It is when you notice the pictures hung above the bookcases that you begin to realise that things are not as they appear.
It had seemed such an uncomplicatedly English place: a wonderful long library with scuffed Victorian linoleum on the floor and soaring bookcases with busts ranged along them; all down the left-hand wall, tall windows with gritstone mullions overlooking a stone quadrangle; a doorway at the far end showing light beyond and sports fields under a rainy sky. But if you look up, you see that the row of portraits hanging near the ceiling do not show periwigged benefactors or alumni: they depict the monarchs of the Incas, beginning with Manco Cápac and Mama Ocllo, who bear the sun and moon in their hands. The impression of an alternative England, a Renaissance England in correspondence with a bewilderingly wide world, grows stronger when you become aware of the Baroque saints whose pictures hang between the mullioned windows, and of the medals and reliquaries displayed on the obelisk near the library door.
If you turn back the linen covers from the glass cases ranged down the middle of the room, this sense of a lost, alternative past increases. Here are illuminated manuscripts snatched from destruction at the Reformation. Here is Mary Stuart’s prayer book, its crimson velvet cover embroidered with silver thread. Here are many books in English not printed in England, and here are miniatures and locks of hair from Stuart monarchs who spent their lives in exile in France or Italy. In the museum room next door are vestments from the chapel of Henry VII in Westminster Abbey, items that a curator friend of mine assured me a couple of weeks ago ‘vanished in the mid-16th century’. Except that they didn’t, any more than the processional cross from Hereford Cathedral or St Thomas More’s hats vanished.
As I spend more time, year on year, in the library, archive and museum at Stonyhurst College, on the slopes above the River Hodder in Lancashire, I come to realise just how complicated the history of early modern England can be. My interest in alternative narratives and historical parallel universes was awakened when I was working on that great poet of the English Catholic diaspora, Robert Southwell, and beginning to piece together the extraordinarily international and culturally sophisticated world that was occupied by those English Catholics who held out against the Reformation at home and abroad.
What is in this grand collection, English and cosmopolitan at the same time, and how did it come together in this place? The current curator of the collection, Dr Janet Graffius, has put together splendidly the story of what has a good claim to be the oldest museum collection in the English-speaking world. As her researches have shown, at its core is the collection of the exiled English Jesuit college founded at St Omer (now in France, at the time of its establishment situated in the Spanish-ruled territories of the Low Countries) in the 1590s, and of its successor colleges. It is not by any means only a collection of salvage, the ragged objects of memory of a community literally scattered by the events of the 16th century. It is also a collection eloquent of making and remaking, of the creativity of a college community that punched spectacularly above its weight in terms of cultural production and historical and humanistic study. It testifies to a fascinating hybridisation that never took place in the English mainstream at home.
Stonyhurst’s rich literary and archival collections are only now being thoroughly explored, and they too tell the story of a parallel history. Apart from such objects of fascination as a very early score of ‘Adeste Fideles’, from which we learn that it should have been sung three-in-a-bar all along (try it, it works much better), the real glory of the manuscript collection is the drama archive. For more than three centuries, the college produced plays, most of them written in-house, some by an English Jesuit called Joseph Simons (1594–1671), whose works were performed in four European countries in his lifetime and published in at least the same number. (It’s an interesting thought that his name would have been well known all over early modern Europe at a time when Shakespeare’s was not.) There are also adaptations of Shakespeare for performance in the college over the centuries, the earliest ones evidenced by an item that did not make it to Lancashire when wars and revolutions on the Continent forced the college to relocate to England in the later 18th century – a marked-up First Folio now in the St Omer public library (this contains a set of rewrites, done in about 1630, of Falstaff’s scenes with all the rude bits excised and Doll turned into a cellarman). There are also texts for semi-operas, some with music; there are hundreds of letters from an English priest turned phenomenally successful Grand Tour art dealer; there are objects from the whole of that world which was comprehended by the Iberian empires and from the totality of Baroque Europe.
In short, here is an alternative English Wunderkammer, infinite riches in a secluded and handsome building. The history of the Stonyhurst library is a beguiling tale of exile and return and of an exiled culture which, in the end, came to influence the whole of English culture. It is a collection of lost things that is also the record of an intellectual powerhouse.