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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment & HR Administrator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Business Partner

£55 - 65k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: A HR Manager / HR Business Partner i...

Austen Lloyd: Practice / HR Manager - Somerset

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A rare and exciting opportunity for a Practice...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

How to find gold

Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

Not born in the USA

Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
10 best balsamic vinegars

10 best balsamic vinegars

Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy