In the midst of lockdown over 2020 and 2021, Morrab Library was contacted by Alison Shell, Professor of Early Modern Studies at University College London. She had come across a brief citation to an item in our Archive collection, created by the late John Simmonds, who, over twenty years, had created a record on paper of all our holdings – an extraordinary piece of work when you consider we hold more than 5,000 records.

Alison’s curiosity was piqued by this record – all John, and his colleague the notable author and historian P.A.S Pool, had been able to unearth about this unassuming slim volume:

MOR/MAN/5 – ” a volume written in Latin of the texts of several religious plays in the 17th or early 18th century hand.  The subjects include King Canute, Earl Godwin and the prophet Mahomet (portrayed as the Antichrist). A gift of the Reverend James Halliwell (1862). Brown leather, bound, 16cm”

She made the long journey from London to visit the library and examine the volume, and her efforts were rewarded with a truly remarkable discovery. Read Alison’s blog to find out more…

A volume of 17th-century Latin plays written by English Catholics, almost certainly at the English College at St Omer, has recently been discovered in the Morrab Library collections (1). 

During the reign of Elizabeth I, when it became clear that England would remain Protestant for the foreseeable future, expatriate English Catholics grew increasingly concerned to preserve their faith for successive generations. To this end, they set up educational institutions in continental Europe, of which the English College at St Omer, or ‘St Omers’ – the forerunner of Stonyhurst College in Lancashire — is one of the best-known. Catering mostly for school-age boys, it was run by the Jesuit order, well-known across Europe for its educational efforts. Jesuits knew how effectively drama could develop oral fluency, confidence and memory skills in their charges, and — anticipating present-day educators — made considerable use of it as a teaching aid. Their productions also functioned as a public relations exercise when mounted for distinguished visitors or the local community, often deploying music, dance and spectacle to show off the students’ abilities. Most of all, they promoted the ideals of Counter-Reformation Catholicism in an attractive and imaginatively compelling manner – not least among the young actors themselves. (2)

An important part of the Order’s missionary endeavour, Jesuit drama had an international reach through Catholic Europe and even beyond. Yet it was very much coloured by national concerns, as the present volume demonstrates. Even though its English writers and actors were living and working outside England, they were passionately committed to bringing their mother country back within the Catholic fold. Two plays in the present compilation draw on English history: the tragedy Canutus magno maior (Canute, greater than the great) dramatizes the life of King Canute, the other, Godwinus, is shaped round historical anecdotes about Godwin, Earl of Wessex. The volume also features another tragedy, Clearchus furens (Clearchus raging); an apocalyptic play in which Christ clashes with Mohammed; an untitled dialogue with characters including an angel and a poet; and the allegorical drama Philander, sive Angelus custos (Philander, or The Guardian Angel) (Fig.1). The latter play is signed by Francis Biddulph, a student at St Omers between 1664 and 1670. (3) (Fig.2). Since English Jesuit plays rarely travelled between colleges and had relatively little currency outside them, this makes it overwhelmingly likely that the manuscript was a St Omers production. The inclusion of Biddulph’s work also suggests that the volume was compiled in the mid- to late 1660s, though Philander might still have been read after Biddulph had left St Omers.   

Figure 1












Figure 2



The volume was most probably compiled for reading rather than performance, though it is likely that the plays themselves were put on in some form. The play about Christ and Mohammed may be the apocalyptic drama of which the St Omers register records a performance in 1669, another reason to attribute it to the College (4). No evidence has yet been found of the other plays’ production, but this is not surprising; the dramatic culture of St Omers encompassed everything from classroom performance upwards, and much of it was ephemeral. The more prestigious a production, the more likely it was to be recorded, but even for plays of this kind, records are incomplete and unsystematic. It is unusual, though, for more than one copy of a St Omers play to survive, and the fact that a British Library manuscript also contains copies of Canutus and Clearchus suggests that these particular dramas were relatively high-profile and well regarded (5). 

The manuscript came into the Morrab Library as part of a donation of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century playtexts from the Shakespeare scholar James Orchard Halliwell (later Halliwell-Phillipps) (Fig.3, above). One item in his correspondence with the library contains an undated list of books and manuscripts that mentions Canutus and Clearchus (6).  Halliwell-Phillipps was a generous donor to repositories, including the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon, Chetham’s Library in Manchester and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington; he had a particular love of Penzance, where he frequently holidayed. He was awarded the freedom of the borough for his patronage, and a bookcase in the Morrab Library bears his name to this day (7) (Fig.4). Seven decades after his death, in 1964, the Library put the bulk of his collection up for sale at a time of financial difficulty, and the collection was dispersed: mostly to Edinburgh University Library, another institution that had benefited from Halliwell-Phillipps’s patronage (8). The St Omers plays were not included, most likely because they were not considered worth selling. Perhaps they were thought to be extraneous to English dramatic history, or peripheral within Halliwell-Phillipps’s collection — or perhaps the Latin was off-putting. But the oversight has had the happy result of preserving this rare and compelling find within the Morrab’s own collections.    

Figure 4

(With thanks to Lisa Di Tommaso; Arnold Hunt; Joe Reed, Archivist at Stonyhurst College; and the Leverhulme Trust for funding my archival research through a Major Research Fellowship.) 


Alison Shell (Professor)

Department of English

University College London



1: Morrab Library, MOR/MAN/5.

2: William H. McCabe, SJ., An Introduction to the Jesuit Theater. Ed. Louis J. Oldani, SJ. (St Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1983), and Paul Shore, ‘Counter-Reformation Drama’, ch.19 in The Ashgate Research Companion to the Counter-Reformation, ed. Alexandra Bamji, Geert H. Janssen and Mary Laven (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013).

3: Geoffrey Holt, SJ. St Omers and Bruges Colleges, 1593-1773: A Biographical Dictionary (S.l. Catholic Record Society, 1979), p.36. For biographical details of another, earlier Francis Biddulph, see Thomas M. McCoog, S.J., English and Welsh Jesuits, 1555-1650: Part 1, A-F, Catholic Record Society, vol.74 (London: Catholic Record Society, 1994), p.170.

4: McCabe, p.99.

5: BL Add MS 41182.

6: Morrab Library, Halliwell-Phillipps correspondence (MOR/LIB/20a).

7: Arthur Freeman and Janet Ing Freeman, ‘Phillipps, James Orchard Halliwell- (1820–1889), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online; The Cornishman, 19 October 1893, p.6.

8: Cyril Noall, The Penzance Library, 1818-1968 (Penzance: Penzance Library, 1968), pp.28-9; ‘In the Saleroom’, Times Literary Supplement, 30 July 1964.