Tudor succeeded; she restored Catholicism, gently at first, but after her unpopular and childless marriage to Philip II of Spain, and a rebellion, she burnt to death 268 Protestant martyrs. She died in 1558. Her successor Elizabeth gradually established a Church of England which was doctrinally Protestant, episcopal in its church order, but liturgically Catholic; she liked bishops, and the old prayers. In 1570, Pope Pius V issued a bull excommunicating Elizabeth, relieving English Catholics of their allegiance to her, and declaring her illegitimate. The bull led to mass being banned, and to persecution of Catholics. But more English Catholics supported Elizabeth than supported the claim to the English throne of Mary Queen of Scots, executed in 1587. The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 pleased loyalist English Catholics. After the bull of 1570, the next disaster was the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, a conspiracy by Catholic extremists to blow up Parliament and King James I of England. The long-term effect of this has been to make English Catholics try to prove their loyalty to England and its monarchy.

How might all this have affected John Shakespeare? In the first four decades of his life, four official religious regimes had been imposed by Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth. Old Christian habits were shaken, and many citizens must have been confused. John was a glover who became bailiff (mayor) of Stratford. Church attendance was legally compulsory, and his eldest son William, who was six when the Pope excommunicated the Queen, should have attended church in Stratford with him. The church, Holy Trinity, was the old Catholic church, with the Catholic paintings white-washed over. Up to that point, to be a Catholic layman attending the Anglican church, a “church papist”, was not too difficult. But the bull of 1570 changed things. The mission to return England to Catholicism began: English seminary priests and regular priests came back secretly. Some were hung, drawn and quartered as traitors: Edmund Campion, for example, in 1581, when Shakespeare was seventeen.

When Elizabeth succeeded to the throne in 1558, most English people were not Protestant but Catholic. This is a key point, since English historians have seen the Reformation as overdue reform of a corrupt church. The familiar caricature is of monks living like lords off their lands, pluralism, pursy Cardinal Wolsey, the scriptures not allowed in English, the people sleepwalking through external routines, the sale of indulgences. The clergy, except More, Fisher, the abbots, and a few others, especially the Carthusians, did not resist to the death.

Despite Henry’s own conduct, the Reformation led to modern England and was therefore a Good Thing. Perhaps. Recent historians have revised this, Eamon Duffy, for example. In The Stripping of the Altars, Duffy finds no slackening of piety on the eve of the Reformation; on the contrary, he shows people leaving more money to beautify and enrich the parish church, and have masses said. No doubt the church was corrupt, like the human race, semper reformanda. Many people did dislike fat clerics, begging friars and the sale of indulgences, and kings disliked Roman jurisdiction. They had done so in Chaucer’s day. But anticlericalism is not a sufficient explanation for the Reformation; anticlericalism is common in Catholic countries. Besides, there was a Catholic reformation. The Reformation was not popular outside London. It was strongly resisted in the North: Images were hidden, and brought out when Mary Tudor restored Catholicism.

The Reformation, whatever its merits and whatever the sincerity of its advocates, was imposed by the state for reasons of state. Henry wanted his divorce (hoping for a male heir) and sacrificed Wolsey and More, and later Cromwell. He needed the money made by selling off church property: images, plate and especially land. Henry died thinking himself a Catholic. England became a thoroughly Protestant country not in the mid-sixteenth century but under William III after 1690.

The religious regimes imposed by Henry and his three children made people cautious, circumspect. Many Elizabethan Catholics became apparent conformists, “church papists”. There were church puritans too.

Before coming to William Shakespeare, I’ll look briefly at five contemporary writers for comparison. First Spenser and Sidney, ten years older than Shakespeare. Edmund Spenser, author of The Faerie Queene, was a convinced Protestant, puritan and anti-papist all his life. Sir Philip Sidney, author of the Arcadia, was called Philip after his godfather Philip II of Spain, Queen Mary’s husband; and baptised a Catholic. In youth he witnessed the massacre of St Bartholomew, in which 10,000 Protestants were killed. He was killed aged thirty-one, fighting his godfather’s troops in the Spanish Netherlands. Someone has argued that Sidney was a lifelong crypto-Catholic; it seems unlikely, though this was a time of secrecy and conspiracy. Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare’s exact contemporary, killed in a tavern brawl aged twenty-nine, was later accused of atheism; which may just mean dangerous talk. His characters are often non-religious or anti-Catholic; there is some Pope-baiting in his Dr Faustus.

Ben Jonson and John Donne were born in 1572, eight years after Shakespeare. Jonson fought in the Netherlands like Sidney. In jail for killing a fellow actor, he was converted and was “twelve years a papist”; he was interrogated after the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. Donne came from a most Catholic family: his mother was a Catholic until she died in 1631. She was the great-niece of Sir Thomas More, and devoted to his memory. Her brothers were both Jesuits; one of them, Jasper Heywood, the head of the Jesuit mission to England, was imprisoned and exiled. Donne’s brother Henry died aged sixteen, while in jail for harbouring a seminary priest. Donne’s faith failed and he later wrote against Catholic martyrs and Jesuits. He had a large family and needed employment, but James I would not employ him except as an Anglican priest and preacher. The minor poet Robert Southwell SJ was hung, drawn and quartered.

There were anonymous Catholic writers, often called recusants: an official term for those who refused to attend church. But Spenser, Sidney, Marlowe, Donne and Jonson all died apparently Protestant, although Donne and Jonson were Catholics for part of their lives. But appearance was not everything; many non-recusants were also Catholics, apparent conformists, church papists. To be a Catholic you did not have to be a recusant. Consideration of what follows should avoid two false common assumptions: that most people were Protestants in 1558, and that the only Catholics were recusants. There were a lot of crypto-Catholics and a lot of don’t-knows.


Nothing in Shakespeare’s own life-records proves he was a Catholic, and only one thing might suggest that he once had Catholic sympathies: his marriage at the age of eighteen to a woman eight years older, celebrated away from Stratford by a priest who was almost certainly Catholic. Long after his death, after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, we have a note that Shakespeare died a papist. In his lifetime and in the early seventeenth century, there is evidence that his works were seen as pro-Catholic. But in recorded fact, apart from his baptism and marriage and the birth of three children before he was twenty-one, nothing is known about him personally until he appears in London in 1592, aged twenty-eight. What was he doing between 1579, when he probably left school, and 1592?

Before speculating about that, a look at his background: his family, his school, his town, and his county. These all had strong Catholic associations. Here I follow Gary Taylor. “According to Patrick Collinson, the leading authority on religion in early modern England, Warwickshire was slow to embrace the new faith.” Not until the mid-1580s with a new vicar “are there any signs of a watershed in the religious culture of Stratford or evidence of any local influence that could have brought about such a conversion”. Earlier: “it is probable that most members of this community were church papists”.

Shakespeare’s schoolmaster, Simon Hunt, escaped to the Catholic seminary at Douai in 1575, then moved to Rome, eventually becoming a Jesuit; Shakespeare’s schoolfellow, Robert Dibdale, followed the same route, but returned to England in 1580 as a Jesuit missionary, for which he was executed in 1586; another Stratford schoolmaster from 1579 to 1581, John Cottom, was the brother of the priest Thomas Cottom, arraigned along with the Jesuit Edmund Campion, and executed in 1582. Shakespeare’s mother’s family, the Ardens, had many links with recusancy; their cousin John Somerville was arrested in 1583 on his way to London to assassinate Queen Elizabeth. Citing John Aubrey’s claim that Shakespeare “had been in his younger years a schoolmaster in the country”, E.A.J. Honigman has argued that the young William worked for some time in the household of a prominent recusant family in Lancashire.

John Shakespeare was bailiff or mayor of Stratford, but lost municipal office in the 1580s. In 1592, responding to an order by the Privy Council, Commissioners in Stratford listed him on two occasions as one of nine who “refused obstinately to resort to the church”: a recusant. The commissioners suggested that these nine did so for fear of process of debt; it used to be thought that John Shakespeare was bankrupt. But documents discovered in the Exchequer show that he was prosperous in the 1580s and 1590s. The alternative explanation, that he was a conscientious recusant, is supported by a controversial find. In 1757 his soul-testament was found in the roof, signed at the head of each paragraph. This document, composed by Charles Borromeo for Catholics likely to die without a priest, was needed in large numbers. John’s testament was published in 1790, but the original has since been lost.

In 1606 William Shakespeare’s eldest child Susanna was cited in a list of “persons popishly affected”, who refused to receive communion on Easter Sunday. The Gunpowder Plot was on 5th November 1605; its plotters, who used Catholic big houses in northern Warwickshire, were executed in January 1606; the innocent Fr Garnet on 3rd May 1606; it was only a fortnight earlier that Susanna had refused communion — in a country which was red-hot for recusants.

So Shakespeare’s father, mother and daughter had strong Catholic associations. Whatever kept Susanna from Easter communion may have been transmitted from her father. What about this father, and the “lost years”, the 1580s? Aubrey reports that Shakespeare was in his younger years a schoolmaster in the country on the authority of an old actor whose father knew him. One “Shake-shaft” is mentioned in the will of a Catholic landowner in Lancashire, Alexander Houghton, in 1583. Honigman suggests that this Shake-shaft is Shakespeare, that he was a tutor in the household, that he then became a player in Lord Stanley’s company, which came to London.

Why should Shakespeare be in Lancashire? You will remember that the Stratford schoolmaster John Cottom had a brother Thomas, a priest, who was arraigned with Edmund Campion, and executed in 1583. John Cottom left Stratford in 1581. The suggestion is that he went back to his native Lancashire, and recommended his promising pupil to Houghton, a neighbour. Houghton was an important patron of Catholics, and Edmund Campion kept his library there. Campion may be the link between Lancashire and Stratford. Why the different name? Well, Shakespeare’s grandfather was called Shakeshaft; spear and shaft are synonyms. Names were not fixed in spelling or form, and plays on them are common, as in the Shake-speare arms. The first London reference to the playwright calls him Shake-scene. A separate argument is that if Shakespeare were Catholic, an alias would have been prudent in a legal document.

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