Daily Archives: October 5, 2015

The Young Shakespeare (pt 6)


The Townley Manuscript

 This countri as yett is verie backward in religion. They that have the sword in there handes vnder her maiestie to redresse abuses among vs, suffer it to rust in the scabarde. Ther is some smale reformation, and we hope will shortly be greater by reason of certeyne spirituall exercises in Lankeshire and Cheshire Thomas Mead


In the last post we managed to place Shakespeare in East lancashire, where our budding bard was showing off to Spenser his knowledge of the then new-fangled Rondelay, a poetic form he had picked up during his sojurn at the Jesuit English College in Douay. His early Catholicism seems certain, & his presence at the house of probably the most noble Catholic of them all – Sir John Townley – is of great significance when attempting to trace the development of Shakespeare’s muse.

Only a mile or so away from Spenser’s Cottage at Hurstwood lies the famously beautiful hall of the Townleys, situated in the most serendipitous grounds just to the south-east of Burnley. Like many other Lancastrians, the Townleys refused to accept the new religion imposed on them by Henry VIII & his daughter Elizabeth. Lancashire was a superstitious, underpopulated county whose noble families were willing to pay fines to the state rather than join a parish congregation onto which a Genevan vicar had been foisted. Anyone not attending a regular Anglican service was termed a recusant, & Sir John  was to be imprisoned several times for his open defiance, paying over £5000 in fines throughout his lifetime in order to avoid attending the Protestant services.  Towneley Hall – now a museum & art gallery – possesses a beautiful painting of Sir John Townley with his family, which is imbibed with the following inscription, dated to 1601.

images This John, about the 6th or 7th year of her Majesty that now is, for professing the Apostolic Catholic Roman faith, was imprisoned first at Chester Castle, then sent to the Marshalsea, then to York Castle, then to the Blockhouses in Hull, then to the Gatehouse in Westminster, then to Manchester, then to Broughton in Oxfordshire, then twice to Ely in Cambridgeshire; and so now of 73 years old, and is bound to appear and keep within 5 miles of Townley his house; and who hath, since the statute of 23 Elizabeth, paid into the exchequer 20 the month and doth still, so that there is already paid above £5,000. A.D. thor.

The Ladywell Shrine
The Ladywell Shrine

According to Peter Dillon, it would seem that John Towneley was too open with his recusant activities. None of his Lancashire friends from amongst the gentry seem to have been in prison as early as 1566. The Elizabethan persecution in the North had scarcely begun by then.’ Although in & out of prison most of his adult life, Sir John never renounced Catholicism, hiding priests in secret chambers at Towneley Hall & even disguising his altar – the Ladywell Shrine – as a wardrobe. Through him we can form a link to his fellow Lancastrians, Cardinal Allen & Simon Hunt, & it would be no stretch of the imagination to see him welcoming the fresh influx of Catholic priests sent to England from Douay, & through that connection find himself accommodating the young, poetically talented Shakespeare.

We now come to perhaps the most important discovery of recent years in the quest for Mr William Shakespeare. During my studies, having placed our bard at Towneley, I began to investigate the theatrical tradition of the place & came across a unique 16th manuscript known as the Townley MS. By facsimile, I might add, for the MS was sold by auction in 1814, & is now housed at the Huntington Library, San Marino, California.  It consists of a series of ‘miracle plays’ copied out by an unknown scribe,  which opens up the possibility that Shakespeare could have been the young fellow behind it. To eke out the truth in this notion, I compared the three & a half letters on Shakespeare’s will – which apart from his characteristic signatures are the only samples of his formal handwriting to have survived. Orthographically speaking, we cannot use his flourish-heavy signature as proper evidence, which means all that the Bard left in his own true hand are the four letters of ‘by me’ or even ‘by mr’ that preceed a signature on his will. Of these four letters, only B, Y & M can be used to any satisfaction. At this point you can decide for yourselves by checking out the graphology below & making your own mind up, while remembering four decades would have passed between the inscriptions.


by me

Shakespeare’s ‘By Me’

Some Ms & Ys from the Townley MS
Some Ms & Ys from the Townley MS
A few Bs & a couple more Ys
A few Bs & a couple more Ys

In 1576, the Protestant authorities came down hard on the old religious Mystery/Miracle Plays, the medieval fore-runners to the theatrical tradition forged in the late Elizabethan era by Shakespeare & his contemporaries. These early proto-plays were especially popular in Wakefield, Yorkshire, & it is the populace of that town that the Diocesan Court of High Commission at York ordered;

In the said play no pageant be used or set further wherein the Ma(jest) ye of God the Father, God the Sonne, or God the Holie Goste or the administration of either the Sacrementes of baptism or of the Lordes Supper be counterfeited or represented, or anything plaid which tend to the maintenance of superstition and idolatry or which be contrary to the laws of God or of the realm.

urlThis really ripped the stuffing out of the heavily iconographied Mystery Plays, a death knell that saw this once massively popular national theatre all but banished from the noble Halls & bustling market places of the land. The last play in Wakefield was performed on May 17 1576, of ‘a plaie commonlie called corpus christi plaie,’ after which they were never heard in the town again. The date is significant, for later that year we can now place both Shakespeare & his his hand-writing at Townley. We know by the press-mark on the first page of the  manuscript that Sir John Townley’s son, Christopher (1604-74) was the marked owner of the book. , & with the miracle plays being a Catholic institution, we can imagine Sir John proposing a way to make them safe for posterity, the consequence being a single manuscript in which could be stored the entire cycle.

The anonymous author of the plays has been monickered the ‘Wakefield Master,’ for he peppers the text with local topography such as the reference in the manuscript’s Second Shepherds’ Play to Horbery Shrogys – with Horbery being a town near Wakefield.  Scholars have calculated that the original plays – dating to about 1400  – were rewritten & added to towards the end of that century. The new plays were Caesar Augustus, The Talents, Noah, the First Shepherds’ Play, The Second Shepherds’ Play, Herod the Great, and The Buffeting of Christ, the last 5 utilising the 9-line stanza that could have inspired Spenser when adapting a nine-lien stanza for his epic poem the Faerie Queene.

It makes sense that Sir John was the instrumental force behind the text, preserving the plays for the Towneleys & the other twenty or so recusant families in & around Burnley? If this was the case, & Shakespeare was staying with the Townleys at the time, then we can see how our young poet would have been profoundly affected by witnessing, reading & even copying the 32 Mystery Plays.  At some point after its creation, some protestant mind decided to tamper with the MS -references to the Pope and the sacraments are crossed out, while  twelve manuscript leaves full of Catholic references were ripped out between the two final plays. In what remains, the presence of some north midland forms, rather than the northern forms found in a similar play-cycle found at York, reinforces the possibility that the Warwickshire-born Shakespeare may have had a hand in the matter. Perhaps he was working alongside Spenser, for in the Cycle’s impressive Second Shepherd’s Play, a Nativity burlesque, the regular dialect is north-midlands, while that of a character called Mak heralds from Spenser’s south.

Valiant “RedCross Knight” enters the Cave of Despair
Valiant “RedCross Knight” enters the Cave of Despair

In support of Spenser’s involvement we should first notice that the Cycle’s Hanging of Judas appears in the Despair episode of his epic poem, The Faerie Queene. This may be a coincidence, but digging deeper we discover that the great mind behind the Cycle, the so-called Wakefield Master, utilised a nine-line stanza, while a decade later Spenser also used a nine-line stanza for the Faerie Queene. The Wakefield Master’s plays are also noted for delving into the rural lives of its characters & filling their mouths with colloquial ‘folkspeech.’ If Spenser was working on the Mystery Plays at the same time as the Shepheard’s Calendar, we can see how such a stylistic theme could have seeped into his own composition. Indeed, A.C. Hamilton, in his ‘Spenser Encyclopedia’ remarks, ‘the morality play, like much civic pageantry, introduced allegorical actions with a particular liveliness & presumably energetic acting style. Spenser’s pracrice, especially in the Faerie Queene, likewise involves sharply visualized allegorical scenes that are appropriately comparable to scenes in allegorical drama, which commonly presented personifications of virtues & vices in conflict.’

That Shakespeare also came into contact with the Towneley MS is suggested by the form of Gloucester’s blinding in King Lear, which appears very much like the brutal treatment of Christ found in the Towneley Cycle. Here Caiaphas is stricken with overwhelming desire to put out the eyes of Christ, as in: ‘Nay, but I shall out-thrist / Both his een on a raw.’  Further indications were discerned by Glynne Wickham. Highlighting the Towneley Cycle’s ‘The Deliverance of Souls,’ he states, ‘in the Townley play Rybald receives his orders from Belzabub, in Macbeth, the porter’s first question is, “‘Who’s there, I th’name of Belzebub.’”  Wickham then says, ‘it was Rybald in the Towneley ‘Deliverance’ who cried out to Belzabub on hearing Christ’s trumpets at Hell-gate… Thunder, cacophony, screams & groans were the audible emblems of Lucifer & hell on the medieval stage. Those same aural emblems coulour the whole of II-iii of Macbeth &, juxtaposed as they are with the thunderous knocking at a gate attended by a porter deluded into regarding himself as a devil, their relevance to the moral meaning of the play could scarcely have escaped the notice of its first audiences.’

It may only be a coincidence that these letters are extremely similar, but during my investigations I came to the Townley MS manuscript by following an unconnected flow of evidence. These paper trails have been blown about by the blustery gales of history for many centuries, but when they settle in just the right order, all of a sudden a series of cogent patterns seem to illuminate a path through the murky mists of Shakespearean history.

The Young Shakespeare (pt 5)




After a six-month stint at the English College, the intellectual capacity of our 11-year-old bard would have been swollen no end. This period was one of the first stages of that unique course of education which just so happened to create one of the greatest poets to have ever lived. His time abroad would have helped to mould a mind capable of such epic feats of linguistics that would, later in his career, expand his native tongue with hundreds of loan-words from foreign languages, including French. In addition, Shakespeare’s faculty for the Muses would have defined him as as perfect student to certain Catholic scholars. Edward Campion, himself an excellent poet, defined the perfect student as studying & writing poetry (but not amorous poetry), while becoming intimate with, ‘the majesty of Virgil, the festal grace of Ovid, the rhythm of Horace, & the buskined speech of Seneca.

So where did Shakespeare go next? The year is important, for in 1576 another great English poet, Sir Edmund Spenser, was composing his Shepheard’s Calendar. This is a series of 12 pastoral eclogues, each named after a month of the year, & it is in the 8th eclogue – August – that something interesting happens. For one month only we find ourselves in the company of a certain poetical fellow called ‘Willy,’ who is performing in a form that had only just been created in France – the Roundelay – as if it were 1812 & the Waltz had just arrived in the salons & dancing halls of England.

PER. It fell upon a holy Eve,
WILL. Hey ho Holiday!
PER. When holy Fathers wont to shrive:
WILL. Now ‘ginneth this Roundelay.
PER. Sitting upon a Hill so high,
WILL. Hey ho the high Hill!
PER. The while my Flock did feed thereby,
WILL. The while the Shepherd self did spill
PER. I saw the bouncing Bellibone;
WILL. Hey ho Bonnibel!
PER. Tripping over the Dale alone,
WILL. She can trip it very well.

Spenser would use the nick-name ‘Willy’ for Shakespeare over a decade later, when referring to the bard’s  writing block in a poem known as The Tears of the Muses;

Our pleasant Willie, ah! is dead of late.
With whom all joy and jolly merriment
Is also deaded and in doleur drent.
But that same gentle spirit from whose pen
Large streams of honey and sweet nectar flow,
Scorning the boldness of such base-born men,
Which dare their follies forth so rashly throw,
Doth rather choose to sit in idle cell,
Than so himself to mockery to sell.

Here Spenser’s ‘large streams of honey and sweet nectar,’ is reminiscent of Francis Meres own description of Shakespeare, in the Palladis Tamia: Wit’s Treasury, as ‘the witty soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous & honey-tongued Shakespeare.’

Woodcut to the August eclogue - Willy, Perigot & Cuddy in conversation - note Pendle Hill in the far right background
Woodcut to the August eclogue – Willy, Perigot & Cuddy in conversation – note Pendle Hill in the far left background

Willy’s two companions in the August eclogue, Perigot & Cuddy, both connect to Shakespeare presence in Douay in 1576; Perigot is clearly a French name, after the Périgord region at the Dordogne, while Cuddy is northern dialect English for Cuthbert, who could be the Jesuit missionary Cuthbert Payne. He was in the right place at the right time to meet Shakespeare – Douay 1575 – & he also returns to England in time for Shakespeare to make Spenser’s poem. On the 7th February, 1576, Cuthbert obtained the degree of Bachelor of Theology of Douai University. A couple of months later, a day after Shakespeare’s 12th birthday on the 24 April 1576 (which may be significant), Cuthbert set off for England with another priest, John Payne. Splitting up, Payne went to the South East while Mayne went to Cornwall. A year later, in June 1577, he would be arrested in Probus. But did he stay in Cornwall all that time? Did he actually spend some time in the county of Lancashire. a well-known nest of papistry.

Image_3674It has been shown by a number of scholars that Spenser wrote his Calendar in the hamlet of Hurstwood, near the gorgeous East Lancashire town of Burnley, where there is a a tudor building’ known as ‘Spenser’s House,‘ still standing today.  Spenser’s father, John, was also from East Lancashire, an area simply teeming with Edmunds & John Spensers where the two names alternated generation to generation. A will made by Margaret Spenser of Hurstwood in 1605 is a classic example;

Mary, Margaret, and ffrances Nutter daughters of the said Henry, Edmund Spenser son and heir of John Spenser, deceased, ” to him ” all my manure or worthinge,”  Henry Spencer base son of John Spenser, Nicholas Towne and Grace Towne now his wife ” “one churn one Masheknoppe”2 ” Mary Spenser daughter of John Spenser deceased, Richard Cowcrofte to whom I am Aunt, Henry Cowcrofte of Birchecliffe, John Spenser, of Hurstwood, Ellinor now his wife, Edmund Spenser son of the said John Spenser

Edmund Spenser was born in London in 1552 & educated in boyhood at the newly founded Merchant Taylors’ school, and probably entered during 1561. Thomas Jenkins – the headmaster at the King’s School Stratford 1575-79 also has connections to Spenser’s Merchant Taylor’s School, for he was, according to MC Bradbrook (Shakespeare: The Poet in his World) ‘servant to Sir Thomas White. Sir Thomas had founded St. John’s College in Oxford and was also a great benefactor of the Merchant Taylors’ School in London.‘ It is through Spenser’s schooling here that we gain another connection to Hurstwood, the 19th century antiquarian, J McKay, writing;

It may be as well that I should now give my proofs in support of this statement. They are contained in a paper folio in a vellum wrapper, in which are set down the disbursments for various purposes of the executors of Robert Nowell, of Gray’s Inn, who died in 1569. At folio 25 there is an entry of ‘Gownes geven to certeyn poor scholler (s) of the scholls aboute London, in number 32, viz., St. Paul’s, Merchant Taylor’s, St Anthony’s Schole, St. Saviour’s Gramar Schole, & Westminster Schole. Cost of cloth, with making, xixll. Xs. Vijd.’ First on the list of the scholars of Merchant Taylors’ who recived these gifts stands ‘Edmunde Spenser.


image006Robert Nowell, the headmaster of the Merchant’s School in London, was a Burnley man, & related by marriage to Sir John Towneley of Townely Hall, near Hurstwood. These East Lancashire-Spenser connections are supported by the language used  by Spenser in the Calendar, which is in many places akin to the dialect of the area. The Calendar is a sophisticated mini-masterpiece, pregnant with a wide array of references & the first real original English poetic production of any merit since Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Entered on the books of the Stationers’ Company December 5, 1579, on its publication early the next year it became an instant success. Although written in the classical style of the Roman Eclogues, the reading public were intrigued by Spenser’s choice of rustic colloquiallism, most of which was written in the dialect of East Lancashire. John Dryden describes Spenser as a’master of our northern dialect,’ while Dr Grosart identified 550 words in the Calendar unique to East Lancashire & West Yorkshire. In a speech to the Historic Society of Lancashire on January 10th 1867, T T Wilkinson listed forty-five words in that ‘folkspeech’ used by Spenser dialect, that were still in circulation in his day. Some of these words have survived in the locality to the 21st century, such as

Brag – boast proudly
Chips – fragments cut off
Clout – blow with flat of hand
To crow over – to boast over someone
Dapper – pretty smart
Latch – temporary fastening of a door
Smirke – smile in a pertor winning maner

Wilkinson adds; ‘The Folkspeech of East Lancashire is somewhat peculiar, both in words and pronunciation, and many of its oldest terms and phrases have a close affinity to the Lowland Scotch. Both contain an admixture of words derived from the Danes and Northmen who conquered and colonized the district… Robert Chambers… in his interesting Book of Days, vol. I, p. 07, asserts that when Spenser tells of a ewe that ” she mought ne gang on ” the green,” he uses almost the exact language that would be employed by a Selkirkshire shepherd, on a like occasion, at the present day. So also when Thenot says ” Tell me, good Hobbinol, what gars thee greete ?” he speaks pure Scotch. In this poem Spenser also uses tway for two ; gait for goat (?) ; mickle for much ; wark for work ; wae for woe ; ken for know ; crag for the neck ; icarr for worse ; hame for home ; teen for sorrow all of these being Scottish terms.’ 


Three other bits of evidence place Spenser in Burnley in 1576. Contemporary gloss to the June eclogue of the Calendar provided by a certain ‘E.K.,’ describes Spenser as composing his poem amidst, ‘those hylles, that is the North countrye, where he dwelt,’ adding that Spenser’s movements after the poem’s composition as being ‘removing out of the Northparts came into the south.’ On this point, TT Wilkinson’s paper  quotes a certain Dr Craik, who in turn is quoting Mr. F. C. Spenser, of Halifax;

Various conjectures have been formed as to the precise locality intended by ‘the north;’ but the most probable one is that urged by Dr. Craik in his elaborate work on Spenser and his Writings. In a communication to the Gentleman’s Magazine for August 1842, Mr. F. C. Spenser, of Halifax, “produces such evidence as can scarcely leave a doubt that the branch of the Spensers from which the poet was descended was that of the Spensers, or Le Spensers, of Hurstwood, near Burnley, in the eastern extremity of Lancashire ; and that the family to which he immediately belonged was probably seated [here, or] on a little property still called ‘ The Spensers,’ near Filly Close, in the ancient Forest of Pendle, about three miles to the northward of HurstwoodThe poet always spelt his surname with an s ; and it appears from the registers that it was spelt in the same manner by the family at Hurstwood ; not only in the reign of Elizabeth, but for a century afterwards ; while even at Kildwick, near Skipton, only about ten or twelve miles distant, it is spelled with a c, in the manner as did, and do, the Spencers of Althorpe.

My bird at Pendle, a couple of miles from Roughlee.
My bird at Pendle, a couple of miles from Roughlee. The rolling hills to the left are highly similar to a Calendar woodcu… followed by a few more examples. The last one is taken from Castlelaw Hillfort whIich offers the best matching perspective for the woodcut






To this we can add the ‘Letterbook’ of Gabriel Harvey – to whom the Calendar is dedicated – which according to Alexander Grosart’s interpretation of the corrupted text (MS BM Sloane, 93, fol 37) reads; ‘To be shorte, I woulde to God that all the ill-favorid copyes of my nowe prostituted devises were buried a greate deale deeper in the centre of the ergye then the height & altitude of the middle region of the verye English Alpes amountes unto in your shier.’ To Grosart, Harvey is referring here to Pendle Hill, that great solitary heap of Earth that dominates the East Lancashire skyline, which is indeed in the ‘I’ of the English Pennines, stretching as they do from Cumberland down to Derbyshire. What is interesting for our quest is that near Newchurch, at the foot of Pendle’s northern slopes, the village of Grindleton was home to one of only two nest of Familists in the north of England – the other being in York.  Also, within the Pendle Forest branch of the Spenser family, Lawrences & Edmunds alternated as in the poet’s own descendants – a Laurence Spenser was buried at Newchurch in Pendle in 1584.


December’s woodcut – more Pendle Hill – compare with the next image…
...of Pendle by K Melling
…of Pendle by K Melling
The Pendle town of Colne is on the hill in the left background
The Pendle town of Colne is on the hill in the left background

Finally we have a passage in the calendar which shows Spenser had come into contact with the staunchly Catholic family of Sir John Townley of Townley Hall, who actually gets a cameo in the Calendar.

Truly Piers, thou art beside thy Wit,
Furthest fro the Mark, weening it to hit.
Now I pray thee, let me thy Tale borrow
For our Sir John, to say to-morrow,
At the Kirk, when it is Holiday:
For well he means, but little can say.
But and if Foxes been so crafty, as so,
Much needeth all Shepherds hem to know. 

We get the sense here that Spenser is alluding to Sir John’s enforced silence in the face of a Protestant England, & also the possibility that the Shepherds mentioned are Catholic priests. Adding everything together, through Spenser we can place the pro-Catholic ‘Willy’ Shakespeare in one of the most fervent Catholic hot-beds in the country, Townley, in August 1576. Coincidence or not, there was a manuscript produced at that place, & at that very time, which just so happens to have some of Shakespeare’s handwriting on it…

Townley Hall
Townley Hall