But for a twist of fate, William Shakespeare might have been a Roman Catholic priest and spy in danger of being hanged, rather than applauded, by Protestant England's Queen Elizabeth I.

This is the theory of Richard Wilson who, with aristocrat Sir Bernard de Hoghton, plans to spend $32 million turning a stately home in northwestern England into a research and performance center for Shakespeare.

Wilson, professor of Renaissance studies at Lancaster University, believes Hoghton Tower was once used as a "Jesuit clearinghouse" from which young men would travel abroad to become priests, and that 16-year-old Shakespeare went there after being recruited by missionary Edmund Campion.

For de Hoghton, owner of the hilltop manor and holder of England's second-oldest baronetcy, this theory builds on a family legend that a young man called Shakeshafte, who in 1580 worked for one of his ancestors as a tutor cum player, was in fact the Bard. "If Shakespeare was Shakeshafte, he was a member of a household which was for six months, it seems, nothing less than the secret college and headquarters of the English Counter Reformation," Wilson said. He believes Campion's itinerary provides the "smoking gun" for his theory that Shakespeare planned to study abroad at a Catholic seminary, possibly Douai in France founded by the de Hoghtons, as part of the program of Catholic resistance. "There is this extraordinary but logical connection between the most Catholic town in the Midlands {Stratford} and the great center for Catholic patronage at Hoghton," Wilson said. "If it was his {Campion's} mission which took his converts north, it was also his catastrophe which spared the playwright the penalties of priesthood." Campion was arrested, tortured for the names of all who had helped or been persuaded by him and then hanged on Dec. 1, 1581, by which time Alexander de Houghton had dispersed his estate and recommended Shakeshafte to another patron. "Even as the master of Hoghton Tower helped his servants to new identities, in the Tower of London Campion was being tortured for their names," Wilson said. Wilson said this period in Shakespeare's life left an indelible mark on the Protestant court's darling as he took upon himself the evasiveness and secrecy of the Catholic world that is apparent in his plays. "My theory is what makes Shakespeare different is he never offers us a utopian ending -- his plays continue to mystify us -- and this is related to Catholic secrecy," Wilson said. "Shakespeare's characters will not reveal their inner truth and there is an endless mystery to his plays which is very near to Campion's world." Hoghton Tower's Shakespeare connection is not a new theory. Ernst Honigmann, a retired professor of English at Newcastle University, suggested as much 10 years ago. But Wilson's theory has spawned a wave of enthusiasm to create a northern center for Shakespeare and Renaissance studies. Wilson and Sir Bernard de Hoghton envisage hosting seminars in the house. Stage plays would be held in an 800-seat theater to be built in an adjacent cliff-face, while the 17th-century Great Barn would become extra performance space. "My dream is that this will become a great world research center for the study of Renaissance drama where education at all levels could take place and where actors and scholars will work side-by-side to make this a unique project," Wilson said. It is hoped most of the cost will be funded by the National Lottery and that Hoghton Tower will host an annual festival of plays, including a specially commissioned modern piece. Wilson said Arthur Miller was lined up to write the first. Although other scholars support the idea of a Shakespeare center in the north, saying it would loosen the traditional stranglehold of London and Stratford, they say the theory, like all theories about the Bard's lost years, is controversial. "It would be wonderful to know what Shakespeare was doing as a young man, but the point is we just do not know," said Eamon Duffy, professor of English at Magdalene College, Cambridge University.