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Calendaring the letters of William Strickland SJ, Procurator of the Suppression

In this blog post volunteer Claire reflects on her project to calendar the letters of Fr William Strickland SJ, written during and providing a unique insight into, the suppression of the Society of Jesus in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

William Strickland’s habitual sign off: “y[ou]r ob[edient] hu[mble] serv[an]t W. Strickland”

One of the main projects I have been involved with during my time as a volunteer in the Archives has been to calendar a bound volume of letters written by an English Jesuit called William Strickland (1731-1819). Fr Strickland was the procurator, or treasurer, administering the affairs of the English Province during the period of Jesuit suppression. Spanning the years 1786 to 1811, the letters give a fascinating insight into the challenges which the Jesuits in this country faced during those years. Many of the letters are concerned with the reestablishment of the Society in England against a backdrop of some real opposition within the Church and disagreements amongst the Jesuits or former Jesuits themselves.

Strickland’s letters chart the course that he helped steer in the face of resistance from the Vicars Apostolic and various factions in Rome.[1] The letters also record the lengthy negotiations with the Paccanarists who wanted to join or, in the case of former Jesuits, rejoin the Society.[2] Another frequent topic is that of property which had belonged to the Society prior to its suppression and to whom it should now be entrusted. After much discussion and careful negotiation, reestablishment was realised in 1803 when the English Jesuits received oral permission from Pope Pius VII to aggregate to the Society in Russia (the only country where the Jesuits had hitherto not been suppressed), more than a decade before the restoration of the Society worldwide.

Calendaring this manuscript has required me to read the letters and summarise the most important topics covered in each letter, provide search terms for key names mentioned and note apparently simple details such as page numbers, the date of the letter and the name of the addressee. Determining which page numbers to follow was the first obstacle to tackle. Bound and rebound in the 19th Century, the volume of letters has had three sets of conflicting pagination applied over the years creating, inevitably, a little bit of confusion.

Three sets of conflicting pagination have been applied to the manuscript over the years

Envelopes had not yet come into general use at the time these letters were penned and the recipient’s name and address is therefore generally found on the letters themselves: letters were folded and sealed in such a way that the address would have appeared on the outside and I was amazed to find the wax seals on several of the letters almost intact. In some instances, however, the page with the address is missing and it is not always possible to determine for whom the letter was intended, although the content of the letter usually gives a good indication.

A letter addressed to Marmaduke Stone SJ at Stonyhurst with Strickland’s wax seal

Many of the letters are written from Strickland’s address in London, firstly at Edgware Road and then Poland Street in Soho, and addressed to Fr Marmaduke Stone SJ (1748-1834) at Stonyhurst. Strickland frequently offers advice to the younger Stone and it is Strickland who proposes Stone for nomination by the Fr General, Gabriel Gruber SJ (1740-1805) as the first Superior in the newly restored English Province. Strickland writes in an elegant and clear hand and once I became accustomed to his writing I found, for the most part, it surprisingly easy to read. However, not all of the letters are written in English. There is occasional use of French and frequent use of Latin, especially when Strickland is writing to non-English speaking Jesuits and quoting or transcribing letters from the Fr General in St. Petersburg (which he does very diligently in his letters to Fr Stone). So as well as improving my palaeographic skills I have also found myself trying to recall the Latin I learnt at school!

In order to write a useful summary and decipher names mentioned in the course of the letters, I needed to get acquainted with some key background facts and personages. A plethora of questions presented themselves. Is this person mentioned a Jesuit, another member of the clergy or a lay person? Who are the Paccanarists? What are the VV. AA.?[3] And what does Strickland mean by “three are due for”?[4]

“Three are due to Mr John Spenser, who died at Stonyhurst on the first of this month”

The subjects covered in the letters are wide-ranging, from everyday matters such as death announcements, news about novices or new students for Stonyhurst, and some interesting references to what life was like in the late 18th and early 19th century. Strickland was living in troubled times: this was, after all, the era of the French Revolution (1789-1799) and the Napoleonic wars (1799-1815) and there are direct and oblique references to both these major events. Strickland is very thankful for gifts of food he has received from Jesuits from other parts of the country “in these dear times” and the cost of postage crops up repeatedly. Before 1840, letters were paid for by the recipient and the price related to the number of sheets or the weight of the letter. Strickland is very careful to limit himself to two sheets, a “double letter”, and will always indicate on the outside if he is sending a “single letter” containing only one sheet.

The cost of letters is a recurring theme: “When you write to me mark on the outside that your letter is a single letter or double according as it really is. Most of yours are charged double: & the two last were charged treble & no redress to be had.”

Some particularly interesting nuggets of historical detail appear in postscripts to the letters. One such example, dated 27 May 1800, refers to a letter to be signed by Catholics (including Jesuits) and presented to King George III to congratulate him on his “happy escape from assassination”. The assassination attempt had been made at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane just 12 days earlier, on 15 May 1800.

“An address from the Catholics is now lying in Bond Street to be signed & will be presented to the King tomorrow to congratulate with him on his happy escape from assassination. I shall take the liberty of putting down the names of Mr Stone & a few others.”

I have certainly found myself disappearing down a few rabbit holes reading up about these background events and this, I have discovered, is both one of the joys and pitfalls of archiving. Helping out one day with affixing some labels to the box files which house all of the bound manuscripts in the collection, I discovered just how many volumes are still waiting to be calendared. No time for too much burrowing!

A grateful Strickland thanks a fellow Jesuit for his “kind present of salmon and eggs […] of very essential service in these dear times”.

[1] Prior to the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in 1850, the Catholic Church in England and Wales was administered by the Vicars Apostolic rather than Diocesan Bishops. [2] The Society of the Faith of Jesus or Paccanarists, so named after its controversial founder Niccolò Paccanari, represented an attempt to preserve the Society of Jesus following its suppression. Many of the Paccanarists subsequently joined or rejoined the Jesuits. [3] VV. AA. is an abbreviation for Vicars Apostolic. [4] Strickland is requesting that three Masses be said for a Jesuit who has recently died but scrupulously omits the word Mass at a time when there were still barriers to openly practising the Catholic religion. The first mention of the word Mass appears in a letter dated 17 January 1807 close to the end of the volume.

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