A First Folio of Shakespeare's plays found in a French library came from a Catholic college

The discovery of a previously unknown copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio has refuelled speculation that the Bard was a Catholic sympathiser, if not a Catholic himself.

The First Folio was discovered in a library in the small town of Saint-Omer, near Calais in northern France. A librarian came across it last month when he was preparing an exhibition of links between the area and England. Missing its frontispiece and the usual portrait of Shakespeare it had mistakenly been classified as an 18th century edition.

The librarian called in Shakespearean scholar Professor Eric Rasmussen from the University of Nevada, who was in London. Prof Rasmussen crossed the Channel to look at the book and concluded within minutes that it was a First Folio.

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The First Folio, containing the text of nearly all Shakespeare’s plays, was compiled by the playwright’s friends and published in 1623, seven years after his death. Entitled “Mr William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories & Tragedies. Published according to the True Originall Copies”, it is the only source of a number of his plays, including Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar and As You Like It. Over a quarter of the 800 copies have survived; this is the 233rd known copy.

During the Elizabethan and Jacobean period many English Catholics escaped to France. A college at Saint-Omer gave a Catholic education to English boys. It was expelled from France in 1762 and moved first to Belgium and then in 1794 to Stonyhurst in Lancashire, where it remains today.

A spokesman for Stonyhurst College: “Many precious medieval artefacts, illuminated manuscripts and books were taken with them, and survive at Stonyhurst to this day, but it seems that a slightly scruffy and dog-eared First Folio was overlooked and left behind.”

Some of the college’s books, including a 15th-century Gutenberg Bible, ended up in the town library in Saint-Omer. The presence of the work at the Catholic college indicates, if nothing else, that Shakespeare’s work was well-regarded by Catholics at the time.

The newly-discovered First Folio has the name “Nevill” inscribed at the front, suggesting that “it was probably originally the property of Fr Edmund Neville, an English Jesuit priest who taught at the College in the 1630s”, the spokesman said. But other authorities suggest that “Nevill” refers instead to Edward Scarisbrick who studied at Saint-Omer; members of his family, from Ormskirk, Lancashire, used the name Neville as an alias.

This appears to have been a working copy of the book. Handwritten stage directions and alterations in Henry IV suggest that it was used in the performance of plays at Saint-Omer College, which had a reputation for well-attended drama productions. In one scene the word “hostess” is changed to “host” and “wench” to “fellow”, perhaps indicating that a female character was turned into a male.