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Friday, January 25, 2013

Shakespeare and Edmund and Edmund

Saint Edmund Campion, the English Roman Catholic martyr and Jesuit priest, was born 24 January 1540, 24 years before Shakespeare was born.



While at Oxford University, Campion had met Queen Elizabeth, whom he apparently impressed so much that he earned the patronage of William Cecil and Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester -- two of the most powerful men in England.

But not long after, Campion had a crisis of conscience, and rejected the Queen's Anglican supremacy.

He fled, to Ireland, and eventually to Rome to join the Jesuits, and for many years he preached in Prague.

He returned to England in 1580, arriving in London on June 24. His mission was to preach behind enemy lines, as it were.

For about one whole year, he secretly preached all across England -- in Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Lancashire, Northamptonshire -- while the Queen's authorities were in hot pursuit.

He was finally caught, tried for treason and executed. His words upon hearing the sentence were: "In condemning us, you condemn all your own ancestors, all our ancient bishops and kings, all that was once the glory of England, the island of saints, and the most devoted child of the See of Peter."

These were strong words, and there were many people at the time who felt the same way that Campion did -- that England, which had been Catholic for over a thousand years, was being destroyed.

These people were the ones he came to England for, to preach to, and inspire that one day they might once again practice their Catholic faith freely, in an England that might never again be wholly Catholic, but at least would not persecute them for their faith.

These were the people in England who had helped him arrive in London, helped him escape the authorities for so many months, harbored him in farms and in basements and attics, fed him, and prayed for and with him.

Shakespeare's father John may have been one of those people.

There was a religious tract found in a house that belonged to John Shakespeare, with his name on it, which professed his Catholic faith.

There is some doubt about this tract, but it would not be surprising that John Shakespeare, who was born a Catholic, would have a hard time abandoning his faith.

It is also interesting that John and his wife Mary had a child baptized 3 May, 1580 -- only weeks before Edmund Campion arrived in London.

William Shakespeare, who was 16 at the time, had a new baby brother.

His name was Edmund Shakespeare.

This striking coincidence may mean nothing, but it might also suggest that John Shakespeare was so inspired by the arrival of Edmund Campion, the greatest hero for religious toleration at the time, that he named his new son after him.

I have written before that I do not think that William Shakespeare was a secret Catholic, nor do I think that he was an fervent Protestant.

But what and who was John Shakespeare? That is not so clear.

I think there were many moments in William Shakespeare's life that confused him, and scared him. The year that Edmund Campion arrived in London and stirred up the whole country, was one such moment in his life.

No doubt young Will heard all of the stories of Campion's outlaw escapades, and the pursuit of the authorities, and they excited him the same way stories of Jesse James, or Billy the Kid, or John Dillinger or Jack the Ripper excited other generations of young people.

What did young Will think of the capture, and execution of Campion? I think it scared him, and for the rest of his life he probably knew full well that, whatever his religious beliefs may be, he had to keep them to himself.

The most important lesson young Will Shakespeare probably learned the day that Campion died was that Queen Elizabeth was supreme, and you could not escape her wrath for long.

Cheers,

David Schajer


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