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.

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