Historical Notes: Shakespeare armed against oppression

TODAY, AS always on Shakespeare's birthday, the great and good will parade through Stratford to mark his place at the heart of English culture.

But this year there will be a spectre at the feast in the shape of a new Shakespeare emerging. The last 12 months have confirmed that there will never be another biography of the dramatist which does not devote space to evidence that he spent a period in his youth as a protege of Catholic renegades in Lancashire, and remained as bitter with Queen Elizabeth as he was sympathetic to the papist traitors he lamented as "fools of time".

The new story of Shakespeare and Catholic resistance begins in the fratricidal wars of religion, with the arrival at Stratford in September 1580 of the charismatic Jesuit Edmund Campion. He came to England hot from Milan, and armed with a pledge of faith drafted by Carlo Borromeo. One of the first to subscribe was Shakespeare's father John. His "Testament" was hidden in the rafters of the birthplace, where it lay until 1757.

From Stratford, Campion and his recruits rode north to Hoghton Tower near Preston, and it was there that he established a beachhead for the Counter-Reformation. The Hoghtons had sponsored John Cottom, Shakespeare's schoolmaster, and his brother, Thomas Cottom, one of Campion's priests, and now their mansion became a college of sedition, which housed, it seems, the teenage poet. Like the "little academy" in Love's Labour's Lost, Campion's fraternity vowed to "war against the huge army" of the world, and their jihad might have terrorised the English state, if its champion had not been ambushed on 16 July 1581 and carried to the Tower of London.

On 31 July Campion was racked to divulge his hosts, and on 4 August Hoghton was raided: the day after Alexander Hoghton had dissolved the household, dispersing its library, theatre costumes and musical instruments, and enjoining his neighbours to hide Shakespeare (alias "Shakeshafte"). When he appeared in London around 1590, it was with a troupe from Lord Derby's Liverpool playhouse, so the implication is that "Shakeshafte' worked in these "lost years" for a chain of Lancashire Catholics, his exile enforced by further disaster in 1583, when his Arden relatives hatched a suicidal plot to shoot the Queen.

Edward Arden was hanged for this treason, while the assassin, his son- in-law, John Somerville, was strangled in his cell: silenced by their backers, it was said, to prevent a scaffold confession. We may never know if the poet avenged his kin, as the story goes, by poaching from their persecutor, Sir Thomas Lucy; but what these devastating events do suggest, as Ted Hughes recognised, is how intensely such "a fanatic cell" must have confronted "The Bloody Question" - whether to suffer under an "outrageous fortune", or take up arms against oppression, and by opposing, end it.

At the end of his career Shakespeare bought the Blackfriars Gatehouse in London, and scholars have puzzled over his reason for instantly leasing it to one John Robinson. In fact, this tenant was an agent of the Jesuit school at St Omer in France, and the Gatehouse, with its "trapdoors and passageways to the Thames" was a bolthole for escaping priests.

No wonder the Puritan John Speed outed Shakespeare in 1611, beside the Jesuit Robert Parsons, as "this Papist and his Poet" for the Blackfriars purchase turns out to have been his final service to the Catholic network that had sponsored his success. As such, the Gatehouse might stand for Shakespearean theatre, which has been seen for too long as a gateway to the British empire, but leads instead, through a labyrinth of secret resistance, out of Elizabethan power altogether, towards another world, where "it is the heretic that makes the fire, not she which burns in it" who is condemned.

Richard Wilson is the author of 'Will Power' (Harvester, pounds 12.99)