Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre library: spotlight on archives and special collections (1)

From medieval manuscripts to an extensive archive of materials relating to the Sudan via the historically important 17th-century Bishop Cosin’s Library, in this series of posts we focus on an archive or book collection held at Palace Green Library. In this first instalment, we travel to 17th-century Liège to take a closer look at the library of the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre.

Pamphlet written by the foundress of the English community of Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre as a justification of their existence and an advertisement for other English Catholic women to join the community.

England in the 17th century was not a good place to be if you were a practising Roman Catholic. After Henry VIII’s break with Rome in the early 1530s and the suppression of the monasteries, Catholics were unable to perform mass in public (during the reign of Queen Mary this was briefly reversed) and by the end of the 16th century, they were regarded as traitors. Many English Catholics fled to the Continent.

The English community of the Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre (or Sepulchrines) was founded by Susan Hawley (whose religious name was Saint Mary of the Conception) in 1642 at a small site in Liège. After 7 years the community had grown to 22 members and Hawley was elected the first Prioress in 1652. This was also the year in which she published her Brief relation of the order and institute of the English religious women at Liège [Ed. – a digital copy of this can be found in our subscription to Early English Books Online] Catholic publications had been banned in English since 1606 and the pamphlet is of a modest size for easy and secret distribution. Many surviving copies also have on the final page travel directions on how to get to Liège from England.

Despite the risks, many English Catholic families sent their children to be educated at religious communities elsewhere in Europe; the school established by the Sepulchrines became in the 18th century a popular destination for girls.

Inscriptions of various kinds and times showing the use of this book over time: it was lent to different members of the community for reading and reflection. The volume has lost its title page and some detective work may be needed to identify it.

If it hadn’t been for the French Revolution, the Sepulchrines might well have stayed where they were, but the situation became so dangerous for them in 1794 that they fled back to England, where being a practising Catholic was still illegal.

A home repair to the 1641-edition of La conduite de S. Ignace de Loyola (on the left).

However, it was not an unexpected journey: boxes and portable chests had been ordered to carry precious items, including the library and archives. After several temporary stopping places, the community finally settled at New Hall in Essex.

Last year, we received both the library and the archives from the community. The book collection consists of about 600 items dating from the early 17th to the late 20th century. The earliest volumes mainly consist of devotional literature printed in what is now Belgium and France. These travelled with the Canonesses from Liège to England.

Another home repair, this time with what appears to be a glove. The text is in English, but does not give details of where it was printed and when. It is probably early 17th century.

But what makes the library particularly fascinating is what we can learn about how the community valued their books: many are still in their original bindings and lovingly repaired with whatever was to hand. Many also contain inscriptions relating to internal borrowing and to their use in the Sepulchrines’ school.

Over the next 9 months, we will be cataloguing this fascinating library to make it available to scholars of English Catholic communities in exile, religious education, and the history of the book. We’ll share interesting items that we come across here on the blog and on social media.

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