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Apr 26 William Shakespeare's Baptism and hidden messages

Today we remember the earliest record we have of William Shakespeares life - April 26th 1564 the day he was baptised

in the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford upon Avon. He is now widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and possibly the world's greatest dramatist. His legacy maybe unprecedented, it is estimated that he introduced upwards of 1,700 original words to the English language, and phrases such as “Wearing my heart upon my sleeve”, "breaking the ice" or "heart of gold" are colloquial now, but originated in Shakespeare's plays and sonnets, and are amongst several dozen in common usage.


A large academic industry has developed around the study of his work and his life, including an interest in his personal history. We are not sure of the date of his birth but the baptism entry in the parish register for Holy Trinity Church, is the earliest public reference to William Shakespeare, It says in Latin "Guilielmus filius Johannes Shakspere," or, in English, "William, son of John Shakespeare." Next to the entry, are three "X"s added by a later hand to highlight its significance. According to the baptism register he was born just three months before a plague outbreak. “Hic incepit pestis,” or “Here began the plague” is appears next to the entry for a burial on June 11. This may give us an insight to why the baptism occurred mid-week rather than a Sunday. Shakespeare’s parents had lost their two first children already. With plague rampant throughout the town, it must have been an unnerving time for them.

The Church of England was in its infancy in a time of religious turmoil. The Book of Common Prayer, introduced by Edward VI following the break from Rome, had been suspended by Mary but reintroduced by Elizabeth 5 years before Shakespeare’s baptism. Slowly being embedded into the life of the church, it stated that infants should be baptized on the next Sunday or holy day following their birth, to allow the greatest number of people to witness the sacrament. This advice was not heeded by Shakespeare’s family, as the baptism was on a Wednesday, April 26, and was not a recognized holy day. The plague had not yet begun in Stratford, so there was no rush, so why did they want to avoid Sunday?

It was a time of great religious turmoil. The historian Eamonn Duffy, in his work The Stripping of the Altars, points out that the Roman Catholicism was in lively health prior to the English Reformation. This challenged the prevailing belief that it was a decaying force, theologically spent and unable to provide sufficient spiritual sustenance for the population at large. Duffy argues that this is not so, taking a broad range of evidence (accounts, wills, memoirs, rood screens, stained glass, joke-books, graffiti, etc.) demonstrating that every aspect of religious life prior to the Reformation was undertaken with well-meaning piety. In 1559, five years before Shakespeare's birth, the Church of England had fully broken from the Roman Catholic Church. Still traumatised by the rule of ‘Bloody Mary’ and here attempts to reinstate Catholicism, in the ensuing years, extreme pressure was placed on England's Catholics to accept the practices of the new Church. Recusancy laws outlawed any service not found in the Book of Common Prayer. Things seems so volatile, that in Shakespeare's lifetime there was widespread quiet resistance to the newly imposed reforms.

Shakespeare’s family lived at this time of an accelerated implementation of Protestantism and quiet resistance. Outwardly, they were conforming members of the Church of England. Mary Arden, Shakespeare’s mother, was from a conspicuous and determinedly Catholic family in Warwickshire. His father John Shakespeare was a glove maker and wool dealer, a successful small businessman and they lived in a large house in Henley St, that was divided in two parts to allow him to carry out his business from the same premises. It was important to him to conform to the prevailing tides, and as an upstanding local craftsman, he was elected to several municipal offices, which required being a church member in good standing. At one point acting as town chamberlain, he was required to remove "all signs of superstition and idolatry from places of worship", and covered over the wall-paintings of the Chapel of the Guild of the Holy Cross. However, a tract, apparently signed by John Shakespeare, in which he pledged to remain a Catholic in his heart, was found in the 18th century in the rafters of his home. This has since been lost, but the reported wording of the tract is linked to a testament written by Charles Borromeo (Catholic Archbishop of Milan) and circulated in England by the Jesuit priest Edmund Campion.

A play written by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, called Shakeshafte, explored the playwrights “lost years”. Historians talk about the period (1585–1592), when Shakespeare was between 21 and 28 years old as his "lost years". However, a will that was unearthed in 1851 shows that a Will Shakeshafte, on the recommendation of a John Cottam, was acting as a schoolmaster for a Catholic family in Houghton Tower, Lancashire. Cottam is said to have been Shakespeare’s last schoolmaster in Stratford-upon-Avon. On writing the play, Anglican Archbishop Williams said, “I think Shakespeare did have a recusant Catholic background. My own hunch though is that he didn’t go to church much.” In the play, Edmund Campion, a Jesuit priest travelling incognito from one household to another, meets a young Will Shakeshafte who has been hidden at the request of a schoolmaster in Stratford.