Two 17th Century Catholic Books found in Oxfordshire

By Nigel H. Sinnott, Sunshine, Victoria, Australia

During the 1950s, as a youngster in England, I lived in the Oxfordshire hamlet of Gagingwell (parish of Enstone). An airfield had been built in the area during the Second World War, and I used to spend a lot of my time exploring the old runways, roads, bomb shelters and buildings.

One day in about 1954 or ’55 I was wandering through an old Nissen hut near my home when I spotted some objects on a window-sill. On closer inspection they turned out to be two small seventeenth century books, bound in vellum.

I realised that the books were rare, and would deteriorate where they had been left, so I took them home and have looked after them ever since, bringing them out to Australia soon after my marriage in 1976.

The two books are on religious subjects, and are distinctly Catholic. Their bindings look rather similar and I have long suspected that they were originally part of a collection. In October I990 I decided to make some effort to check out the possibility that these books might have been stolen and dumped. This required examining the books closely and doing a bit of searching. Some of the results came as a surprise to me.

The older of the two books consists of 238 small pages (106 mm x 56 mm), and was published by Moretus of Antwerp in 1634. It is the Lyricorum Libri IV of the Polish priest, poet and teacher, Fr. Maciej Kazimierz Sarbiewski, S.J. (1595-1640), who was also known as Sarbievius and Casimire. At the back is a section called the “Epicitharisma”, a series of tributes – also in Latin verse – to the author by some of his brother Jesuits. I suspect this is the second edition. The first edition of this cumulation, which had larger pages, was published at Antwerp in 1632; and there was probably an earlier cumulation, Lyricorum Libri III, published in 1625 (Rome?).

Sarbiewski was greatly esteemed as a poet in the seventeenth century: his work was first translated into English (The Odes of Casimire) as early as 1646 – and published in Puritan London! He has been described as “the Christian Horace” and as “Poland’s greatest neo-Latin poet”. He was also the friend and confessor of King Władysław IV. While in Rome (1622-25) Sarbiewski revised the Breviary and was presented with a poet’s wreath by Pope Urban VIII, to whom the Lyricorum Libri IV are dedicated.

The second book, whose significance I did not fully realise until I consulted a few bibliographies, consists of 360 pages (132 mm x 75 mm) and was published by Nicolas Schouten at Cologne in 1681. It is the “troisiesme edition” of the Traité de la regale. According to the title page it was printed “Par l’Ordre de Monſieur l’Evéque [sic] de Pamies, pour la défence des droits de ſon Egliſe”. It was probably written by the Abbé Du Buisson, vicar-general of Châlons, for François Etienne (de) Caulet (b. 1610), who was appointed Bishop of Pamiers (France) in 1644. The first edition appears to have been published at Cologne in 1680, but I cannot trace a second edition unless it is the first of two versions (1680 and 1681) of the book allegedly published in France, but without a place or publisher on the title pages.

The Traité presents the Bishop’s case in his protracted dispute with King Louis XIV (1638-1715) over the King’s efforts from 1673 to extend the regale (or régale)his right to the revenues and benefices of vacant bishoprics – to dioceses which, until then, had been customarily exempt. Most of the French hierarchy acceded to the King, except for Nicolas Pavillon (Bishop of Alet) and de Caulet. As a result, the diocese of Pamiers, which contained a high proportion of Protestants, was in a stage of virtual siege for three years. When the Bishop’s metropolitan told him to tow the royal line, de Caulet appealed to Pope Innocent XI for help – and got it! In 1679 the Pope threatened to excommunicate Louis. The Bishop died in 1680, but relations between Versailles and the Vatican remained tense. The Grand Alliance against Louis XIV was signed at Augsburg in 1686, and Pope Innocent XI became the Alliance’s staunch supporter.

Louis XIV was the same French king who in 1685 revoked the 1598 Edict of Nantes and, as a result, drove something like a quarter of a million Huguenots into exile. It is clear from the Traité that the “Sun King” was also a problem for any Catholics who had the courage to stand up to his centralising autocracy.

I was unable to find the Traité de la regale in the main British Library catalogue, but it is listed by the Library of Congress (Washington, D.C.) and the Bibliothèque Nationale (Paris). There are also useful accounts of Sarbiewski (by T.F. Domaradzki) and de Caulet (by L.L. Barnard) in the New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967 edition).1

Where could these old books have come from? A specialist library, especially a Catholic theological library, comes immediately to mind, but I have had no claim in response to letters to Heythrop College (now in London, but in the 1950s only a few kilometres from where I found the books), Campion Hall (Oxford) or the Bodleian Library. From the home of an old Catholic family? Well, possibly, but I am not aware of one in north Oxfordshire.2 Could the books have been left behind by a serviceman at the end of the Second World War? This is conceivable, but I doubt it. At the end of the War the airfield, once abandoned by the R.A.F., would have been picked over fairly thoroughly by souvenir hunters, squatters and passing children like me. Also, when I came across the books they were in excellent condition. I think they would have deteriorated markedly had they been lying for ten years on the window-sill where I found them.

The old Nissen hut was demolished some years ago, but the two Catholic books have survived. From their pages I have tried to unlock and unravel part of their stories. But their covers, alas, cannot speak. I suspect their authors would be pleased at the thought that, after more than three centuries, enough mystery remains to tantalise a rationalist.

(More about these books was subsequently discovered and there is another article about them on this website.)


1. There is also an account of Sarbiewski in Julian Krzyżanowski, A History of Polish Literature (translated by Doris Ronowicz from Dzieje Literatury Polskiej, 1972). Warsaw, 1978: 115 – 116.

2. I had discounted Radford Convent (ca. 1840 – 1969), as it was not a very old institution. However, Tony Hadland has pointed out that Radford superseded the private chapel of the Browne and Browne-Mostyn family at Kiddington (not to be confused with Kidlington), in existence from the seventeenth century until 1840, and he adds that this chapel was “served by Jesuits until at least 1750”. Is it possible, perhaps, that books from the Kiddington chapel were passed on to the convent at Radford?

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