July 2016 Print

The Spiritual Testament of John Shakespeare

by Mary Buckalew, Ph.D.

Sometime during the late 1700s—more than 250 years after Henry VIII had begun, and almost 200 years after Elizabeth I had all but completed, the destruction of the Catholic Faith in England—a curious thing happened in the town of Stratford-on-Avon in the home which had once belonged to John Shakespeare, father of England’s greatest literary boast, William Shakespeare. Between a roof tile and a rafter, a worker named Joseph Moseley discovered a crudely constructed five-page paper booklet purporting to be the spiritual testament, or will, of John Shakespeare.

The booklet was turned over to Edmund Malone, the most respected Shakespearean scholar of the day. After diligent study, Malone pronounced the document authentic and included it in his first (1790) edition of Shakespeare’s works. Subsequent scholars disagreed with Malone and, on the basis of style, spelling, and penmanship inconsistent with Elizabethan writing, pronounced it a fake and consigned it to oblivion. The original disappeared altogether, but fortunately two copies had been made, one of them by Malone himself.

It was not a fake.

But it would be another hundred and fifty years before its peculiarities, how it had come into being, and why it had been so carefully hidden would be understood.

Its style was inconsistent with Elizabethan writing because it had been composed by an Italian Catholic cleric—in fact, none other than St. Charles Borromeo, Cardinal Archbishop of Milan; because it had been translated into English and copies handwritten by priests trained for the English mission in the overseas college, its spelling and penmanship “tended towards uniform roman script and the modernization of spelling so striking in the testament.”1 These priests, among whom was the brilliant and eloquent St. Edmund Campion, had spent two weeks as the guests of Cardinal Borromeo before departing for England in 1580. It was no doubt during this extended visit that the Cardinal had recommended the spiritual testament to these zealous and fearless priests, no less than sixty of whom would become martyrs, for wide distribution among England’s persecuted Catholics.

The spiritual testament was a form which provided blanks in which Catholics could write their names so that should they be arrested for their Catholic faith and weaken under the threat of torture and execution, or should they face death without the assistance of a priest, they would have taken such steps as they could, while of sound mind and body, to assure the good God that they willed with all their hearts to die as faithful Catholics, come what may.

It seems that John Shakespeare acquired one of these copies and wrote his name into the spaces left blank for the purpose. That the will was found hidden away where it could not be found in case of a search grimly reveals the danger of being Catholic at that time and in that place.

The danger was real. In 1583, as a result of a suspected conspiracy based on nothing more than the ravings of a deranged Catholic man bereft of the sacraments, close relatives of the Shakespeares had been imprisoned, tortured, and executed on no evidence whatsoever.

Though our faith and our priests are not yet proscribed, a hierarchy false to its divine charge has betrayed it, them, and us; and so priests in our time, as then, are few and widely scattered. We might therefore consider doing what John Shakespeare did by writing our own names in the blanks St. Charles’s spiritual testament provides for the purpose. So here it is, its spelling and punctuation modernized.


The Spiritual Testament

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, the most holy and blessed Virgin Mary, mother of God, the holy host of archangels, angels, patriarchs, prophets, evangelists, apostles, saints, martyrs, and all the celestial court and company of heaven. Amen.

I. Item I,____________________, an unworthy member of the Holy Catholic religion, being at this my present writing in perfect health of body and sound mind, memory, and understanding; but calling to mind the uncertainty of life and certainty of death, and that I may possibly be cut off in the blossom of my sins and called to render an account of all my transgressions externally and internally, and that I may be unprepared for the dreadful trial either by sacrament, penance, fasting, or prayer, or any other purgation whatever, do in the holy presence above specified of my own free and voluntary accord make and ordain this my last spiritual will, testament, confession, protestation, and confession of faith, hoping thereby to be made partaker of life everlasting, through the only merits of Jesus Christ my Saviour and Redeemer who took upon himself the likeness of man, suffered death, and was crucified upon the cross for the redemption of sinners.

II. Item I,____________________, do by this present protest, freely acknowledge and confess that in my past life I have been a most abominable and grievous sinner and therefore unworthy to be forgiven without a true and sincere repentance for the same. But trusting in the manifold mercies of my blessed Saviour and Redeemer, I am encouraged by relying on his sacred word, to hope for salvation and to be made partaker of his heavenly kingdom, as a member of the celestial company of angels, saints, and martyrs, there to reside for ever and ever in the court of my God.

III. Item I,____________________, do by this present protest and declare that as I am certain I must pass out of this transitory life into another that will last to eternity, I do hereby most humbly implore and entreat my good and guardian Angel to instruct me in this, my solemn preparation, protestation, and confession of faith at least spiritually and in will. Adoring and most humbly beseeching my Saviour that he will be pleased to assist me in so dangerous a voyage, to defend me from the snares and deceits of my infernal enemies, and to conduct me to the secure haven of his eternal bliss.

IV.  Item I,____________________, do protest that I will also pass out of this life, armed with the last sacrament of extreme unction, the which if through any let or hindrance I should not then be able to have, I do now also for that time demand and crave the same; beseeching his Divine Majesty that he will be pleased to anoint my senses both internal and external with the sacred oil of his infinite mercy and to pardon me all my sins committed by seeing, speaking, gusting [tasting], smelling, hearing, touching, or by any other way whatsoever.

V. Item I,____________________, do by this my present protest that I will not through any temptation whatsoever despair of the divine goodness, for the multitude and greatness of my sins: for which although I confess that I have deserved hell, yet will I steadfastly hope in God’s infinite mercy, knowing that he hath heretofore pardoned as many and as great sinners as myself, whereof I have good warrant sealed with his sacred mouth, in holy writ, whereby he pronounces that he is not come to call the just but sinners.

VI. Item I,____________________, do protest that I do not know that I have ever done any good work meritorious of life everlasting; and if I have done any I do acknowledge that I have done it with a great deal of negligence and imperfection, neither should I have been able to have done the least without the assistance of his divine grace. Wherefore let the devil remain confounded, for I do in no wise presume to merit heaven by such good works alone, but through the merits and blood of my Lord and Saviour, Jesus, shed upon the cross for me, most miserable sinner.

VII. Item I,____________________, do protest by this present writing that I will patiently endure and suffer all kinds of infirmity, sickness, yea and the pain of death itself, wherein if it should happen, which God forbid, that through violence of pain and agony or by subtlety of the devil I should fall into any impatience or temptation of blasphemy or murmuring against God, or the Catholic faith, or give any sign of bad example, I do henceforth and for that present repent me, and I am most heartily sorry for the same, and I do renounce all the evil whatsoever which I might have then done or said, beseeching his divine clemency that he will not forsake me in that grievous and painful agony.

VIII. Item I,____________________, by virtue of this present testament I do pardon all the injuries and offences that any one has ever done unto me, either in my reputation, life, goods, or any other way whatsoever; beseeching sweet Jesus to pardon them for the same; and I do desire that they will do the like by me, whom I have offended or injured in any sort howsoever.

IX. Item I,____________________, do here protest that I do render infinite thanks to his divine majesty for all the benefits that I have received as well secret as manifest and in particular, for the benefit of my Creation, Redemption, Sanctification, Conservation, and Vocation to the holy knowledge of him and his true Catholic faith; but above all for his so great expectation of me to penance, when he might most justly have taken me out of this life when I least thought of it, yea even then when I was plunged in the dirty puddle of my sins. Blessed be therefore and praised for ever and ever, his infinite patience and charity.

X. Item I,____________________, do protest that I am willing, yea I do infinitely desire and humbly crave, that of this my last will and testament, the glorious and ever Virgin Mary, mother of God, refuge and advocate of sinners, whom I honour specially above all other saints, may be the chief Executrix together with those other saints my patrons, ____________________, all whom I invoke and beseech to be present at the hour of my death that she and they may comfort me with their desired presence and crave sweet Jesus that he will receive my soul into peace.

XI. Item In virtue of this present writing I,____________________, do likewise most willingly and with all humility constitute and ordain my good Angel, for defender and protector of my soul in the dreadful day of Judgment, when the final sentence of eternal life or death shall be discussed and given, beseeching him that as my soul was appointed to his custody and protection when I lived, even so he will vouchsafe to defend the same at that hour and conduct it to eternal bliss.

XII. Item I,____________________, do in like manner pray and beseech all my dear friends, parents, and kinfolks, by the bowels of our Saviour Jesus Christ, that since it is uncertain what lot will befall me, for fear notwithstanding least by reason of my sins, I be to pass and stay a long while in purgatory, they will vouchsafe to assist and succour me with their holy prayers and satisfactory works, especially with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, as being the most effectual means to deliver souls from their torments and pains; from the which if I shall by God’s gracious goodness and by their virtuous works be delivered, I do promise that I will not be ungrateful for so great a benefit.

XIII. Item I,____________________, do by this my last will and testament bequeath my soul as soon as it shall be delivered and loosened from the prison of this my body to be entombed in the sweet and loving coffin of the side of Jesus Christ and that in this life-giving sepulcher it may rest and live, perpetually enclosed in that eternal habitation of repose there to bless for ever and ever that direful iron of the lance which like a sharp cutting razor formed so sweet and pleasant a monument within the sacred breast of my Lord and Saviour.

XIV. Item Lastly I,____________________, do protest that I will willingly accept of death in whatsoever manner it may befall me, conforming my will unto the will of God; accepting of the same in satisfaction for my sins and giving thanks unto his divine majesty for the life he hath bestowed upon me. And if it pleases him to prolong or shorten the same, blessed be he also a thousand thousand times; into whose most holy hands I commend my soul and body, my life and death: and I beseech him above all things that he never permit any change to be made by me,____________________, of this my aforesaid will and testament. Amen.

I,____________________, have made this present writing of protestation, confession, and charter in presence of the Blessed Virgin Mary, my Angel guardian, and all the Celestial Court as witnesses hereunto, the which my meaning is that it be of full value now, presently, and forever, with the force and virtue of testament, codicil, and donation in course of death; confirming it anew, being in perfect health of soul and body and signed with my own hand; carrying also the same about me and for the better declaration hereof my will and intention is that it be finally buried with me after my death.

Pater Noster, Ave Maria, Credo, Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me. Amen.


Dr. Mary Buckalew, Professor Emerita of English, University of North Texas, has been an active member of the Society of Saint Pius X’s mission in Sanger, Texas, for more than forty years.


1 Clara Longworth de Chambrun, Shakespeare Rediscovered by Means of Public Records, Secret Reports, & Private Correspondence Newly Set Forth as Evidence on His Life and Work (New York: Scribner’s, 1938), p. 77. This account of the Spiritual Testament of John Shakespeare is taken from Chapter IV; the Spiritual Testament itself occurs as the Appendix.