William Shakspere The Corisco Conspiracy
FIVE: Eating the Bitter Bread of Banishment
It took the Stratford Catholic community almost two years to find a replacement for Father Cuthbert – a task which wasn’t made any easier by the leadership’s insistence that their next chaplain be someone with a background like his late predecessor’s. Another priest who could minister to Catholics at night while convincingly playing Anglican pastor by day proving impossible to locate, the Pastoral Committee of Saint Peter’s settled for one Friar Paul, a Franciscan from Ireland.
The friar’s full name was Paul Brian Kirkpatrick. But everyone in Stratford-upon-Avon who wasn’t Roman Catholic knew him only as Brian, the gardener.
Unshod, Friar Paul towered six feet and a half above the ground. When he walked, his chest billowed out ahead of him like a sail on a caravel. His voice was more than a match to that of the Hercules who raided our house just before Christmas in 1574. A former seaman and champion boxer, he looked nothing like someone who should be tending delicate plants. But it was as a gardener that, on Father’s recommendation, he was employed by Holy Trinity.
Father offered the friar a room in our house and assured the Anglican council that their gardener could live with his family for as long as he was employed by the parish.
Before long, Friar Paul took Emmanuel’s place as my mentor. He didn’t just read Latin. Like Father Cuthbert, he could converse and argue, yea, preach a fiery sermon, in the language of Cicero. Thanks to him, I was able to come out of my final year at the King’s New School with flying colours.
However, my educational venture after grammar school was the antithesis of Emmanuel’s stellar trajectory. Not long after he left Stratford for Douai, Father and Mother started preparing for my departure and that of my brother Gilbert. They wanted us to move somewhere, anywhere, where we could live in peaceful anonymity – far from the ever-prying eyes of Stratford’s ecclesiastical constabulary, as Master Jenkins called the enforcement arm of the Church of England.
For twenty-two frantic months, Father and Mother raised funds by every means they possibly could. Among other measures, they sold our house on Greenhill Street and part of our property in Snitterfield; they mortgaged our Henley Street home and some fifty acres of land. And then one bleak night in later November 1579, they divided all the money they had raised equally between Gilbert and me and sent us off to fend for ourselves.
I remember Father’s good-bye sounding like a prayer. “The Lord be with you,” he said, clasping both of us in one last embrace. “Go as far from here as you can.”
“Without turning your backs on England,” entreated Mother.
“We won’t, Mater,” I assured her.
“And promise us, the pair of you,” Joan implored, stepping in front of Mother, “that you will come and visit us every once in a while.”
“We will. Won’t we, Will?” Gilbert chuckled.
Joan was about to hug me but moved sideways. Pinching Gilbert’s fleshy cheeks, she pulled them out and said: “This is neither the time nor the place for jollity.”
Mother nodded in agreement and let drop a tear. We were still mourning my baby sister Anne, who had died only six months earlier. In the pale light of the half-moon above us, we looked like a gathering of sick witches, our brows having been furrowed by sorrow and a palpable state of anxiety.
I gave Joan a penny to remember me by. Gilbert embedded another in the hand of our youngest brother, Richard, whom Mother was rocking in her arms. Richard fell asleep while she gave us a few words of advice. So we said our farewells in hushed tones.
Our departure marked the beginning of years of hardship and privation for those we left behind. At the stage in his life where he could have been one of the richest landowners in Warwickshire County, my father, sometime High Bailiff of Stratford-upon-Avon, was bankrupt. Rather than compromise his allegiance to Rome by taking the Oath of Supremacy, as required of every holder of public office, he resigned himself to poverty and solitude.
Gilbert and I moved to London. Neither of us went home for Christmas that year.
He got busy setting himself up as a haberdasher – with the invaluable help of our first landlord, a kindly, portly costermonger who had fathered more offspring than he could count.
I too was occupied in my own way. The previous summer, Master Jenkins had given me a catalogue of all the “English colleges” (meaning Jesuit-run Catholic seminaries) then in existence on the Continent. And I had sent applications for admission to five of them.
Given its fame and its proximity to our shores, Douai would have been my first choice. But the Douai seminary was occupied by Protestant forces from 1578 to ’93. So Rheims became my next best option – not least because Emmanuel had been transferred there.
While waiting to hear from the seminaries, I sought out recusants who had been abroad and learned from them about life in foreign lands.
I also took a close look at London. The city is a study in jaw-dropping contrasts.
In London one can be surrounded day in and day out by nimble gallants, young ladies of class, winsome matrons, men of quality – all in the finest of finery. The metropolis is dotted with masterpieces of architecture, concrete proof of opulence, of which the crowning jewel is Whitehall Palace.
Amid the splendour sits London Bridge, an engineering marvel desecrated with rows of spikes piercing through the rotting heads or hollow skulls of executed wrongdoers. The narrow streets south of the bridge are made even narrower by filth and the teeming dregs of humanity battling one another and the elements to keep body and soul together.
South of London Bridge, dwellings are reduced to tenements as compact as beehives. There lush gardens and expertly-cut lawns are replaced by alleyways plastered with excrement, human and other. There the air is forever pervaded by the stench oozing from mucky gutters, where there are gutters, and ubiquitous mountains of rubbish.
Country air never smelt sweeter, nor Mother’s cooking taste more delicious, than when I returned to Stratford-upon-Avon for the Easter of 1580. The very ground I walked on felt welcoming, gratifying.
Friar Paul was the first person I saw upon entering the house. He was about to leave for Holy Trinity. Flourishing a hoe at me, he rumbled with glee: “Pax tecum!” Before I finished replying “And with you,” he had dropped his hoe on the floor, crossed his arms over his chest, and added with a bow: “France beckons.”
“Are you leaving us?” I slammed my shoulder bag on the implement and kicked them both.
“No, I’m not,” he rumbled louder. “But you are. For Rheims. The seminary has accepted you.”
I turned around, ran back to the street, spread my arms out and whispered heavenward: “At your service! If you will have me, Lord.” For about an hour, I paced the length of Henley Street, to savour the news in solitude, before entering the house afresh to greet everyone else.
Father was glad to see me; but apprehensive. Two days before I arrived home, he had forwarded my Rheims acceptance package to the French embassy in London, requesting that it be returned to him if the embassy workers couldn’t locate me within a month of their receiving it.
At breakfast the following morning, he suggested: “You’d better head back to London immediately.”
“That’s what I’ve been thinking of doing. I’ll start out as soon as I finish eating.”
Mother rose and deliberately undid her apron.
“Would it be alright,” I continued, fixing my attention on Father. “Would you mind if I take Fidelis? Gilbert’s coming up in July. He can bring him back.”
Leaning over me, Mother slid an open palm under my chin and tilted my head back. Our eyes locked. “Why can’t you wait here for the package?” she asked. “How’s your father going to get around for two or three months without his horse? Not that he gets around much these days.”
Father scowled and shook a clenched fist at her, but couldn’t speak. Together with a mouthful of boiled ham he swallowed whatever words had frozen on the edge of his tongue.
Joan, who was sitting beside me, stepped on my toes under the table and nudged my ribs. “Will, spend some time with us before you go,” she pleaded, clasping her hand over Mother’s wrist and pulling it away. “You could be gone forever, you know.”
The two of them tugged at my heart strings for the next few minutes while Father’s face turned redder and redder. They prevailed on me to wait in Stratford until my Rheims acceptance letter and the accompanying instruments arrived back from London.
The documents arrived in mid-July. And it was Gilbert who brought them back.
The previous month, he had used the bulk of his inheritance to buy a house in Saint Bride’s Parish. And, thanks to the bold signboard with our family name in front of his new residence, a Jesuit messenger at the French embassy had gone to the shop and asked him if he knew any Shaksperes in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Gilbert and I agreed to return to London together.
“As long as you’re ready within the week,” he said. We were sitting in the backyard planning our futures. “I can’t stay for more than seven days”.
“I won’t need that long to get ready. There’s hardly any packing for me to do here. Everything I’d like to bring to France is already in London.”
While preparing for the journey, I paused every now and then to count my blessings.
Rheims accepting me was only the beginning. The seminary had found me a sponsor as well. My studies for the priesthood were going to be paid for in full and I was going to be provided an annual stipend by the Hoghtons, a family in Lancashire which had pledged earlier on to cover the cost of whatever training I received as an emissary of the Society of Jesus.
There was more. As a new student, for instance, I would be able to count on the help of at least one person in authority who already knew me personally. The rector of Rheims at the time was a scholar who had taught Latin at the King’s New School in the early fifteen seventies: Doctor William Allen.
The night before our departure, Friar Paul celebrated a special Mass for me. He also presented me with a Bible in the name of the Stratford Catholic community.
I left England for France in the summer of 1580; and, after a brief exhilarating sojourn in Paris, began my studies in Rheims the following autumn.
Alack and alas, I had barely entered the second half of my first term at Rheims when my seminary days came to a sudden end. I could not have embarked on an academic career abroad at a worse time.
Before I set foot in France, an anti-Catholic fire that was raging in England when I left the country had already burned its way across the Channel. Rheims had been infiltrated by English Protestant and local Huguenot spies. When college administrators got wind of their presence, they started registering their English students under false names. Mine was Gulielmus Stratfordus.
Unfortunately for me, the alias wasn’t cover enough. Less than six months after my arrival in the “English College” of Rheims, I ran into someone from England who was neither student nor teacher; someone I had spent a few uncomfortable moments with shortly before leaving London; someone whom, given the heat generated by his utterances, I would have avoided meeting anywhere at any time. Christopher Marlowe.
When he tracked me down in France, Christopher was a new student at Cambridge; but already a well-experienced spy. Sir Francis Walsingham, Her Majesty’s Spymaster General, had sent him on his first mission to the Continent.
We met in the twilight of one balmy autumn evening. I had just spent between four and six hours in the college library preparing for a logic examination; and therefore looked forward to gambolling briefly in the fresh air and feasting my eyes on the setting sun before it disappeared behind the hills for the night. But I had put little more than a score of paces between me and the sombrous edifice when I heard Christopher’s grating voice call out: “Master Shakspere!”
I froze on the spot, but didn’t turn around. After a minute or two, Christopher was panting in front of me: “Fancy meeting you here.”
“It’s a small world, Master Marlowe.” I ignored his outstretched hand. “But there’s enough room in it for all of us to venture beyond our allotted confines.”
“Saints and sinners, you mean.”
“Take it as you will.”
I expected him to crack a joke about my name, something he habitually did whenever the word “will” crossed my lips. But he folded his arms instead and asked in apparent genuine piety: “Would you believe, my dear brother, that I am contemplating a life in the Church?”
“I would. Mother Church welcomes all of us. But some of her children don’t find their way into her arms until late in their lives.”
“There’s hope for me then,” he pressed on.
“There’s always hope for everyone.” I looked around me wondering if he was being prompted by a third party. “Even they who’ve lost theirs can count on others hoping for them.”
I turned my back on him, thus putting a stop to our repartee before it waxed to a debate on the redemption and condemnation of souls. Feeling like a captured combatant at the mercy of an adversary, I retraced my steps to the library.
My unexpected guest followed me in silence like an executioner. Had he raised an axe over my neck there and then, I would in all likelihood have felt less despondent than I did upon smelling again the musty tomes from which I had fled only a short moment before.
We walked past the librarian’s desk into the first empty carrel. Christopher sat on one edge of the table, his left leg dangling in the air. I pulled a chair around the table and sat facing him. With his voice reduced to a whisper, the precocious secret agent formally notified me about one of the latest statutes Parliament had passed. All English students abroad who hadn’t already done so were to return home and swear the Oath of Supremacy.
“What if I don’t?”
“You and your father will be charged with high treason.”
“How do you sleep at night, Christopher? Given what you do for a living.”
“I don’t sleep like a king. But I certainly sleep better than a pauper. I’m well paid.”
There was nothing else for us to say to each other. Christopher came to do a duty. And he had done it.
Shortly after that ill-fated encounter, my namesake, Doctor Allen, told me he was going to Rome and invited me to accompany him on the trip. From Rome I returned to London – never again to sit in a classroom as a student.
Copyright: Raphael Soné