William Shakspere The Corisco Conspiracy
SIX: Let’s Away to Prison
A couple of weeks after arriving in London, I went to visit Stratford-upon-Avon.
The journey felt like a two-day retreat – two days of non-stop contemplation. I had to turn my hand to some trade. But which? My heart had been so set on the priesthood that no alternative vocation appealed to me. Whether I opened or closed my eyes, the future loomed before me like an endless void.
Henley Street was dead silent when I arrived home, a little past midnight, still mulling over what to do for the remaining span of my days. As I entered the house, I was greeted with the word Benedicite. Almost simultaneously, a baby’s wail pierced my eardrums.
The crying newborn was Edmund, who would be my third and last brother. He had been startled out of his sleep by Friar Paul’s greeting. His cry in turn woke Mother up. She came downstairs rocking him in her arms.
After conversing with Mother for a while, I rejoined Friar Paul in the kitchen, where he had been washing his work clothes before my entrance. We stayed up talking until cockcrow.
Since my departure, the friar had settled in as Brian Kirkpatrick, the gardener of Holy Trinity Parish – hardly attracting anyone’s attention. He had also gradually re-converted Mother to the Church of Rome while at the same time setting up our home as a refuge for priests travelling incognito and a secret gathering place for Catholics in the neighbourhood. The latter could pass for Father’s customers or business associates. And they often did.
“Talking of John, he received your last letter only a week ago.”
At the mention of Father’s name, I lowered my voice and said: “I’m surprised Edmund’s crying didn’t wake him up.”
“He’s not here. He went to Lancashire to inform your benefactors in person that you’d been compelled to leave the seminary.”
“When is he due back?”
“Today or tomorrow.”
The friar was apprising me of other happenings I had missed when he stopped in mid-sentence. “Eureka!” he said. “I knew it was here somewhere.” A rolled-up sheet fell out of the breast pocket of one of his jerkins. He picked the sheet up, rose to his full height and asked as if challenging me: “You met Cardinal Borromeo in Rome, you say? Did he give you one of these?”
“His secretary did. I left mine in London.”
The document Friar Paul had nearly washed by accident was a “Spiritual Testament” written by the archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Carlo Borromeo. I wondered how he could have received a copy of the divine pledge so soon after it came out and was about to give voice to my thought when he baffled me even further with his knowledge of what the underground movement was plotting abroad.
“Have you heard about the Catholic Association?”
I had. After informing me that he was a founding member of the secret body, he confided: “We are recruiting Jesuits in exile for a very special mission.” He took back the “Spiritual Testament” and pocketed it. “Four or three, maybe as early as two years hence they will start returning to England to convert the whole country back to the old faith.”
Nearly an hour later, Friar Paul was still explaining how the Catholic Association planned to carry out its ambitious operation when we heard the front door open. In walked Father. The friar intoned another Benedicite. And Edmund responded as before.
Father showed no surprise at my presence in the house; but took me quietly in his arms and hugged me tighter than he ever did before, tighter than he ever would again.
I’m not sure how long I slept after that once-in-a-lifetime emotional moment. But I do recall that three or four mornings later, upon sitting down for breakfast, I found a surprise on my plate: a letter from Lancashire offering me a teaching position at Hoghton Tower.
Hoghton Tower is the residence of the generous family that was to have financed my studies for the priesthood. It is part of the estate Sir Thomas de Hoghton (the Elder) left behind when he fled to Flanders. A redoubtable warrior for the Catholic cause (God rest his soul), Sir Thomas bequeathed the castle to his three younger brothers – Alexander, Richard and Thomas (the Younger) – on condition that they use it as a training ground for boys and girls recruited to serve the Church.
I immediately wrote back accepting the offer.
Two days later, Father borrowed the parish carriage and accompanied me to London to retrieve my belongings. That was the only occasion on which he and I travelled together beyond the bourns of Stratford-upon-Avon.
For a month or so after we returned, I couldn’t take teaching off my mind. With the help of the entire Shakspere household, I put in a hilarious hour or two every day practising the art of imparting knowledge to a classroom of students.
I spent the better part of that month in Anne Hathaway’s company. Mother had invited her to come and live with the family as Edmund’s minder. Since he was in her care most of the time, Anne and I occasionally played mother and father with the baby as our child. I was therefore not sure what she meant when, on the morning of my departure for Lancashire, she said to me: “You will do well.”
Assuming she had me in mind as a teacher, I replied: “I’ve never felt so frightfully timid.”
“That’s only natural. With time your nerves will be steadier than the Rock of Gibraltar – as Brian would say.” We always called the friar Brian, even among ourselves at home.
Her magnification aside, Anne was right. Within a month of arriving in Lancashire, I started feeling confident in my teaching abilities and even deriving much pleasure from my work.
Hoghton Tower couldn’t have been more congenial. The castle was the pride of Lancashire. From tens of miles around, one could see its ramparts standing tall against the sky. They were complemented by splendid gardens and acres of pristine woods.
Alexander de Hoghton, an eminent (albeit unassuming) crypto-Catholic, was head of the household. His younger brothers, Richard and Thomas, managed the day-to-day running of the family’s educational operations. All three of them were seasoned couriers.
Thomas had been one of my tutors earlier on. When I trained as a Jesuit messenger, he gave acting lessons at the Stratford Guild Hall (without ever saying a word about his family background). During that time, he fostered what he referred to as my “great theatrical potentialities”. It was he who also introduced me to fencing, a skill he described as indispensable to any messenger worthy of the name; and later entrusted me to the hands of two of the pre-eminent fencing masters of the day: George Silver and, after him, Vincentio Saviolo.
With those facts in mind, the de Hoghtons employed me in the main as an acting and fencing instructor. Because I wasn’t licensed, Richard, who managed the family’s accounts and records, couldn’t legally put me down as a teacher. So he enrolled me as a “household servant”. On record, I was to be William Shakeshafte until I obtained a teaching licence as Master Shakspere.
I took on additional duties by joining the Lancashire Lanterns, a youth society my employers had formed some three years earlier. The society’s principal function was to deliver the necessities of life to Catholic priests on the run, in hiding or in prison.
Shortly after completing my training as a Lancashire Lantern in the autumn of 1581, I was sent on a mission to London. One morning towards the end of November that year, Thomas invited me to go with him and visit a Doctor Malcolm Beaverbrook. Upon our arrival at the physician’s house, we were received by one Nurse Pringle, who promptly ushered us to the doctor’s bedchamber.
“Thank goodness!” said he to Thomas. “I’ve just been telling my coachman that he’d have to bundle me up this afternoon and take me to London if the lantern you promised me can’t or won’t undertake our enterprise.” Then, looking at me, he asked: “Master Shakeshafte? Are we agreed?”
Thomas spoke on my behalf: “I haven’t told him about your request, Doctor. I thought it would be better if you made it yourself.”
Doctor Beaverbrook was lying on his side, his head propped up on three pillows. He rolled around, turning his back to us, uncovered himself and groaned: “Look at that.”
There was a large abscess on the doctor’s left buttock and two small ones on the right. I nodded and shook my head by turns, while Thomas, who had probably seen the swellings before, gazed at me.
The doctor rolled around to face us again. He was forlorn. After covering his backside and taking a sip from the cup which stood on his bedside table, he asked me: “Do you know the Bishop of Winchester?”
“The Right Reverend John Watson,” Thomas said, presumably to jog my memory.
“Of course,” I replied.
Bishop Watson had led a retreat at Hoghton Tower the previous summer. He too was a Roman Catholic clergyman in Anglican robes. Like the late Father Cuthbert, he had already been ordained in the Church of England before converting in secret to the old religion. I told Doctor Beaverbrook about the retreat.
“I was one of his lordship’s acolytes.”
“He wants me in London. Urgently!” The doctor adjusted his neck on the pillows and sighed. “A mutual friend of ours, Father Edmund Campion of the Society of Jesus, has been charged with high treason. Until recently he was in the Clink, a prison close to Winchester Palace, preparing his defence. But he has just been transferred to the Tower, where the bishop’s messenger tells me he’s being tortured.”
Doctor Beaverbrook took another swallow of whatever he was drinking. Clearing his throat, he continued: “His lordship is afraid that Father Edmund may be killed before he’s had a chance to prove his innocence. That’s why he sent for me. But, as you can see, I’m in no state to travel for the next few days.”
“With all due respect,” I gasped, glared at Thomas, and then at the doctor, “wouldn’t a tortured prisoner be better served by another medical man?”
“Not in this case.” Doctor Beaverbrook heaved another sigh. “We need an actor’s talents more than a physician’s. And I can sooner teach you how to administer healing potions than train a fellow doctor to impersonate me.”
“You’re the right lantern for this mission,” said Thomas. He stood up and patted me on the shoulder at the same time as he bowed to Nurse Pringle, who had been standing wordless all the while. She pulled a large, battered pigskin bag down from a shelf and said: “Your tools and potions.”
The nurse quickly explained what to do with what, and then rattled off a list of actions I had to take in preparation for a journey she told me the doctor would have started a day or two earlier had he been well. As far as my appearance was concerned, I had to undergo no more than a couple of small changes: shave my face smooth and don a curly black peruke over my cropped auburn hair.
It took them little time and effort to bedizen me as thirty-five-year-old Malcolm Beaverbrook, Doctor of Medicine. And within an hour after Vesper Mass that day, while the other residents of Hoghton Tower were settling in for the evening, I headed south in a well-appointed carriage.
As instructed, when we arrived in London four days later my driver took me straight to Winchester Palace. There, Mother Nature herself provided the entertainment for our reception. An east wind rounded up clusters of leaves – cherry, flaxen, cinnamon – and made them whistle and dance wherever we looked on the expansive palace grounds. I wished the first snowfall of the approaching winter would never come.
Images of an eternal autumn were still whirling in my head when, half-hidden behind his mahogany desk after supper that evening, Bishop Watson said: “I’ve been waiting with bated breath for Doctor Beaverbrook these ten long days; and now my clerk tells me that the Lieutenant of the Tower won’t let any visitor, not even a physician, near Father Edmund.”
We were in the prelate’s office. As he spoke, he reminded me of the portrait of a Pygmy I had seen on the cover of a travel book in Paris. And everything around him appeared to have been designed to accentuate the smallness of his stature. The palace furniture and appliances, the very palace itself, must have been conceived by builders who had in mind a habitation for giants.
In order not to feel as if I were talking down to his lordship, instead of standing or sitting, I knelt beside him as we examined a plan of the Tower of London. Pointing at an entrance named Traitor’s Gate, he said: “Father Edmund is in a dungeon somewhere here. Since you can’t visit him as a healer, how about entering the Tower as an actor and attempting a rescue?”
“I’ll try whatever you recommend, my lord.”
“I have a troupe of nine players.” The bishop fetched a list from one of his drawers and handed it to me. “They will entertain us tomorrow afternoon. When their performance is over, you and my clerk Patrice should ride their wagon with them to Traitor’s Gate, where something is going to go wrong with the vehicle. Whilst pretending to repair it, they will argue and break into a fight. Chances are that you’ll all be arrested on the spot and locked up for a day or two for disturbing the peace.”
His lordship then suggested that, while incarcerated, I would search for the priest; and, if he were fit to escape, give him a change of clothes in which he would be released as the clerk. Patrice knew his way around the Tower and was familiar with its routines. He would be able to steal out before the rest of us were let go.
The accident that Winchester’s Men staged in front of Traitor’s Gate the next day, and the altercation which ensued, were nonpareil. Alas, that was the extent of our success.
They imprisoned us, as we had hoped. But it was for seven (not one or two) days. And in the course of that week, the bishop found out that his missionary friend had been taken out of the Tower of London on the very night we were arrested.
The Privy Council tried Father Edmund while Winchester’s Men and I were detained. He had been tortured so brutally, I learned later, that he had to be propped up during his hearings and could barely open his mouth.
We were served our last meal as prisoners at sunrise on the first day of December. Bishop Watson had been informed that his servants were going to be released that morning. He awaited our return. The moment we alighted in front of the palace, my coachman, who had been standing outside, said “He wants to see you” and ushered me to the office.
His lordship thanked us both for our visit, gave the driver a letter addressed to Doctor Beaverbrook, and then said: “Don’t leave today, William. I’d like you to accompany me to Tyburn.”
“Tyburn, my lord?” My hair stood on end.
The bishop and I ate a hasty early dinner and, immediately afterwards, rode in silence to the Golgotha of London.
On our way back late in the evening of that dreary December day, my eyes were moist with mist and tears. I had just witnessed my first execution: that of Father Edmund Campion.
Copyright: Raphael Soné