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Globe & Mail: The Tempest, Shakespeares Masonic Play

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Globe and Mail

Still a tempest

Monday, Aug. 02, 2010

Neil Reynolds

We don’t have a Dan Brown blockbuster this summer. For readers who need a conspiracy-theory fix, here’s the subversive history that connects The Da Vinci Code (the secret descendants of Jesus) with The Lost Symbol (the cult practices of Freemasonry). The secret knowledge is all right there in The Tempest, Shakespeare’s story of a marooned magician who conjures a shipwreck to confront and confound his antagonists. Though celebrated this year at the Stratford Festival (in Christopher Plummer’s extraordinary turn as the sorcerer Prospero), Shakespeare’s clandestine revelations lurk – in full public view – in suppressed lore known only to the cognoscenti.

Here (maybe) is the astonishing truth: Shakespeare’s Prospero was a 16th-century nobleman, pagan in practice, who conjured a series of storms at sea to take the life of Scotland’s King James VI – who (as England’s King James I) sat in the audience for the premiere of The Tempest in 1611. The historical sorcerer: Francis Stewart, fifth Earl of Bothwell, Lord High Admiral of Scotland and cousin of the king.

This revelation comes from an improbable scholar: a retired English policeman whose work as an amateur historian led to a reasonably credible identification of one of Shakespeare’s few protagonists who lacked a real-life antecedent. Brian Moffatt went public last year in a self-published book, Death, Resurrection and the Sword, but his findings caused scarcely a ripple in the tempest of establishment Shakespearean forensics.

Shakespeare’s text introduces Prospero as the Duke of Milan, a master of occult skills who’s been marooned on an island for years. Scholars say Shakespeare probably based his story on the 1609 sinking, near Bermuda, of the ship Sea Venture; for months, all were believed to have been lost at sea. But this reference doesn’t solve the deeper mystery. From what historical person did Shakespeare extract an aristocratic sorcerer?

Mr. Moffatt’s sleuthing began at an auction sale in Scotland in 2000. He bought an old oak chest that he subsequently discovered to be a 16th-century wedding trunk. He then found a date – May 6, 1577 – carved into the wood. A Christ panel had been carved in the centre, with pagan symbols – a serpent with human and animal characteristics, and a female figure with horns – on either side.

What notable person had married in the Scottish border lands in 1577? As it happened, in that year, Francis Stewart, fifth Earl of Bothwell etc., had married Margaret Douglas, a woman subsequently suspected of practising witchcraft at Bothwell’s home, Branxholme Castle. (Mr. Moffatt identifies his primary historical source as the Calendar of Border Papers, the records of correspondence between the border lands and the Crown. Francis Stewart, he says, takes 63 column inches in the index alone.)

“Bothwell lived a wild life,” Mr. Moffatt writes, “but is probably best-known for his association with the North Berwick witches. In his own day, he was widely believed to be an incarnation of the devil. … In 1590, in association with a number of witches from at least two covens, he attempted to bring about a storm, or a series of storms, in order to shipwreck his cousin, King James, then en route from Denmark with his bride, Queen Anne.”

Nevertheless, “on May 1, 1590, James landed at Leith with his new consort.” Bothwell was arrested and charged with witchcraft. He escaped and remained at large until he was recaptured and put on trial in 1593. With a local jury heavily in his favour, he was acquitted. James exiled him anyway.

Mr. Moffatt suggests that Bothwell was “written out of history” because his pagan practices brought witchcraft into disrepute – and led to the extinction of Scotland’s witch hierarchy. Yet, “it was during these years that [Bothwell], together with Sinclair of Rosslyn [see: The Da Vinci Code] and William Schaw, King James’ Master of Works, set up modern Freemasonry [see: The Lost Symbol].”

Why the subterfuge? Mr. Moffatt says the three men sought to preserve the secret knowledge of witches, an integral part of Scottish society from ancient times. The first Masonic Lodge was built on the site of a coven identified with Bothwell. To this day, Mr. Moffatt says, Freemasons regard The Tempest as Shakespeare’s “most Masonic play.”

As for King James, he lived in terror of witches throughout his life. (In 1597, he wrote a book, Daemonologie, on witches). And he was there, in the audience at Whitehall, for the first performance of The Tempest on Nov. 1, 1611. Bothwell died in exile, penniless, one year later – not in Milan, the territory Shakespeare associates with Prospero, but close. In Naples.

Further Reading:

Travelling Men - Fraternal Associations

Freemasonry in Canada