The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.0823 Monday, 5 April 2004
From: Peter Bridgman <
Date: Sunday, 4 Apr 2004 14:09:23 +0100
Subject: 'John Shakespeare's Spiritual Testament: a Reappraisal'
I've just finished reading Robert Bearman's essay in Shakespeare Survey:
'John Shakespeare's Spiritual Testament: a Reappraisal'. Please accept
my apologies for the length of this post, but here are my thoughts on
p184: [The testament] "is perhaps the greatest weapon in the arsenal of
those who maintain that Shakespeare's father remained a practising
I disagree. John's name appearing in Sir Thomas Lucy's list (25 Sept
1592) of nine stubborn Stratford recusants is more conclusive.
p184: "even if we could [accept the document's authenticity], this
would not establish that Shakespeare remained loyal to the Catholic
church in later years".
Does anyone claim that it would? Bearman seems to have a habit of
overstating the claims of "those who maintain...".
p185 "the editor [of the Gentleman's Magazine, who was approached by
John Jordan in 1784] was said to have rejected the document as spurious".
Inflammatory, more like. This was only four years after the Gordon
Riots. No magazine editor in England, even if they were convinced of the
document's authenticity, would have published the testament in 1784.
p186: "He [Malone] thought that the handwriting post-dated John
Shakespeare's death in 1601 by at least thirty years".
By a generation in fact. Malone obviously didn't know that John could
read but not write, so he didn't ask himself the question we might ask:
Was the testament copied out by a younger hand? Like that of the 16
year old William?
Anyway, Bearman tells us later that Malone compared the handwriting to
that of William Alleyn and John Ford and was satisfied it was of the period.
p188: "Malone's retraction and the earlier pronouncement of forgery by
the editor of the Gentleman's Magazine and Joseph Greene were enough to
discredit the document for over a hundred years".
Greene and the magazine editor had only seen Jordan's forgery (with the
first three missing clauses), not the original testament that was sent
to Malone by the vicar of Stratford - the same vicar (the Rev James
Davenport DD) who told Malone he had "no doubt" that the Testament was
found in the roof by Moseley the builder.
Bearman omits to tell us that Malone declared himself "perfectly
satisfied" the Testament was a genuine late Tudor document when he
published it in 1790. He also omits to detail the other forgeries
Jordan perpetrated - like the genuine old books he inscribed with
"William Shakespeare his Booke" and sold on to tourists. I think we can
guess why Malone later changed his mind about the testament and
retracted. He wanted to distance himself from Jordan the forger. And
by making only a half-hearted attempt to distance Jordan's obvious
forgery from the real testament, Robert Bearman clearly wants us to tar
both documents with the same brush.
p189: "The general understanding had always been that the 'Testament',
when discovered, was already lacking its first leaf. It was manifestly
in this state when Jordan provided a copy for the Gentleman's Magazine".
Why manifestly? Isn't it more likely that Jordan would try to impress
the editor with his "improved" version, as he tried later with Malone?
p189: "The fact that these opening articles are forged does not, of
course, automatically invalidate the possible authenticity of the
remaining (and greater) part of the text. It does, however, cast a
I don't see why it casts a shadow. Malone saw two separate documents,
one almost certainly authentic and one we (now) know for definite to be
a forgery. Bearman wants us to confuse the two.
p189: "...this early date [1757, the supposed year of discovery] is in
any case unlikely, presupposing an interval of twenty-seven years
between the alleged discovery of an item of such importance and its
being made public".
Possibly, but the individuals who held onto the document - like the
Stratford alderman and the Anglican vicar - would have had a vested
interest in keeping it quiet. These were years of virulent
anti-Catholic riots in England, and the last thing the Stratford
authorities would have wanted to promote was the suggestion that the
national bard came from a Papist family Besides, it is irrelevant what
year the testament was found, it is only relevant when it was written.
p190: "If we move beyond this and propose that the whole document is a
fabrication, there would seem to be only one explanation: that in the
1770s someone had come across a defective copy of the printed English
version of the testament, lacking its first page or two, and had
conspired to turn it into a Shakespeare document, copying John's name
into each article".
Actually there are two explanations, of which Bearman's conspiracy
theory is the less likely. As the real testament passed hands between
Moseley the builder, Payton the alderman, Jordan the wheelwright,
Davenport the vicar, and Malone the eventual publisher, we should
remember that no money at all changed hands. And if money wasn't the
motive - and none of these men were Catholics - we might ask Robert
Bearman what possible motive he has for a conspiracy.
p192: "Borromeo's authorship is by no means proven, the only Italian
version attributing it to his confessor, Alessandro Sauli".
Two pages earlier Bearman writes "the original, one must suppose, was in
Italian". Why must one suppose this? Cardinal Borromeo's writings
would have been in Latin. Sauli may have just been an Italian
translator. The 1635 English version is titled 'The Testament Of The
Soule. Made by S.Charles Borrom. Card & Arch.of Millan'.
p192: "In June 1581, William Allen, rector of the English College at
Rheims wrote, in Latin, to Alphonsus Agazarri, rector of the English
College in Rome, reporting that Father Robert Parsons, now in England,
'wants three or four thousand or more of the testaments, for many people
desire to have them' ".
Bearman goes on to propose that Allen wasn't writing about Borromeo's
testament (as Shakespeare biographers have assumed). He was writing
about the Douay-Rheims New Testament in English, the publication of
which (in 1582) was eagerly awaited by England's Catholics. This is the
strongest point Bearman makes in his essay, and I think he is probably
correct. Which means of course that England wasn't flooded with copies
p195: "We are simply faced now with the question of whether it is
likely that, some time before 1601, when John died, a manuscript copy,
the only one to have survived, was made from a printed version of which
no copy has similarly ever come to light, and that it just happened to
be subscribed to by the father of perhaps the most famous of all
This isn't as unlikely as Bearman asserts. He admits a stand-alone
English printed copy of Borromeo must have existed, from which the 1635
and 1638 English copies we have today were made, although he doesn't
admit such an early date as pre-1601. And a stand-alone English copy
must have been found if John's document was a hoax. But, as Bearman
well knows, there are very good reasons for the uniqueness of John
In John's lifetime possession of such a document would have resulted in
John's arrest and financial ruin. If the owner of the testament was a
priest, possession would have resulted in torture, execution and
disembowelling. The government was at war with Catholicism and the haul
of rosaries, holy medals and missals that the pursuivants brought in was
simply destroyed. Walsingham and Cecil did not keep private collections
for posterity and the British Library. And besides, if signed
testaments like John's evaded the pursuivants, they were sealed into
coffins as intended, along with the bodies of their owners. In Moseley
the builder's lifetime, the time of the Gordon riots, such documents and
"popish trash" would probably have ended up on a bonfire. Surely it is
precisely because it was "subscribed to by the father of perhaps the
most famous of all Englishmen" that it escaped this fate.
p198: " '...my will and intention is that it be finally buried with me
after my death'. That no such English 'free-standing' printed copy of
the testament has ever come to light suggests that this is, in fact,
what happened in most cases".
I had to blink when I read this, as Bearman is now contradicting
himself. He has already argued that the uniqueness of John's testament
strongly suggests a hoax. Now he is arguing that there were a number of
testaments like John's, but "in most cases" these ended up in coffins
underground. And since John's wasn't buried with his corpse, it again
suggests a hoax. Bearman cannot have it both ways just to suit his
p198: [On John's choice of 'St Winifride' as his patron saint] "we may
legitimately wonder instead why his choice fell on a female saint and
not, as would have been usual for a man, on a male one".
Usual for a man? Where did Bearman get this strange idea from?
Devotion to female saints was an aspect of Catholicism that Protestants,
with their exclusively male faith, liked to ridicule. If he would care
to visit the Catholic church near me in Camden Town in London, Bearman
would find burly Irish builders on their knees before the statue of St
Theresa the Little Flower. When John Shakespeare was a lad most
Englishmen behaved like this too.
Bearman goes on to suggest that Warwickshire devotion to St Winifrid was
a mid-17th century phenomenon, unknown in John Shakespeare's day. This
is a surprising claim since from his researches Bearman would know there
was a pilgrimage of Warwickshire Catholics to St Winifrid's shrine the
year of the Gunpowder Plot, only four years after John's death.
p200: "One macabre possibility, therefore, is that a copy could have
been recovered from a coffin or a grave some 150 years later. This
would explain its damaged condition."
This is risible. How likely is it that a paper pamphlet of 6 or 7
leaves would survive proximity to a rotting corpse, and then stay in a
readable condition for the next 150 years? The damage that Malone
reported was that the first page or two were missing, and the ink on the
last page had faded. Isn't this far more likely to be the result of
nestling among cobwebs in a dry roof for 150 years?
To conclude, I was largely unconvinced by Bearman's essay. I agree with
him that biographers are probably wrong to assume from Allen's letter to
Rome that England was flooded with copies of Borromeo's testament. This
is Bearman's strongest point but even he concedes there must have been
some copies printed since an original was necessary to perpetrate his
supposed hoax. His weakest argument however is that of the forger's and
To accept Bearman's hypothesis we have to accept that a number of
upright Stratford Protestants, of honest reputation, and with no
financial incentive, agreed to conspire with forger John Jordan (another
Protestant) in order to perpetrate a pro-Catholic conspiracy at a time
of virulent public anti-Catholicism. I just cannot see it myself.
No wonder the vicar destroyed John's testament after Malone published
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