The argument that Shakespeare may have been a Catholic is not new, but a seminary in Rome is claiming to have evidence that is. The Venerable English College says that a guest book for visiting pilgrims contains three signatures that could indicate that the Bard traveled there during his “lost years”:
Father Andrew Headon, the vice-rector of the college, said that college records correspond with a previously undocumented period in Shakespeare’s life after he left Stratford in 1585 and before he emerged as a playwright in London in 1592. “There are several years which are unaccounted for in Shakespeare’s life,” said Father Headon.
A leather parchment kept by the college is signed by “Arthurus Stratfordus Wigomniensis” in 1585, “Shfordus Cestriensis” in 1587 and “Gulielmus Clerkue Stratfordiensis” in 1589.
The college believes these signatures are: “(King) Arthur’s (compatriot) from Stratford (in the diocese) of Worcester,” “Sh(akespeare from Strat)ford (in the diocese) of Chester” and “William the Clerk from Stratford”.
I haven’t done much reading on the subject, but I’m not sure I’d call this a smoking gun. Father Longenecker agrees that the evidence for Shakespeare’s Catholicism is scant, but argues that this may have been by necessity, given the dangerous times:
To be a Catholic in England was considered an act of treason. Catholics had to disguise their identities. If the names in the register at the English college were cryptic maybe they had to be so that real identities would not be revealed. It’s all very juicy conspiracy theory stuff, and yet that was the situation the Catholics were in. They were members of an underground church. They had to destroy or disguise evidence and ‘keep it secret keep it safe.’
Regardless of whether the Bard was really a Catholic, living and writing in secret, the story of the thousands of Elizabethan-era Catholics who actually did worship in secret — and, in some cases, lose their lives for it — is a fascinating one. Interested readers might pick up God’s Secret Agents for a taste of what life was like for them — whether Shakespeare was among their number or not.