A History of Stonyhurst College and its collections

By Dr Jan Graffius, Curator of Collections, Stonyhurst College


The extensive collections, libraries and archives at Stonyhurst College have been acquired over the last four centuries, largely the product of the penal legislation of 16th and 17th century England and Wales, which outlawed Catholic education on English soil [1]. These collections include academic accounts, administrative archives, financial accounts, letters, manuscripts and a wide variety of silver, relics, vestments, artworks and sculpture dating pre and post-Reformation, representing what has been described as the most significant holding of English Catholic material culture in the world.

Stonyhurst College

In 1593 Fr Robert Persons, the English Jesuit, received permission from Philip of Spain to set up a College in the town of St-Omer, then part of the Spanish Netherlands, to educate the sons of English Catholics, who were otherwise unable to receive an education informed by their faith. Known as St Omers College, it is the direct antecedent of the present-day Stonyhurst College in Lancashire.

Fr Robert Parsons

The College’s lengthy history has been, at times, precarious and peripatetic, comprising a number of politically motivated forced evacuations and emergency relocations from Saint-Omer to Bruges in 1762, then to Liège in 1773, and a (thus far) final move to Stonyhurst in 1794 when the events of the French Revolution and the war between England and France made another move necessary. Taking advantage of the changes in anti-Catholic legislation which allowed religious schools on English soil for the first time since the reign of Elizabeth I, the College, along with the rescued contents of the libraries and archives, travelled to England to its new home in Stonyhurst, Lancashire, made over to the Jesuits by a former pupil, Thomas Weld [2].

The determination of pupils and Jesuits to stick together throughout these difficulties was matched by an equally firm resolve to preserve as much as possible of the College’s remarkable collections of relics, silver, English and Welsh Catholic material culture, libraries and archives. These carefully preserved artefacts made their new home in Lancashire, where many of them remain to this day, some now the property of the British Province, others the property of Stonyhurst College [3].

Throughout the seventeenth century St Omers College expanded and flourished, and as parents entrusted their sons to be educated by the Jesuits they also sent Catholic artefacts of the pre and post Reformation period to avoid destruction at home and to inspire the boys at school. In this way was created what is arguably the biggest collection of surviving English and Welsh Catholic material culture in existence. These diverse and rich collections were used to underpin the College’s spiritual, cultural and educational mission; actively re-fashioned and reinterpreted to provide inspiration, continuity and validity for the formation of generations of English Catholic pupils in 17th century exile, and so into the present day.

St Omers College

Thomas More wrote in Utopia ‘that whyche you cannot turn to good […] order it that it be not very badde’. Such advice was intended for his readers to make the best of adverse circumstances beyond their control, but it applies equally well to the condition of his recusant compatriots in the century that followed its publication [4]. During most of what might be called the long English Reformation of 1540 to 1640, Catholic images, vestments, relics, Agnus Dei, crucifixes, rosaries, printed books and manuscript texts were banned, sought out and destroyed. In 1571, the Elizabethan government defined the simple existence of Catholic material culture as subversive, falling under the statute of praemunire, or the illegal acceptance of foreign sovereignty over the English state [5].

Thomas More crucifix
Thomas More hat, c.1520

During the years of active iconoclasm under Henry VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth I, many Catholics made strenuous efforts to salvage and hide physical manifestations of their faith [6]. These objects’ importance to the recusant community is evidenced by the Elizabethan government’s determination to eradicate them. Both sides of the religious divide regarded rescued medieval artefacts as tangible symbols of English Catholic continuity, either as important tokens of that religion’s validity, or as dangerous remnants of a discredited and treasonous creed [7]. The conflict between Anglicanism and Catholic recusancy was as much material as intellectual.

The Stonyhurst collections have been acquired over the centuries from a wide range of sources and reflect the role of St Omers as a place of memory for British recusants, domestic and exiled, and as a sanctuary for a substantial body of artefacts, books and manuscripts which fuelled the alternative culture of British Catholics in exile on the Continent. It is remarkable that so many of these artefacts have survived given the associations of tainted loyalty which they embodied for the British government. Their survival was, in many cases, due to the tenacity of unnamed recusant families, and above all, to careful Jesuit stewardship at St Omers, Bruges, Liege and Stonyhurst.

The Founding of the College Museum

The College museum dates its foundation to a procession in 1609 when a Papal Nuncio visiting St Omers wore a 15th century cloth of gold cope of royal origin, salvaged from the destruction of the English Reformation and worn as an act of public connection and continuity with England’s royal Catholic ancestry on the part of the College. The cope is the sole survivor from a set of twenty-nine extremely valuable and prestigious cloth-of-gold and red silk damask velvet copes commissioned by Henry VII for Westminster Abbey in the late 15th century. The design of the cope is emphatically dynastic, featuring the red roses of Lancaster and the portcullis of King Henry VII’s royal mother, Margaret Beaufort. After the execution of Mary Stuart in 1586, Catholic theologians promoted the view that the true claimant to the English throne was the Habsburg Archduchess Isabella, through her legitimate descent from John of Gaunt and Margaret Beaufort. The Beaufort portcullises, a prominent feature of the design of both cope and chasuble, thus had further loaded anti-Elizabeth connotations; and the cope’s pre-Reformation royal provenance added symbolism for the continuity of Catholic religious practice in England and Wales.

Henry VII chasuble

The original set of twenty-nine copes, plus chasuble and dalmatics, may have been intended for the coronation of Prince Arthur, as there were a sufficient number to dress the whole hierarchy of England and Wales. Henry VII made particular mention of the copes in his will, bequeathing them to:

‘God and St Petre, and to th’ Abbot, Priour and Convent of our Monastery at Westminster, that nowe bee and that hereafter shall bee, for a perpetuell memorie there to remaigne while the world shall endure, the hoole sute of vestiments and coopies of cloth of gold tissue wrought with our badges of rede roses and portcoleys, the which we of late at our propre costs and charges, caused to be made, bought and provided, at Florence in Italie, that is to saie, the hoole vestements for the priest, the deacon and subdeacon, and xxix coopes of the same clothe and worke.’

In June 1520, Henry VIII borrowed the complete set to take to the Field of Cloth of Gold. By 1563 five of the copes were noted as missing. By 1608, only eleven of the twenty-nine were still in the Abbey, and these were burned in 1643. The St Omers Henry VII cope’s route from Westminster Abbey to the College is not clear but it is very likely that the cope was taken surreptitiously by unknown Catholics and hidden until such time as it could be smuggled to safety in Saint-Omer.

Cardinal Guido Bentivoglio described the Henry VII cope as ‘a rich and rare memorial’, and its use in 1609 encapsulates the complex connection between memory, artefact, public profession and confession which was the vision of its Rector between 1601 and his death in 1617, Giles Schondonch.

Schondonch gathered the numerous artefacts, relics, vestments, manuscripts and plate that arrived at St Omers, whether brought by pupils or Jesuit missionaries returning from England and Wales, or overseas, and wove them into the College’s spiritual formation and liturgies. The Henry VII cope worn by Bentivoglio has a deep and unique significance for the history of the spiritual, cultural and educational development of the school since its formation in 1593. It is the first recorded example illustrating the Jesuits’ long history as ‘keepers of memory’ of British Catholic material and spiritual culture.

Actively reinterpreted, these rescued objects became symbols of Catholic affirmation, deployed through procession, drama, liturgy and spiritual exercises, specifically adapted to suit the youth and exiled status of the pupils at the college. The survival of pre-Reformation vestments, relics, manuscripts and silver in England resulted from acts of political and religious resistance: smuggling these banned items to proscribed Catholic institutions in exile such as St Omers was a dangerous act of defiance on the part of English Catholics, mandating anonymity and secrecy in the face of stringent penalties if discovered.

The Oldest Museum in the English-speaking World

By definition, a museum is a gathering place for memory, whether of a culture, an institution or a country. Described as a ‘memorial’, or an object of memory, the arrival of the Henry VII cope at St Omers by 1609 marks the foundation of what can be described as the oldest museum in the English-speaking world.

In the broadly accepted professional view a museum is a collection, gathering or grouping of artefacts which represent the cultural memory of an institution/group/nation, consciously collated and researched, interpreted as such and open to the public. The two oldest museums on British soil are widely accepted to be the Tower of London (opened to the public in 1660) and the Ashmolean (opened to the public in 1683) according to the EU Museums international register and UNESCO world heritage sites listing.

The collections gathered at St Omers and transferred to Stonyhurst cannot claim to be the oldest museum on British soil, for the obvious reason that the College was founded in exile in the Spanish Netherlands in 1593. But it can, and does, claim to be the oldest museum in the English-speaking world, qualifying by dint of the acquisition, preservation and interpretation of declared objects of British historical, cultural, social and spiritual memory from at least 1609.

The College’s museum collection was open to the public from its very early days – at least from 1609 – where it catered to an English-speaking community in exile, helping them to define their own national and cultural status. Thousands of English visitors to St Omers gained access to the historic and cultural treasures held at the College, which were presented in the context of English national, cultural, literary and religious history, in addition to the numerous European visitors to the College who viewed the artefacts in the context of their own cultural and religious histories and that of the British community at St Omers.

The artefacts held at St Omers were the centre of a creative body of literary, dramatic, spiritual and performative arts. The college archives from the early 17th century onwards indicate that these artefacts were researched, their provenance checked, confirmed and recorded. In many ways the 17th century St Omers museum predated the educational and cultural practices of most modern museums.

Four Centuries of Collections

By 1609, less than fifteen years after its foundation, the College was already engaged in a remarkable exercise, unique in educational history; the formation of an innovative and unique cultural, spiritual and educational programme based on the rescued material culture salvaged from its native country under penalty of confiscation and destruction. These artefacts were woven into a 17th century St Omers-specific programme of spiritual and cultural formation; vestments, relics and manuscripts were central to the educational and religious work of the College and were highly prized by the entire community.

Eyeball relic, Blessed Edward Oldcorne, executed 1606

The 18th century Collections acquisitions evidenced a broadening of the College’s educational outlook, including more humanist and scientific teaching. The Collections, as always, expanded to reflect the aims and interests of the College community they served.

The 19th century Collections acquisitions reflect the signs of hope for a re-established Catholic community and hierarchy in Britain as they emerged out of the shadows and into the mainstream. The Collections took on a new significance as witnesses to the persecution of the past; Stonyhurst’s relics, artefacts and archives played a critical role in the beatification of English and Welsh martyrs in 1888, including that of Edmund Campion and numerous other Jesuits. In addition, the Jesuit Order’s long involvement in scientific research was reflected in the acquisition of substantial and significant collections of natural history, botanical, geological, palaentological, meteorological and astronomical collections. Alumni added bequests and gifts to adorn the museum and historic libraries, such as the Arundell Library with its Shakespeare First Folio, and the Hill-Gray collection of 6000 rare and early photographs from England to Bhutan, Borneo, Kimberley and Siberia, dating from the late 1850s to c1870.

In the mid 1850s the College’s ambitious creation of a suite of historic libraries and museum was an expression of Stonyhurst’s confidence and pride in its Catholic and Jesuit heritage, and in the spiritual, cultural and educational significance of the books, manuscripts and artefacts displayed therein. This building project was also an acknowledgment that the College possessed collections of national and international importance and was an act of confidence for a future in which this significance would be fully recognised.

The College now houses three historic libraries, an extensive Archive, and two museum spaces, kitted out in 2017 with professional display cases, lighting, interpretation and supported by an ambitious and unique educational programme founded on the use of artefacts in the acquisition of knowledge and the curatorial skills of discernment, conservation, research and public presentation. The Curator and Archivist manage an extensive education programme, teaching pupils from primary to secondary levels, along with a programme of engagement with a number of university departments. Academic research is encouraged, and the ongoing programme of updating the paper catalogues to an online facility will further facilitate research.

Covid forced the closure of the museum and libraries to the public for much of 2020 and 2021, but a new platform ( jesuitcollections.org) of online exhibitions, podcasts and lectures has allowed us to remain as open as possible, and we keenly anticipate reopening our doors to the public once more in 2022.


For over four hundred years these collections, libraries and archives have underpinned the educational, cultural and spiritual formation of pupils attending what is now the oldest surviving Jesuit school in the world.

Highly important in themselves for their historic associations, religious significance, intrinsic beauty and rarity, these artefacts have yet a deeper significance. They represent the tenacious continuity of English Catholic practice and belief since the late 16th century.

That so many of these objects, manuscripts and books have survived into the present day is remarkable. That they remain within the care of the institution that originally collected them and continue to inspire, educate and evolve in meaning for succeeding generations is, perhaps, more than remarkable.

To find out more about Stonyhurst’s museums, archives and collections, visit https://www.stonyhurst.ac.uk/about-us/stonyhurst-college-historic-collections/museum-exhibitions

[1] Maurice Whitehead ed, Held in Trust: 2008 Years of Sacred Culture, St Omers Press 2008, p 2

[2] TE Muir, Stonyhurst, St Omers Press, 2nd ed, 2006, p80

[3] Maurice Whitehead ed, Held in Trust:2008 Years of Sacred Culture, St Omers Press 2008. This catalogue accompanied an exhibition curated by Janet Graffius for the Liverpool Capital of Culture Year, comprising some fifty of the more significant artefacts held at Stonyhurst, which reflected Catholic, Christian and other world faith traditions and the role of the College and Jesuit Order in collecting them

[4] Thomas More, Utopia, (London, Everyman Library:1910) pp 41-42

[5] Act of 13 Elizabeth I c.2, 2 April 1571, in Statutes at Large, ed. by Pickering, p. 260

[6] Much Catholic material culture made its way into the homes of Protestant families, refashioned and cleansed of association with papistry, to the point that ‘the Reformation came to be, quite literally, part of the furniture’: Eamon Duffy, The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), p. 177

[7] Victor Houliston, Catholic Resistance in Elizabethan England and Wales: Robert Persons’ Jesuit Polemic 1580-1610 (Aldershot: Ashgate/IHSI, 2007), pp. 93-116

All images in this post are copyright Stonyhurst College, and used with permission


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