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.’
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.
It 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.
Robert 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 Hurstwood. The 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.
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.
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…