1. During the Cold War, when the intelligence service of one side was presented with defectors from the other, it was confronted with a double problem: to weed out “plants” and crackpots and to ascertain the defector’s value. A standard technique employed during initial interrogations of defectors was to require them to write out their life stories, which would provide useful information for both purposes. This technique was anticipated at the end of the sixteenth century by Father Robert Persons, Rector of the English College at Rome, as a tool for assessing Englishmen who turned up claiming to be Catholic converts. This effort has yielded a genuine rarity, the autobiography of an Elizabethan poet-playwright William Alabaster (1568- 1640). Under the title Alabaster’s Confession I have already edited a lengthy and elaborate autobiographical document (English College Archive Liber 1394, formerly catalogued as ms. Z 136). Clearly, this is a literary production worked up as a propaganda piece for consumption back home in England; its dissemination was forestalled by Alabaster’s subsequent apostasy from the Church (he got in trouble with the Inquisition for excessive enthusiasm for Cabbalistic interpretation of Scripture, and eventually found his way back to England). When the library authorities of the Venerable English College kindly complied with my request for a transcript of Liber 1394, they also included one of Alabaster’s original interrogation (Scriptura 24.1.1, CRS 54; 1 - 3). Although this document is far shorter than the one I have already edited, it contains a sufficient number of biographical nuggets not included in Alabaster’s Conversion that it is deserving of publication in its own right as a source-document for future biographers.
2. Documents of this kind are of course tendentious by nature. Even if the defector is fully sincere and sane, he enters into a kind of cat-and-mouse game. One naturally wants to please and impress one’s interrogators, and so tells them what he thinks they wants to hear, keeps quiet about what he imagines they don’t, and strives to convey an idea of his importance. In the present interrogation, Alabaster can be seen doing all of these things. Besides stressing his new adherence to the Faith, he suppresses three items of information. In his second response he conceals the fact that his uncle (by marriage) on his mother’s side is John Still, the Anglican Bishop of Bath and Wells. In his third response, he does not mention the most distinctive feature about his academic training, his command of Hebrew. Evidently study of Scripture in the original was too much a Protestant enterprise. NOTE 1 In his fifth response, he keeps quiet about the fact that he (together with John Donne) had served as Essex’ chaplains during the 1596 Cadiz expedition, presumably because he thought it impolitic to admit he had participated in a military campaign against a Catholic power. Nevertheless, in this response it is likely that Alabaster reveals his connection to Essex to enhance his importance in the eyes of his interrogators. The strategy worked, and (as detailed in the Introduction to Alabaster’s Conversion ) the poet found himself recruited into a daft scheme to convert Essex to Catholicism and make him King of England that probably came close to costing both himself and the Earl their heads.
2. In introducing Alabaster’s Conversion I have told the entire story of Alabaster’s conversion experience and its aftermath, and both there and in my Introduction to his tragedy Roxana have suggested how his changing religious and political beliefs appear to be reflected in his literary output. Here, therefore, I rest content with setting the stage for the interrogation document by providing transcripts of two archival records of the English College. The first is an entry from The Pilgrims’ Book (Liber 282, fol 37):
D. Edwardus Lusonus Lychfeldiensis, Guil. Alabasterus Suffolciensis, Richardus Cornwallis Norfolciensis et Richardas Higham Essexiensis recepti sunt hospitio 21 Novemb. et manserunt D. Lusonus et Rich. Higham per 15 dies, reliqui autem manserunt diebus - 8
[“Dominus Edward Luson of Lichfield, William Alabaster of Suffolk, Richard Cornwallis of Norfolk, and Richard Higham of Essex were taken in for hospitality on November 21. Dominus Luson and Richard Highham remained for 15 daiys, the others for 8.”]
The second is an entry from the Liber Ruber (Liber 303, fol. 60 v., CRS 37;112):
Guillielmus Alabaster ex comitatu Suffolciensi anno natus 31 nondum accepto confirmationis sacramento, admissus est in hoc collegium inter alumnos summi pontificis Clementis octavi a R. P. Personio eiusdem collegii rectore de mandato illustrissimi cardinalis Caetani protectoris 30 Novembris. 1599. Accepit iuramentum in forma consueta die 28. Feb. 1599. Confirmationis sacramentum accepit eodem anno in adventu, primam tonsuram 6 Martii 1599, officium ostarii 14 lectoris 21 exorcistae 27 eiusdem, acolithi 10 Aprilis. Discessit valetudinis causa Maii — 1599. Fuit postea apostata.
[“William Alabaster from the country of Suffolk, thirty-one years of age, not yet admitted to the sacrament of Confirmation, was admitted into this College as one of the sons of Pope Clement VIII by Father R. Persons, Rector of the said College, according to the mandate of the most illustrious Cardinal Caetano, its patron, 30 November, 1598. He took the oath in its customary form on 28 February, 1599. He received the sacrament of Confirmation on Advent of the same year, his first tonsure on 6 March, 1599, the office of Doorkeeper on the 14th, of Reader on the 21st, of Exorcist on the 17st of the same month, of Acolyte on April 10. He departed because of his health on — May, 1599. Later he became an apostate.”]
3. I am of course enormously grateful to the Librarian of the Venerable English College for furnishing me with this unrequested material. Specifically, what I was given was a xerox of a typewritten transcript, presumably made by J. F. A. Bertram, who transcribed Alabaster’s Conversion in a similar manner. Particularly towards the end, the typewritten copy has a number of mistakes of transcription; I do not know whether they were created by Bertram or already existed in the manuscript texts he had in front of him, but in any event I have taken the opportunity to correct them.
NOTE 1 G. Lloyd-Jones, The Discovery of Hebrew in Tudor England (Manchester, 1983).