A Catechism from the English Exiles in Rouen

By Chelsea Reutcke |

Within the collection at Harvard’s Houghton Library, one of our Preserving the World’s Rarest Books partners, is a small devotional book from 1583 by Laurence Vaux entitled A Catechism or Christian Doctrine, Necessary for Children and Ignorant People (STC 24627, USTC 139280). At first glance, an English language catechism for children seems like a rather ordinary book. However, two things immediately stand out from the title page: the book supports the Catholic Church, and it was printed in 1583, during the reign of Elizabeth I. Placed in the context of the Elizabethan era, Laurence Vaux’s A Catechism represents the attempts of the English Catholic community to persist.

After serving as warden of the collegiate church at Manchester under Mary I, the Catholic priest Laurence Vaux fled England upon the accession of Elizabeth. He moved to Louvain where he tutored the children of the exiled Catholic population that had made the city their home. His catechism, first printed in Louvain in 1568, emerged out of this work. It became the first English adaptation of the manuals that emerged from the Council of Trent and replaced Edmund Bonner’s An Honest Godly Instruction, printed under Mary I, as the standard English Catholic catechism. It underwent several subsequent editions across the exile communities in Louvain, Antwerp, Douai and Rouen. However, Laurence Vaux did not enjoy the same success as his book. In 1580, he returned to England for missionary work, only to be captured by English forces. He died five years later in prison.

The edition at Houghton Library emerged from the press of George L’Oyselet in Rouen. L’Oyselet served as the main printer of recusant works on the continent throughout the 1580s. He had already printed the 1580 edition of Vaux’s catechism and would go on to print a 1590 edition as well. Though active since the 1550s, L’Oyselet began producing English works after joining forces with the Jesuit Robert Parsons, head of the English Mission. Parsons viewed the printing of Catholic books in English as crucial for the preservation of the faith. This applied not just to the exile communities but to England as well.

Parsons, or his ally, Cardinal William Allen, likely commissioned the 1583 edition of the catechism from L’Oyselet. This edition includes another text, A brief forme of confession, with a separate title page (also dated 1583). This second work, whose first edition appeared in Antwerp in 1576, instructed the reader on how to confess one’s sins. The main title page of A Catechism or Christian Doctrine lists both works, making it clear that they meant to be bound together. Furthermore, the woodcut borders on both title pages identify them as the work of L’Oyselet. Together, the two texts became a tool to be consulted frequently. Its small 16⁰ format made it the perfect size to carry about for daily use.

USTC 139280 A brief forme of confession title page
A brief forme of confession, title page. STC 2467. Houghton Library, Harvard University. USTC 139280.

Neither title page lists the printer or city, a common tactic on illicit books to obscure the identity of those involved. The sparse imprint suggests that the clergy intended to distribute the 1583 edition of Vaux’s book in England illegally. There, print frequently served the population as a stand-in for hard to access priests. With its small size, the book could be slipped into a pocket for surreptitious consultation. Indeed, from his Westminster prison, Laurence Vaux wrote of the popularity of his little book in England, selling at 12 pence apiece and 300 copies ‘came in at the north parts’. By the end of the century, Vaux’s catechism was even secretly printed in England.

The bookplate of Houghton Library’s copy confirms that it successfully made the journey to England. Before arriving at Harvard, the book belonged to the collection of Sir Robert Shafto Adair (1768-1869), a baronet based in Suffolk. The bookplate displays his armorial symbols and mottos: the Adair severed head alongside the salamander of the Shafto family and the family mottos: Loyal au mort, ‘Loyal unto death’ and Manibus Victoria dextris, ‘Victory by my right hand’.

USTC 139280 Armorial Bookplate
Armorial bookplate. STC 2467. Houghton Library, Harvard University. USTC 139280.

Neither Sir Robert Shafto Adair nor his immediate ancestors practiced Catholicism, but that was not a requirement for collecting Catholic books. Contemporaries and later collectors often sought out copies of illicit material, either to debate it or to show it off to their acquaintances. Its continued interest as a conversational piece likely prompted its rebinding by Adair and the affixation of his armorial plate. Houghton Library acquired A Catechism or Christian Doctrine in 1950, likely from the sale of Flixton Hall, the Adair seat in Suffolk, that same year. However, from where Sir Robert acquired the book remains a mystery. Now it’s your turn: what surprises are hidden in your library?


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Chelsea Reutcke is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews. Her thesis explores the print culture of Catholics in late seventeenth-century England during the reigns of Charles II and James VII & II. She examines the patrons and bookmen producing Catholic print and the methods they used to navigate regulations of the press, as well as how the laity accessed and engaged with print. She is currently the postgraduate intern for the Institute for Scottish Historical Research (ISHR).

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