The Young Shakespeare (2): Shakespeare’s First Poems
1525: Shakespeare’s Family Lands
In 1525, Richard Shakespeare, our poet’s grandfather, possessed lands at a place called Wroxall, between Coventry & Birmingham. Eight miles to the north of Wroxall lies the manor of Meriden, known to have belonged to the Earl of Derby, who possessed, according to Thomas Aspden;
The ancient seats of Lathom and Knowsley, with all the houses, lands, castles, and appurtenances in Lancashire, Cumberland, Yorkshire, Cheshire, and many in Wales ; also the manor of Meriden, in the County of Warwick, with the old seat in Cannon Row, Westminster (afterwards called Derby Court), and also the advowson of the Parish Church of the Holy Trinity, in the city of Chester.
It is only a loose connection, but we can positively determine how the ‘antecessors’ of Stanley & Shakespeare were neighbours.
1552: Edmund Spenser Born
Edmund Spenser was born to Lancastrian parents, but down in the nation’s capital. Spenser’s father, John, originally from the Burnley area (like me), had moved to London to seek work, appearing in the Merchant Taylor’s school annals as a free ‘journeyman, clothworker.’ In the Spenserian epoch, East Lancashire was simply teeming with Edmunds & John Spensers, the two names alternating from generation to generation, as seen in a will made by Margaret Spenser of Hurstwood in 1605;
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” ” 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
In the gorgeous wee hamlet of Hurstwood, near Burnley, there is a Tudor building known as ‘Spenser’s House’ still standing today. In and around Hurstwood, & at Extwistle-and-Briercliffe in Burnley, the Spensers, formerly Le Spensers, had long held property. In the Gentleman’s Magazine of August 1842, Dr Craik cites the research of a certain FC Spenser of Halifax, who declared;
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.
1557: John Shakespeare Marries Into The Arden Family
Shakespeare’s father turns up in Stratford on June 17, 1556, brought to court by a certain Thomas Such for the recovery of £8. He is described as, ‘John Shakyspere of Stretforde, in the county of Warwick, glover.’ After three hearings that summer, the case was eventually dismissed when Thomas Such, ‘did not complete the action he embarked on.’ A year later he marries Mary Arden in Stratford-upon-Avon, whose family were staunch Catholics under a Catholic queen, Mary Tudor. The excellent essay, To Be or Not to Be (Catholic, That is),’ by Daniel Wackerman shows how Shakespeare’s maternal grandfather, Edward Arden, ‘was said to have secretly kept his own catholic priest, disguised as the family gardener,’ adding that Shakespeare’s mother, ‘made specific mention of the Blessed Virgin Mary in her will, a practice long out of fashion for all save Catholics in 16th-century England.’ It seems the old faith would never really leave their son, William, whom according to the Rev. Richard Davies, the rector of Sapperton (1695), ‘dyed a papist.’
Mary Tudor died in November 1558. During her time as queen she had reversed her father’s establishment of the Protestant Church of England & ruled as a Catholic, burning a whole heap of Protestants along the way. Her sister & successor Elizabeth would re-establish her father Henry VIII’s ‘Church of England,’ which at a stroke sent Catholic families such as the Ardens into secret worship once again. In the middle of this religious schizophrenia that was western Christendom in the 16th century, one sect fluttered about like a butterfy in a hurricane, preaching peace & unity of faith. The Familists were a radical, non-sectarian religious group known as the ‘Family of Love,’ who embraced both Catholics AND Protestants – the perfect alternative for the schismatic psyche of the Tudor state.
Non-Conformist religious obsessives though they were, the Familists embraced alternative views to those of the established church, views which were in a sense, an attempt to introduce Reason into religion and more reasoned forms of religious observance to those required by the established church. As such, the early familists can perhaps be viewed as among the precursors of the coming Enlightenment. Familism began to take hold in England during the 1550s, led by a certain Christopher Vittels, who had been a disciple of the Dutch Familist leader, Henry Niclaes. Worshipping in secret, the Familists would conceal their true beliefs while putting on a show of conformity for the outside world. If they were ever outed, they would stringently deny it, realizing it was better to briefly lie & stay alive in order to continue the worship of God, rather than let pride lead them to the bonfire.
1560: John Shakespeare Signs his Catholic Spiritual Testament
In the 18th century, in the rafters of the house on Henley Street, Stratford, was found ‘The Sacred Testament,’ a handwritten personal dedication to the Catholic faith, signed by Shakespeare’s father himself. That our bard at some point in his life encountered the Testament seems quite likely, based upon the strikingly similar parallels between Article I of the Testament and the Ghost’s words in Hamlet;
I may be possibly cut off in the blossom of my sins, and called to render an account of all my transgressions externally and internally, and that I may be unprepared for the dreadful trial either by sacrament, penance, fasting, or prayer, or any other purgation whatever
Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhousel’d, disappointed, unanel’d,
No reckoning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head:
In the Testament, where John Shakespeare beseeches, ‘all my dear friends, parents, and kinsfolks,’ the pluralization of parents means the testament must have been made before 1561, the year when John’s father Richard, died.
1564: Birth of William Shakespeare
In April 1564, just as the season of spring was beginning to flood the British Isles with scent & colour, a certain Mary Shakespeare has just given birth to a boy. Holding her hand is her husband, John Shakespeare, excited at the prospect of their baby, but nervous as to whether he would survive the rigors of infancy. Their first two swaddling baby girls had pass’d away before they could walk, & it would have been with doubtless trepidation when ‘Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere’ was scribbl’d in the Baptismal record of Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church on the 26 April 1564. It turned out that John & Mary had no need to worry, even when three months later the plague struck Stratford. By the end of the year over 200 people had been buried, about one fifth of the population of the town, but thro’ fate or fortune baby Will survived the outbreak, & would eventually grow up into one of the finest young men in the kingdom.
1566: Sir John Townley imprisoned for Catholicism
‘This countri as yett is verie backward in religion’ wrote Thomas Mead, ‘they that have the sword in there handes vnder her maiestie to redresse abuses among vs, suffer it to rust in the scabarde,’. He was talking about Lancashire, probably the most staunchly Catholic county in England. Lancashire was a superstitious, underpopulated region, where almost all of the gentry refused to accept the new religion imposed on them by Henry VIII & his daughter Elizabeth. They were more than willing to pay fines to the state rather than join a parish congregation onto which a Genevan vicar had been foisted. Of these nobles, the most prolific offender was Sir John Townley of Towneley Hall, whose gorgeous mansion was situated in the most serendipitous grounds just to the south-east of Burnley.
Anybody who did not attend the regular Anglican services 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 Protestants. He would worship the Old Faith in secret at Towneley Hall – now a museum & art gallery – where one can still see the secret chambers where the Catholic priests were hidden. The hall also possesses a beautiful painting of Sir John Towneley sitting with his family, which is imbibed with the following inscription, dated to 1601.
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.
1568: The English College Founded in Douay
The small town of Douay lies on the River Scarpe, twenty miles south of Lille in northern France. A flourishing, medieval conurbation; it had become stuffed full of English Catholics in exile, hoping to save their country from the ‘heathen’ protestant church. In1559 the town established a university, with its first chancellor being the exiled Dr. Richard Smith, former Fellow of Merton and regius professor of divinity at Oxford.
In 1568 a bunch of Lancastrian Catholics make a sideways attempt at bringing their country back under the fold of the Vatican. The plan was to train up hundreds of Jesuit priests in Douay, who would return to England as the vanguard of a spiritual reconquista. The brains behind the scheme was a certain Lancastrian Catholic called William Allen, while funding for the college also came from Lancashire, where a gentleman called Thomas Hoghton diverted profits from his Alum mines to France. In a flash Douay was filled with cardinals, scholars & would-be priests, 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.
1568: John Shakespeare Becomes Chief Bailiff of Stratford
The first decade of William’s life saw his father grow in influence & affluence all about their home town. In July 1565 he was elected one of the 14 alderman of Stratford, becoming chief bailiff between the autumns of 1568 & 1569. It was on his watch that the Stratford corporation paid for its first ever set of travelling actors to perform in the town, the Queen’s Players. One can imagine the very young Shakespeare observing the theatrical spectacle for the first time, a lightning bolt of electricity which would sear his soul with the sheer wonder of it all.
1569: Death of Robert Nowell
Another member of the Lancastrian Catholic community was Robert Nowell, a half-brother of Sir John Townley. Upon his death in 1569, to satisfy the requirements of the will both Sir John & Robert’s full brother, Alexander Nowell, distributed linen and woollen cloth among the poor of the parish-dwellers of Burnley. Among the ‘poor kynsfolkes’ who benefited from other parts of the will were Lyttis Nowell of Castle Parish in Clitheroe, who had married a certain Lawrence Spenser. Another Spenser to benefit would be our young poet down London, for Robert Nowell was also the headmaster of the Merchant’s School in which the young Spenser was attending. The 19th century antiquarian J McKay writes of the will;
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 recieved these gifts stands our fledgeling epic poet ‘Edmunde Spenser.’
1570+: Spenser enters Familist Circles
Throughout the 1570s, the writings of the de facto Familist leader, Henry Niclaeus, were translated by Christopher Vettels & disseminated throughout England. The brains behind the move, according to popular feeling at the time, were the Jesuits, whom the Welsh clergyman Meredith Hanmer (1543–1604) declared did ‘shaketh hands’ with their ‘brethren’ the Familists, a ‘detestable’ society of ‘like antiquity… who say that God is hominified in them & they deified in God.’ That a certain Dutch poet, Sir Jan van der Noot, was among their number can be discerned through his 1576 book, ‘Das Buch Extasis,’ which contains many Familist elements. In 1569 we gain the first hint of Spenser’s own connection to the group, for as a young man he became the English translator of der Noot’s ‘Theatre for Wordlings.’ Spenser admitted to such in 1591 when he reworked & reprinted the verses under his own name, stating them as being ‘formerly translated.’ Van der Noot’s use of embletic woodcuts throughout the 1570s would also inspire Spenser’s series which decorate the months of his Shepheard’s Calendar. We may also observe that in the extreme vicinity of Pendleside – where a Lawrence Spenser who died in 1584 seems to have been the poet’s grandfather – the hamlet of Grindleton was home to one of only two known nests of Familists in the north of England.
1570 : Shakespeare Starts School
Of Shakespeare’s schooling, Nicholas Rowe (1674-1718) writes, ‘his Father…. had bred him, ’tis true, for some time at a Free-School.’ This statement comes from Rowe’s introduction to his 1709 edition of Shakespeare’s plays in which he acknowledges, ‘the most considerable part of the passages relating to this life,’ were given him by the actor Thomas Betterton (1634-1710), who had made, ‘a journey to Warwickshire on purpose to gather up what remains he could, of a name for which he had so great a veneration.’ Founded in the 14th century, Stratford Grammar School is still standing today, kept in a good condition by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. In 1568, according to the chamberlain’s accounts of the town for that year, we see money being spent on ‘repairing the scole,’ ‘dressing and sweeping the scole-house,’ ‘ground-sellynge the old scole, and taking down the sollar over the school,’ which means Shakespeare’s schooling had begun just after a big paint job. He would have started attending from about the age of 6, force fed a diet of endless Latin repetitions with a heavy emphasis on the Roman writers Ovid, Plautus & Seneca. He would also have been made to learn Greek in order to study the scriptures in their original form, being drilled in the Bible until it became second nature to him. Shakespeare even gives us an accurate glimpse into his own schooldays, one expects, when in The Merry Wives of Windsor the headmaster tests the knowledge of a pupil named, appropriately, William.
Sir Hugh Evans
Show me now, William, some declensions of your pronouns.
Forsooth, I have forgot.
Sir Hugh Evans
It is qui, quae, quod: if you forget your ‘quies,’ your ‘quaes,’ and your ‘quods,’ you must be preeches. Go your ways, and play; go.
1574: John Shakespeare is Doing Rather Well for Himself
John Shakespeare’s profession, as tradition holds, was a butcher (Aubrey), a glover (official records), a wool merchant (Rowe), or most likley he was employed in all three. By 1574, enough money had been made to pay Edmund & Emma Hall £40 for two freehold houses, complete with lovely tudor-style gardens & orchards. Also in the property portfolio, the family home was still at Henley Street, while the Shaksepeare’s were still the owners of properties which Mary had inherited. John Shakespeare was also beginning to enquire about acquiring a coat of arms for his family. Coats of arms were expensive, costing between £10 and £30. As a comparison the schoolmaster in Stratford-upon-Avon was paid a salary of £20 a year. It was clear John had money.
1574 : Shakespeare Writes For The Familists
When Joseph Walford Martin described certain Elizabethan references as being, ‘explicit in their charge that Familist at least incline toward Rome,’ we may now plant a hyperbasis of the pro-Catholic Shakespeares, in fear of persecution but hardly wanting to conform to the Anglian church, beginning to dabble with this new-fangled ‘Familism’ in the early 1570s. It is, then, in the year of John Shakespeare’s greatest financial prosperity that the first works of William Shakespeare were recorded for posterity. He was ten at the time, an age where massive minds such as his should have been revealing their first glimmers of genius. Only four years ago, in 2016, a certain chess player called Praggnanandhaa Rameshbabu became the youngest ever International Master (the level below Grandmaster) in history, at the age of 10 years, 10 months & 19 days. It makes sense that the greatest ever writer in the English language would have shown some intimations as to his talent at an early date. If we see creative output as vegetation, Shakespeare’s would be something akin to the vast & ancient yew tree found on the Whittinghame Estate, East Lothian; with a tangled canopy of green & a root system spreading half a mile or more. Such roots run deep, & when analyzing the Shakespearean metaphysic, we must assume that his own would have ran stretched into startlingly far corners.
Starting young explains the brilliance of Shakespeare’s ouput – he would always have to find new ways to express similar sentiments, pushing him to ever better manipulations of language. At the very beginning of his career there are two ballads printed in 1574 which reflect Shakespeare’s grammar school knowledge of the Bible. Accredited to a certain W.S., each contains a number of rather neat, but not amazingly written stanzas. The ballads are packed full of semi-quotations from the bible, & it seems to be a learning tool straight from the cloisters of grammar school academe. Printed in Cologne, they made their way to Germany & into the hands of the Familist Hendrik Niclaes, who printed these along with many of his own poems that year, such as his Exhortatio, Evangelium Regni & Epistola. Margaret Healy highlights some of the influence that Niclaean teaching had on Shakespeare;
We might look again in this context at the line in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 124, which seems to designate religious martyrs (those who ‘die for goodness’), rather unheroically, as ‘fools of Time.’ One’s inner spiritual state was crucial, outward appearance was mere show (it is intriguing to recall the line in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 102, ‘I love you not less, though less the show appear’, in relation to this). H.N. believed that through Christ & the Resurrection every man could become spiritually regenerated & godded with god or ‘deified’ (an odd word, which appears in A Lover’s Complaint, line 84).
Almost 450 years later, only single copies of the ballads remain, housed in the Bodleian library at Oxford. The first two stanzas from each poem are given here, when the author, W.S., is named in the Latin statement; Per W.S. Veritatis Amatorem. Anno. 1574. Reading through these ballads, one can feel the youth of their composer, while also sensing the indescribable talent burgeoning with the promise of beautiful verses yet to come. Note the appearance of the initials of Henry Niklaes (HN).
A new balade or songe of the Lambes feast
I Hearde one saye:
Coma now awaye /
Make no delaye:
Alack / why stande yee than?
All is doubtlesse
In redynesse /
There wantes but Gesse /
To the Supper of the Lamb.
For Hee is now blest // in verye deede /
Thats found ad Gest // in the Mariage-weede.
THE Scriptures all /
Bee, in this my Call /
Voyced-out by H.N. (than):
I am Gods Love /
Com from above /
All Men to move /
To the Supper of the Lamb.
For Hee is now blest // in verye deede /
Thats found ad Gest // in the Mariage-weede
Another, out of goodwill
The Grace from God
the Father hye /
Which is of Mightes most a /
The Mercye eake from Christ our Lorde /
And Peace from the holye Gost a /
Com to All // That now shall /
In Love with us agree a /
And consent // With whole Intent /
To the Loves Soscietee a
LOVE the Lorde above al-thinge /
Is the first Precept by name a:
Love thy Neyghbour as thy-selfe /
The seconds lyke the same a.
Thus wee see // Love to bee,
Written with Gods-his owne Hande a /
Toe geeve us Light // And guyde us right /
Eaven out of that darke Lande a.
It has been long-observed how the writings of the Familist, Justus Lipsius, had a profound effect on our bard’s political thought, especially his 1584 translation of the treatise De Constantia. In that text, when Lipsius quotes Petronius’ ‘the whole world is a stage-play’ we get the seedlings of one of Shakespeare’s most famous passages, As You Like It’s;
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
Elsewhere in Shakespeare’s work he embodied not just a wonderful realism but also the stirrings of a reasoned and progressive challenge to the irrationalism of established orthodoxies. Falstaff’s catechism, exposing the futility and meaninglessness of honour, war and war mongering is a lovely example of this:
Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or
an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.
Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what
is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.
Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea,
to the dead. But will it not live with the living?
no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore
I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so
ends my catechism.