William Shakespeare Was Catholic — Here’s the Evidence

The case for Shakespeare’s Catholicism has been proven beyond any reasonable doubt.

Gerard Soest, “Portrait of William Shakespeare,” c. 1667
Gerard Soest, “Portrait of William Shakespeare,” c. 1667 (photo: Public Domain)

William Shakespeare is arguably the greatest writer who ever lived. For those of us who have long admired the brilliance of his work and its healthy Christian morality, the growing evidence that he was a believing Catholic in very anti-Catholic times is very exciting.

Broadly speaking, the evidence for Shakespeare’s Catholicism is biographical, historical and textual. The biographical and historical evidence is to be found in the documented facts of his life and the turbulent times in which he lived. The textual evidence is to be found in his plays and poems. Let’s take a look at some of this evidence.

Shakespeare lived at a time when the practice of Catholicism was illegal. Priests were tortured and put to death, as were those who tried to hide them from the tyrannical government. Henry VIII had declared that he and his successors would be head of a state-controlled Church and that this state-imposed religion was the only one that would be tolerated. Those Catholics who refused to attend the services of the state religion were known as recusants and were fined heavily. Shakespeare’s mother’s family, the Ardens, were among the most famous recusants in the whole of England. As for Shakespeare’s father, he was fined for his recusancy in 1592 and had retired from his career in politics rather than swear allegiance to the state religion.

As for Shakespeare himself, all the evidence suggests that he remained a Catholic throughout his life. In 1568, when he was only 4 years old, Mary Queen of Scots fled to England, raising hopes of an eventual Catholic succession, which were seemingly dashed by her imprisonment on the orders of Queen Elizabeth. In the following year the Northern Rebellion, led by the Duke of Norfolk and the Earl of Northumberland, in support of Mary, was crushed ruthlessly. More than 800 mainly Catholic rebels were executed. Several scholars have suggested that the two parts of Shakespeare’s Henry IV were inspired by the Northern Rebellion. 

There has been much scholarly debate about what Shakespeare was doing during the so-called “lost years” prior to his marriage to Anne Hathaway in 1582. According to John Aubrey, one of the earliest sources available, Shakespeare “had been in his younger years a schoolmaster in the country.” There is evidence, in fact, that he might have spent time at Hoghton Tower, a recusant household in Lancashire, in which case he would almost certainly have met the Jesuit martyr, St. Edmund Campion, shortly before Campion’s arrest in June 1581 and subsequent execution.

Having returned to Stratford, and having married and had three children, it seems that Shakespeare was forced to leave Stratford because of an ongoing vendetta against him by Sir Thomas Lucy, the local lord of the manor who, as Queen Elizabeth’s chief Protestant Inquisitor in the area, had led searches of local Catholic homes, including very probably Shakespeare’s own home.

After his arrival in London, Shakespeare enjoyed the patronage of the Earl of Southampton, a known Catholic who seems to have had the Jesuit martyr, St. Robert Southwell, as his confessor. It seems inescapable that Shakespeare would also have known the Jesuit prior to the latter’s arrest in 1592, the year in which Shakespeare’s father was fined for being a Catholic recusant, and there are many allusions to Southwell in Shakespeare’s plays. 

Further evidence of Shakespeare’s Catholicism can be gleaned from a court case in which he was accused along with others of threatening violence against two men. The two men were outspoken persecutors of London’s Catholics, boasting of their taking part in raids on Catholic homes and the burning of Catholic books and crucifixes, whereas Shakespeare’s co-defendants included known Catholic recusants. Shakespeare’s friends were, therefore, devout and defiant Catholics while his enemies were known and boastful persecutors of the Church.

In May 1606 Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna, was on a list of recusants brought before Stratford’s church court. This fact, which was not discovered until as recently as 1964, is hugely significant.  It shows that Catholicism had lived on in the family, being passed from one generation to the next, and adds to the body of evidence suggesting that Shakespeare had himself remained a Catholic throughout his life.

The most convincing biographical evidence for Shakespeare’s Catholicism is, however, his purchasing of the Blackfriars Gatehouse in 1613, which seems to have been almost his last act in London before his final return to Stratford. An investigation into the history of this property reveals that it was “a notorious center of Catholic activities.” As its name would indicate, it had originally belonged to the Dominican Order until the dissolution of the monasteries. It was inherited by Mary Blackwell, née Campion, who was related to Edmund Campion, the Jesuit martyr. Mary Bannister, the sister of another Jesuit martyr, Robert Southwell, was a tenant at the Gatehouse for a time, as was Katherine Carus, the widow of a defiantly recusant judge, who died there “in all her pride and popery.” 

In 1585 Mary Blackwell was accused of recusancy and, in the following year, a government informer reported his suspicions that the house had become a center for secret Catholic activity:

It has sundry backdoors and bye-ways, and many secret vaults and corners. It has been in time past suspected, and searched for papists, but no good done for want of knowledge of the backdoors and bye-ways of the dark corners.

This description, awash with suggestions that the house concealed several priests’ holes, clearly establishes the Gatehouse as a hub of recusant activity by the mid-1580s, around the time that Shakespeare first arrived in London. 

In 1598, acting on a report that the Gatehouse was a hive of recusant activity which had “many places of secret conveyance in it” and “secret passages towards the water,” i.e. towards the River Thames from whence priests could make their getaway, the authorities raided the house. The Jesuit, Oswald Greenway, stated in his autobiography that he had paid a surreptitious visit to the Gatehouse on the day after the raid, being informed that there had been priests in the house during the search but that their hiding-places had not been discovered. 

In 1605, the Jesuit, John Gerard, asked if he could use the Gatehouse as a “safe-house” in which Catesby, Percy, Winter and other “gunpowder plotters” could meet in secret. A few months later, after the plot had been discovered, Father Gerard, now the most wanted man in England, appeared in desperation at the Gatehouse, wearing a false beard and false hair as a disguise, and asking for shelter, stating that he did not know where else to hide. Unlike many of his Jesuit confreres, Father Gerard managed to escape the clutches of his pursuers, slipping out of the country in disguise.  

As late as 1610 it was reported in Naples that the Gatehouse was the base for Jesuits plotting to “send the King an embroidered doublet and hose, which are poisoned and will be death to the wearer.” As much as such a statement can be dismissed as the product of the idle fantasies of embittered exiles or anti-Catholic spies, it is apparent nonetheless that Shakespeare had chosen to purchase one of the most notorious Catholic houses in the whole of London. 

Shakespeare chose to lease the Gatehouse to John Robinson, son of a gentleman of the same name who was an active Catholic. It was reported, in 1599, that John Robinson Sr. had sheltered the priest, Richard Dudley, in his home. He had two sons, Edward and John, the former of whom entered the English College at Rome and became a priest, the latter of whom became Shakespeare’s tenant. It is clear, therefore, that Shakespeare knew that in leasing the Gatehouse to John Robinson he was leaving it in the possession of a recusant Catholic. In consequence, and as Ian Wilson surmised in Shakespeare: The Evidence, Robinson was “not so much Shakespeare’s tenant in the Gatehouse, as his appointed guardian of one of London’s best places of refuge for Catholic priests.” Furthermore, John Robinson was not merely a tenant but was quite obviously a valued friend. He visited Shakespeare in Stratford during the Poet’s retirement and was seemingly the only one of the Bard’s London friends who was present during his final illness, signing his will as a witness. 

It has only been possible in an article of this length to survey the biographical and historical evidence for Shakespeare’s Catholicism. It has not been possible to survey the textual evidence to be found in his plays and poems. Such evidence is, however, plentiful. I have myself written two books examining this evidence, and have edited seven critical editions of Shakespeare’s plays in which leading contemporary critics shed light on many facets of the Bard’s deeply Catholic sympathies. In legal parlance it can be stated with complete confidence that the case for Shakespeare’s Catholicism has been proven beyond any reasonable doubt. 

This essay first appeared in Columbia and is published here with permission.