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Deanery Mass - Wed 6 November 2013
posted by Canon Dakin on 08-11-2013

‘Remember, remember, the 5th of November’.  Yes, I know that yesterday was the 5th but the anniversary is important for us here because it was the Gunpowder Plot that brought Nicholas Owen to his death.  It had been hoped that  James I, who followed Queen Elizabeth, might have offered some relief to Catholics. He had dropped favourable hints. When he realised that the fines paid by Catholics for refusing to attend Protestant services were a useful addition to the exchequer he tightened the screw and and provoked a plan by a reckless group of young Catholics to blow up the Houses of Parliament when the whole establishment, including the King, would be there. The plot, as you know, was foiled.

It was hatched in Warwickshire, Shakespeare country, in that part of England where the Jesuits were operating.  Did Shakespeare ever meet Nicholas Owen?.  On both sides of his family Shakespeare was rooted in Warwickshire,  in the Forest of Arden, where his people had farmed for generations  and, when the Reformation came, they remained stubbornly Catholic. It was in this area that most of Nicholas Owen’s work was done, building hiding-holes for the security of visiting priests. Did Nicholas ever meet Shakespeare? It is not altogether fanciful to ask that question.  Nicholas was a Jesuit lay-brother. Shakespeare was cousin to one of the Jesuit martyrs, St Robert Southwell. They were not just two adjacent names on a family tree. They were in touch. We have a letter from Southwell to Shakespeare his “worthy, good cousin”  urging him not to play so much with pagan toys but to use his talent to write religious poetry.  From our point of view Robert Southwell was one of the group served by Nicholas Owen; the others were Fr Garnet, Edward Oldcorne and John Gerard. Shakespeare’s family, his father, his mother and his daughter Susanna, were recusant - that is they were Catholics who were prepared to suffer fines and imprisonment for their loyalty to the old faith. It is recorded of Shakespeare himself that he died a Papist. There is no record of his taking Communion as the law required in any Protestant church. We may presume that when he was visiting Stratford - which is where his wife continued to live and where he had left his heart - he would have secretly attended Mass with his family in the area served by the Jesuits. It is pure speculation, of course, but quite possible that he may have come face to face with Nicholas Owen.

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