The Bard and the Bishop
Yesterday was the feast of St. Charles Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan (1538-1584). There are many stories about this holy priest and bishop but few know of his unlikely connection with Shakespeare and the English Martyrs.
The spiritual last will and testament, signed by John Shakespeare, the playwright's father, and hidden in the rafters of the Shakespeare family home in Stratford-upon-Avon, was written by Borromeo. It had been written by him as a means of allowing plague victims in Milan to confess their faith in extremis in the absence of a priest. It became very popular amongst England's beleaguered and persecuted Catholics as a means of confessing their own faith in the absence of priests to minister to them. It constituted a sort of "sacrament of penance by desire" for those who feared having no priest at the moment of death.
It seems likely that these "spiritual wills" were smuggled into England by the Jesuit missionary priests, including St. Edmund Campion, who stayed as guests of St. Charles in Milan en route to England from Rome.
We know that Campion stayed in the vicinity of Stratford as he journeyed north upon his arrival in England. It is a beguiling possibility that John Shakespeare and his teenage son might have met the future martyr on this occasion.
A further beguiling possibility is that the teenage Shakespeare may have met Campion at Houghton Hall in Lancashire.
Those wishing to explore the connection between the Bard of Avon and Catholic saints such as Borromeo and Campion should check out my book, The Quest for Shakespeare.