What's that you say? That's not a man, it's a book. Well, alarmingly enough, this book (which was put up for auction in 2007) is believed to be bound in his skin. It was printed in 1606, the year in which the 'Father' in question - Henry Garnet - was hanged, drawn and quartered in London, a victim of the government's reponse to the Gunpowder Plot.
Will's poem, A Lover's Complaint, can be dated to 1605 or thereabouts. Certainly, the events it recounts - the 'fickle maid full pale' talking quietly with a 'reverend man' on the bank of the River Thames (or Isis) in Oxford - can be traced back to the very end of August 1605. King James and his Court had just spent three rather awkward days at Oxford. They left in the afternoon of 30 August. That same day, a party set out from Enfield Chase, north of London, making its way across the Midlands to North Wales. The party, which was led by several prominent Jesuit priests and included at least one future Gunpowder Plotter, was heading to the shrine of St Winefride at Holywell in Flintshire.
St Winefride had been the patron saint of Will Shakespeare's father, John Shakespeare, as we know from a copy of a Jesuit last will and testament found hidden among the rafters of the Shakespeare Birthplace property in Stratford in 1757.
The route taken by the pilgrims led them across the country, through the Catholic backwaters of the English Midlands, where the Jesuits and their entourage stayed at the houses of men who were well-known to Will Shakespeare - men like John Grant of Snitterfield, Robert Catesby of Lapworth, and the three men who had taken up residence in Clopton House, just outside Stratford. The pilgrims were dismayed by what they saw: concerted efforts to amass war-horses and weaponry in anticipation of an uprising. Father Garnet, leading the pilgrimage, had heard that Catesby and others were planning an attack on the English State, but he had persuaded them to do nothing until he had received orders from his superiors on the Continent. Sadly for Garnet and his friends, the conspirators proceeded with their plans, which came to grief at around midnight in the morning of 5 November 1605.
Amazingly, Will's poem A Lover's Complaint includes a brief biography of the 'reverend man' who came over to inquire the 'grounds and motive' of the middle-aged woman's distress as she wept and wailed on the Oxford riverbank. As Shakespeare wrote:
A reverend man who grazed his cattle nigh,
Sometime a blusterer that the ruffle knew
Of court, of city, and had let go by
The swiftest hours observed as they flew,
Towards this afflicted fancy fastly drew,
And, privileged by age, desires to know
In brief the grounds and motives of her woe.
The afflicted maid addresses the 'reverend man' as 'Father'. He was a priest. But he was no ordinary priest: he was the Superior of the Society of Jesus in the province of England, and he had been on the run from the authorities for twenty years.
Father Henry Garnet was fifty years old when he sat down beside Will's lover. He had been born in Derbyshire and won a scholarship to Winchester College, one of the last schools in England to have accepted the reforms imposed by the Protestant regime of Elizabeth I. He had gained a reputation as a skilled debater and was praised for his 'modesty, urbanity, musical taste and quickness and solidity of parts'. He had been, in short, a 'blusterer', a keen-witted and able debater.
After school, Garnet was apprenticed to a printer. Richard Tottel ran his printshop in Temple Bar, London, and specialised in legal texts. Garnet became his proof-reader, a 'corrector of the common law print', and among the regular visitors to Tottel's printshop were those leading figures in English law who would one day try Garnet for his life. The young man had therefore come to know the 'ruffle' of the law courts and the city.
In 1575, at the age of twenty, Garnet travelled to Rome to train as a priest. He was received into the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in September 1577, pledging his obedience directly to the Pope and undertaking to celebrate the Divine Office, otherwise known as the Liturgy of the Hours, which required the daily observance of the eight canonical hours of Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. He had let go by 'the swiftest hours observed as they flew'.
Father Henry Garnet had returned to England in secret in the summer of 1586. Travelling with him was another Jesuit priest, Father Robert Southwell. Distantly related to Shakespeare, Southwell would address a poem of his own to his 'worthy good cousin, Master W.S.', in which he criticised Shakespeare's choice of material. Southwell insisted that Shakespeare should leave topics like Venus and Adonis alone and concentrate on more devotional poetry. The poem in which Southwell reminded his 'worthy good cousin' Will Shakespeare of those who, out of fear of the authorities, denied their true faith was entitled St Peter's Complaint.
Will's A Lover's Complaint was his answer to Southwell's charges. Southwell was arrested in 1592 and executed early in 1595. Will left it until 1605, at the earliest, to respond to Southwell's St Peter's Complaint. What prompted him to do so was the sight of Southwell's spiritual partner and brother in Christ, Father Henry Garnet, sitting beside his lover, Jane Davenant, and hearing her confession on the Oxford riverbank. Garnet was on his way, we remember, to the shrine of the patron saint of Will Shakespeare's father, a saint who was associated, moreover, with childbirth (some years later, King James II would visit the same shrine to pray for a son; St Winefride duly responded, and the 'Old Pretender', James Francis Edward Stuart, was born approximately nine months later).
Father Robert Southwell had urged upon Shakespeare in his St Peter's Complaint the fact that 'well-wishing works no ill'. Well-wishing was the Catholic practice of praying at sacred shrines and holy wells - this sort of activity had been banned by the Protestant authorities. The action of Will's A Lover's Complaint took place in the midst of a 'well-wishing' pilgrimage to St Winefride's holy well. As a stark, and rather threatening, reminder of this illegal activity, when the first part of A Lover's Complaint was published along with Will's sonnets in 1609, the cryptic dedication mischievously referred to the poet as a 'well-wishing adventurer'.
A Lover's Complaint relates part of the conversation which took place between Jane Davenant - wife of a respectable Oxford tavern-keeper, two months pregnant with Will's child - and Father Henry Garnet, Superior of the underground Jesuit mission in England, in Oxford at the end of August 1605. Within months, the Gunpowder Plot would deal a shattering blow to the Jesuit mission and the cause of the embattled English Catholics. Father Garnet would receive the news of the plot and its discovery at Coughton Court, just a few miles from Stratford-upon-Avon. Instantly, he knew that he and his fellows were doomed.
His execution in May 1606 prompted Will Shakespeare to write Macbeth.
There are, of course, a whole host of questions to be answered: did Will Shakespeare personally summon one of the most wanted men in England to hear his lover's confession, and did he undertake to sponsor a 'well-wishing' pilgrimage to the shrine of his father's patron saint as penance for having got a married woman pregnant? And, if so, how could he have escaped scrutiny by the authorities in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot (his rival and colleague Ben Jonson was summoned by the Privy Council, and many of Will's friends and neighbours in the Midlands were questioned, so why did Will Shakespeare avoid suspicion?) And why, for so many years, have scholars insisted that the holy King Duncan whose assassination impels the tragedy of Macbeth was King James I of England, when it was James himself who was so eager to prove himself the successor to Queen Elizabeth (i.e. the 'son' - mac - of 'Beth') and whose willingness to see the gentle Father Garnet cruelly butchered turned him, in Will Shakespeare's eyes at least, into a 'butcher' with bloody hands? In reality, Father Garnet was Will's inspiration for the murdered King Duncan, and Macbeth was a fierce denunciation of King James and his anti-Catholic policies.
The next blogpost will look at the issue of Will's affair with Jane Davenant and the boy born of their adulterous affair.