A Stray Letter and a Unique Book

At a recent workshop in Edinburgh I was comparing notes with two colleagues about which bibliographies of Scottish printing we owned (such are the exciting lives of academics).  In the course of the conversation both related their pleasure at having obtained copies of that magnum opus of Scottish book history, the Bibliographia Aberdonensis, a systematic account of every writer from Aberdeenshire and the surrounding area during the early modern period.  This, in turn, led me to think of my own well-thumbed copies of the two volumes of the Bibliographia, the result of a fortunate eBay purchase some years before.

I’d been using my copy for some weeks before a small sheet of paper fell out from between its pages onto my office floor:

Baxter letter

An unexpected discovery.

The letter, for so it proved to be, read:


Nov. 11 35


My dear Professor Baxter

            I have looked with very great interest at the volume containing “Hayi Oratio”, & greatly hope that when the occasion arises the relevant part of it will be photographically reproduced.  I am sure that the Dean & Chapter will readily give the needful consent.

            I am handing over the copy of the St. Andrews music MS. To our Librarian, & a proper acknowledgment of the kind gift will be duly sent.

Ever yours sincerely

H. N. Bate


The sender of this letter was Herbert Newell Bate (1871-1941), then Dean of York, and its recipient, James Houston Baxter (1894-1973), Professor of Ecclesiastical History in my own sometime academic home, the University of St Andrews.   The copy of the “St. Andrews music MS.” which Bate was handing over to the chapter librarian was evidently Baxter’s facsimile edition of Cod. Helmst. 628, published as An Old St Andrews Music Book (London, 1931).

What really piqued my interest, though, was the reference to “Hayi Oratio”, for this was surely none other than  M. G. Hayi oratio habita in gymnasio Aberdonensi 2 Iulij. 1569 (Edinburgh: Robert Lekprevik, 1571), Aldis 101.6, ESTC S92888, USTC 507327.  George Hay’s Ciceronian browbeating of the still-all-too-Catholic scholars of Aberdeen has been long since been discussed and analysed by John Durkan, but both Durkan and the bibliographies cited above were aware only of the (supposedly) unique copy in the National Library of Scotland.

What then of the York sammelband which Bate reported in 1935?  I have yet to find it in any catalogue, but I remain hopeful that somewhere in the north of England this copy survives.  If it could be located, the eighty-two year-old letter which I came across so fortuitously could result in the discovery of a genuinely important, at-present lost, fragment of Scottish Reformation history.

Copyright © 2017 Kelsey Jackson Williams

Cardinal Richelieu’s Scottish Poet

Amongst the many remarkable things preserved in the Scottish Catholic Archives is a small, richly-bound manuscript book:


SCA MS CB57/12 (c) Scottish Catholic Archives.

This is the album amicorum or friendship book of George Strachan, a young Scot from the Mearns, who travelled to the continent for his education at the end of the sixteenth century.  Strachan’s story is a remarkable one – he had a gift for languages, journeyed across Europe and Asia, was possibly the first Scottish convert to Islam, and was last seen in Isfahan in 1624 – and I hope it return to it eventually.  Today, however, I’ve been looking at forty-two leaves of manuscript which were added to the album decades after it was used by Strachan.

These leaves are in the hand of another Scottish Catholic living on the continent: Thomas Chambers.  Born near Aberdeen, Chambers had been educated at the Scots College in Rome and spent his life, in the sarcastic words of his cousin George, “still in hope to become greit”.  He didn’t do too badly.  First he become almoner in the household of none other than Cardinal Richelieu, subsequently serving “son eminence” as a diplomatic agent and intermediary between the French government and the Scottish Covenanters.  After Richelieu’s death he seamlessly took up the same post in the household of Cardinal Mazarin and died wealthy, perhaps even content, in 1651.  His fellow Aberdonian Gilbert Blakhal remembered him as “a very good friend wher he professed frindshippe, and [one who] scorned to flatter any body great or smal”.

What Chambers’s public life doesn’t reveal is that he was also a poet.  His addition to Strachan’s manuscript consists of thirty-four poems to the memory of a variety of colleagues, friends, and kinsfolk who died between 1625 and 1648.  His work has been described as a “necrology”, but it’s better to think of it as a collection of paper epitaphs, a sort of virtual graveyard in which Chambers commemorated the people who mattered most to him.  Richelieu is there, but so is Chambers’s mother Christian Con, “most loving of parents” and a small party of soldiers, scholars, and clergymen who had done their best – rarely successfully – to survive the turmoil of the Thirty Years’ War.


The opening of Chambers’s epitaph to his mother, Christian Con (1639), SCA CB57/12, fol. 173v (c) Scottish Catholic Archives.

This is what I’m studying at present and I’m hoping to write an article exploring the manuscript and its contexts fairly soon.  Like any good research topic, though, it’s been taking me down byways and alleys I never expected, into the lives of Richelieu’s horse guards and the poetic output of Chambers’s cousin, a Paduan classics professor, whose 1627 Emblemata amatoria contains an epitaph on his father which may have inspired Thomas’s own productions, placed alongside an oddly moving engraving of old Patrick Chalmer’s funeral.


George Chalmer weeping at his father’s bier, from George Chalmer, Emblemata amatoria (Venice, 1627), p. 195.

This sort of project reminds me – if I were in any danger of forgetting – just how much there is still to learn about the early modern world.  Who knew that Cardinal Richelieu’s household included a poetically-inclined young Scot who turned a previous generation’s album amicorum into a repository for his own elegiac verse?

Copyright © 2016 Kelsey Jackson Williams