Whether William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon was Catholic or not is of great interest to the modern world because it helps us understand in greater depth the man himself and the wonderful Plays that he wrote.
There can be little doubt based on collective evidence that the Shakespeare and Arden families of Warwickshire, united by the marriage of John Shakespeare and Mary Arden in 1557, were catholics, and remained so for the rest of their lives.
England during sixteenth century England was declared to be a protestant nation under the rule of Elizabeth I and Catholicism could not be publicly practiced. The provincial market town of Stratford upon Avon in middle England was an example of a place which would not let go of its catholic connections.
Following the Protestant faith meant attending church services every Sunday morning and to forego sacrament, the catholic ritual. Those who did not attend were called recusants and were liable to be summoned to questioning by the Clergy in control of the Parish. Their punishments would be recorded at the meetings of town councilors, of which, John Shakespeare was ironically one during William’s childhood.
William Shakespeare, from the age of six, attended the Edward VI Grammar School in the town and was acquainted with tutors there who were of the catholic faith, notably Simon Hunt and John Cottam. His Father, John, held covert meetings at the Henley Street home with catholic sympathizers. The likes of William Allen, William Catesby and later Edmund Campion, William himself would certainly know.
When John Shakespeares fortunes took a tumble in the mid 1570s, William was sent away to finish his education at a catholic seminary in Douai northern France, set up by Simon Hunt who had become a Jesuit Priest, and where he would first meet Poet and Jesuit Robert Southwell.
Before returning to Stratford in 1582, William undertook an unofficial teaching apprenticeship at Hoghton Tower in Lancashire. There was a tie-up between the catholic hot-beds of Lancashire, Warwickshire and London administered by Thomas Cottam, brother of Stratford tutor John. The Cottams were close contacts of the Hoghton family.
Catholic Priests were in disguise of who they were really were in public life. Some even worked as gardeners or labourers. Meanwhile, William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway were to engage in a catholic wedding at Temple Grafton in November 1582 officiated by a Priest Father John Frith.
William had not forgotten a year before, the visit of Edmund Campion to the Shakespeare family home in order to drum up support for a plot to depose Queen Elizabeth and get Mary Stuart released from house arrest. Campion had brought with him a copy for Johns keeping of a spiritual bible called the Borromeo Testament, so called after being written by Carlos Borromeo, Cardinal Bishop of Milan. The spiritual Will was hidden in the roof rafters of the Shakespeare home and not found during the lifetime of either John or William.
Robert Debdale was a childhood friend of William Shakespeare from a family in the village of Shottery. He had followed Simon Hunt to Douai and later to Rome into Jesuit priesthood. On his return to England, he was captured in company of Edmund Campion and executed. This would have saddened William greatly.
The network of catholic contacts would serve the Shakespeare family still further. Virtue of sponsorship from Hugh Clopton of Clopton Manor, William Shakespeare was able to escape the perils of humdrum life in Stratford and make a trip to Italy in the spring of 1585 where he would stay three years. He was reunited with a dying Simon Hunt at the English College in Rome, Robert Southwell was ordained into Priesthood and he encountered Anthony Munday, a catholic sympathizer, a man who he had first known at one of his Fathers secret gatherings many years before. William Shakespeare, forever the pacifist, was able to experience first hand a plotting conspiracy about the monarchy of England.
Shakespeare returned to England in 1588 and settled in London, initially as an apprentice actor with the Lord Strange Men. Shakespeare the Catholic kept contact with a number of catholic Priests which included Robert Southwell and John Gerard and it would seem, never swayed from his catholic faith. Robert Topcliffe, a ruthless anti-catholic and Priest Hunter, captured Robert Southwell and had him executed in 1595.
Shakespeare the Playwright began to aspire in the 1590s and if ever a Playwright of the day expressed catholic morality and purgatory, then it was Shakespeare. He was not remiss of showing the importance of sacrament in his Plays, the very essence of the catholic faith and we have only to look to the character of Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet to grasp this.
William was undoubtedly affected in February 1601, not only by the death of catholic sympathizer and protector Anne Line, whose execution he bravely attended incognito, but by the execution of Robert Deveureux, Earl of Essex,and with whom he had associated only a few weeks ago on the ill-fated performance of ‘Richard III’ by the Chamberlains Men at the Globe Theatre. 1601 was also the year in which his Father died back at Stratford and Anthony Bacon, brother of Francis, not completely unrelated to the turn of events that year.
A greater drama lay ahead for William and his catholic faith in November 1605. Conspirators had met at Clopton Manor in Stratford, no longer the home of the Clopton family, to plot an explosion on the State opening of Parliament and kill the new King, James I, along with all the government ministers and officials. The Chamberlains Men, of which William Shakespeare was one, were now the Kings Men and were expected to attend.
As we know, the Gunpowder Plot was thwarted at the eleventh hour and the conspirators arrested, tortured and executed. William Shakespeare had made plans, coincidentally, to return to Stratford and secure a burial chamber for himself at Holy Trinity Church. He might, however, well have known of the conspiracy and that was the real reason that he left London town so abruptly, perhaps to speak with old friend Robert Catesby to call off the plot.
Augustine Phillips, a fellow member of the Kings Men, and Ben Jonson, a fellow playwright, were both known catholic sympathizers and were questioned about any potential involvement, as indeed was William Shakespeare. Nothing came of the charges but Augustine Phillips died soon after the questioning.
It can hardly be coincidence as to the extent that the catholic faith featured in William’s life. There was to be a further significant development in the spring of 1613 which would illustrate the point still further. William was involved in acting as Trustee with several others for the purchase of the Blackfriars Gatehouse which served, with its many tunnels, as a place for refuge of catholic priests and other activists. It was also close by to the Blackfriars Priory where the Shakespeare Plays were performed in an indoor Theatre.
The final irony came a few months later when the Globe Theatre, home to the Shakespeare Plays since 1599, burnt down during a performance of Henry VIII. The official version blames a loose cannonball which set fire to the thatch of the theatre but it is hard not to see an act of political revenge against those who were alluding so blatantly to the catholic cause.