Shakespeare and the Jesuits: New connections supporting the theory of the lost Catholic years in Lancashire

Richard Wilson

Times Literary Supplement (Dec. 19, 1997): 11-13



Ten years ago, in his book Shakespeare: The “lost years”, Ernst Honigmann revealed to the public a theory – first proposed in 1937 by Oliver Baker, and restated in 1944 by E. K. Chambers – that the dramatist spent some early years in Lancashire, as a servant in a chain of Catholic households; and that he is identifiable with William Shakeshafte, a player kept by the Hoghton family of Hoghton Tower near Preston. The theory now appears to be substantiated by the discovery that John Cottom, Stratford schoolmaster from 1579 to 1581, belonged to Lancashire gentry who were relatives and clients of the Hoghtons: but what neither Honigmann, Chambers, nor any of the other proponents of the “Lancashire Shakespeare” have been able to explain is what tied Hoghton Tower to Stratford, and why, if Shakespeare was Shakeshafte, it should have become such a secret. The reason they were not able to do so is that no one explored the Catholic context; but it is, in fact, a famous Jesuit mission in the winter of 1580-1 which connects the two places, provides an itinerary for Shakespeare’s “lost years”, and suggests a solution to the mystery of Shakeshafte’s vanishing. Above all, it is the dramatic story of the Jesuits’ doomed children’s crusade which confirms, beyond reasonable doubt, the identification of the Stratford boy with the servant at Hoghton.

Cottom and Shakeshafte were legatees when Alexander Hoghton, the head of the family, made his will on August 3, 1581, bequeathing his stock of theatre costumes and musical instruments to his brother, and enjoining his neighbour, Sir Thomas Hesketh, “to be friendly unto Fulke Gillam and William Shakeshafte now dwelling with me, and either take them into his service or help them to some good master”. Hesketh retained Gillam, a player from Chester, but recommended Shakeshafte (Honigman conjectured), to the Stanleys (who maintained a playhouse at Knowsley), and it was in their livery, as one of the Earl of Derby’s and then Lord Strange’s Men, that Shakespeare began his career in London, where his earliest admirers included the Lancashire poet John Weever, a cousin of the Hoghtons. Such is the increasingly accepted trajectory of Shakespeare’s “lost years”, but the questions it begs are why an ambitious and talented young Midlander should have beaten a path to such a backwater as the wetlands of west Lancashire, and why, if he did make his way to this remote “desert country near the sea”, it should have been under the name of William Shakeshafte.

If William Shakespeare took the alias Shakeshafte, he was reverting to the name of his fathers (commentators have inferred), as this had been a variant used by his grandfather Richard. The motive is presumed to have been a crisis that struck William’s father John after 1576, when he ceased to attend Stratford corporation meetings and “obstinately refused to resort to the church”, in the words of 1592 depositions, pleading “fear of process of debt”. For 400 years, John Shakespeare’s financial alibi was swallowed by most scholars, until research in the Exchequer records revealed in 1984 that the Stratford businessman remained rich to the end and active as a banker. What did grip Warwickshire in the late 1570s, however, was not an economic but a religious fever, as it was then that priests began to arrive from the new seminary at Douai, founded by the Hoghtons on profits from their alum mines. In Stratford, they were drawn to a place that Patrick Collinson describes as a Catholic stronghold until the mid-1580s; and Antonia Fraser sees as “the town which lay at the centre of the recusant map” of England. Mark Eccles long ago suggested that their President, William Allen, may have taught at Stratford in 1564-5 (sponsored, we can assume, by his patrons, the Hoghtons); and biographers agree that one of their first recruits was the master who taught Shakespeare from the ages of seven to eleven: Simon Hunt, who enrolled at Douai in 1575, and followed the Jesuit Robert Parsons as director of penance at the English College in Rome. But it was Hunt’s successor, John Cottom, who must have been their linkman in Stratford, as the 1580 mission under Parsons and Edmund Campion included his brother Thomas, who was betrayed by spies and arrested at Dover. Whether or not the teacher hid Parsons on his journey through the Midlands, it was during this mission that the document was apparently signed by Shakespeare’s father which sheds most light on the son’s detour to Lancashire: the Spiritual Testament the Jesuits had brought from Milan, where it had just been presented to them by no less an authority than Saint Carlo Borromeo.

Ever since it was uncovered by workmen in the roof of the Henley Street house in 1757, John Shakespeare’s Spiritual Testament has been an embarrassment to the Shakespeare establishment. Malone, who printed it, was persuaded that “it could not have been the composition of any one of our poet’s family”; while Sir Sidney Lee dismissed it as a forgery. Its authenticity was established, however, with the discovery of a 1661 Spanish version in 1923, and of another 1638 English one in 1966. Yet it continues to dumbfound Shakespeareans, who retreat, like Samuel Schoenbaum, into a “secular agnosticism” in face of such evidence.

It is recent work by Catholic historians such Alexandra Walsham which situates the Testament in relation to the alderman’s church absence and his son’s Lancashire itinerary. As Walsham shows in Church Papists: Catholicism, conformity and confessional polemic in early modern England (1993), Anglican observance would have been intolerable to the signatory of such a text, with its vow to endure “pain and agony like to a sharp cutting razor” rather than renounce faith, for these Counter-Reformation formularies were drafted precisely to breed resistance to churchgoing, seen as a violation of conscience. According to Parsons, the meetings at which copies of this Testament were distributed were convened in houses “we entered as kinsfolk of some person within, where putting ourselves in priest’s apparel we had secret conference with the Catholics that might come whom we ever caused to be ready that night late for Confession”, and the same fervour attached to Borromeo’s text, framed, Walsham notes, “for individuals whose very possession of prohibited reading material was a defiant assertion of identity”. After 1580, Parsons would order editions of the Testament to be printed in thousands, but John Shakespeare’s was handwritten, presumably by one of the Jesuits, so his son can hardly have been oblivious to the privilege of his subscription, which the testator marked with a pledge to “keep it in some place of note and near unto him … to have it ready upon all occasions. And when he shall fall sick, to let him renew by reading, or hearing read, this Testament in presence of others, confirming finally what he hath at all times promised and bequeathed for the good of his soul”.

It was professions of faith like John Shakespeare’s which split English Catholicism between recusancy and the conformity of those who protested undying loyalty to the Queen; but to prove “the only gain they covet in souls”, even the Jesuits were forbidden by Rome to “mix in affairs of state”. This was a net that was to entangle Thomas Cottom, who, having been freed on bail, “conceived some scruple”, and went “with a merry countenance to the Star in New Fish Street, and offered himself to Lord Cobham, who carried him to the Tower”. As is well known, Cottom had in his baggage a letter from Shakespeare’s schoolmate, Robert Debdale, a seminarian in Rome, in which “he commanded Cottom to his parents at Shottery and sent by him certain tokens”. In 1586, Debdale would follow Cottom to the gallows, and it is his consistency of purpose which supplies a possible clue to the strange diversion now taken by his Stratford contemporary. For if Chambers and Honigmann were correct, Shakespeare rode north at exactly the same time as another journey linked Stratford to Hoghton, when Campion departed Lapworth Park, the seat of Sir William Catesby, and left behind the knot of Midland gentry who would seal the Gunpowder Plot. This was the moment when the politics of Saint Bartholomew’s Day crossed the Channel, with the swearing of a Sodality of “young gentlemen of forwardness and zeal”, whose “joy and alacrity” in vowing poverty and chastity, “and ardour to fly overseas to seminaries”, mimicked the Catholic League. With both his father and teacher so close to this secret society, it would he odd if the star of Stratford Grammar School were not pressed to join the “boys who for this cause have separated from their parents”, and who “give up their names”, Campion exulted “as veterans offer their blood”. Historians interpret this phrase to mean that the Sodality adopted aliases, so that Parsons became Doleman; Campion, Hastings; and Debdale, Palmer: the name of his grandfather. So, if Shakespeare was Shakeshafte, it would have been, as Campion stated at his trial, to be a convert like St Paul:

We read of sundry shifts whereto Paul betook himself to shun persecution; but especially the changing of his name, whereby, as occasion administered, he termed himself now Paul, now Saul; neither was he of opinion always to be known, but sometimes thought it expedient to be hidden, lest being discovered, persecution should ensue . . . . If these shifts were then approved in Paul, why are they now reproved in me? The same cause was common to us both. I saw if I were known I should be apprehended. I changed my name; I kept secretly; I imitated Paul.

“It is a short step”, Gary Taylor contends (in “Forms of opposition: Shakespeare and Middleton“: ELR, spring 1994) “from Parsons and Alien to Shakespeare”, and just how short a step is underlined by the text that prompts most current discussion of the playwright’s Catholic sympathies: Samuel Harsnet’s sneering Protestant polemic A Declaration of egregious Popish Impostures, where “the strange new names” of exorcized devils, echoed by Shakespeare in King Lear, are said to “take their fashion from our wandering Jesuits” themselves, “who to dissemble have always three or four odd conceited names in their budget”. In 1610, King Lear would be acted, along with Pericles, in a season of miracle plays toured through the Yorkshire Dales by a troupe of recusant players, and it is easy to see how Edgar’s “popish imposture” as Poor Tom might resonate in that country of secret tunnels, priest-holes and hidden chapels. Yet, as Stephen Greenblatt complains, the connection of Shakespeare’s play of assumed identities to the drama of Catholic survival “has remained inert, locked in the pieties of source study that reduce history to a decorative setting”. What is now clear, however, is that no account of King Lear can ignore the implication that what drew Shakespeare to Harsnet’s satire on Catholic exorcisms was that these had been instigated by Debdale himself, in a family, at Denbhan in Buckinghamshire, closely tied to Lancashire gentry; and that when the possessed were supposed to have vomited the names Shakespeare borrowed, of “Frateretto, Fliberdigibbet and Hoberdidance”, they did so after the exorcist had “crammed” Campion’s amputated thumb into their mouths or summoned the spirit of Thomas Cottom. Shakespeare evidently read the Declaration because of its attacks on the memory of his “ghostly fathers”, for if he was Shakeshafte, he had himself been one of the “children of pride” who acted a part for these Jesuits, who “made them so giddy-headed with their holy charms and dreadful fumigations”, as Harsnet jeered, that:

They gave themselves giddy names to go current among themselves, as the Gipsies do of gibberish, which none but themselves can spell without a pair of spectacles.

“Though, as Ben Jonson says of him, he had but little Latin and less Greek, he understood Latin pretty well, for he had been in his younger years a schoolmaster in the country”: John Aubrey’s anecdote has always been a starting point for accounts of Shakespeare’s education, but it is Catholic resistance which may offer a key to mysterious omissions from his curriculum vitae. For as J. Dover Wilson deduced in 1932, if “John Shakespeare fell into trouble about 1580 due to being a member of the ‘old religion’ who refused to attend church … as an ardent Catholic he might well seek other means for his son’s education in the service of a Catholic nobleman”. And it is recusancy which supplies the clue to one salient fact about the Stratford writer, which is that of all Elizabethan and Stuart dramatists, he alone emerged outside the golden triangle of London and the universities. Thus, Beaumont, Cartwright, Chapman, Daniel, Davenant, Ford, Lyly, Marmion, Marston, Massinger, Middleton, Nabbes, Peele, Sackville and Shirley all attended Oxford; and Day, Fletcher, Gascoigne, Glapthorne, Greene, Heywood, Marlowe, May, Norton and Randolph Cambridge; Kyd, Lodge and Webster went to Merchant Taylors’ School; Field to St. Paul’s; and Jonson to Westminster. The Londoners, Chettle and Munday, were apprenticed to printers; and ties with guilds or Inns of Court can be inferred for Dekker, Rowley, Thatham, Tourneur and Wilson; but the only dramatist whose provenance resembles Shakespeare’s is his fellow-Midlander, Drayton, who came to London as a page in Leicester’s circle, So, if Chambers and Honigmann are right, it was a detour to the recusant North that took Shakespeare in a clear opposite direction to the social logic of his professional field and constituted his freakish statistical difference. It was a Lancashire affiliation which made Shakespeare the outstanding example of the academic heretic, whose cultural power arises from marginality to the great metropolitan institutions. And it was northern Catholicism that differentiated him from the roster of all who wrote for the London stage, as in striking fact the least a Londoner.

Even Honigmann is at a loss “Why Shakespeare should have been sent so far from home”, speculating that it was to distance him from Anne Hathaway. But then he underrates the force of Catholic circumstance, as when he merely notes that if the boy was retained by the Hoghtons in late 1580, “their Catholic sympathies are important, as it is unlikely such a family would employ a servant who was not a practising Catholic at a time so dangerous to recusants”. In fact, we know that Campion took the very same road that autumn accompanied by a picked escort of young “subseminarians” or “conductors”, sworn to “content themselves with the bare necessities for the good of the cause”; and that he stayed with the Hoghtons and their neighbours until May 15, 1581, writing his Ten Reasons to arm recusants with arguments to reject the Anglican Church. According to his biographer, Richard Simpson, “Lancashire was chosen because it was furthest from London and best affected to the Catholic religion, but also because there was more hope to find there the books to help him answer the heretics”. For before retreating north, Campion had issued his famous “brag” to ministers, to “avow our Catholic Church by proofs invincible”, and at Hoghton he was equipped with all the “scriptures, fathers, councils, histories, and works of natural and moral reason” needed to prepare for public debate. No wonder that as late as 1660 locals recalled how “many persons of quality spent whole nights in barns so they might be early next day to hear his sermon … on the King who went a journey”. As Evelyn Waugh enthused, “the rich rhetoric which had stirred the lecture halls of Oxford and Douai, Rome, Prague and Rheims, now rang through the summer dawn”. If Shakespeare was Shakeshafte, he was a member of a household which was for six months, it seems, nothing less than the secret college and headquarters of the English Counter-Reformation.

“The day is too short, and the sun must run a greater circumference”, Campion boasted, before he could “number all the Epistles, Homilies, Volumes and Disputations” amassed at Hoghton. It was this library which would infuriate his prosecutors, who ordered a series of posses to Lancashire to root out contraband texts “dispersed in that shire” by his hosts. But as their prisoner taunted, it was “in vain that the houses of Catholics, with their trunks, boxes, and private receptacles, were violently broken open” for no seditious pamphlet told against Anglicanism more zealously than the classics, and “As long as these Monuments Learning were sold, so long in vain were our books forbidden to be read”. Campion’s learning was not worn lightly, but it was his catalogue of esoterica – from Athanasius to Zozomene – which caused him to mock those who “learn some few Greek words and will seem literate”. It would be strange if some of these tomes were not carted away by the boy named Shakeshafte when the priest’s library was suddenly broken up; but whatever their destination, their collection at Hoghton adds new substance to the view that “Shakespeare’s rhetoric was grandson of Campion’s”. T. W. Baldwin based that insight on the fact that Thomas Jenkins, John Cottom’s predecessor as Stratford schoolmaster, was yet another of the Jesuit’s contacts, having been tutored by him at St John’s, Oxford. As Baldwin deduced, the poet’s “small Latin” and Greek were acquired in an intellectual milieu dominated by Campion, as four of the five Stratford masters who might have taught him were linked with the Jesuits, and “though outwardly conformist, there is a great deal to show their sympathies were all Catholic”. It is this “significant background” which for Baldwin accounts for the coincidence that four of the five were also Lancastrians; and when Campion’s princely library is considered, it explains the otherwise improbable connection between the Midland market town and the wilds of Hoghton. In this environment, all roads led literally to Lancashire.


It is in the light of Campion’s retreat that the story of Shakespeare’s schoolteaching acquires significance. For of all counties, Lancashire was where “The youth of both the gentry and common sort” were reckoned to be most “noseled up in Popery by Popish schoolmasters fostered in gentlemen’s houses”. And if the playwright was so “fostered”” by the Hoghtons, he would have been recruited to a system historians describe as “the most dangerous device of Catholic resistence and the most vita means of maintaining priests”. To be such a schoolmaster in Lancashire was automatically suspect, since as the official “Regulations for Schools” calculated, “three out of four papists were not twelve years old when the Queen came to her crown, but have learnt it from corrupt schoolmasters in private houses”. In 1592, an apostate priest listed ten gentry in the county as keeping “recusants as schoolmasters”, including Alexander Hoghton, his cousin Richard. who had “this twenty years had one after another”, his brother-in-law Barthotomew Hesketh, and Vivian Haydock, a cousin of the Cottoms. All were kin, the informer noted, to Cardinal Allen, and it was this dynasty that ensured that “one fifth of those who entered Douai by 1584 came from Lancashire”. It was no accident, then, that nine of the twenty-one Catholic schoolmasters executed under Elizabeth were Lancastrians. The county was a springboard for missionaries like Thomas Hoghton and Thomas Cottom, who both taught there before sailing to Douai; or the Hoghton protege, John Finch, hanged at Lancaster in 1584 for operating a Jesuit liaison chain disguised as a tutor. The son of the Stratford recusant had models for such a vocation in his master, Hunt, and schoolfellow, Debdale; but if he was also Shakeshafte, he had run between the two most active cells in Catholic England. Like the Gunpowder Plotter Robert Catesby, his route ought to have taken him from Stratford to Douai via the Jesuit clearing-house at Hoghton. For if Shakespeare was Shakeshafte, he would by 1581 have had glittering prospects, such as Allen had envisaged when he founded his alternative to Oxford and Cambridge:

To draw from Grammar Schools in all parts of the realm … the best wits out of England, that were either Catholicly bent or desirous of a more exact education than is these days in either of the Universities, where there is no art, holy or prophane, thoroughly studied, and some not touched at all.

The sensational idea that Shakespeare was among the young men recruited by Campion when he rode north from Warwickshire answers one objection to the Hoghton Tower theory, which is that, as Peter Levi demurs, someone whose “talent was so enormous and obvious” would never have “drifted shiftlessly into a troop of ragged players or taken private service in obscure Lancashire”. In fact, far from obscurity, the aristocratic Catholicism harboured behind the walls of the Renaissance palace at Hoghton was much like the culture of Shakespeare’s early plays in flitting between England and Europe, and the oaths and aliases subscribed by the Sodality had the arrogance of those assumed by the “little academe” of students in Love’s Labour’s Lost who “war against the huge army” of the world. In her study of the Gunpowder Plot, Antonia Fraser describes this “small world” of “perpetual aliases”, in which “everyone was related to everyone else”, as “schizophrenic” in its oscillation between the glittering light where prizes were won and the spectral darkness of a forbidden religion; but to the brightest and the best who signed up for Campion’s mission, the prospect would have seemed like that of Shakespeare’s two gentlemen of Verona, who would rather “see the wonders of the world abroad” than “Wear out youth in shapeless idleness”. Cottom, who carried letters from Italy to Shottery like some Valentine or Proteus, had lodged in Rome with the composer Victoria; and Lawrence Stone confirms that the provincial geography of Elizabethan Catholicism was liberating, not limiting, for its chosen proteges, who received “shelter, encouragement, protection and financial backing” from the patronage network of great houses on their way to Catholic universities abroad. English Catholicism would afterwards shrink into the self-imposed isolation of a quietist sect of aristocratic families, but in 1580 the way through Lancashire still led on to .the Continent, and the elitist culture of Shakespeare’s personal Belmont was a window on the world.

“Their sugared tongues and power attractive beauty”, wrote John Weever of Shakespeare’s early works; “Say they are Saints …/ For thousands vow to them subjective duty.” The Lancashire writer noticed, it seems, an affinity between Catholic belief and the stage where Romeo kisses Juliet like a “holy shrine” and atones to his “ghostly confessor”; Richard III is haunted by the spirits of All Souls; an Abbess appears from “sanctuary” to unravel The Comedy of Errors with “holy prayers”; Petruchio swears he loves Kate “‘By God’s wounds'”, so loud the priest lets fall the book; Fairies “consecrate . . . each several chamber” of Theseus’s palace with their sacred “dew”; Claudio vows a “yearly rite” at Hero’s tomb; Olivia is “catechised” by servants as “madonna”; and the King of Navarre departs, like Jacques, “To some forlorn and naked hermitage,/Remote from the pleasures of the world”. No wonder that in the Civil War, “Shakespeare’s works” were excoriated by Puritans as “prelatical trash such as clergymen spend their canonical hours on”, or that they became the favourite reading of the imprisoned Charles I; for critics have marshalled ample internal evidence of their author’s Catholic set of mind. When the priest-hunter Anthony Munday exposed the clay feet of Thomas More, Shakespeare made the Catholic hero a law-abiding Church papist; and when Munday heroized the Lollard, Sir John Oldcastle, Shakespeare travestied him as Falstaff. In King John, he toned down an anti-Catholic source; and in Henry V promoted the loyalty of England’s papist subjects through the soldier Williams. Research remains to be done on the relation of the Histories to Parsons’s 1595 Conference on Succession, advocating the Catholic claimants of the House of Lancaster; but what is already striking is the stark difference from all other English drama of this Gothic theatre of dark towers, moated granges and silent convents, where statues weep in private chapels, and friars emerge from hiding places to resolve each plot. However long he studied in their “little academe” in Lancashire, Shakespeare’s “ghostly fathers” had clearly left their mark.

On August 4, 1581, the day after Alexander Hoghton commanded Shakeshafte to Thomas Hesketh in his will, the Privy Council commanded a search for “certain books and papers which Edmund Campion has confessed he left at the house of one Richard Hoghton of Lancashire”. Campion had been hurrying north to safeguard his library when he had been persuaded to say mass at Lyford in Berkshire, where on July 16 he was, ambushed. One of those arrested with him was another relative of Shakespeare’s schoolmaster, his namesake, John Cottom, who was to suffer months of interrogation about “what other persons” had attended Campion’s mass. So it cannot be chance that by the end of the year the master had left his post and himself retired to Lancashire (to he replaced by yet another Hoghton nominee, Alexander Aspinall from Clitheroe). His brother had been tortured in December to divulge the Catholic network; and on July 31 Campion was racked to discover “At whose houses had he been received? Who assisted him? Whom had he reconciled? Where did they live, and what had they talked about?” Very soon, Burghley could crow that “We have gotten from Carmpion knowledge of all his peregrinations and have sent for his hosts”. As his biographer admits, “By August 2 the government had suddenly acquired a flood of light about his doings. They knew where he had lodged in Lancashire and where he had hidden his library”; enough to order the arrest of Richard Hoghton and his wife, a sister of one of the captured priests, Bartholomew Hesketh, and everyone suspected of concealing Campion or his books. Honigmann deduced that when he wrote his will, Alexander Hoghton “may have hoped to disperse family property to forestall confiscation”, but even he does not seem to have grasped the dire emergency in which, among more desperate measures, William Shakeshafte was protected: on the very day between Campion’s confession and the raids on the Hoghton estates. Even as the master of Hoghton Tower helped his servants to new identities, in the Tower of London Campion was being tortured for their names.

“Indeed they are searchers of secrets”, Thomas Cottom protested from his cell, “for they would needs know of me-what my sins were for which penance was enjoined me. Whereupon they sore tormented me, but I persisted that I would not answer, though they tormented me to death.” It is ironic that Shakespeare’s interpreters are driven by the same rage to discover the truth about his circle as the Elizabethan inquisitors, and that Campion should have been tortured to reveal, among such secrets, the identity of William Shakeshafte. For critics know that whereas other dramatists “reassure spectators by putting privacy on display”, Shakespeare’s difference is that in his plays the “obsessive desire to spy out secrets” is offset by “a sense of opacity, of mysteries that cannot be disclosed”. And as Gary Taylor argues, it was precisely his formation within a culture of circumspection, like that of England’s Catholics, which determined Shakespeare’s celebrated invisibility: the illusion that “Wherever we look in his writings”, in Richard Dutton’s words “he is self-effacing to the point of anonymity”. For such a vacuum, Taylor insists, has to be carefully constructed and maintained: “There may he many motives for self-erasure, but the desire to protect yourself from those who would ‘pluck out the heart’ of your mystery is most understandable in adherents of a religion that was defined as treason.” Such was the desire of Carnpion when he pleaded with his judges “not to enter so deep into our conscience”; and it remained Thomas Cottom’s even on the scaffold, where he was still harried to “confess the grievous sin he had committed in the market long ago”, until some bystander “affirmed it was not Father Cottom but his brother John who had committed the offence”. Whatever the crime committed in Cheapside by the Stratford schoolmaster, it was certain that even at Tyburn the interrogators would not relent until they had indeed plucked out the heart from Shakespeare’s world.

“He died a papist”: the presumption of Shakespeare’s Catholicism is no new theory, but dates from the Restoration, when Richard Davies, a chaplain at Oxford, recorded the testimony of surviving witnesses. In the nineteenth century, Richard Simpson explored the recusancy of Tudor Stratford, tracing Shakespeare’s nostalgia for “Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang” to the influence of the town’s Guild of Holy Cross and his Arden relations. In 1946, John Henry de Groot compiled a magisterial dossier on the loyalty of the Shakespeares to “the old faith”; and in 1958 Robert Stevenson made the crucial deduction that it was his Lancashire sojourn which conditioned the dramatist’s marginality, on the “religious frontier” of England. That conditioning by northern Catholic nobility has been made probable by the research of E. K. Chambers, Leslie Hotson and Ernst Honigmann. But what has not been explained is the connection between the Midland town and the northern household. Though Campion’s itinerary is famous, it has never been linked with the shifts that transformed Shakespeare into Shakeshafte and then “the only Shake-scene in a country”. It was the 1580 crusade, however, which not only tied Stratford to Hoghton, but necessitated adoption, by everyone involved, of aliases. There were many Shakeshaftes in Lancashire, it has been objected; but none had cause to lodge at Hoghton Tower like the boy educated, under Hoghton tutelage, by recusant schoolmasters in Stratford. Their tuition accounts for Shakespeare’s presence at Hoghton in August 1581, and his silence in the ensuing decade of persecution, when both his Warwickshire cousins and Lancashire patrons would be decimated for alleged treason. Campion’s rhetoric has been thought Shakespearean; but if it was his mission that took his converts north, it was also his catastrophe which spared the playwright the penalties of priesthood. Biographers hunting for a “smoking gun”, to confirm the identity of Shakeshafte, possessed it all along, had they but noticed the coincidence of Campion’s confession, in the date of the will of his harassed host at Hoghton.

Edmund Campion was hanged on December 1, 1581, and it may have been at this time that John Shakespeare hid his Spiritual Testament beneath the tiles of his house, where it was to remain, a dusty secret from his son’s admirers. for so long. The Stratford burgess had come very close indeed to the ordeal of truth which would take his co-signatories to the gallows, but he had not, in the end, honoured his suicidal promise to carry the document “continually about me”, so as to be sure to “be finally buried with it” after his death. And if his son was Shakeshafte, he too flinched, it seems, from a faith that would send so many of his ghostly fathers to their deaths. In Lancashire, the “subseminarian” would have encountered instead an older Catholicism. which, as historians such as Christopher Haigh have shown, did not lead automatically to recusancy, and put more faith in rosaries and charms than moral invigilation. It was to evangelize this popular Catholicism that Campion had preached at Hoghton, and when he returned north, John Cottom likewise continued to “receive into his charge youths to be educated” as late as 1604, and to “send catechisms and books” to “gentlemen of Lancashire and certain priests”. His most famous pupil must have disappointed the master, therefore, by slipping from the pulpit to the playhouse. For at some time after the raids on Hoghton, Shakeshafte vanished into the interstices of a State that preferred, in Queen Elizabeth’s phrase, not to make windows in men’s souls, to re-emerge transformed from a papist into a poet, with his “tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide”. Campion’s arrest cut short the brilliant career that should have propelled the Stratford boy, with all the ardour of his martyred mentors, from the schoolroom to the scaffold. And though, in 1611, the historian John Speed would brand him with Parsons as “this Papist and his Poet, of like conscience for lies, the one ever feigning and the other ever falsifying the truth”, what Shakespeare learned from his fathers, it seems, was that conscience makes not heroes, but cowards of us all. For in an age that demanded visibility and uniformity, he produced a world of difference from a secrecy darker even than the priest hole or confession.

Richard Wilson is Professor of Renaissance Studies at Lancaster University and Director of the Shakespeare Programme at the University of Lancaster.