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Robert Southwell Papers

Identifier: GTM-871005

Scope and Contents note

These papers consist primarily of correspondence, including one autograph letter signed by Antoine Arnauld to Robert Southwell; five contemporary copies of letters of Arnauld (Southwell's file copies); one autograph draft and 14 letters of Southwell's; a letter from Edward Coleman, a contemporary copy with a French translation; an autograph letter signed by William Blathwayt, Secretary of War; a letter of Henri Justel, Royal Librarian; and four miscellaneous items. Together, there are 29 documents, a few of them duplicates, comprising 97 pages bound in Middle Hill boards.

A substantial volume, bound in the Middle Hill boards of Sir Thomas Phillipps' great collection, the collection contains an important series of letters regarding English Catholicism and the "Popish Plot." The letters, together with retained copies of answers, are addressed to British diplomat Sir Robert Southwell and concern Edward Coleman (who was unjustly accused of treason by Titus Oates) and a subsequent, but related, controversy with the great French Jansenist logician, Antoine Arnauld.

In 1678, Titus Oates, a clever and bold perjurer, concocted and published charges that the English Catholics were about to assassinate King Charles II, subvert Protestantism in England, and reconvert the Country to Romanism by fire and sword. The charges were widely believed and caused a great panic. One of the first victims of Oates was Edward Coleman, tried and executed in 1678. He was the first of 35 persons executed on the testimony of Oates. One of the witnesses called in the trial was Sir Robert Southwell (1635 - 1702), a civil servant and diplomatist, whose testimony was generally favorable to Coleman.

When it became obvious that the "Popish Plot" was a gigantic fraud, Antoine Arnauld (1612 -1694; then living in the Netherlands) wrote a book in defense of the English Catholics, Apologie pour les Catholiques (1681 - 1682), in which he vigorously denounced Southwell, being under the erroneous impression that the latter was one of Coleman's prosecutors. In the papers of this collection, we see how Southwell was able to prove the contrary.

The first part in the sequence of the correspondence is a letter written by Antoine Arnauld to Henri Justel apologising somewhat reservedly for his comments about Southwell in Apologie... In the letter Arnauld explains what he has understood to be the facts of Edward Coleman's trial. The next part of the correspondence concerns a letter which Southwell is writing to Justel so that it may be sent to Arnauld. The letter refutes Arnauld's comments about Southwell, going so far as to include copies of Coleman's arrest warrant, a copy of a letter from Coleman to Southwell thanking him for his help at the time of his arrest, and excised parts of Coleman's court proceedings and Arnauld's Apologie... describing the trial placed side by side. There are a number of letters from Southwell to Justel asking him to revise this letter, translate it carefully and have it sent to Arnauld in Paris through William Blathwayt. The next part of the correspondence is a pair of letters from Arnauld, one to Justel and one to Southwell, both apologising unreservedly for his remarks about Southwell in his book. Southwell notes on his copy of Arnauld's letter that he has shown the letter to the King, then James II, and that the King approved. The last part of the correspondence is a copy of a letter from Southwell to Arnauld acknowledging the receipt of Arnauld's letter of apology. This last letter is just as formal as the rest of the correspondence between the two, and it seems clear that Southwell still resents Arnauld for the damage which has already been done.

In the letters, we not only learn a great deal about the relationship between Southwell, Arnauld and Justel, but we also see much detailed information of the trial of Edward Coleman. Southwell's accounts of the trial are particularly personal, with a letter from Coleman himself during the trial. Southwell also includes official documentation which compliments his personal accounts well. Arnauld reveals a foreigner's perspective on the trial, uncertain of exact details but having strong feelings about a conspiracy against Coleman. Hence we get a close view of what bases Arnauld used in order to write Apologie pour les Catholiques.

The letters are from Southwell's own files. The papers are known to have been purchased from Thomas Thorpe, a book and manuscript dealer in England, by Sir Thomas Phillipps in 1836. Phillipps (1792 - 1872) was a renowned collector of manuscripts and rare books who often bought huge collections of manuscripts at a time. Southwell's papers were purchased by Phillipps along with the rest of Thorpe's entire collection of over 1,600 manuscripts for [sterling]6,000. Phillipps' catalogue number, # 10052, can be seen on the binding.


  • 1678 - 1685

Conditions governing access note

Most manuscripts collections at the Georgetown University Booth Family Center for Special Collections are open to researchers; however, restrictions may apply to some collections. Collections stored off site require a minimum of three days for retrieval. For use of all manuscripts collections, researchers are advised to contact the Booth Family Center for Special Collections in advance of any visit.


1 Linear Feet (1 box)

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Other finding aids note


Robert Southwell Papers
Georgetown University Library Booth Family Center for Special Collections, Washington, D.C.
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Repository Details

Part of the Georgetown University Manuscripts Repository

Lauinger Library, 5th Floor
37th and O Streets, N.W.
Washington DC 20057