What were the religious sympathies of Shakespeare’s father?

George Austin looks at the evidence

Orthodox Anglicans today – especially the clergy – know only too well that to survive in some dioceses, it can be prudent either to keep a low profile or sometimes to use more devious means to preserve one’s integrity.It was even more necessary in Shakespeare’s world and it could be that his father John’s money problems were more of a political device than a reality, and that the financial troubles which seemed to beset him from time to time were a way of distancing himself from the possibility of investigation for the more serious misdemeanour of holding the old faith.

In 1592, when John was named in a list of Stratford citizens who had ‘obstinately’ refused to go to church for Easter communion, his excuse was that he had been absent because he feared being served with a writ for debt.

Again, as a town councillor, he and his colleagues were compelled to involve themselves in national politics ‘to encourage conformity and to identify dissent.’ Did John resign from his prominent positions in the Stratford Corporation not because he was in debt as he claimed – in fact he still had considerable property – but to avoid having to fulfil duties which would have involved persecuting his co-religionists?

The Gunpowder Plot in 1605 had Warwickshire connections, with the leading conspirator, Robert Catesby, a Warwickshire man. They met in the county and one of them rented Clopton House just outside Stratford to be near his colleagues. Just after 5 November, the bailiff of Stratford seized a bag full of Catholic vestments and symbols supposed to be delivered to none other than John Shakespeare’s next-door neighbour George Badger.

When new legislation was passed against Catholic recusants in the aftermath of the plot, William’s daughter Susannah was cited for her failure to receive communion at Easter, together with other well-known recusants in the town. These included Hamnet Sadler, godfather to William’s dead son Hamnet. Someone close to her must have warned her of the danger she was putting herself in since the word dismissa was later placed against her entry. She must have outwardly conformed by taking communion, and later does appear to have become a ‘church papist’ after her marriage, while remaining a firm and prominent Catholic all of her life.

In 1607 William returned to Stratford for Susannah’s wedding to John Hall, a doctor and moreover a Puritan. But Hall was not an extreme Puritan and successfully treated a Catholic priest, who was, he wrote in his case-book, cured ‘beyond all expectation.’ Maybe being married to a recusant he was content to overlook religious differences; or perhaps it was he who persuaded Susannah to adopt outward conformity.

Then on 27 April 1757, in between the eaves and joists of the family home in Henley Street, workmen found a six-page handwritten Catholic testament of faith, in English, each page signed in the name of John Shakespeare. In it he pleaded that the chief Executress might be ‘the glorious and ever Virgin Mary’ and requested that his ‘friends parents and kinsfolk…do masses for my soul after my death.’ He declared that he would endure any suffering rather than abandon the Catholic faith.

Its authenticity was challenged but then in 1922 it was discovered that John had taken the testament, almost word for word, from a translation by Jesuits Robert Parsons and Edmund Campion of a testament composed by Cardinal Borromeo for Catholics in the diocese of Milan. It was brought to England by the two Jesuits (Campion was near to Stratford when he was arrested in July 1581) and in the turmoil of the day it may be that John Shakespeare hid – but tellingly did not destroy – his testament of faith.

This is surely a Catholic family, and not only that, a Catholic family prepared to take risks in a world where to do so was to put one’s life and liberty in grave danger.