Turning a new page

This is the opening post from what we hope will be a regular blog with news from the Perne and Ward libraries at Peterhouse. We intend to present fresh material roughly once a month.

Richard Crashaw (c. 1613-1649)

Until 4 May 2013, there will be an exhibition in the Ward Library to commemorate the anniversary of the birth of the poet, Richard Crashaw.

Crashaw was a member of two Cambridge Colleges, Pembroke and Peterhouse. He was also a recipient of patronage from St John’s, to whose library his father was a benefactor. The exhibition is based on the collections of the three Colleges. It seeks to illustrate the remarkable career that Crashaw led as a writer of Latin, Greek, and English verses, as a member of the University and curate of Little St Mary’s church, and (to the scandal of many of his contemporaries) as a convert to Catholicism.


Pembroke College Matriculation Register (with thanks to the Master and Fellows of Pembroke).

Crashaw’s date of birth is unknown and must be conjectured from the matriculation registers at Pembroke, where he enrolled aged eighteen on 6 July 1631. He came up to Cambridge from Charterhouse.

Memorial tablet, Old Library, Pembroke (with thanks to Jayne Ringrose).

Crashaw had learned to write Latin and Greek verses at school, and these skills were important in helping him to make a mark at Cambridge. Writing Latin poetry was a formal accompaniment to academic examinations, and the University often published books of verse in classical languages to mark significant events. At Pembroke, Crashaw won the Watts scholarship, which required its holder to compose Latin epigrams on biblical topics. Crashaw’s sequence of scriptural epigrams formed the matter of his first book, Epigrammatum sacrorum liber (published in 1634, and on display in the exhibition). The book had clear Pembroke origins, apparent in its dedications, and showed the success with which Crashaw had won local patrons. One of the routes to such success was the composition of memorial and other occasional verses, at which Crashaw also excelled (for example, his contribution to the tablet commemorating William Herris, ‘now of the College of Heaven’, in what is today the Old Library at Pembroke).


Registrum Vetus, Peterhouse Archives.

Crashaw’s move to Peterhouse (where he was admitted as a fellow on 20 November 1635, according to the entry in the College’s Old Register) was probably brokered by Matthew Wren, until recently Master of the College, formerly a fellow and benefactor of Pembroke, and a rising ecclesiastical star at the court of Charles I.


Crashaw’s portrait of Lady Margaret (with thanks to the Master and Fellows of St John’s).


John Williams by Richard Crashaw (with thanks to the Master and Fellows of St John’s).


Charles I by Richard Crashaw (with thanks to the Master and Fellows of St John’s).

Certainly, Crashaw was the consistent beneficiary of patronage from avant-garde divines throughout Cambridge. William Beale, (Master of St John’s from 1634) commissioned him in July 1635 to paint copies of portraits of two of the most important donors to that College and of the King. These portraits were for inclusion in the benefactors’ book of the new library at St John’s, in which well over a thousand books and manuscripts acquired from the collections of Crashaw’s father, William, were now housed.  They showed the College’s founder, Lady Margaret Beaufort (copying the panel portrait by Rowland Lockey); John Williams (Keeper of the Great Seal and Bishop of Lincoln), who had provided the funds for building the library (after a portrait by Gilbert Jackson); and Charles I (after a portrait owned by Beale himself). The portraits of Lady Margaret and the King were executed on canvas and later pasted onto the parchment pages of the book; that of Williams was painted directly into the volume.


Payment to Richard Crashaw (with thanks to the Master and Fellows of St John’s).

The library expenses at St John’s record the payment of £13 6s. 8d. to Crashaw ‘for drawing three pictures in the booke of Benefactors to the Library’.

Other items on display in the exhibition draw attention to Crashaw’s involvement in the creation of the new chapel at Peterhouse, which may have begun with the composition of verses to promote the raising of funds for the building. The building of the chapel was begun by Matthew Wren, and, under the mastership of John Cosin in the mid-1630s, attention moved to decorating the interior to achieve a sense of the beauty of holiness. Crashaw appears to have been extensively involved in this activity: Peterhouse paid for frames for pictures that he had designed, and bought prints from the London bookseller, Robert Peake, through him. These served as models for the paintings that were being commissioned from Dutch craftsmen for the chapel’s walls.


Teresa of Avila, from Carmen deo nostro.

A feature of the exhibition is its display of visual material that can be associated with Crashaw, whose work as a poet is better known than his activities as an artist. Several of Crashaw’s earliest commissions (including what may be his first published work) were to provide verses to accompany frontispieces to books. Other poems reflected on pictures of friends or patrons or became tied to religious images that evoked themes similar to their content. This became most apparent in the posthumous collection of Crashaw’s verse (Carmen deo nostro) published at Paris in 1652 by Thomas Car. Car reused a number of Catholic devotional images, cut for the most part by the Parisian engraver, Jean Messager, to illustrate Crashaw’s poems. His claim that these were original compositions by Crashaw seems implausible. Yet it may well be that Crashaw (like the inhabitants of Little Gidding, with whom he was friendly from the 1630s) used to reuse prints made by others as the basis of his own drawings or that he deployed them to provide illustrations for his verse and models for meditation in the manuscript that he presented to his patron, the Countess of Denbigh, which Car in turn seems to have used for his copy.


Engraving to illustrate Crashaw’s poem ‘The Weeper’, from Carmen deo nostro.


Engraving from Carmen deo nostro (‘Sancta Maria Dolorum’).

Preparation of the exhibition recovered information about the provenance of Peterhouse’s copy of Carmen deo nostro, which was given to the College by the early twentieth-century editor of Crashaw’s poems, A.R. Waller.



Frontispiece used for Steps to the Temple from 1670.

 The exhibition contains a representative sample of editions of Crashaw’s verse, including copies of all the seventeenth-century editions of his most famous publication, Steps to the Temple (first published in 1646; the frontispiece used from 1670 is illustrated here). It also displays books from William Crashaw’s library that treat topics to which his son alluded in his poems: most notably an early seventeenth-century consideration of the wounds of Christ, as depicted on the Turin Shroud. Finally, a section in the exhibition concerns modern editing of Crashaw’s verse from the eighteenth century through the first standard edition (by A.B. Grosart) to the work of twentieth-century editors.


Crashaw by Ford Madox Brown, Peterhouse Hall.

Consideration of Crashaw’s reputation is enhanced by the display of archival material relating to Peterhouse’s decision to include a portrait of Crashaw in the decorative scheme of stained glass being prepared for the restoration of the College hall by Morris & Co. in the early 1870s.  No portrait of the poet exists, as enquiries soon revealed. Prompted by Adolphus William Ward (then professor of history and English literature at Manchester, later Master of Peterhouse), the artist Ford Madox Brown therefore showed his subject in emblematic form as poet and painter. The resulting window (pictured here) may be viewed in the College hall.

XPIC 12 Loreto 1853

Loreto in 1853.

Stained glass provides Crashaw’s monument at Peterhouse, from whose fellowship he was expelled along with other Royalists in 1644 as a result of the Parliamentarian dominance of Cambridge during the English civil war. In exile, first in France, then in Rome, and finally at Loreto (where he died), Crashaw formally abandoned the Church of England, which he had served as curate of Little St Mary’s, and which he and his Cambridge colleagues sought to transform. The exhibition also explores aspects of the poet’s conversion to Catholicism and his service as a canon of the Holy House at Loreto, displaying accounts written by English exiles who visited Rome in the late 1640s. It concludes with the testimony of a Lancastrian Catholic parish priest relating to the proper garb of a canon of Loreto, requested by A.W. Ward to assist Morris & Co. in finding the correct colours for Crashaw’s window.

Members of the College may view the exhibition during library opening hours. Visitors are welcome by appointment (email: library@pet.cam.ac.uk). A catalogue is available.



  1. Patricia Aske · · Reply

    This is more than a blog! Fascinating and full of information. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. […] first post is about Richard Crashaw, metaphysical poet and fellow of Peterhouse from 1637 until he was ejected in […]

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