I have just finished reading Joseph Pearce’s book, ‘The Quest for Shakespeare: the Bard of Avon and the Church of Rome’. It is interesting because Pearce himself started out as a sceptic about the claim that Shakespeare was a convinced Catholic, taking it to be wishful thinking, and supposing that very little was known about Shakespeare’s life. His research showed him that a fair amount is known about Shakespeare’s life, and that as far as religion is concerned, all the facts point in one direction.
In the first place, Shakespeare’s parents were not simply convinced Catholics, but militant ones. He was brought up in a household determined to resist the new religion, and which suffered for its convictions. When he married, he travelled outside his own parish and found a Catholic priest to marry him. Once in London, he found a Catholic patron, Lord Southampton. St Robert Southwell seems to have dedicated a volume of his poems to Shakespeare.
Throughout Shakespeare’s residence in London, there is no evidence of his attending an Anglican parish. The signatures of his friends and associates are found in the attendance books of the new religion; his is never found. Part of the reason that he could get away with this is that he went to live with a family diplomatically immune from the requirement to go to Anglican services. He wrote no mourning poem for Elizabeth I, even when publicly requested to do so.
His daughter, Susanna, was punished for recusancy a few years before Shakespeare died (this was only discovered in 1964.) He left his property to her, and staunch Catholics proliferate as beneficiaries in his will. His Protestant brother-in-law, on the other hand, who was living with a large family only two miles away, received nothing. It is well known that an Anglican clergyman at the end of the century states that Shakespeare ‘died a Papist’.
But the conclusive fact, to my mind, is Shakespeare’s last act before retiring from London and returning to Stratford. He bought the Blackfriars Gatehouse in the centre of London, which had belonged to the Dominicans until the Government stole it. It cost him twice as much as his own house in Stratford, but he never lived in it. Pearce summarises the significance of the Gatehouse thus:-
This had been a centre of recusant activity in London since at least 1586, and probably earlier. When Shakespeare purchased it, he must have known of its reputation, and he chose to lease it to an active Catholic whose brother had presented himself to the English College at Rome to study for the priesthood in 1613, the very year in which Shakespeare bought the property. The fact that John Robinson continued to lease the property until Shakespeare’s death suggests strongly that it continued to be used for clandestine Catholic activity, including the celebration of the Mass, during the years that Shakespeare owned it.
As Pearce remarks, the obvious conclusion is that Shakespeare bought it to safeguard its future as a spiritual home for London’s persecuted Catholics.
Why do we not know these things? They keep these things from us.