In 1154, an English priest named Nicholas Breakspear was elected Pope and took the name Adrian IV, the only Englishman to ever sit on the Throne of Saint Peter. Pope Adrian IV came from poor beginnings, and through his intelligence, vigour, and piety rose to the papacy despite being far from the seats of power in the Church at the time.
For over a century, historians have speculated about a possible familial relationship between Adrian IV and the great English playwright William Shakespeare.
The possible connection mainly seems to be based on the similarity in surnames. During the late middle ages, before surnames became common, the names Breakspeare, Brakspear, Shakespar, and Sheakspeare were somewhat interchangeable. The surname itself seems to refer to success in jousting famous tournaments, where the victor usually succeeded by either unhorsing his opponent, or by breaking his spear. An 1855 collection of Shakespeare’s works notes the similarities in name.
A few other tantalizing clues are often given.
First, in researching the genealogy of William Shakespeare, the given names Nicholas and Adrian appear over a dozen times between 1300 and 1714.
Another interesting fact is the proximity of the birthplaces of Nicholas Breakspear and William Shakespeare. Adrian IV was born circa 1100 in Saint Albans, Hertfordshire and Shakespeare was born a mere 80 miles away in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564.
The final clue researchers point to is the fact that a great number of historians hold the view that Shakespeare was secretly a Catholic in violently anti-Catholic Elizabethan England. It is known that Shakespeare’s daughter was Catholic, that members of his family were known recusants, and that a secret Catholic document, a pamphlet by the martyr St. Edmund Campion, was found hidden in the rafters of his home.
Despite these tenuous clues, no records exist that conclusively show that the two were related and most scholars doubt there is a connection. Given the nature of record keeping at the time, it is unlikely that a solid connection can ever be made. Still, it is interesting to speculate that the only English Pope, Adrian IV, and the Bard were kinsmen.