About the Catalogue of St. Edmunds
A brief history of the English Benedictine Priory of St Edmund in Paris and its dependent priory at La Celle

The dissolution of the monasteries under King Henry VIII between 1536 and 1540 effectively put an end to Benedictine monasticism in England. The monks were dispersed, provided with pensions, and some were given positions in the Church under King Henry, as parish priests or as canons and deans in the surviving cathedrals. Under the Catholic Queen Mary I (1553-58), Henry's daughter, there was a brief revival of Benedictine community life in Westminster Abbey in 1556, but with the queen's death in 1558, this foundation was also extinguished. Under her successor, Elizabeth I (1558-1603), Catholicism in England went underground as the religious faith of a persecuted minority. Its survival was maintained through a number of colleges and religious houses established in the Catholic countries of Europe: the Low Countries, France, Spain and Italy. From the 1580s, a number of Englishmen, many of them trained in the seminaries and colleges abroad, decided to try their vocation as Benedictine monks, and entered several of the well-known Benedictine abbeys such as Monte Cassino itself and various monasteries in Spain and Lorraine. Special permission was granted to them by the papacy to leave their cloister and travel to England as missionaries where they clothed a number in the Benedictine habit. A few English Benedictine priories were eventually founded in the early 17th century, originally attached to the continental abbeys, but from 1619 united in a revived English Benedictine Congregation. These were St Gregory's priory at Douai in Flanders (1607), St Laurence's, Dieulouard, in Lorraine (1608), St Benedict's priory at Saint-Malo (1611), St Edmund's priory in Paris (1615), the abbey of Our Lady of Consolation (a nuns' monastery) at Cambrai in France (1623), and the abbey of St Adrian and St Denis, Lamspringe, in Upper Saxony (1643).

The catalogue of 1702 is the library catalogue of the Benedictine community of St Edmund, King and Martyr, founded in Paris in 1615. This also includes the listing of books in the library of its dependent priory of St Peter and St Paul at La Celle-sur-Morin, a few miles to the east of Paris, established in 1633. In 1615 six monks from the English Benedictine priory of St Laurence, Dieulouard, in Lorraine, arrived in Paris to establish a house of studies. The initiative for this lay with Princess Marie de Lorraine, abbess of the royal abbey of Chelles, outside Paris. Chelles was already being served by monks from Dieulouard. Once in Paris, the abbess maintained the small monastery, paying for the monks' rent and board. During the early years in Paris, the monks lived in a number of properties and gradually drew away from dependence on Chelles. This break became definite in 1619 when the community joined the revived English Benedictine Congregation which was formally established that year. After further moves, the community settled in the Rue Saint-Jacques in 1632 where the monks were to remain until the French Revolution. Thus the priory was on the Left Bank in Paris, an area populated by many religious houses, bookshops and printers.

Being in a Benedictine Congregation meant that the priors of St Edmund's were elected by the General Chapter which assembled every four years. They ruled the monastery under the jurisdiction of the President-General. Monks from the other monasteries came and went in the early years of the community's life in Paris since it continued to operate as a house of studies for the nearby Sorbonne. Meanwhile, novices from England were clothed and professed for St Edmund's, expanding the community. There were hints of the existence of a library attached to the monastery in Paris during its first years of existence, but details are few and the library presumably moved around with the monks as they transferred from one property to another. With the establishment of a stable monastery in 1632, we can say that the library became firmly established at that time also. The next year, 1633, the Holy See confirmed through a bull entitled 'Plantata' that the English Benedictine Congregation was the genuine successor of its medieval forbear. This did not please a few in the community who preferred to transfer St Edmund's to the French Congregation of Cluny. This pro-French party was headed by Dom Francis Walgrave (1581-1668), an English monk attached to Chelles as chaplain. Cardinal Richelieu, Vicar-General of the Order of Cluny, who was aware of Walgrave's position, offered him the run-down medieval priory of La Celle-sur-Morin, a dependency of the abbey of Marmoutier, in 1633. Walgrave accepted the offer, but having made his peace with St Edmund's in Paris by 1637, La Celle was ceded as a dependent priory to St Edmund's, Paris. It was only in 1693 that La Celle was fully incorporated with St Edmund's, Paris. Throughout its history, as in other religious houses of the period, there were two priors attached to La Celle, a commendatory prior who was an absent superior but who took the revenues attached to the office of prior, and a conventual prior who was a monk of St Edmund's, Paris, and acted as a religious superior to the small community of usually four monks at La Celle. Thus St Edmund's, Paris, enjoyed the revenues attached to the monastic community at La Celle. By the time of Benet Weldon, the bulk of St Edmund's revenue derived from some fourteen benefices, one being La Celle. By the last decade of the seventeenth century, a small alumnate for English boys had been established at La Celle, which stood on an island of the Grande Morin. The library at La Celle seems to have expanded quickly once the English monks took the priory over. Meanwhile the system of commendatory priors continued. One of them, Claude de Salo, a commendatory prior in 1652, left his library to La Celle, and his books were listed by Weldon in a catalogue forming an appendix to the 1702 catalogue.

At the same time, St Edmund's priory in Paris continued to consolidate its position in the capital. It was granted letters of establishment and naturalisation by the French king which allowed its monks who had degrees from the Sorbonne to hold French benefices, and it sent many of its monks to England as Benedictine missioners. Opposite was the chief monastery in Paris of the Carmelite nuns, next door was the royal abbey of the Val-de-Grace, and down the street lay the convent of the Visitation. Further off were the Irish and Scots Colleges, the college of St Gregory for the English secular clergy, and the monasteries of the English Augustinian Canonesses and English Benedictine nuns of Our Lady of Good Hope. A new range of monastic buildings was begun in the Rue Saint-Jacques in 1674 and these included a new library. The monastery resembled a large town house, with one wing incorporating the monastic cells and the other the public rooms, including the library. Both were connected by the chapel which ran north to south. In this chapel, in 1701, the remains of King James II were laid to rest, together with his daughter, Princess Marie Louise in 1712. Thus the monastery became a key institution of the Jacobite network which covered Europe.

There were usually around a dozen monks resident, including the librarian; the rest of the community were away on the English mission or were resident at La Celle. They wore the traditional English Benedictine habit and had tonsures. Although the regime was strict and living conditions spartan, which were noted by Dr. Samuel Johnson when he visited St Edmund's in October 1775, being in the centre of Paris had its own temptations and attractive diversions. During the eighteenth century, its most celebrated scholar was Dom Charles Walmesley (1722-97), an astronomer and mathematician who is believed to have advised the English government on its introduction of the Gregorian calendar. Walmesley was the Rector of the Society of St Edmund, a salon attended by monks and their lay friends interested in scientific questions which met between 1749 and 1753 and which had its own library and kept minutes of its meetings.

The monastery of St Edmund was suppressed, like other religious houses in France, during the French Revolution. The property became the property of the Nation in 1793, and the few monks left were imprisoned. In 1794 they were freed but led a fitful existence until 1818 when St Edmund's was re-established in Douai in northern France.

© Trustees of Douai Abbey, Registered Charity No. 236962.