Collections | Posted 27.11.2014

The lost First Folio connection with Stonyhurst

The recent discovery of a lost First Folio of Shakespeare in the Bibliotheque de St-Omer in northern France has great significance for Stonyhurst College. The book seems to have been the property of the English Jesuit College founded in St-Omer in 1593 to provide a Catholic education for boys, forbidden on their native soil due to the religious laws of the day. St Omers College, as it was known, is the direct ancestor of Stonyhurst, now the oldest continuously surviving Jesuit school in the world.

St Omers College was renowned for its drama productions, an art form in which the Jesuits excelled, using special effects and trapdoors to add to the spectacle. Some St Omers productions lasted up to four hours and included ballet and opera, and their performances drew large crowds. It is not surprising, therefore, to discover that the College had a First Folio by William Shakespeare as part of its drama library. An ownership inscription indicates that it was probably originally the property of Fr Edmund Neville, an English Jesuit priest who taught at the College in the 1630s. The St-Omer Folio has been annotated and is missing some thirty pages, which indicates that it was well used.

In 1762 the College was expelled from France, and moved to the Low Countries, and then on to its present home in Lancashire in 1794. Many precious medieval artefacts, illuminated manuscripts and books were taken with them, and survive at Stonyhurst to this day, but it seems that a slightly scruffy and dog-eared First Folio was overlooked and left behind, ending up in the municipal library in St-Omer where it has just been re-discovered.

The First Folio was published in 1623 by two acting colleagues of Shakespeare, as an attempt to immortalise his work.

Fortunately Stonyhurst has another First Folio, bequeathed by Lord Arundell, a former pupil of the College. The Stonyhurst Folio was recently lent to the British Museum’s Shakespeare ‘Staging the World’ exhibition and continues to inspire students of literature, drama and history at Stonyhurst College.