THE JESUIT PRIEST

Yesterday, in a coffee shop in a town in a faraway land, I met a Jesuit priest.

While drinking a capuccino latte and eating a sugar-coated cinammon doughnut, I made my one and only confession.

I confessed that I was not a catholic, that I did not know the meaning of the word, that I believed in the notion of God but not the Christian one which affiliated with Jesus as its figurehead.

Years ago, I watched ‘The Mission’ and only last week I watched ‘Silence’, directed by American Martin Scorcese.

As I understand it, the essence of both films was that a soldier of Jesus Christ, defined as a Jesuit, should go to a foreign land and spread the gospel of the Christian faith.

Or do I mean the catholic faith?

Why is it that I spell Christian with a capital letter and catholic without?

I became intrigued to learn that the supreme head of the catholic church, the Roman Pontiff himself, the Pope, elected to that position in March 2013, was a Jesuit priest.

There was a wry smile and a short shriek of laughter from the Jesuit priest sitting in my presence.

The sudden clasp of our hands and looking into each other’s eyes was a touching moment of unforgettable silence.

As I now know, the Jesuit priesthood was a religious order formed in 1534 by a Spanish soldier by the name of Ignatius Loyola.

To become a Jesuit priest, the man told me, entailed the taking of vows of poverty, chastity and obedience for a lifetime.

Jesuits, like Franciscans, Dominicans, Benedictines and other such religious orders, are not attached to a diocesan parish church like their secular brothers.  Nor are they accountable to bishops.

Jesuits are licensed by the Pope himself to spread the gospel, so to speak.

Forgive the abrasiveness of my thinking but I must stand to question the need at all to evangelize and apostasize in the twenty-first century to a seemingly well-educated, science-orientated, objective-thinking global populus.

And what is apostasy if it is not to be defiant based on rational opinion or belief about a system, authority or situation perceived to be different?

I could see all too clearly in the eyes of the Jesuit priest that he had abandoned nothing or no one in his absolute determination of human faith.

He was no defector,  no deserter, no whistleblower, no rebel, no mutineer, no betrayer of his nation state.

There are, of course, pockets of civilisation in underdeveloped countries but I am not dissuaded from thinking that the Jesuit Priest is overstepping the boundaries of his mission.

So why does he sit before me?

And why do I sit with him?

It was I who traced him on the internet by social media.  It was I who requested the meeting taking place between us today.

This is a Jesuit priest of the twenty first century who has a smartphone at his fingertips, an online presence, wears a baseball cap and can speak seven languages fluently.

This is my confession.

His mission has taken on a different sphere, a bit like an astronaut going into space to explore the unknown, the universe.

Yes, that is it.  Catholicism means Universal.

Except there are those Christians in the world who have declared themselves to be protestants, lutherans, anglicans, prestbyterians, orthodox.

Today is actually Sunday Twenty-Third of April.

The Jesuit Priest knows it is the celebrated birthday of William Shakespeare, the English playwright who came from the town of Stratford upon Avon.

He takes the words right out of my mouth when he refers to the harbouring of Jesuit priests in the Shakespeare family home by William’s father John and the hiding of the sacred Borromeo testament.

He has never been to England but I hail from that town and I have so many times been to the famous cottage on Henley Street where the events he vividly described supposedly took place.

His ‘take’ on the historical events were different from mine but it mattered not.

Once a lawyer, I am now an English teacher and I have a mission in my life too to teach students the English language so that they can, possibly, have a better, brighter future.

The mission of the Jesuit Priest and the English teacher, it seems, though not fused, is therefore linked and the same.  To deliver a message.

The charming young waitress serves us both a second (free) cup of coffee.  I take another bite of my delicious doughnut.

The clock on the huge white church which shadows the  square strikes eleven on this April Sunday morning.

The hearty congregation disperse into the environs of this northern Indonesian coastal city.

Sunday school, alas, was a long time ago in my life but suddenly I am reminded that catechism, another word I did not fully understand,  is no more than explaining belief as a compilation of doctrine and teachings.

It always remains open to question but I have got the message.

What we nearly all accept today is that there are many different intepretations of faith besides our own and we should not be so stubborn or short-sighted as to believe that ours is the only way.

Not today.  Not any day.  Not any way.

The Jesuit priest has heard my confession.

There was no farewell.  No selfie.  No bill of conscience.

My soul can be at peace because, now, today, I know the truth.

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TWELFTH NIGHT AND THE TWELVE TENETS OF MY FAITH

Tradition and social habit derived from pagan custom die hard and there is no mirth without mischief, so they say.

When I was just a young boy, I learnt to recite the twelve tenets of my faith.

I was born into a catholic family in the middle of the sixteenth century in a provincial market town called Stratford upon Avon in the mid-shires of England.

Throughout my life, England was declared to be a protestant state and it was forbidden to practice my faith in a public place.

In fact, even practicing it at home in private was considered taboo.

I learnt English, Latin and Greek at my local Grammar School which I was privileged to attend because my Father held high office in the town.

I studied History there too which was a fascinating subject to me.  My tutor, Simon Hunt, often complimented me on my uncanny ability to comprehend details in a manner beyond my tender years.

Somehow I just knew that my passion for history plus the background of my family from farming stock and the strength of my faith would shape my adult life.

Many a day I had spent at the forest of Arden or along the banks of the river in town where I could engage with nature and be as free as the birds I could see flying in the sky.

There was not a bird I thought I did not know or could not identify with.

When my father fell upon harsh times and I was sent away as a teenager to a catholic seminary in the north of France, one could say that it was kind of the beginning of the rest of my life.

I would step foot on the battlefield at Agincourt where my Shakespearean ancestor had fought on behalf of King Henry V.

I would visit the small town of Domremy in the north-east of France to feel some affinity with the young woman, Jeanne d’Arc,  who was born there one hundred and fifty years before me and who had left her own all too brief legacy in the annals of history.

And I would see a partridge in a pear tree for the first time.

It was a defining moment in my life when the meaning of my catholic faith came home to me, on foreign pastures.

I could readily relate why this beautiful gaming bird would spend hours in a pear tree, feigning injury as a decoy to protect her young from a constant stream of potential predators.

How odd it sounded then to hear the same chant as mine ringing in my ears but yet spoken by others with different tone and words.

The relationship between the partridge and the pear tree was considered supreme in my faith.

A partridge.  Two turtle doves.  Three French hens.  Four colly blackbirds.  Five golden ringed pheasants.  Six geese a-laying and seven swimming swans.

Memorise or forfeit I say.

The game does not, of course, end there.

Eight maids are milking to produce from the dairy.

Nine ladies are dancing to the sound of the music.

Ten lords are leaping at the prospect of winning a ladies hand but one will not be lucky.

Eleven pipers pipe the music for the ten lords and nine ladies to entwine while twelve drummers are drumming the finale, one beat for every tenet of my faith.

Only several centuries later in the year 1909 would an Englishman named Frederic Austin compose a melody which would be fitting for the chant which became labelled as ‘the twelve days of Christmas’ and which would be sung forever thereafter by protestants and catholics alike.

It seems funny now that a nonesense song of secular origin should strike such a cord.

I had a dream once but it may have been only a vision during my awakened hours.

I allowed my imagination to run a riot about a shipwreck in a faraway place which was,  in truth,  much closer to home than you might think about town folk and royalty.

Stratford upon Avon was such a wonderful place to grow up as a child.

There was an effervescence in the life of its tradesmen and craftsmen, a magic in the forest of Arden and a serenity about the Avon river which flowed calmly through the town.

Folk drank ale in the taverns, Inns accommodated visitors while mummers, pageant wagons and keepers of exotic wonders brought social entertainment to the town like never before.

An orchard was never very far away either.  Plum pudding, apple pie, pear crumble were constants on the menu.

I knew the meaning only too well of the fruits of the earth.

As a catholic, I wholeheartedly embraced both the Old and New Testament of the Christian bible, the Holy Trinity of Faith, Hope and Charity; the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Not only that but I felt at ease with the ten commandments, the ethos of the eleven disciples (excluding Judas) who followed Jesus and course the twelve tenets of my faith.

Nothing could or would change that.

The twelve days of Christmas were celebrated from the twenty fifth of December until Epihany on the 5th January.

What I had always understood this meant was that three wise men, called Magi, had come from the east and followed a bright star to bring gifts for a new born child who was proclaimed as the son of God but in reality was the first born of Judeans Joseph and Mary.

The new born child, born on 25th December, was named Joshua and was baptized with holy water on the twelfth day after his birth, 5th January.

Christians of whatever denomination, protestant or christian, would join in the revelry which climaxed on the twelfth night with gift-giving.

There always comes a time, it seems, when politics are in conflict with expression of faith to the detriment of the common man who wishes no more than to go about his daily life in peace, dignity and honour.

Catholics were perceived as a threat to the new protestant state and so it came to pass during my lifetime that the catholic manner of celebration on the twelfth night became forbidden.

A failed catholic insurrection in 1605 (better known as the Gunpowder Plot) against the new King, James I, would lead to severe constraints against catholics.

At the peak of my literary powers and I could say that William Shakespeare was a household name in theatrical circles, I would be inspired to write a play which I called ‘Twelfth Night’ .

The play was performed in private chambers first of all before a failing Queen Elizabeth and an Italian Duke, Orsino, who by special request, was given a role in the play for his own egotism.

There would be frivolity and revelry and all would be revealed in time on the twelfth night.

That would be the last twelfth night in my lifetime.

And that, my friend, is the Gospel Truth.

THE LAST BATTLECRY OF AN ENGLISH KING

William Shakespeare put the immortal words ‘My Horse, my Horse, my Kingdom for a Horse’ into the mouth of a man as the battlecry of the last English King to ever be killed in combat.

Depending what version of the story you want to believe, the valiant King was pulled from his horse and hacked to death or came within relative proximity of conflict with the very man who stood between him and the continuance of his reign.

This is the story of Richard III who was slain at the Battle of Bosworth in deepest Leicestershire in 1485 by Henry Tudor who then succeeded him as English monarch and set the wheels in motion for the Tudor dynasty.

Fortune is said to favour the brave but ;perhaps that cannot be said for Richard III who remains accused to this day of murdering kin who were more entitled than he to the English crown.

His own personal woe was exasperated in the months leading to the fateful battle when his only son and wife died too.

A man can certainly dream and if Richard III did have a meaningful dream on the eve of the battle, it would surely have foretold of his inevitable doom.

Richard III only ruled England for two years and he was probably far from the character with physical deformity portrayed by Shakespeare in the play of his name.

The actual human remains of Richard III have fairly recently been unearthed in an archaeological dig on grounds of a former friary in the heart of the city of Leicester and today a public car park.

Modern technology and science enables us to know that he was a tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed boy with a slight scollosis to one shoulder but certainly no hunchback.

Shakespeare wrote Richard III the play in the early 1590s, fairly soon after being called ‘an upstart crow’ by fellow playwright Robert Greene and at a time when Robert Cecil held the upper hand in political influence over the ruling monarch Elizabeth I.

The backdrop to the story of Richard III was very simple indeed.

Elizabeth I was unmarried and of course without a child which could claim to be her successor.

Her own paranoia about the succession was the paranoia of the whole English nation.

Richard III, whether rightly or wrongly, was perceived as the usurper who could turn the natural order of succession on its head and plant a rightful heir for his own gain.

Shakespeare could smell a rat but it was not the unjustly discredited Richard III.

It was surely Robert Cecil, the living hunchback dwarf who no longer lived in the executive shadow of his father.

In reality and in fact, Robert Cecil won the day by supplanting the Scottish King, a protestant with limited catholic sympathies, James Stuart, as Elizabeth’s successor in 1603.

Nevertheless, Richard III is the benchmark by which judgment is exercised whenever a tenuous succession to the monarchy of a nation, any nation, not just England, is discussed.

Richard III came to rule by a number of events and circumstances.

It seems to matter not that his successor and victor Henry Tudor, crowned as Henry VII, had a lesser claim to the sovereignty of England than himself.

Such was the spoils of war.

It could be argued that William, Duke of Normandy, had no such claim to the sovereignty of England either when he came and conquered in 1066.

The One Hundred Years War between England and France from 1347 until 1453 and subsequently the so called War of the Roses from 1455 until Richard III’s death in 1485 had a definite impact on future English sovereignty.

From one of doubtful royal descent to Lord Protector of the Realm and King of England.

Richard III is alleged to have killed, amongst others, his Uncle Henry VI, cousin George the Duke of Clarence and the two princes, Edward V and Richard, his own nephews, who were mysteriously detained at the Tower of London, never to be heard of again.

Shakespeare contrived to tell the tragic story of Richard III with a sense of condemnation, distrust and disbelief.

Ghosts, curses and prophecies played no mean part in the hallowing story.

There may well have been a winter of discontent in the months that led to the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 but certain facts speak for themselves.

Richard III will now be reburied either at Leicester Cathredal, York Minster (for he was after all from the royal House of York) or quite possibly at Westminster Abbey in London.

If there is a place for him.

Whatever your take on Richard III, the last battlecry of an English King can still be heard today.

FALSTAFF HAS THE LAST LAUGH

This is a purely fictional story about engagements between an English Knight named Sir John Falstaff and the French heroine Jeanne d’Arc in the fifteenth century.

The events to which I refer actually took place and inspired Englishman William Shakespeare to write a number of dramatic historical plays centred around the Kings of England during the Plantagenet period of reign and the knight called Falstaff.

This is my story about that and why I think William Shakespeare may have killed Falstaff off in the play of Henry V without a single line spoken by him.

Jeanne d’Arc was just three years old in 1415 when the battle of Agincourt was fought and won by the English against the French.

The English under King Henry V spent the next five years achieving dominion over much of northern France and asserting Henry’s sovereign right to rule over both England and France.

The French King Charles VI, weak both in terms of health and political effectiveness, conceded the French crown to Henry, virtue of the Treaty of Troyes in 1420 and proposed his youngest daughter, Princess Catherine of Valois, in marriage to Henry for a substantial dowry.

Jeanne was no more than an uneducated tenant farmer’s daughter from the small town of Domremy in north eastern France but she was nonetheless canny and astute.

And she was unavoidably aware of the English presence in her home town.

None more so than a larger than life knight named Sir John Falstaff who kept company with the officers of the Burgundian allies, boasted of his glorious success under Henry V at Agincourt, stole money, gambled heavily and drank alcohol to excess.

Two years later in 1422, events took a dramatic turn when both the English King, Henry V and the French King, Charles VI, died within a few months of each other.

It was probably at this time that the young girl started hearing voices and experiencing visions with bright lights about the future of France.

Now ten, she decided that it was her personal mission from God to drive the English out of France and to have the rightful King, Charles VII, son of Charles VI, delivered to the throne.

Many folk in high places would mock and show contempt to the young shepherdess who, without any military training, wished to lead a French army into battle.

When she was seventeen, she made the  two hundred mile journey across English held territory in France in just eleven days to meet Charles VII himself at Chinon castle and persuade him to allow her to lead the army.

Orleans was certainly an important strategically positioned city in the Loire valley.

She was quick to turn the French militia into a formidable fighting force and although not engaging in battle herself, she was an inspirational mascot and brandished her banner as a weapon.

It is here where she would meet the dastardly knight Falstaff once again and this time in conflict.

Jeanne was instrumental in inflicting a humiliating defeat on Falstaff and the English in the battle of Orleans and she was proclaimed by the French people for her heroism.

It was she who had dragged the disgraced and cowardly Falstaff from his horse in the finality of the battle, placed him into captivity and then released him back to the English for no small ransom.

This was no mean match of a giant of a man to a small petite young girl.

The military victory at Orleans paved the way for Charles VII to be crowned King of France in a coronation conducted at the cathredal of Rheims, the traditional place for French royal investiture.

This was the point when Jeanne could or should have said that enough was enough and gone home to her family in Domremy and to milk the cows on the pastures but she did not.

Just like a prize fighter who could not refuse one more bout, she went into combat at Compiegne with plans to re-take Paris to what she envisoned was the completion of her mission.

But the plan was foolhardy and things quickly went  wrong.

She got trapped outside the city gates, was thrown from her horse in the melee and was captured by Burgundian forces allied to the English who soon ransomed her to the English for ten thousand crowns.

This would prove to be Falstaff’s redemption for his abject failure at Orleans.

He had been on hand to bring about Jeanne’s mishap as an act of revenge and he vowed there and then with a raucous laugh that she would never again see the light of day.

The manner in which Jeanne looked Falstaff in the eye in that lingering moment was penetratable to the very core of the heart and would not be forgotten.

Jeanne faced seventy charges and was unfairly trialled in a lawless inquisition in Rouen, the northern French city adopted by the English as their provinciial capital.

She was accused, amongst other things,  of wearing mens clothes, of cutting her hair like a pageboy, of horse theft and being a heretic and a witch.

The charges were, of course, trumped up to have her removed from the fray and discredit France as a nation.

You can bet your bottom dollar that Falstaff was there as the indictment was read out to her.

We can only imagine that attempts were made to abuse her in custody but she remained until her last breath a young woman, just nineteen at deaths door, of unbreakable piety, chastity and humility whose courage and conviction could not be broken.

She was to be burnt at the stake in the old market square of Rouen at first light on the morning of 30th May 1431.

Falstaff’s remorseless face was the last Jeanne saw before she died and her echoing screech that they her accusers could take her life but not her heart could be heard for miles around.

Jeanne d’Arc.  La Purcell, as she preferred to be called.  The Maid of Orleans.  Call her what you will.  Heroine of the French people to this day.

The Hundred Years War came to an end in 1453 when the English realized that the French could not be defeated for  territory in their own backyard.

With some lamentable degree of irony, her face and voice was the last echo of humanity in Falstaff’s world when he finally kicked the bucket a few years after the end of the war in 1459.

William Shakespeare did not write history per se but he certainly interpreted it.

Falstaff may have had the last laugh in battle but Jeanne won the war for France.

SHAKESPEARE’S VISION FOR ENGLAND

William Shakespeare, as a nine year old boy, looks out of a small window from his school classroom and has a mystic vision for the English nation..

A vision he would write about years later as he sat under the mulberry tree at his Stratford upon Avon home directly opposite.

A collection of dramas which would re-write the history of the English monarchy from the time of King John to Henry VIII.

It was a vision for every man and woman in England to be respected according to the law of the land with civil rights and for a sovereign divinity of power to be replaced by democracy.

One day but not necessarily in his own lifetime.

The Grammar School in Stratford upon Avon was the last to receive the status for such from the young and unfortunate Edward VI.

It was still a fledgling Grammar School in the time that William Shakespeare attended between the years 1570 to 1576.

His attendance was one of privilege because his father had aspired to become the town mayor.

He had no real appetite for either Latin or Greek but was passionate about history and he learned quickly from the chronicled literature of Raphael Holinshed, Edward Halle and John Foxe amongst others.

Where the school library may have been modest, the one kept by town benefactor Hugh Clopton at nearby Clopton Manor more than made up for it.

Thanks to the printing press invention of William Caxton and the promotion of the English language by King Henry V during his short reign a century and half before, the history of England was published in English and most fortuitiously available at William’s fingertips.

William’s parents came from farming stock within the environs of Stratford.

Although his father was the son of a tenant farmer, his Mother was a heiress to a sizeable farmstead on her own father’s death, a heritage pre-dating the Norman conquest of 1066.

Mary Arden (William’s mother) once remarked that she was glad she was not born a ‘Frenchie’ as otherwise her inheritance would have been denied to her by the Salique laws and her husband John might not have married her.

This infers that John Shakespeare only married Mary Arden for her inheritance.  In other words, her money!.

The young William Shakespeare was ever acutely aware of the impact disease, flood, fire and famine had on the daily life of the ordinary commoner in a provincial market town like Stratford where the aristocrats spoke for the voice of the people.

It was also a well known family tale that it was a Shakespeare (no pun intended) who fired a fatal arrow from his crossbow to a French duke in the course of the battle of Agincourt fought during the One Hundred Years War

Henry V was King of England at the time of the battle

In spite of the legislature of the Magna Carta, the fact could not seem to escape Shakespeare that Henry V represented what previous monarchs before and since did not to the English people.

Nevertheless, Henry had abused his executive powers of authority by killing prisoners and tarnishing an otherwise glowing reputation.

His trusted advisers had encouraged his military expedition across the English Channel but neither they nor Henry looked for the inevitable conflict that came at Agincourt.

The battle itself was unavoidable and the conflict had to be dealt with. So many soldiers were weak, sick, hungry and exhausted but there could be no retreat.

An English victory was certainly unexpected and ocurred perhaps more by accident and luck than good judgement.

.Shakespeare had himself once visited the site of the battle where he believed Henry spoke the famous words that a man was not a man at all if he did not fight for King and Country.

Henry, perceived Shakespeare, used war as a glorious and patriotic endeavour as a means to an end.

He proved himself to be a shrewd and powerful politician and tactician with the help of his trusted advisers, of which, at least in fiction if not in reality, Sir John Falstaff could have been one.

Shakespeare was surely aware of the historical connection to be drawn between the name of Falstaff and that of Cobham, Oldcastle and Lollard.

He was not shy to use both jest and satire to make a point, political or otherwise, in his literary dramas through the mouthpiece of one of his leading characters.

No character typified this more than the fat, boastful, cowardly knight who supposedly lost a battle to Joan of Arc and yet had traits of any number of unsavoury characters encountered in dimlit taverns.

The buffoon, having served his dramatic purpose, was put to death by both Shakespeare and Henry V before his debaucherous nature could distill the glowing reputation of the King itself.

While living relatives could  recall the events under Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary, Shakespeare hismelf would live under the rule of two sovereigns, Elizabeth I and James I.

And so this is the story of one man’s vision for England.

A Stratfordian who interpreted history as only he saw it.

In his dying days, his was a mirror vision for England from classroom to the mulberry tree under which he so frequently sat and back to the classroom.

William Shakespeare was in essence not only the writer of the plays but the actor who filled the boots of a great King and a mischievous knight and has survived to tell the tale more than four hundred years later

THE CHOSEN ONE

The son of the Snitterfield tenant farmer has packed his few belongings into a small bag and left the family home to travel five miles to the local town of Stratford upon Avon.

It is one of the most remarkable journeys he will ever make in his life.

The year is 1551.  It is late October and the first frost of the winter has hit hard on the ground.

He makes the two hour journey on foot.

Little does he know yet but the world is about to change beneath his feet.

His name is John Shakespeare.  He is twenty one years old.

John Shakespeare is a craftsman of a sort and he knows a thing or two also about gathering in the barley from the corn fields, malting it and turning it into ale.

He has connections in Stratford which will provide board and lodging for him.

Stratford is a small provincial town in middle England with a population of around two thousand people housed in a couple hundred tenements.

Red brick may grandly house magistrate Thomas Lucy as Lord of the Manor at nearby Charlecote but it has yet to make an appearance in downtown Stratford where thatched stone cottages are very much the norm.

The town is strategically positioned on the river Avon and on a trade route going south to London and north to Birmingham traversed at the stone built Clopton Bridge.

John Shakespeare cannot read or write but he is confident about making a future in this town.

He plans to set up a small shop making and selling gloves and products from wool, utilizing the resources from the land and the livestock at his father’s farm.

One day, he might be an ale taster, a borough constable, an alderman, a bailiff, a town mayor, a magistrate, a member of parliament.

You never know but hey John you had better hold your horses there!

Sometimes, an ambitious young man can be too big for his boots.

But a young man can certainly dream.

Stratford is most notable at this time for the Grammar School which has recently been founded in its constituency by the young King Edward VI, the last of a bunch as it would turn out.

Alehouses, taverns and inns are everywhere.

Local peasants and yeomen mingle with rogues, vagabonds, tramps, whores and entertainers.

The aristocratic gentry are the City Fathers and Puritans who hold the upper hand.

The simple huts of the hermit are ayonder, blending into the Warwickshire countryside with priories and monasteries.

Castles with royal connection are a few miles northward to Warwick and Kenilworth.

Ale is the drink of the common people, the English peasant.

It is mainly brewed at home by the wife, fermented into malt from barley grown in the local fields.

Sometimes hops is also added to turn the alcoholic beverage into beer but ale remains the locals favourite tipple.

No doubt John Shakespeare watched his mother work with the mash bucket to do the malting in the brewing house during his childhood.

A spanking new silver sixpence buys a jug of ale to last an evening.

A half crown will do for a gathering.

The swagger of drinking to excess has prompted government legislation to curb it but it is difficult to police control in a small country town like Stratford.

The Bawd, nevertheless, requires a licence.

John Shakespeare must have thought the alehouse as a shabby, smelly, unsophisticated  place serving the lower rungs of Elizabethan society.

It was the unlikely place for bawdy entertainment of ballad singers, jugglers, actors and exhibitors of exotic wonders, not to mention clandestine marriages, dowry negotiation, betrothals and even wife sales.

The ale is served by a buxom barmaid who might otherwise be described as a wrench or a tapster.

As for the ale itself, it is best described as sickening to taste, cloudy like horses urine with husks on top.

No wonder it was not the preferred taste of everyone and by adding hops, beer was becoming more popular.

John Shakespeare was a man on a mission.

The ‘pub talk’ among the frequenters of the alehouse is of the chosen one.

When the young King passes into the next life, as he surely will, the expectancy is that Princess Mary, as catholic in her faith as a bunch of red roses, will inherit the thone of England and parity will be restored.

Her tying of the knot with Spain’s Prince Phillip is just over the horizon.

But the greater talk is of of an usurper who has no legal right to be crowned King or Queen and a conspiracy among people of influence not a million miles away from the lodgings of John Shakespeare.

And walls have ears.

John Shakespeare, like a great many Stratfordians, is staunchly catholic in his faith and he is not likely to be persuaded to convert to protestantism virtue of a young King ineffective in his rule and who is in his last days with an incurable sickness.

Or indeed persuaded by his successor.

If the granting of a grammar school charter to Stratford was a deliberate ploy, it was not going to fool the townfolk who are not of little (catholic) faith.

No sooner has John Shakespeare arrived and settled into the town than there is an outbreak of sweating sickness.

Many think that this is the same sickness which has afflicted the young King, so locals are not surprisingly cautious of newcomers to the town.

That includes the young man called John Shakespeare and a vetting process is in place.

It is barely a quarter of a century since the much beloved King Henry VIII ended his marriage to first of six wives Catherine of Aragon which led to the rise of the alternative protestant faith in the first place.

Over time, John Shakespeare has nurtured an affection for Mary Arden, the youngest daughter of Robert Arden, the proprietor of his Father’s Farm and prosperous farmer at Wilnecote.

In the five years that have passed since he came to settle in Stratford, John Shakespeare has become a respected member of the community, setting up a leather and wool shop as part of a cottage he had bought a year ago on Henley Street.

Robert Arden passes away in the early Spring of 1556.

John Shakespeare sees an even greater opportunity than the one he first envisaged.

Mary Arden has come of age and  become the heiress of her Father’s farmstead.

John Shakespeare does not need to seek the permission or approval now of Robert Arden for his daughter’s hand in marriage.

All John Shakespeare needs to do is wait a year and a day.

He knows Mary Arden will not refuse him.

He returns home in 1557 to take Mary Arden as his bride.

THE MARRIAGE OF JOHN SHAKESPEARE AND MARY ARDEN

This is the story of the marriage of the parents of William Shakespeare, surely the most famous ever citizen of the English town of Stratford upon Avon.

John Shakespeare married Mary Arden in 1557.

Their marriage produced eight children but not all survived.

William Shakespeare was the third born on 23rd April 1564, St. George’s Day,  and was baptized at the local Holy Trinity Church three days later, as was the custom of the time.

At the time of the marriage, John was twernty-seven and Mary just twenty,

Mary was the youngest of eight daughters of the widowed Robert Arden, a prosperous farmer at Wilmcote who had died a year before.

The Arden family had been highy respected ever since the times of the Norman Conquest and their credentials are recorded in the Doomsday Book.

John Shakespeare, alas, was the son of a tenant farmer who grazed livestock on land rented from the Arden family at nearby Snitterfield.

Mary inherited her father’s farmstead and land on his death.

Mary Arden was a heiress and came from arisocratic well to do bloodline whereas John Shakespeare was a mere yeoman and a nobody.

There is, however every reason to suppose that the two knew each other from childhood and apart from the obvious farming connection, both the Arden and Shakespeare families retained catholic sympathies in spite of the new wave of protestantism which had swept across England under the reign of Elizabeth I.

There is also every reason to think that Robert Arden would have strongly opposed his daughter’s marriage to a man below her station in life, had he lived to see it happen.

Nevertheless, the couple saw out the decreed passing of a year after Robert Arden’s death and the marriage took place, it is believed, at the church chapel of Aston Cantlow.

If William Shakespeare was perceived during his life as an opportunist, then it is fair to say that he was no more than a’chip off the old block’ from his father John.

John Shakespeare was to prove himself as an accomplished craftsman and ambitious businessman.

It is not hard to imagine that Mary Arden would have been impressed by his plans to aspire and raise his station in life from yeoman to gentleman.

In the few years before he married Mary Arden, John Shakespeare had already begun building the platform for his own future and that of a future family.

In 1551, when he was twenty one, he left the family farm at Snitterfield and settled in the nearby town of Stratford upon Avon.

This was the beginning.

Mary Arden was still a child of fourteen years then but it is not improbable to suppose that John Shakespeare was taking the first steps in a masterplan to wed a wealthy farmers daughter and enhance his own status and reputation as a direct result.

Within those few years, John Shakespeare had applied his craftsman-like skills and his knowledge of farming to set up a small shop in Stratford from which he could make and sell saddles, harnasses and fine leather gloves.

So much so that he was able to purchase a cottage on Henley Street in the heart of Stratford town and later on another property nearby.

Clearly, Mary Arden could not help but be impressed and they came to live at the Henley Street cottage immediately after their marriage.

No doubt the combination of John Shakespeare’s sense of enterprise and the good Arden family name presented opportunities to the young man in a town of only two hundred houses and fifteen hundred people at that time.

One of John Shakespeare’s first elevations in civic status came shortly after his marriage when he became the official ale-taster for Stratford town.

Ale was an important commodity in the Elizabethan era with fresh clean safe water a rarity and milk only consumible after calving.

Over time, John Shakespeare and his son William could come to know well the importance of growing barley in the Warwickshire fields surrounding Stratford upon Avon and the conversion of it into malt which would produce the ale so precious to survival.

The marriage of John Shakespeare and Mary Arden certainly enjoyed a few years of great prosperity.

John Shakespeare aspired from ale-taster to Borough Constable, Borough Chamerlain and Alderman, town Mayor and would have known everything that was worth knowing about on a daily basis.

He held a position of influence and could start a secondary business as a moneylender.

His eldest son at least, William, could be privileged to attend for free the local Grammar School.

John Shakespeare would have known town folk like James Burbage and would have been partly instrumental in encouraging the visit of visiting pageants for theatre performances.

These were early days in an entertainment trend which would not cease and which would, unknown to him at that time, would sow the seeds for the ambitions of his eldest son.

John Shakespeare may well have felt to an extent that he was above the law and it was not necessary to pay all his taxes.

Tax evasion must have been as common then as it is today if someone has the mindset to do it.

But this was perhaps just one reason for his downfall and the plight which would blight the Shakespeare family of John and Mary for a number of years.

There are several factors behind the downfall.

The first is that John Shakespeare had portrayed himself to be something he was not.

Being moderately successful in local business did not gloss over the fact that he was no more than an illiterate yeoman farmer’s son.

An upstart crow to coin a phrase which was later used by a writer to refer to his then aspiring son William.

The Shakespeare and Arden families did not negate or seem to break the practice of their catholic faith in face of the rising protestant tide.

Added to this was John Shakespeare’s long-term goal to aspire to become a gentleman and honour a likely promise he made to Mary Arden on occasion of their marriage.

Not only that but his moneylending activities could only have led to the making of enemies and thereby compromising his otherwise comfortable existence..

It is not entirely improbable that he did not have the best of relations with fellow aldermen and councillors or that he was the upstanding member of the community that history wishes us to think he was throughout this time.

The consequences were drastic.

John was stripped of all his civic responsibilities.

He mortgaged the farmstead which was the bulk part of Mary’s inheritance, sold some of her inherited property and yet was still unable to repay the debts he had somehow accumulated.

The only retained property during all this time was the cottage on Henley Street where it had all began.

The family problems were undoubtedly confounded by involvement in the hiding of catholic troublemakers sought by the State and the scandal brought to the family name by eighteen year old William’s relationship with a farmers daughter, Anne Hathaway, eight years older than him.

Was this not just another story of ‘chip off the old block’ but with a different twist?

A newspaper article might have carried the headline ‘Shakespeare marries a farmers daughter – Again!’if it could have been published.

Redemption only came in the last years of John’s life when his son William, now a wealthy man from writing and producing propular plays in London, was able to ‘wipe the slate clean’ for his father and earn the right to the coveted Coat of Arms.

‘Not of Right’ is perhaps never more appropriate in all the likely circumstances.

John Shakespeare died with relative dignity at the age of seventy-one in 1601 and was survived for seven more years by Mary until her death in 1608.

The birthplace of William Shakespeare, that cottage on Henley Street, as well as the Wilmcote farmstead at which Mary Arden was raised, are visited today by thousands of tourists whose curiosity is unceasing for the heritage of England’s greatest writer.

That is the story of John Shakespeare and Mary Arden.