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Shakespeare, Breakspear, and Broken Pole

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Warning: My speculations are in italics. The rest is accepted historical fact.

Allen’s prophecy wasn’t all empty words -- his story had roots in history. Some four centuries before the birth of William Shakespeare, a man named Nicholas Breakspear was parish priest in the hamlet of Brinsley. Breakspear was not related to Shakespeare, but the mere similarity of names would link the two men across the centuries more profoundly than any ties of blood. From all over England, women flocked to Breakspear’s parish, hoping to become pregnant. They were drawn not to Breakspear but to his well. The Brinsley well was believed to make barren women fertile. But Breakspear’s enduring fame came not from the well but from his subsequent career -- he went on to become Pope, the first and only English Pope.

A few years after Breakspear died, a few miles from Brinsley, Oxford University was founded. In Shakespeare’s time, Oxford was a breeding ground for Catholic resistance. William Allen was an Oxford graduate, as were most of Shakespeare’s teachers at the Stratford Guild School.

About three centuries after Breakspear, we find Henry VIII and his wife Catherine at the Brinsley well. Catherine had given him a daughter (Mary), but Henry thought he needed a male heir. Since the Norman conquest, England had had only one female ruler, Matilda, and her reign had been one long civil war between her and her cousin Stephen. Elizabeth, Henry’s as yet unborn second daughter, would be the greatest ruler England would ever have (with the possible exception of Margaret Thatcher), but Henry couldn’t know that. Henry could reasonably believe that, for the good of the country, he needed a son. Since Catherine couldn’t give him a son, he decided to divorce her and try to get his male heir from another woman. But the Pope refused to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine. So Henry annulled the marriage of the Church of England to the Roman Catholic Church -- all because Breakspear’s well had failed to produce a Catholic male heir.

By annulling his marriage to Catherine, Henry made their daughter (the future Queen Mary, a.k.a. Bloody Mary) a retroactive bastard. Mary’s godmother was Margaret Pole, a cousin of Henry’s. Margaret’s son, Reginald Pole, was a respected theologian. Because he refused to recognize the legitimacy of Henry’s annulment (and the consequent illegitimacy of Mary), Reginald Pole had to flee into exile on the Continent. But his mother Margaret remained in England, where Henry cut off her head.

While on the Continent, Pole was one of the chief organizers of the Council of Trent, which for many years studied ways to reform the Catholic Church and strengthen it against the encroachments of Protestantism. During the Council of Trent, Pole proposed the establishment of colleges to train priests. He coined a new word for these colleges, "seminaries." Pole was so widely respected that he was almost elected Pope -- he fell just one vote short of the required two-thirds majority.

Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, gave him another daughter, Elizabeth. Then Anne gave birth to a still-born son and Henry chopped off her head. Eventually Henry found a wife who gave him a son, Edward. Edward was raised as a Protestant, so after Henry died, King Edward VI continued the break with Catholicism begun by his father. But Edward was sickly and only survived his father by a few years.

Then, at last, Mary, the Catholic retroactive bastard, inherited the throne. Mary legalized Catholicism and even burned some heretics (hence Bloody Mary), but she was unable to undo what her father had done. Henry had confiscated the extensive lands of the Catholic monasteries and sold them. The present owners of the former monastery lands were a powerful force for preserving Protestantism.

Mary needed help to restore English Catholicism to its former dominance. She needed a strong Catholic husband. Her first choice was Reginald Pole, her godmother’s son, the man whose mother had been beheaded by her father, the man who had almost become the second English Pope. But Pole declined, saying he was not up to the job because he was too old.

So Mary settled for Philip of Spain (the same Philip who, thirty years after Mary’s death, would send his Armada against England). A few months after Mary married Philip, Pole finally returned to England from his long exile. When Pole was presented to Queen Mary, she felt the first kick from what she imagined was a baby growing in her womb. That baby, if it had existed, might have been the long-awaited Catholic male heir, who perhaps would have made England Catholic forever. But it was a false pregnancy. Mary never had a baby.

Pole became Archbishop of Canterbury and supervised the burning of Protestant martyrs, while calling himself the "Pole Star" because he was the guiding star about whom the English people revolved. After about five years of Catholic rule, Mary died and Protestant Elizabeth became Queen. His heart broken, Pole died on the same day that Mary died. Despite Breakspear and broken Pole, England was once again severed from the Catholic Church.

In July, 1563, several years after Pole died and about nine months before William Shakespeare was born, the Council of Trent approved the De Reformatione decree which included a canon for the institution of the seminaries which Pole had proposed. This inspired William Allen to plant his own seminaries.

Internal LinksEdit

Why Will? - The Godfather (previous article in biography)

Dangerous Conjectures in Ill-Breeding Minds - The Oath (next in biography)

Where Truth Is Hid - A Speculative Biography of Shakespeare (main article)

--Ray Eston Smith Jr 23:13, 6 March 2007 (UTC)

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