Hackney, Harsnett and the Devils in “King Lear”
Copyright 1965 by Gwynneth Bowen
First published in Shakespearean Authorship Review (English), Autumn 1965.
IN our last issue we published an article by the Rev. Dr. W. A. Ferguson, entitled The Sonnets of Shakespeare—The “Oxfordian” Solution, which referred very briefly to the marriage of William Hall, at Hackney, in 1608. The present article is not directly concerned with either the Sonnets or the identity of Mr. W. H., but it is very much concerned with the results of Colonel B. R. Ward’s researches at Hackney, published in The Mystery of Mr. W. H. (Cecil Palmer, 1923), and it will be convenient to reprint here a passage quoted by Ward from an article on Thomas Thorpe by Sir Sidney Lee:
“An obscure stationer, William Hall, was at this period filling, like Thorpe, the irresponsible role of procurer of manuscripts. In 1606 Hall had procured for publication A Foure-fold Meditation, by Robert Southwell, and had supplied, as owner of the ‘copy,’ a dedicatory epistle under his initials, ‘W.H.’
Southwell’s poem was printed for Hall by George Eld, the printer of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.”
Ward did not go to Hackney in the first place in search of Mr. W.H., or for that matter, in search of Robert Southwell. He went because he believed that the real author of the Sonnets and at least some of the plays of Shakespeare was Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, who died at Hackney in 1604; but in the course of his investigations he found that the Jesuit missionary Robert Southwell, author of the Foure-fold Meditation, soon after his arrival in England in 1586, had taken refuge at Lord Vaux’s house at Hackney. It was this remarkable coincidence of Southwell’s connection with Hackney which led him to suspect that the obscure stationer, William Hall, was himself a Hackney man, and to search for his name in the Parish Register, and he emphasizes the fact that “a successful find under such circumstances is more valuable as evidence than a chance discovery.” But his researches did not end there, and whether or not he has solved the Mystery of Mr. W. H., what I propose to do now is to follow up the one important clue to the identification of Shakespeare as Edward de Vere that he seems to have overlooked. He goes on to quote the following passage from William Robinson’s History and Antiquities of the Parish of Hackney:
“Lord Vaux had a residence at Hackney at the latter end of the sixteenth century; but it is not known at this day the precise place where his house was situated. It is certain that his house was one in which the R.C. priests and Jesuits about the year 1592 practised their popish impositions to deceive the people …
“All that is known is that this Lord Vaux was for many years confined as a suspected person within a certain distance from London; and it is conjectured that he hired a residence at Hackney (probably Brooke House), which is confirmed from the circumstance of his house at Hackney being mentioned several times (in a footnote Ward reprints 18 page-references) in a book printed in 1603 . . . entitled A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures.“
Neither Ward, nor Robinson, has anything further to say about this book, and the author is not even named. His name was Samuel Harsnett; he was at the time Vicar of Chigwell, and eventually rose to be Archbishop of York, so quite a lot is known about him. But the book is remembered today for one thing only: it is said to have provided Shakespeare with the names of the devils that possessed “Poor Tom” in King Lear—Fliberdigibbet and the rest! The title page reads as follows:
A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures, to with-draw the harts of her Majesties Subjects from their allegeance, and from the truth of Christian Religion professed in England, under pretence of casting out devils.
Practised by Edmunds, alias Weston a Jesuit, and divers Romish Priests his wicked associates.
Whereunto are annexed the Copies of the Confessions, and Examinations of the parties themselves, which were pretended to be possessed, and dispossessed, taken upon oath before her Majesties Commissioners, for causes Ecclesiasticall.
Printed by James Roberts, dwelling in Barbican, 1603.
Now, when Robert Southwell and another Jesuit, Henry Garnett, arrived in London in July 1586, they were met by Edmunds. The three of them spent a week together at a country house in Buckinghamshire and then dispersed, Southwell being sent by Edmunds to Lord Vaux’s house at Hackney, which seems to have been used as a reception centre and sorting-house for the Jesuits. It must, however, have been Southwell’s headquarters for a considerable time, since he was given the job of welcoming new arrivals from the continent and dispatching them all over the country to the houses of Catholics who were prepared to receive them.
With Garnett we are not concerned, but Edmunds, on parting with the other two, returned to London, where about ten days later he was arrested; and he remained a prisoner till after the accession of James I, when he was given his passport and allowed to return to Rome. The career of Edmunds as a missionary at large in England thus came to an end when Southwell’s began, in the summer of 1586. Southwell, himself, was captured in 1592 (which may be the reason for the date of the “Popish impositions” given by Robinson), and executed in 1595.
The earlier limit for the date of King Lear has been set by the publication of Harsnett’s book, which is often cited by scholars, though it is doubtful whether many of them have read it. Recently, however, Professor Kenneth Muir has made a special study of it and has come to the conclusion that its influence on Shakespeare has been underestimated. In an Appendix to his edition of King Lear (New Arden Shakespeare, 1963), he gives a long list of parallels with page-references to Harsnett, and in his Introduction he writes:
“On 16 March 1603 Samuel Harsnett’s Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures was entered in the Stationers’ Register; and as Shakespeare makes considerable use of this book throughout the play we can be certain that it was not written until after that date.”
Professor Alexander is not quite so certain. In fact he is prepared to consider the existence of a first version of the play, by Shakespeare, as early as 1594, but adds:
“King Lear in the form found in the Quarto of 1608 (the first edition of Shakespeare’s play) cannot be earlier than Harsnett’s Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures (1603).” [Shakespeare (Home University Library, Oxford, 1964). Reviewed in our last issue.]
This, even if true, would not of course rule out the possibility of Oxford’s authorship, for he had still another year to live. But is it true?
The answer to that question must depend upon the answers to certain other questions. In the first place, can we be sure that Harsnett did not borrow from King Lear; could he, perhaps, have read the play in manuscript? Secondly, is it possible that both writers borrowed from a common source?
It is no doubt assumed that Harsnett could not have borrowed from Shakespeare, because his book is not a work of fiction. On the other hand, it is well known that from 1597 to 1604, as Chaplain to the Bishop of London, Harsnett had the job of censoring plays for the press, so he certainly could have seen King Lear in manuscript, if such a manuscript existed before his own book was published which is the very point at issue. It has also been noted that his own language and imagery bear witness to his knowledge of theatrical terms and keen interest in the drama. Nevertheless, the real answer to our question lies in a common source for, as it happens, Harsnett not only had a source, but named it; quoted from it at some length; and gave his page-references. In his preface he writes:
“And that this declaration might be free from the carpe and cavill of ill-affected, or discomposed spirits, I have alledged nothing for materiall, or authenticall heerein, but the expresse words eyther of some part of the Miracle booke, penned by the priests, and filed upon Record, where it is publique to be seene (italics mine), or els a clause of theyr confessions who were fellow actors in this impious dissimulation. Whose several confessions and contestations (the parties being yet living) are heere published in print, that the world may be a witnesse of our integrity herein.”
The Examinations are carefully documented as having been taken upon oath before the Bishop of London, the Dean of Westminster and other ecclesiastics, on 2nd and 12th March 1598 (by our Calendar 1599, since New Year’s Day was then 24th March), and on 24th April and 6th June 1602. If Edmunds, himself, was examined in this connection the results were not published, but it is perhaps significant that in December, 1598, he was conveyed from Wisbeach Castle, then used as a special prison for Catholics, to the Tower of London, where he remained in solitary confinement, and conveniently at hand. Many years later Edmunds was to give his own very different account of the exorcisms in his autobiography, written as a free man at Rome, and recently published in an English translation from the Latin, by Philip Caraman, to whose notes I am indebted for some of the historical facts. [William Weston, The Autobiography of an Elizabethan (Longmans, Green and Co.) 1955.] Edmunds does not refer to Harsnett’s book, or to any Examination on this subject.
The first chapter of the Declaration—to give it a short title—is headed “The occasion of publishing these wonders, by the coming to light of the penned booke of Miracles,” and begins:
“About some three or foure yeeres since, there was found in the hands of one Ma. Barnes a Popish Recusant, an English Treatise in a written hand, fronted with this Latin sentence, taken out of the Psalmes, Venite, et narrabo, quanta fecit Dominus anima mea, come and I will shew you what great things the Lord hath done for my soule.”
This was the “booke of Miracles,” so-called by Harsnett and attributed by him to Edmunds, and it seems to have been a kind of diary, or case-book, kept by the priests at the time of the exorcisms, though there may have been more than one copy.
Harsnett proceeds to give us the names of “the parties supposed to be possessed” and of the priests, followed by details of time and place:
“This play of sacred miracles was performed in sundry houses accommodate for the feate, in the house of the Lord Vaux at Hackney, of Ma. Barnes at Fulmer, of Ma. Hughes at Uxbridge, of Sir George Peckham at Denham, and of the Earle of Lincolne in Channon Row in London. The time chosen to act and publish these wonders (not, of course, in print) were the yeeres 85 and 86, ending with the apprehension of Ballard and Babington.”
Now, many people believed that miracles were indeed performed by Catholic priests, in and around London, in 1585-86. The incidents occurred in private houses, but evidently before large audiences; hundreds of converts were made, and the rumour spread. Harsnett’s book was written nearly twenty years later for the express purpose of proving the miracles false and the priests imposters. Certainly he had an axe to grind and he did not refrain from comment, sarcastic, witty, sometimes ribald, but for all that, the Declaration is basically a report, however biased, and even if he misrepresented the facts in spite of his protestation to the contrary, he can hardly have invented the book of Miracles; the risk was too great. If it were not “publique to be seene,” it would be open to anyone to expose the Declaration as a fraud; if it were, then Harsnett’s page-references would have to be authentic.
In the course of the centuries the book of Miracles has receded once more into the darkness, together with the records of the Examinations. At least, I have not been able to bring it to light again and I assume that no-one else has, for the Shakespeare scholars, or those I have consulted, do not even mention it. In its absence it is impossible to say for certain whether Shakespeare owed anything at all to Harsnett, but a comparison between Professor Muir’s page-references to Harsnett and Harsnett’s own page-references to the book of Miracles has convinced me that wherever the author of King Lear appears to be indubitably echoing Harsnett, Harsnett is himself either quoting the book of Miracles—not in inverted commas, but in italics and with marginal references—or, less formally, “echoing” it. His book is liberally sprinkled with such phrases as “The author tells us,” “Heare the Miraclist report it,” “Saith the Miraclist” etc., and there is really no reason why King Lear, in the form of the Quarto of 1608, should not have been written and performed before the publication of Egregious Popish Impostures, provided that the author of the play had read the book of Miracles.
The Earl of Oxford was not living at Hackney at the time of the exorcisms, but according to Robinson, he “resided for some years at (Stoke) Newington, where as Norden says, he had a very proper house.” The parish of Stoke Newington is adjacent to that of Hackney, and here, on 31st March 1593, Edward de Vere’s son, Henry, was baptized. Three years later, Elizabeth Countess of Oxford bought Brooke House (then known as King’s Place), from the executors of Sir Roland Hayward, whose property it was from 1583 to the time of his death in 1593. Since the Earl not only died at Hackney, but addressed letters from there, he presumably shared his wife’s house; and so, for some reason, did Lady Vaux! [B. R. Ward, p. 15.] Her husband died in 1595, the year before Lady Oxford bought the house, and though it is possible that she moved in from another house in the same parish, it is much more likely that Robinson’s conjecture, that Lord Vaux hired Brooke House, was correct, and that after his death, by a friendly arrangement with the Oxfords, his widow simply continued to live in her old home.
As a friend and neighbour of Lord and Lady Vaux, the chances that Lord Oxford saw the book of Miracles long before it was “filed upon Record” are very high indeed, and he may well have seen it before April 1594, when Philip Henslowe, owner of the Rose theatre, recorded in his famous Diary two performances of a play called King Leare. Was this, as generally believed, the same play as the anonymous King LEIR, published in 1605 and still extant; or was it, as Professor Alexander suggests, an early version of Shakespeare’s play; or was it, perhaps, King Lear, as we know it, devils and all?