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  • Writer's pictureLucy Vinten

A Catholic translation of Bede’s History

This blogpost discusses Thomas Stapleton’s 1656 translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. It looks at historical memory and the control of the narrative of the past, and discusses the cultural significance of the care and use of this copy of this book in the Jesuit Antiquarian Book Collection.

Most of the books in the Jesuit rare book collection have battered and broken bindings and covers. Over the past few hundred years the books have been extensively used, valued as texts important for study and the training of Jesuits rather than as objects to look fine on library shelves. Many have been repaired with string and sticky tape. The few that do not fit this pattern stand out. One of these is A/90, a copy of the Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede, an English monk and historian who lived in Northumberland from 672-735. Bede wrote in Latin, and A/90 is a copy of a new English translation which was published in 1565. It has a handsome leather binding with ruling and stamping on the covers and raised bands on the spine and marbled endpapers. It is firm and solid and looks very unlike the books which it sits alongside.

A/90 is the first edition of the English translation of Bede by Thomas Stapleton, who also wrote a series of introductions. Stapleton was a Catholic theologian and priest who had studied at Oxford in the 1550s. His opposition to the reformed religion led him to leave England for Louvain in 1559, forming one part of a Catholic brain drain from Oxford after the accession of Elizabeth I. Another Catholic priest who left for Louvain at the same time was Thomas Harding, and arriving a little later, via Rome, was Nicholas Sanders. Harding was soon embroiled in a literary controversy with John Jewel, Anglican Bishop of Salisbury who in a series of sermons challenged all comers to prove the Roman Catholic case out of the Scriptures or writings of the early Church Fathers. Harding took up this challenge and published a series of works in answer to it, including ‘An Answere to Maister Juelles Challenge’ in 1565, and ‘A rejoinder to M. Jewel’s Replie’ in 1566. Nicolas Sanders was also fully embroiled in this publishing war. His work ‘De visibili monarchia ecclesiae’ of 1571 provided the first narrative account of the suffering of English Catholics and was used as the basis of much later historical writing about English Catholicism. Louvain was full of English Catholics writing and publishing furiously, and surrounded by these theological and historical debates Stapleton made his translation of Bede. Our Antiquarian Book Collection includes first editions of all these works, and many others produced as part of these debates.

By translating Bede’s History and making it more widely available to English-speakers, Stapleton was making the most of an issue that was difficult for Protestant polemicists. Bede was well known in the sixteenth century and respected as a historian and man of learning. His reputation had remained high from his own time throughout the medieval period and his work was widely disseminated in England and Europe. Bede’s History recounted the conversion of England to Christianity in the 6th and 7th centuries CE due to a mission, led by St Augustine, which was sent by Pope Gregory in 597. Bede’s narrative highlighted the Roman Catholic nature of the conversion and tells how Roman rituals were chosen by the English instead of Celtic ones. Bede’s work was written in the late 720s, within a generation of many of the events he described. To Stapleton and other Catholic writers in the sixteenth century, Bede’s account which emphasised the Roman nature of the English church backed up their argument that the connection with Rome had continued in an unbroken line until fractured by the protestants in their own century. When protestant writers such as John Foxe, Matthew Parker and John Bale tried to make claims for the antiquity of the reformed religion they relied more heavily on other, later, writers, particularly Geoffrey of Monmouth, who lived in the twelfth century, a good 500 years after the events he described. He diminished the role of Gregory and Augustine in his accounts of Christianity in England and maintained an anti-Roman slant throughout his work. But Geoffrey of Monmouth was never regarded as a historian of the calibre of Bede, indeed was more of a fabulist than a historian, and using him as a foundation for so many of their histories did little for the credibility of the protestant arguments.

Photo of a double page of 16th century print, starting 'differences betweene the primitive faithe of England.  There is a decorated woodblock capital B
The beginning of Stapleton's list of 45 differences between the practices described by Bede and those used by the protestants

Stapleton made the most of this in his introductions – one to the Queen, one to the Reader, and sandwiched between these a list of the 45 points which hammered his point home by listing all the ‘differences between the primitive faith of England continued almost these thousand years, and the late pretensed faith of protestants, gathered out of the History of the church of England compiled by Venerable Bede, an Englishman, above 900 years past’. In this section he listed Catholic rituals such as the tonsure, use of holy water, last sacraments for the dying and clerical celibacy and gives examples from Bede to show that all these were part of the religion introduced in 597 and remained so until the English church’s break with Rome in the 16th century.

Ownership of the narrative of the past is an important element of group identity and can be a powerful justification for current opinions. And when the present was as contested as the debate between the Catholic Louvainists and the protestants then ascendant in England, the need to shape the historical memory became more acute. In the 1560s, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History was a very useful way of reminding the English of the Roman Catholic origins of the church in England. A book first published in 731 was at the centre of debate over 800 years later about the history and identity of the True Church.

Turning back to our copy, one gets a little shock when opening its fine binding and finding a very beaten-up book inside. On one of the flyleaves, someone in the 17th century wrote ‘Bede’s Historicall Acct. of the Church English p[ro] Stapleton’. The same page also has a stamp from the Jesuit library at Mount Street, library marks and a pencil annotation. Some pages have great smudges of ink across them, others have been used for pen-trials, attempts to get ink to flow from a recalcitrant quill. There are many doodles, and not the scholarly type of annotations. Instead, at the back of the book is a page which has been used for calculations, for trying out some rather fancy letterforms and what appear to be lines written by school boys, perhaps imitating or mocking their teacher:

‘John I would have you tell me how manie farthings be in a thousand pound in halfe an ower’

‘John I would knowe how maney shillings and howe …’

The original title page is lost, and so are many other pages. Currently there is a black and white shiny photographic reproduction of the title page, and the lost original pages have been replaced by one-sided copies, which are black with white text.

Library marks written on the surviving flyleaves are very similar to many used in other books in the Jesuit Antiquarian Book Collection and are probably from the 1850s onwards. It has been annotated in pencil in a hand which we know to be that of Fr Charles Newdigate, a Jesuit who was particularly interested in the care of the rare books and who was active at the end of the nineteenth century and for the first three decades of the twentieth. So, our best guess is that this copy of Bede was bought by the Jesuits in the mid C19, and that it had previously been in secular hands.

But what about the fine binding? And who inserted the reproductions of the missing pages? There’s a letter which holds a clue. It is dated 22 December 1930 and thanks Fr Keating for the loan of the book and says that the missing pages have been supplied by rotos (an early form of copying). The letter has been annotated with the words ‘rebound and’, so the new binding was probably made at the same time.

Letter from the Shakespeare Head Press

The letter is written on headed writing paper for the Shakespeare Head Press, which was a private press producing handmade books in the Arts and Crafts tradition of William Morris. Founded in 1904 by Arthur Henry Bullen, by the late 1920s, The Shakespeare Head Press was run by Basil Blackwell and others, including Bernard Newdigate, whose signature can be seen on this letter. Bernard Newdigate was educated at Stonyhurst and was probably a relative of Charles Newdigate SJ, whose handwriting we noted earlier in annotations in this book.

The Shakespeare Head Press printed an edition of Stapleton’s Bede in 1930 so we can speculate that this book was used as at least one of the sources for that edition. Perhaps this copy was lent, via Fr Charles Newdigate to his relative, Bernard Newdigate to use as a source for the new edition his printing press was publishing. As a thank you, Bernard supplied copies of the missing pages, and arranged for the rather nice rebinding.

While some of this is speculation, it fits the facts and explains why this book looks different to the majority of the books in our collection.

There is still much we don’t know about this book, including who its early owners were. But there are things we do know. Textually it was of huge importance to the debates about the historical legitimacy of Catholicism in the 16th century. And physically, at some point this copy had got into a very battered state, was missing many pages, including the title page, and was probably used as a schoolbook. Someone used it as a surface for doodling and making calculations and writing doggerel. It came into the ownership of the Jesuits in the later nineteenth century and was stamped as belonging to their library. In 1930 it was supplied with copies of the missing pages by the Shakespeare Head Press who rebound it too. It may have been used as an exemplar for the new edition of Stapleton’s Bede of 1930, and thus contributed to the private press movement of the early 20th century. Learning about the ownership and the use of one book down the centuries as well as the religious and intellectual milieu which produced it highlights the cultural significance of this book to Jesuits, to the wider Catholic community, and latterly to the Arts and Crafts Movement.

The Jesuit Antiquarian Book Collection is being catalogued and preserved at the moment and the catalogue will be available online when this process is complete. If you have any questions about the Antiquarian Books mentioned in this blogpost, or any other items from our collections, please do not hesitate to contact us at

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