Despite what many modern critics say, Shakespeare's plays are written from a profoundly Christian perspective. This site presents literary criticism demonstrating that. To submit your essay for publication (arguing either for or against this position), email us - kevin @

The First Folio of St. Omer and "Neville"

Carol Curt Enos shows how the recently discovered First Folio at St. Omer in France is yet another proof of Shakespeare's Catholic faith.

The First Folio of St. Omer and "Neville"
Carol Curt Enos

          The discovery of a Shakespeare First Folio from a 17th c library in the Jesuit seminary at St Omer, France, in Nov 2014 has implications beyond reinforcing the theory that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic and that his religion is reflected in his work.  The history of this First Folio also supports the most recent thrust of Shakespeare scholarship:  that teenage Shakespeare was a tutor or developing actor in the homes of Alexander Hoghton at Hoghton Tower, Sir Thomas Hesketh at Rufford, and finally, the Stanley family at Knowsley and Lea, which led to his position in the acting company of Lord Strange (Ferdinando Stanley) and onward to the London stage.   This theory grew out of the discovery of a 1581 will of Alexander Hoghton at Hoghton Tower, Lancashire, naming William Shakeshafte, an actor/musician who was ‘now dwelling’ in his home who was to go to Sir Thomas Hesketh on Hoghton’s death (Honigmann 85).  Chambers (1944) and Honigmann (1985) have identified this Shakeshafte with William Shakespeare.
              A fair assumption is that sometime in the mid 1600s the Folio was taken to the Jesuit college founded in St. Omer in 1593 to be used as a teaching textbook in the Catholic education of boys, which was banned in England.  The Jesuits were known for using theater as a teaching tool.
              The owner of the Folio has been tentatively identified from the name ‘Neville’ inscribed on the first surviving page as Edward Scarisbrick (Neville), a Jesuit priest who spent some years in St. Omer (Schuessler).  My research supports Edward Scarisbrick as the probable owner; however, three other men named Edmund Neville should be considered.  The erratic, unstable Elizabethan and Jacobean spelling often interchanged the names Edward and Edmund.  All four candidates have implications for the Shakespeare in Lancashire theory or ties with Shakespeare’s family. 
              One Edmund Neville 1555-1630 was not a Jesuit priest, but definitely a Catholic.  He was a second cousin once removed from Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden (Rootsweb.  ‘Neville/Westmoreland Family’).  He was nine years older than William Shakespeare 1564-1616 and quite likely was acquainted with his distant cousin in Stratford, for Neville’s mother was the sister of Edward Arden of Park Hall in Warwickshire, about 35 miles north of Stratford.  He was a Catholic conspirator involved with his relative, William Parry, in the Parry Plot (1585) to assassinate Queen Elizabeth.  As a relative of William Shakespeare, he quite possibly had an interest in the posthumous 1623 publication of Shakespeare’s plays and recognized their usefulness to the Jesuits at St Omer. 
              Edmund was the great grandson of John Neville, third baron Latimer, and in 1584 he returned to England from Spain claiming to be the last Lord Latimer.  Thomas Cecil had married Dorothy, daughter of the late Lord Latimer, and he was determined to thwart Neville’s claim by casting suspicion on his loyalty.  Already in trouble, in 1585, Neville joined Parry in the plot to kill the Queen.  Even though he turned on Parry and saved his own life, he was sent to the Tower and remained there until 1595 when he again went abroad.  In 1601, on the death of Charles Neville, 6th earl of Westmorland, he returned to England claiming the earldom in vain even though he had a solid claim.  He was later accused of participating in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 where he would have been in the company of several of Mary Arden Shakespeare’s relatives who were ringleaders of the plot (Milward 116).  He died February 3, 1629/30, in Bruxelles, Belgium.
Another Edmund Neville (alias Elijah Nelson) 1563-1648 simultaneously claimed to be the rightful heir to Westmorland.  This Neville was the nephew of Sir Thomas Hesketh of Rufford and lived with Sir Thomas from about the age of 6 until the age of 43 when, as ‘Edward Neville,’ he went to Rome to become a Jesuit priest (Foley 220).  The Hesketh home was frequented by Catholic priests who had studied in English seminaries principally in the Low Countries and who were ministering secretly in Catholic homes throughout England.
              Alexander Hoghton’s 1581 will specified that his budding actor, William Shakeshafte, should go to Sir Thomas Hesketh.  If this William was really William Shakespeare, the two young men, nearly the same age, would have been in the Hesketh home at the same time.  Neville proposed marriage to Mary Ward but was rejected.  Mary Ward first joined the Poor Clare nuns in St. Omer and later founded the so-called ‘Jesuitesses’ in various locations in the Low Countries.  Mary Ward’s family was closely connected with the Wright, Winter, and the Ingleby families, all related to Mary Arden Shakespeare via her relationship with the Throckmortons of Coughton Court.  All of these families were committed and active Catholics in the Counter Reformation.  Mary Ward was born in 1585, so Shakespeare would not have met her at the Hesketh home, but there were multiple family ties to Shakespeare.  Because of Mary’s association with St. Omer, it is not improbable that Edmund Neville contributed the First Folio of his youthful friend to the library at St Omer. 
Thomas Hesketh’s mother, Grace Towneley, was Edmund’s great aunt.  The Townleys may be a link between William Shakespeare and associates on the London stage.  Edward Alleyn, the famous actor in London who surely knew Shakespeare, was the son of Margaret Towneley, a sister of Sir Thomas’s mother and of Edmund Neville’s grandmother (Chetham Society V I, 26, 27).  All three men, Edmund Neville, William Shakespeare, and Edward Alleyn may have been acquainted in Lancashire in the 1580s.
The two Nevilles who claimed the Earldom of Westmorland traced their ancestry to Geoffrey FitzRobert de Nevill, Baron of Raby 1197-1242.  The Arden Neville descended from Geoffrey’s son, Robert, and the Hesketh Edmund Neville descended from a son, also named Geoffrey.  The Arden Edmund Neville is directly descended from Ralph, 1st earl of Westmorland whereas the Hesketh claim does not go directly through Ralph’s line but can be traced to Geoffrey FitzRobert de Nevill of the 12th c.  Their avowed purpose was to use the Westmorland inheritance to aid the Catholic religion in its struggle to survive.  Both men had connections with St. Omer and probably with William Shakespeare that could have motivated them to contribute the First Folio to the seminary’s library.
              Another Edmund Neville (alias Sales) 1605-47 was the nephew of Edmund Neville who lived with Sir Thomas Hesketh.  He did his humanities studies at St. Omer and then entered the English College at Rome at age 17 and took his oath in 1622 (Foley.  Vol V, 350).  His ‘Palm of Christian Fortitude’ was published in St. Omer in 1630.  His family ties with Shakespeare’s family were essentially parallel with his uncle’s family.  Identifying this Jesuit priest has also been difficult for others as Henry Foley noted in his Records of the English . . . . Society of Jesus:
             Edmund Neville.—Some, says Dr. Oliver, affirm he was a Scarisbrick.  The Diary of the English College, Rome, however, states that Edmund Neville, vere Sales, of Lancashire, at the age of seventeen, entered as an alumnus on the 29th of September, 1621, and took the College oath on the 16th of May, 1622.
. . . .
On entering the English College he states:  “1621.  My name is Edmund Neville, alias Sales.  I was born at my father’s house at Hopcut, Lancashire, and am seventeen years of age. . .  I made my humanity studies at St. Omer’s.  I was always brought up a Catholic, although I was never present at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, or at confession in England on account of my age.”  In 1624 he was serving the mission in St. Mary’s Residence, or the Oxford District, but we do not trace him further.
              We are left in uncertainty as to his real name; the Diary calls it Sales, and his               autobiographical account says Neville, alias Sales, but we think it is clear that he was not a Scarisbrick.  (Foley 296).
              Foley’s pronouncement indicates this Edmund Neville was probably was not the Edward Scarisbrick Neville who, to date, has been identified as the ‘Neville’ inscribed on the first existing page of the First Folio found in the St. Omer library collection.  I concur with the Scarisbrick identification, principally based on the fact that the frontispiece and several of the beginning pages are missing from this copy of the Folio.  The removal of the first pages suggests that the book was originally part of the library in the school at Scarisbrick Hall, for someone had torn the fly leaves out of the books in the library as recorded by Henry Foley:
              An Addenda, p 1398 entitled Scarisbrick Hall and Family,     County of Lancaster provided by the Rev. W. A. Bulbeck, O.S. B.,    lists books in St. Mary’s Library in Scarisbrick Hall:
                             During the course of two centuries and a half the clergy who
have resided at Scarisbrick have gradually formed a considerable library.  On arranging these books in order under the names of signature, it was found that they formed a regular and almost unbroken series, like the geological strata in the crust of the earth.  The series begins with a name that is highly distinguished in the literary annals of the Society of Jesus.  Some over-cautious person has unfortunately torn out most of the fly leaves that had any writing on them.
At the end of the list of books, a list of names of students or owners is given:
List of Names extracted from the fly-leaves of school-books at Scarisbrick, County Lancaster, a school formerly taught by the fathers of the society.
The names coupled together are in the same books, but it does not necessarily follow that they were written at the same date.  The dates of the books are frequently of the greatest importance.  From the names and dates I conclude that the school may have been in existence in 1618, probably from 1628 to 1639, certainly from 1648 to 1652, continuing probably in 1679, and certainly in 1698—1700, probably in 1703, and perhaps twenty years later (Records of the English Province of the Society of Jesus ... in the sixteenth ...p 687).
              The probable identity of ‘Neville’ in the St. Omer First Folio is Edward Scarisbrick 1639-1708, the son of Edward Scarisbrick and Frances Bradshagh.  There is no surname of ‘Neville’ in the genealogy of the family, so why did Edward Scarisbrick use the alias of Neville?  That question seems to have no answer.  Suffice it to say:  “Many members of the Scarisbrick family of Scarisbrick Hall, near Ormskirk, became Jesuits during the penal times and assumed the alias "Neville" (Catholic Online).
              It is generally acknowledged that Ferdinando Stanley, 5th Earl of Derby, was Shakespeare’s first patron in the early 1590s, and as a retainer in the Derby household, Shakespeare may have been acquainted with the Stanleys’ Scarisbrick relatives.  Even earlier, Shakespeare/Shakeshafte and members of the Scaribricks would have met, for Scarisbricks were also related to Hoghtons and Halsalls.  By 1400 the Halsall, Stanley, and Scarisbrick families were intermarried.  Robert Halsall married Ellen Scarisbrick c 1400.  Thomas Stanley 2nd Earl of Derby 1477-1521 had an illegitimate daughter, Elizabeth born 1502 (rarely appears in the genealogy tables) who married Thomas Scarisbrick 1502-1530, ward of the earl.  Other Stanley/Scarisbrick marriages followed:  Edward Stanley 3rd Earl of Derby 1509-1572 married Margaret Baralow sister of Alexander Barlow, father of Margaret Barlow daughter of Alexander Barlow, Sr.  His sister was Margaret Baralow, Countess of Derby (wife of Edward Stanley 3rd Earl of Derby as his second wife).  This Margaret also married Richard Halsal [sic].  A later Richard Halsall d 1573 married Janet Scarisbrick.
              The Halsalls are included here because the Stanley, Scarisbrick, and Halsall families had been closely connected since the 1400s.  Robert Halsall and Ellen Scarisbrick c 1400 were the great, great grandparents of Jane Halsall, Countess of Derby, wife/mistress? of Henry Stanley, 4th Earl of Derby.  Jane Halsall was the mother of Ursula Halsall wife of John Salusbury, probably the couple in Shakespeare’s Phoenix and the Turtle.  Moreover, Jane’s grandparents were Sir Henry Halsall 1482-1522 and Douce Scarisbrick.  Douce was the daughter of Gilbert Scarisbrick of Scarisrick Esq (Chetham Society Vol 1, 115).
              The Stanley family, the first patrons of William Shakespeare likely acquired a copy of the First Folio when it was published in 1623.  The Scarisbricks who probably were acquainted William Shakespeare in his teen years also would have followed his London theater career.  Both families, like other committed Catholic families, were attuned to his subtle Catholic messages in the plays, reason enough to add the Folio to the library at Scarisbrick Hall.  Even before the Folio was available there is evidence that Shakespeare’s plays were performed secretly in Catholic homes.  Richard Cholmeley, in 1609, was charged with ‘bearing inward love and affection to such as are obstinate popish recusants and having many obstinate popish recusants that depend on him’, protesting that Cholmley had licensed a company of actors whose plays contained ‘much popery and abuse of the law and justice.’ . . . (Cholmley).  This did not stop him, however, for in 1610 he had a recusant group of players perform King Lear at Gowthwayte Hall in Yorkshire.  Sell and Johnson, the editors, suggest that it, like other plays, ‘had especial Catholic resonance’ and that the ‘recusant group of players exemplify the organization of contemporary theatre for religio-political purposes’ (Sell and Johnson122).
              The Scarisbrick and Stanley families were tightly connected geographically as well as by kinship.  The area which became known as Scarisbrick originally belonged to the lord of Lathom, who held it as early as 1086.  The name ‘Scarisbrick’ first appeared in the reign of Richard I (1189-99) when Gilbert de Scarisbrick was named as the owner of some of the Lathom property.  So the Scarisbrick family was already settled in the Lathom territory, much of which was taken over by Sir John Stanley who married Isabel Latham in 1385.  The earls of Derby descended from this marriage and the manor of Lathom has been the family seat since that time.  Scarisbrick Hall is about eight miles west of Rufford (Hesketh), about twelve miles north of Knowsley (Stanley), and about two miles from Halsall, short distances that enabled the families to interact and to marry.
              The priest, Edward Scarisbrick 1639-1708, entered the Jesuit novitiate at Watten in Holland in 1657, resigning his estates to his brother Robert.  His grandfather Edward Scarisbrick 1540-1599 was receiver-general for Henry, Earl of Derby, and was one of the gentlemen-ushers who attended the burial of his father Edward, Earl of Derby in 1572.  The senior Edward Scarisbrick appears many times as a dinner guest of Henry Stanley in the Derby Household Books and is named as a loving servant in the will of Ferdinando Stanley, which he witnessed 12 April 1594 (National Archives 5)
            Edward Scarisbrick, the priest, is the most likely candidate as the Neville named in the First Folio.  However, the other three Edward/Edmund Nevilles should be considered as possibilities.  One of them was a direct relative of Mary Arden Shakespeare and therefore probably was acquainted with William Shakespeare.  The Hesketh Edmund Neville perhaps even lived with William Shakespeare at Hesketh’s home at Rufford.  Both he and his nephew, Edmund Neville (Sales) knew Mary Ward who was distantly related to Shakespeare’s mother.  Any one of these men had adequate ties with St. Omer to motivate their contribution of the First Folio to the seminary library at St. Omer.