William Shakspere The Corisco Conspiracy
SEVEN: Love Converted from the Thing It Was
After my aborted rescue mission, I worked in Lancashire only for another year, at the end of which I returned to Stratford to get married and raise a family. The de Hoghtons themselves never reemployed me. But it is they who have been paying me all these years for my services to the Catholic underground.
When I taught in Lancashire, Anne travelled up there frequently to spend a week or two at a time with me. Her last visit was in October 1582. One morning that autumn, she and I woke up in each other’s arms – as we had done many times before.
“You stay right where you are,” she said. “I’ll go and make our breakfast and bring it up here.”
We were in my room. I sat up and gave her a salute; then got dressed; and, about half an hour later, joined her in the kitchen.
Thomas had just finished eating and was explaining the latest reckoning system to her: Pope Gregory’s calendar. After he left, she tousled my hair and said: “Talking of calendars, in seven months’ time I’m going to become a mother; and you a father. This time for real.”
Anne delivered that piece of joyful news in character. She’s the only woman I know who can make a coo sound like a doomsday prophecy. After those last four words shot out of her mouth, instead of being elated, I felt threatened.
We said little to each other the rest of the day. At dusk, we left Lancashire for Stratford-upon-Avon. As the sun sank below the horizon, I told myself it was setting prematurely for me. My anxiety at becoming a penniless, unemployed father was surpassed only by my dread of breaking up with Agnes Whateley.
If she’s still alive – I haven’t heard from her in ages – the woman who was once known as Agnes Whateley is one of the twin daughters of Master George Whateley, a draper in Temple Grafton. She had been my dearest female friend from the day our paths first crossed when she was ten, and I eleven. Until shortly before my departure for Rheims, I entertained the notion, which was no secret to Anne, that I would one day ask her to marry me.
Howbeit, I need not have worried about having to tell Agnes that we no longer had a future together. It would appear that she heard about Anne’s pregnancy before I did.
On the afternoon of the Sunday following our arrival in Stratford, I was coming back from walking Anne to Shottery when my attention was drawn to a scene unusual for the Lord’s Day. A man was unloading the contents of his carriage in front of our house, and no one seemed to be home to receive what I took for merchandise. So I ran when I saw the man toss one last item on the ground and begin to climb up his carriage.
It was the Whateley coach driver. He was already in his seat preparing to set forth when I tapped him on the arm. A garrulous fellow by nature, he gave me a contemptuous look, threw a wreath at my feet, and drove off saying nary a word.
Piled before me was an assortment of Agnes Whateley’s clothes, accessories and cosmetic products which I had on occasion borrowed for my stage performances. Beside the jumble stood a casket containing every piece of mail I had sent her. And beneath the returned correspondence lay a letter addressed to me. It read:
Good my lord,
Inasmuch as the ramparts of thy love for me could not withstand the charge of Anne Hathaway’s enticements, and for my frocks and farthingales arouse thee harder than my lips and fingers, I beg to close herewith the first and only chapter of our romance.
It need hardly take an intelligence acuter than mine to discern that thou art either false or faithless; unconstant or easily manipulable; all four of these perchance; or a combination thereof. Whatever the case, I am dispatching along with this missive a funeral wreath and all those remembrances of thine which to my reckoning ought to be interred with thy infidelity.
May the days thou art locked in wedded bliss, my lord, be no less mirthful than those we joyed together until two years ago, you and I. May they bring thee showers of peace and measureless prosperity.
As for me, I have betaken myself to a nunnery, whence I shall lament the frailties of man while singing the praises of his Maker until that blessed day when I am called to join the heavenly choir.
Given that Anne is more music to thine ear than Agnes, I have elected Anne as my religious name. It is but befitting that whensoever thou callest thy beloved thou shouldst bethink thee of me,
Sister Anne of the Holy Rosary
Agnes Whateley that was
There was a postscript in Master Whateley’s hand at the bottom of the letter – a succession of insults I wouldn’t have hurled at my bitterest enemy. I tore it off and was shredding it when Mother opened the door and nearly stepped in the casket.
“I thought I heard noises out here,” she said, frowning at the articles on the floor and then at me. “What happened in Shottery?”
“These aren’t from Shottery, Mater. They’re from Temple Grafton.”
Within a month of Agnes formally breaking up with me, my in-laws-to-be obtained dispensations for Anne and me to wed out of season. We forewent the reading of two of the three banns required by law. And one damp afternoon in the autumn of 1582 we were joined in not-so-holy matrimony in the Billesley chapel of Mother’s home parish of Wilmcote.
It would be a fabrication to describe the day as anything but forgettable. As our guests nudged one another and winked at us when we came out of the chapel, the question uppermost in their minds has to have been how long we would last together.
Anne had contracted a violent illness halfway through the ceremony. She trembled uncontrollably when she nodded her “I do”. If she actually said the response, I didn’t hear it.
To make matters worse, at the end of the service, our celebrant, who was a neighbour of the Whateleys’, gave us two swaddling cloths which he said were presents from Sister Anne of the Holy Rosary and her sister, Grace Whateley. They visited him the night before our nuptials and told him they had both had dreams in which they saw us with twins.
Compared to what happened next, the swaddling cloths were no shockers. After our well-wishers stopped congratulating us, the vicar of Wilmcote Parish showed my bride and me the register in which he had just recorded that a marriage licence had been issued “…inter Willelmum Shaxpere et Annam Whateley de Temple Grafton”.
Anne caught the blunder. With her finger under the name Whateley, she glared at the vicar and kicked my calves.
“My ink pot is empty now,” said the priest, his head bowed in penitence as he led us out of the sacristy. “I will correct the mistake tomorrow. Those Whateley girls! Their voices have been ringing in my head since they imparted their dreams to me.”
I would most likely have consumed funeral refreshments with more relish than I did the marriage baked meats at the banquet which followed. On a night we should both have been merry, the new Mistress Shakspere shed rivers of tears. When I asked her at bedtime why she had been sobbing, her answer was: “The Reverend Robert Spenser is a forgetful old man. What if he doesn’t remember to write my family name and hometown in his register tomorrow. Or any other day!”
“Everyone knows you’re the Anne I’m married to. What matters a trivial error in a register nobody reads?”
Anne’s condition got worse the next day. For weeks afterwards I avoided her company after meals. She couldn’t keep anything down; and every time she spewed out whatever she had just finished eating or drinking, I too had the urge to reach for a mug.
She did pull through the pregnancy. About six months into our married life, she gave birth to a healthy girl.
As we had agreed in advance, she named the baby Susanna, after her godmother Susanna Perrott. With a Perrott for her godmother, Anne had argued, no one would ever question our daughter’s appartenance in the Church of England. Mistress Perrott was a Puritan friend of Anne’s who had recently moved to Stratford from Snitterfield to work in – of all places – her grandfather’s tavern, the King’s Hall.
We were living with my family at the time. But I was away in London when Susanna arrived. And when she was baptized a couple of days later, Father stood in for me.
The purpose of my first trip back to London after the Campion misadventure was less perilous than attempting to rescue an imprisoned cleric. But the effect that the experience had on me accounts in large measure for my taking up arms in the long run against Protestants.
A week or so before Susanna was born, Mother sent me to join my voice to that of a few of her kinsmen who were in London pleading for the release of two prisoners: her cousin Edward Arden of Park Hall in Castle Bromwich; and his son-in-law, John Somerville of Edstone. Like Father Edmund, they too had been charged with high treason.
It is now, at last, generally agreed that only one man was implicated in the so-called Arden-Somerville Plot. But that was far from being the case when the two men were charged in 1583.
These are the established facts. John Somerville, who was known to be non compos mentis, devised a plan to assassinate Queen Elizabeth. He told a couple of his Edstone neighbours about it. One of them denounced him to the Privy Council.
At their trial, Master Somerville swore he never mentioned his intent to his father-in-law, who, it just so happened, was the wealthiest landowner in our county – and one suspected at the time of harbouring the most wanted man in England, an elusive Jesuit priest by the name of Henry Garnett. In spite of his son-in-law’s protestations to the contrary, the Privy Council persisted in their belief that Master Arden had been informed about the plot.
The night before John Somerville was to have been executed, his body was found in a prison cell – lifeless. It will perhaps never be known whether he took his own life, as claimed by the authorities, or whether a murderer spared him the public shame he would have been subjected to the following day.
The Privy Council had Mother’s cousin hanged and decapitated. That done, they confined his wife and daughter to the Tower and confiscated all of his property.
On the afternoon I returned home from London, Mother was standing in front of the house. Anne sat on a stool behind her, the baby in her arms. As I approached them, she screamed at Mother’s back: “…and I don’t want to hear him call me Angel anymore!”
“Do you find terms of endearment objectionable?” Mother asked, turning around.
“Angel is not a term of endearment coming from him. I am Anne. Agnes Whateley is not. If he cares so much about Agnes the Perfectly Proportioned, he should have married her. Why did he choose me?”
“I didn’t choose you,” I cut in, dismounting. “I married you to save face. What did you marry me for?”
“I loved you and your family, William.”
“That was when you were a sinewy, strapping boy. That was before I discovered that this house is a den of papist heretics and your father a loathsome, pompous maniac!”
“Despicable nag! I never should have married you.”
“You needn’t say. The whole world knows your heart belongs to Sister Anne of the Accursed Rosary. If she means so much to you that you dare not call me by my name for fear of thinking about her, oh, then, to hell with you! Here. She’s your angel. I am not”. Anne leapt to her feet, thrust Susanna at me, and followed Mother down the street.
Kicking the door open, I missed hitting Father with it by the length of a nose.
“How dare you?” he asked – not of me, but of Mistress Perrott, Susanna’s godmother. She was standing two or three feet in front of him. Snatching a crumpled roll of papers from her, he said: “Hand me that.”
“To think that all of Stratford once paid homage to you as to a scion of royal blood. My lord, …”
“Lord me no lord! You presume too much, madam, when you presume to tell us what we can or can’t do under our own roof.”
“’Tis pity you’ve sunk so low.”
“Avaunt!” Father showed Mistress Perrott the door, and then slammed it shut behind her.
The crumpled sheets he had grabbed from her were pages from a circular letter by Reverend Robert Parsons, a missionary then in hiding in our neighbourhood. The circular, entitled A brief discours contayning certayne reasons why Catholiques refuse to goe to church, was one of a dozen publications that Friar Paul had given Mother in the course of re-converting her to the old faith. She had hidden it in a bodice which wouldn’t fit her anymore, and which she later told Anne she could have.
The bodice was a size too large for Anne. Hence, on the day of Susanna’s christening, without having unfolded it, she wrapped the inner garment up, gave it to Mistress Perrott — who was a seamstress — and asked her to take it in a little.
When I happened on them, Mistress Perrott had come to return the bodice and the enclosed publishment – assuming that Anne was distributing the circular letter to Stratford residents. That assumption and her warning to Anne led to the rows I walked into.
Susanna’s godmother met her end in London last year under mysterious circumstances. As I think of her now, I can’t help imagining that she was an agent of the Church of England. Some four or five weeks after her visit, which was the only one she ever paid us, we received from Westminster a voluminous book with the aptly weighty title Actes and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Days, Touching Matters of the Churche – wherein are described the Great Persecution and horrible Troubles that have been wrought and practised by the Romishe prelates, speciallye in this realm of England and Scotland.
The “acts and monuments” are historian John Foxe’s account of the persecution of Protestants under the reign of Mary Tudor. No Shakspere has read his tome beyond the first page. I mention it here only because of what was enclosed in our copy: a summons.
Because he hadn’t been attending the Common Council meetings of Stratford-upon-Avon, Father was required by law to swear before the Court of Queen’s Bench that he would continue to keep the peace “towards the Queen and her subjects.”
After reading the summons, he slipped it into one of a pair of unsold gloves (he had become a full-time glove-maker since withdrawing from public service). He put the gloves and summons away and forgot about them until he received the shock of his life. A fine of sixty pounds! Westminster fined him twenty pounds for failing to appear before the court; twenty for allegedly making an illegal promise to one of his business partners (a certain John Awdley of Nottingham); and another twenty for sending me to a Catholic seminary.
I wrote back in protest. We never heard from the Court of Queen’s Bench again. Not directly.
Copyright: Raphael Soné