Daily Archives: October 4, 2015

The Young Shakespeare (pt 4)




In the Autumn, or so, of 1575, William Shakespeare left his native islands for the first time. His destination was the small town of Douai on the River Scarpe, twenty miles south of Lille in northern France. A flourishing, medieval conurbation, it had become a little Catholic Benidorm, stuffed full of English exiles hoping to save their country from the ‘heathen’ protestant church. Since 1559, the town had had a university as well, with its first chancellor being the exiled Dr. Richard Smith, formerly Fellow of Merton and regius professor of divinity at Oxford. Douai was to be a fertile bedsoil for an 11 year-old prodigy to suddenly find himself; heated & passionate rhetoric would have abounded on all sides, infiltrating our wee bard’s psyche with the rhythm pulsations of intelligent conversazione.

 The English College had been set up in 1568 by Cardinal  William Allen who, when seeking a home for a projected English college abroad, turned his eyes towards Douai. A charming fellow, it wasn’t long before cardinals, scholars & would-be priests had flocked to his colours, a hectic band whose sole purpose was to reclaim English spirituality in defiance of Protestant law. There would be blood, but there would be prayer. Cardinal Allen, in a letter to  D’Vendeville , writes of the,  ‘gentlemen’s sons, who were studying humanities, philosophy or jurisprudence, and who either of their own accord or through the exhortations of catholic relations and friends had been moved by the fame of the seminary to seek here a catholic education, were kept by us in the college for a time, but at their own not the common charge, until according to their age and condition they had been duly catechised and reconciled to the church by penance for their previous life and schism.’ (literae D alani ad D Vendevillium sept 16 1578 or 1580)

 A diary at the English College’s branch in Rome contains a number of brief biographies in which the thoughts of the students were stored as they arrived at Douay. For example, in 1607 Father William Whittingham, from Whalley in Lancashire, wrote at the age of 17 years; ‘I fell into the superstitions of the heretics, and, without the least necessity, accompanied my schoolfellows to their churches. But afterwards, returning home in half a year, by reading pious books was restored to the ancient faith, and, before the lapse of another year, crossed over to Douay with my father’s consent. Both my parents are of respectable families, and well-to-do, and, what is better than all, are Catholics.’ 

Allen had no funds of his own, & depended very much upon the generosity of friends in France, secret benefactors back in England & pension from the pope himself of 100 golden crowns per month, which was paid, incidentally, right the way down to the time of the French Revolution. What comes to my notice here is that if John Shakespeare is sending his Sacred Testament to Campion, then is there any chance he was also sending money to Campion also. It is interesting to notice that after 1575, John Shakespeare’s situation in Stratford appears to disintegrate – he starts to accumulate debts, begins to fudge on financial contributions which he ~& his fellow bailiffs were expected to pay, & also ends up mortgaging out his Wife’s properties. No satisfactory explanation for this has been made, but for me the holy jihad called by Allen would have been enough to drain any devout papist of his, & his similarily Catholic wife.


In 1575, when Shakespeare & Hunt arrived in Douai, there were 150 students at the College. Also arriving that year – according to the ‘First & Second Diaries of the English College’ edited by Thomas Francis Knox (1878) was a certain Cutbertus Mainus, Cuthbert Mayne, who in the next post shall become a most important player in the quest to find our young Shakespeare. Until then, let us try & get a feel for the academic environment our wee Willy has found himself a part of. The Rev. Gregory Martin described that at mealtimes,  ‘the reader from the pulpit reads aloud the portion of the old Testament which occurs in the Roman breviary at the time… so that the whole bible is easily gone through in one year. Twice a day at the end of each meal they will have the usual explanation of a chapter; only it is done more perfectly than formerly, not merely on account of the pains which Richard Bristow takes, and his knowledge which was always very great, but also because of the increased authority and maturity which is implied in the degree of doctor in divinity lately conferred on him.’ 

 Let us now look at a statement by Cardinal Allen, who tells us that, ‘on every Sunday and festival English sermons are preached by the more advanced students on the gospel, epistle or subject proper to the day. These discourses are calculated to inflame the hearts of all with piety towards God and zeal for the bringing back of England from schism to the path of salvation. We preach in English, in order to acquire greater power and grace in the use of the vulgar tongue,a thing on which the heretics plume themselves exceedingly, and by which they do great injury to the simple folk. In this respect the heretics, however ignorant they may be in other points, have the advantage over many of the more learned catholics, who having been educated in the universities and the schools do not commonly have at command the text of Scripture or quote it except in Latin. Hence when they are preaching to the unlearned, and are obliged on the spur of the moment to translate some passage which they have quoted into the vulgar tongue, they often do it inaccurately and with unpleasant  hesitation, because either there is no English version of the words or it does not then and there occur to them. Our adversaries on the other hand have at their fingers’ ends all those passages of Scripture which seem to make for them, and by a certain deceptive adaptation and alteration of the sacred words produce the effect of appearing to say nothing but what comes from the bible.


 Here Allen is scoffing at a Protestant Minister’s ability to make things up as he goes along, deviating from the ‘true word’ of God as found in the Bible. The key phrase here is ‘We preach in English, in order to acquire greater power and grace in the use of the vulgar tongue,’ & of all the folk listening in 1575, there was one wide-eyed boy in a corner who was acquiring that ‘greater power & grace’ by the minute. Indeed, that bible’s ability to come out with some complex latinate diction is positively shakespearen. We also have a great deal of latinized words, a for-runner perhaps of Shakespeare’s own etymylogical experiments.  Nassed shaheen lists; ‘a few of the many words of latin origin employed by the rheims New testament are : ‘supererogate for spend more; prefnition of worlds for eternal purpose; exin-anited for made himself of no reputuaion; depositum for that which is committed; neophyte for nivice & prescience for foreknowledge.’

One of the chief missions of the English College was the production a a New Testament, named after Rheims, the town where the College moved was situated from 1578. A number of passages in the plays match moments in the Rheims, such as the word ‘cockle’ (Matt 13.24-25) which appears in Coriolanus (3.1.70)-: ‘the cockle of rebellion.’ ;I 1946, John Henry De Groot’s ‘Shakespeare and the ‘Old Faith.’ showed how the phrases ‘narrow gate,’ and ‘not a hair perished‘ were also peculiar to both Shakepseare & the Rheims. That Shakespeare used this ‘illegal’ bible AND protestant versions such as the Geneva, has always baffled scholars, but knowing that Shakespeare’s upbringing was influenced by the non-sectarian Familists, we can see how he would have used both texts freely without pricking his religious conscience.

 St. Aloysius

Shakespeare’s time at such a vivid Catholic institution left him with a fondness for the ‘Old Faith’ throughout his writings. De Groot writes, ‘there are many signs of respect for Catholocism, Priests, friars, nuns are generally idealised & never ridiculed, while pasons are always treated with levity… Shakespeare’s exact understanding of & deep respect for the ‘Old Faith’ are shown in the whole presentation of the Catholic Middle Ages in the History plays & of Catholic Europe in the comedies.’ In the Winter’s Tale we also have a nod to the confessional tenets of the Roman version of Christianity.

I have trusted thee, Camillo,
With all the nearest things in my heart, as well
My chamber-council wherein, priest-like, thou
Hast cleaned my bosom : I from thee departed
Thy penitent reformed

 OK folks, this is where the fun begins. Having spent the Autumn of 1575 at Douay, & the winter also, let us place him now in the company of a certain Jesuit missionary, who is just about to return to England from Douay in April 1576. His name is Cuthbert Mayne, & through an astonishing series of connections, we are now going to follow Shakespeare to a beautiful part of East Lancashire, after which – & a year later –  he would appear at a theatre in London for the first time.