George Austin continues his Shakespearean reflections by considering the likely influences of his Catholic school teachers

Whether or not people today are active churchgoers, it is clear at any rate from older contestants’ answers to biblical questions on The Weakest Link that old ideas remain in the memory. In a similar way in Shakespeare’s day Catholicism was too engrained, too well established in the folk memory of English society, simply to be removed in so short a space of time.

In any case in those days, although children would be required to worship according to the new forms and to listen to the new homilies, the lessons of the old faith and its rites and practices might still be taught at home. It has been said that the community of Catholics were ‘matriarchal in tendency’ so that the old ways may have been transmitted through the women of the household. This happened too in Soviet days in Russia, where the grandmother had traditionally passed on the Orthodox faith to the children.

A Catholic would wish his children to carry on the faith and, of Shakespeare’s schoolmasters at Stratford Grammar School, Simon Hunt reverted to the Catholic faith and left Stratford to train at Douai as a Catholic priest and missionary to England. He was succeeded by Thomas Jenkins, whose father had been servant to Sir Thomas White, founder of St John’s College, Oxford. White was a Catholic and sympathetic to Catholic undergraduates, and after leaving Merchant Taylors’ School, Jenkins became an undergraduate there. One of his teachers was Edmund Campion, Catholic saint and martyr.

White was succeeded by John Cottam, from the same school and college. Cottam was the brother of a Jesuit priest, Thomas Cottam, who studied at Douai with Simon Hunt. They were joined there by a fellow pupil of Shakespeare, Robert Debdale, the son of a Catholic farmer from Shottery. Debdale, also a Jesuit, was involved in the Babington plot to murder Elizabeth and put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne. He was Shakespeare’s wife’s former neighbour in Shottery, his mother’s kinsman, and was publicly executed in December 1586 at the age of 26.

Thomas Cottam had stayed in secret at Richard Hoghton’s home in Lancashire, and the young Shakespeare’s first job was said to have been with Alexander Hoghton, Richard’s cousin. In Alexander’s will, signed on 3 August 1581, he asked his neighbour Thomas Hesketh to take ‘William Shakeshafte’ into his service.

Two days after making that will, the Privy Council issued an order that Richard Hoghton’s house should be searched for books and papers said to have been left there by the Catholic priest and missionary for the old faith, Edmund Campion, who had been arrested and interrogated. Perhaps Alexander believed he too would be arrested and that if he were, he would not live for long. This did not happen. But on 12 September, he died in what have been described as ‘suspicious circumstances.’

Hoghton’s family were not only Catholic but also ‘cultivated the drama.’ John Cottam, Shakespeare’s schoolmaster, is mentioned in Hoghton’s will as his ‘servant,’ and it could be that Cottam had recommended his most brilliant pupil to be schoolmaster to the Hoghton children. Thus the young William could have been introduced to the drama that formed part of the Hoghton family activities.

A Catholic family in Lancashire with priests staying there secretly – Campion one of them – would need to be sure that their servants and children’s tutors were themselves Catholic. However the death of Hoghton in 1581 and the capture and execution of Campion would really have made it impossible or at least unsafe for the young Shakespeare to have remained in Lancashire. Returning to Stratford, he married Anne Hathaway a year later.

Circumstantial it may be, but it would make sense for the young Will to be sent by a Catholic father to live and work among Catholics, just as orthodox Anglicans today have particular contacts with the like-minded, especially in dioceses where there is episcopal persecution.