Where there was a Will

Shakespeare’s gap year at Hoghton Tower in Lancashire

The teenage William Shakespeare trod the boards at Hoghton Tower in Lancashire.  Of that there is no doubt.  Hundreds of people saw it. It was February 2010 and Will was being portrayed by an actor in the uneasy theatre production of Will at the Tower. Did the real teenage Shakespeare also play there four hundred and thirty years earlier?  No one knows for sure but if he was there in 1581 he would have been in the company of the most wanted man in England.

Arrival at the tower 2010
Uneasy theatre arrive at Hoghton Tower to set up for Will at the Tower February 2010

A number of historians and biographers have suggested that the young William Shakespeare spent some of his youth at Hoghton Tower just six miles south-east of Preston. Whilst there is no concrete proof of the claim, there is a good deal of circumstantial evidence to suggest that the story may be true. The most cited artefact in suggesting his presence is the will of Alexander de Hoghton who died 1581.

It is my will that Thomas Hoghton, my brother shall have all my instruments belonging to musics and all manner of play clothes if he be minded to keep players. And if he will not keep and maintain players then it is my mind that Sir Thomas Hesketh knight shall have the same instruments and play clothes. 

 And I heartily require the said Sir Thomas to be friendly unto Fulk Gillom and William Shakeshafte now dwelling with me and either take them into service or else help them to some good master as my trust is he will.[1]

The first objection to this source is that Shakeshafte is not Shakespeare and that cannot be ignored. However, it is important to understand that Elizabethans were far more fluid in their attribution of names than would be acceptable today.  Shakespeare’s grandfather, Richard, is known to have signed his name as Shakeshafte on some occasions.[2]

Jane and Will at the tower
Will at the Tower by uneasy theatre: Jane de Hoghton and Will

Carol Curt Enos in her scholarly study Shakespeare Settings[3] argues that there are several possible explanations.  One is that Alexander’s will may have been transcribed by someone who used the much more common Lancashire surname Shakeshafte in error; or that – as asserted in Will at the Tower – Will might have adopted the local variant as a form of disguise; or conversely to fit in more comfortably with his new household, or simply as an alias. Aliases were regularly used during this period to disguise the identity of priests, and by residing in Catholic houses Will would have been very familiar with that convention.

It may also simply have appealed to his artistic temperament. Many of Shakespeare’s plays hinge on disguise.  Whichever Will it was that resided at Hoghton in 1581, what we know for sure is that he was a player.

If Shakespeare was there, his visit coincided with intense underground activity in support of a religious rebellion against a cruelly oppressive regime.  It was a highly dangerous time.  Government spies were everywhere and the penalties were horrific.  Will could not have been impervious to the pressures and injustices. In order to understand the peculiar subterfuge at work in 1580 it is useful to have a rudimentary grasp the sectarian practices of the period.

Will at the tower Elizabeth and Jane
Will at the Tower by uneasy theatre: Elizabeth and Jane de Hoghton

God and the Crown

Religion played a very different role in people’s lives in Elizabethan England then than it does today.  There was no separation of church and state and only one religion was legally permitted, the Church of England, as established by Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII during his machinations to secure a divorce from his first wife and marry Elizabeth’s mother: Anne Boleyn.  Elizabeth’s legitimacy, and hence her claim to the English throne, hinged on the independence of the English Church from Rome. Furthermore, some of England’s enemies, notably Spain, remained staunchly Catholic.  So the religious issue was central to state security.

Despite increasingly harsh penalties, there was still a substantial number of Catholics in England at this time, perhaps as much as 5% of the population, and they were relatively numerous in the north, especially in Lancashire.[4] They included prominent families such as the Heskeths of Rufford and the de Hoghtons who had properties at Lea to the west of Preston, and Hoghton Tower to the south east.

To begin with, Elizabeth was relatively tolerant of her Catholic subjects, but later in her reign as Mary Queen of Scots became a focus for Catholic plots and the Vatican issued a decree deposing Elizabeth from the crown, the English monarch began executing activists in support of the Pope and his policies.

Tensions rose even further in the early 1580s when the action of Will at the Tower takes place. The Pope sent Jesuit missionaries into England to minister to the secret Catholics and to win converts.  The Jesuits were regarded as the worst of spies and if caught faced terrible punishment. One such insurgent was Edmund Campion who is known to have stayed at Hoghton Tower in 1581, exactly the time that the young Shakespeare is thought to have been in residence there.

Will at the tower Campion tethered
Will at the Tower by uneasy theatre: Campion and the Muses

Was Will a Catholic?

There is evidence to support the assertion that Shakespeare’s family was Catholic, and that he may have held such hazardous sympathies all his life.

Both of Will’s parents were implicated in Catholic activity. His mother was an Arden and hence a relative of Edward Arden, the head of a long-established Catholic family that lived at Park Hall in Warwickshire. A Jesuit missionary, Robert Parsons (sometimes known as Persons) used the house of Edward Arden as a base.  The family featured in Catholic activities right up to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

Ellie Murphy and Andrew Hawarden
Ros and Will

Will’s father, John, was a prominent member of Stratford society, but his role in civic affairs seems to have taken a downturn about the time of the Jesuit mission, perhaps for purely commercial reasons, perhaps not.  John did not sign the Oath of Supremacy, as was required of someone who wished to continue in public office, and his name is recorded in court records as he was punitively fined for not attending church.

Further evidence of Shakespeare’s father’s religion came to light about a hundred years later when workmen found a document hidden in the eaves of William’s birthplace in Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon.  It was a six-page handwritten Catholic testament of faith with each page signed in the name of John Shakespeare. In content and style it is very similar to the kinds of document that Campion is thought to have brought into the country. Unfortunately, this artefact was subsequently lost and hence it cannot be validated.[5]

It is likely that Will knew, or at least knew of, William Allen who was a Stratford schoolmaster and who went on to found Catholic seminaries on the continent. Allen was from Lancashire, and it is thought that he, or one of his successors, may have provided the contacts for Will to visit the county.

There were strong connections between Stratford Grammar school, where it is thought young Will was educated, and Lancashire, and indeed his final master there may have been John Cottam who hailed from Hoghton.  John’s brother Thomas Cottam was a Jesuit missionary whose fate as a martyr was closely associated with that of Edmund Campion in that they stood trial together.

Tantalising connections to Lancashire Catholics continue to crop up later in Shakespeare’s life.  Alexander de Hoghton’s legacy to his brother is conditional on him being “minded to keep players”.  Noble patronage was the only way an actor could legitimately ply his trade in the 16th century. A licence was needed and these were only given to members of the aristocracy. Scholars have linked Shakespeare with a troupe fostered by Lord Strange (pronounced “strang”) the fifth Earl of Derby who hailed from Knowlsley Hall near Liverpool, and at that time part of Lancashire.  The Derby Household Book records several visits of numerous members of the Hoghton and Hesketh families to Knowsley Hall so this may have been a link that Will followed up when he moved to London.

Will at the tower Ros and Will
Ros and Will

Lancashire links crop up again when Shakespeare’s best known company The Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later The King’s Men) sought to lease the premises that would become their indoor playhouse at Blackfriars in London. One of Shakespeare’s trustees at the Globe Theatre at the time was Thomas Savage who was from Lancashire, and married to a Hesketh – the Rufford family who ‘inherited’ Will Shakeshafte from Alexander de Hoghton.[6]

The godparents of William’s twin children were indicted in church courts for Catholicism,[7] and some of the content of his work is thought to espouse Catholic doctrine – though in a carefully contextualised way.

From Hoghton to Denmark and Dunsinane?

Did Hoghton Tower inspire Shakespeare?  Some scholars have drawn parallels with Hoghton, and other parts of Lancashire, and locations in some of Will’s plays.  Authors have mused that the Ribble estuary coastline may have inspired “the desert country near the sea” in The Winter’s Tale and speculated on a connection between the mood of the Tower on dark nights and the setting for Macbeth to slay Duncan, and murder sleep.

Elizabeth emotional will at the tower
Elizabeth de Hoghton

One thing is for sure, if he was there in 1581 he cannot have been immune to the mix of deep faith, suspicion and fear in which his host’s household lived, and that may well have subsequently found its way down his pen (which contrary to popular myth would not have sported the feather atop the quill) and into his text.

Perhaps, above all, Hamlet is the drama in which paranoia mingles most pertinently with musings on the afterlife.  There is a great deal of spying and subterfuge triggered by the ghost of Hamlet senior, whose lines have been deemed to be among the most Catholic of all speeches in Shakespeare’s canon. That play would not be written for another eighteen years, but some things stick deep in the creative consciousness, and daily life did not get any easier in those days, whether or not you were a closet Catholic. The ghost in Hamlet is the part most frequently associated with William Shakespeare as an actor.

Whilst much of this may be speculation there is a more compelling case for the eulogy for Hotspur spoken by Lady Percy in Henry IV part II to be a description of Campion and the effect he had on his followers. Campion was regarded by all who knew him to be inspirational and charismatic.

The mark, glass, copy and book

That fashioned others.

And him – oh wondrous him!

Oh miracle of men!”[8]

Was he there?

We’ll probably never know if William Shakespeare set foot in Hoghton Tower.   For all the circumstantial evidence there isn’t one iota that would stand up in a court of law.  There is no smoking gunpowder in this plot, but the strands of speculation very nearly tie up.

Considering the prevalence nationally of the forename William and the incidence locally of the surname Shakeshafte the de Hoghton testament evidence would be entirely irrelevant if it were not for all the other circumstantial strands that tantalisingly dangle it some credence. It is those threads – especially the direct bonds between Hoghton and Stratford – that are the most appealing.

One more chance discovery could resolve it all – one way or the other.

Historian Michael Wood provided the prompt for the script of the uneasy theatre show and my subsequent novel:

Some authorities have imagined young Shakespeare being recruited by the Campion Mission from among the sons of the Catholic gentlefolk, and going up north to be trained as one of the spearheads of the next generation.[9]

Our play

get in at the tower
The ‘get-in’ as seen from the Minstrels’ Gallery

The performances at Hoghton Tower in February 2010 were unique and magical. The audience response (see below) bore witness to the quality of the show, but it was the setting that presented the extra finesse.  Even if Will did not set foot in that room, Campion did.  So also did Elizabeth de Hoghton and Jane de Hoghton.  They walked, sat, ate, drank and, no doubt, danced and sang there.

play written by Campion
A play – not by Shakespeare – but by Edmund Campion, written in his own hand possibly while at Hoghton. (Photographed in the Stonyhurst College Archive)

Campion may well have written at that very table.  So might Will.  The minstrel’s gallery may have witnessed his acting debut and, for all we know, his very first attempt at writing a play.

Ros clears table 25
Whether or not Will was there – this table was.

What happened next

The play and novel end in the late summer/autumn of 1581.  Here is the historical encore:

Alexander de Hoghton signed his will on 13 August 1581. He died in “mysterious circumstances” in the autumn of that year.

Will at the tower CampionEdmund Campion was arrested at Lyford Grange in Berkshire on 17 July 1581. A warrant to subject him to the rack was issued on 30th July and on 2nd August a list was drawn up of his Lancashire hosts (cf. the date of Alexander’s will above). Following his interrogation “certain papers found in Hoghton’s House” were submitted to the Privy Council. His ‘trial’ was held in Westminster Hall on 20 November 1581.  He was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on 1st December that year.

Elizabeth de Hoghton inherited as is indicated in the play and novel. Under the terms of her husband’s will she also acquired Alston Hall near Grimsargh five miles north of Preston.

Jane de Hoghton married Roger Bradshaw (or Bradshaigh) in 1580. (This was moved to 1581 in the novel for structural reasons.) Little else is known of her.

Hoghton Tower passed via Alexander’s brother to his son Richard and hence down to the present incumbent.

William Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway in Stratford-upon-Avon when he was 18 years old. His bride, who was eight years his senior, bore him the first of three children just six months after their wedding. Relatively little is known about Will until the late 1580s but many of his plays were in performance in London by 1592. He died 23 April 1616.

Rosaline is entirely fictional, but someone of similar birthright is mentioned in Alexander’s will to receive 100 marks, a bequest revoked by Alexander in a codicil apparently drawn up on his deathbed. Rosaline is the name of the character with whom Romeo is besotted, until he clasps eyes on Juliet in that infamous play set in Verona.


The uneasy theatre Will at the Tower Company

Elizabeth de Hoghton                    Leanne Whitehead
Rosaline                                            Ellie Murphy
Jane de Hoghton                             Victoria Glover
Edmund Campion                          Lee Johnson
Will                                                    Andrew Hawarden

The Muses           Rosie Culkin-Smith, Abbie McCrone, Kate Swan

Costume               Izzie Brookes, Harriet Salisbury

Elizabeth, Edmund, Jane and Will costumes:  Dress Circle of Longridge

Directed by                                       Pete Hartley.

Production manager                      Andrew Brindley

Produced by       Andrew Brindley  & Pete Hartley


Will at the Tower Production accolades:

 One of the best plays I’ve ever seen.

I don’t think I have watched a piece of drama for a long time that was so engaging. 

 The script, the acting, the atmosphere, the production were all first class. It was just fantastic.

 This was magnificent! The story, the acting, the costumes were all superb.

 I just wanted to say that I thought the production of WATT on Thurs 18 Feb was wonderful – electrifying in parts! It was worth every penny and more.

 It was gripping from start to end and had some amazingly poignant moments, especially with such an appropriate setting.

wills pants 25

Words words words

The script of Will at the Tower and performance rights for it are available from Lazybee Scripts: Will at the Tower PLAY script

The novel is available as an eBook and as a paperback from Amazon.

WATT ebook

Will at the Tower eBook

Will cover 8.5

Will at the Tower paperback

mistletoe with red berries

You can read an extract in my subsequent blog post Sliced Mistletoe



(NB Hoghton is sometimes recorded as Houghton.)

[1] Will of Alexander de Hoghton dated 13 August 1581, held at the Lancashire Archives, Bow Lane, Preston. Ref: Alexander Houghton 1581 wcw/supra/C7/38

[2] The Review of English Studies, Vol 21 No 81.  https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/513712

[3] Enos, Shakespeare Settings, Wheatmark, 2007. ISBN 978-1-58736-653-6

[4] Singman, Daily Life in Elizabethan England, Greenwood Press, 1995.

[5] Wood, In Search of Shakespeare, BBC Books 2003.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Shakespeare, Henry IV part II act 2 scene 3

[9] Wood, In Search of Shakespeare, BBC Books 2003.

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