Monday, March 27, 2023

A Seventeenth-Century English Translation of the "Stabat Mater"

Those of us who participate in our parishes praying the Stations of the Cross on the Fridays of Lent are probably most familiar with the Edward Caswall translation of the Stabat Mater Dolorosa and the hymn tune Mainz. But Corpus Christi Watershed introduced me to an older translation of that famous sequence from the reign of King James II, (“Under the World-redeeming Rood”) and set to a different tune (“Bayeux”).

Notes from their Brebeuf Hymnal include these details about its provenance:

This breathtaking translation of the STABAT MATER was allowed to be printed in London since it appeared during the reign of James II of England, a Catholic. He had converted from Anglicanism secretly in 1667. . . In an attempt to guess who created this elegant translation of the Stabat Mater, Monsignor Henry wrote: “It is not improbable that Dryden was its author, for his conversion to Catholicity took place in 1686—one year before the translation appeared—and he is known to have translated some of the old Latin hymns of the Divine Office. Certainly the unction, the poetic diction, the powerful rhythms, the close antitheses, of this exquisite poem are worthy of his pen.”

Please click on the link to hear a performance.

Information about its source: 

“The Office of the B. V. Mary in English, to which is added the Vespers in Latin and English, as it is sung in the Catholic Church upon all Sundays and principal Holy-days throughout the whole Year” (London: Printed by Henry Hills, Printer to the King’s Most Excellent Majesty for his Household and Chappel; And are to be sold at his Printing-house on the Ditch-side in Black-Fryers, 1687) p. 393.

Please note the printer, Henry Hills, and his designation as Printer to King James II. According to this blog post from Campbellsville University, Henry Hills had worked for Cromwell and then for Charles II as a printer:

Henry Hills (c.1625-1690) is one of the most contentious figures of the 17th Century, primarily because of his role as an official printer to successive governments on both sides of the political and religious debates that divided the nations for most of the 1600s. He was first employed by Sir Thomas Fairfax in Oxford in 1647, then by the Army and the Council of State in 1653, by Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector in December of 1653, and by Richard Cromwell in 1659. Following the Restoration, after a brief period of imprisonment, he was appointed as an official printer of Charles II, a position he also held within the court of James II. . . . Following his stint as a Baptist Dissenter, Hills became a staunch Anglican (under Charles II), and even a committed Catholic (under James II). In short, he embodied a wide range of religious perspectives, and managed to serve as a prolific printer and publisher for each of them. . . .

After Hills became a Catholic in 1686, he received that prestigious appointment as King James II's official printer--for the next 21 years! Of course, the reign didn't last that long but the patent he received was comprehensive:

This warrant was followed by an official patent on 19 March 1686. The terms of the patent licensed Hills to print and sell “any number of the books hereafter ment[i]oned that is to say Missalls, Breviarys, Manualls, Primers, Offices, Catechismes any lives of Saints, the book called the Spirit of Christianity.”

This article, by Violet Caswell of Boston College in 2016, provides more background about Hills as

It relates the story of Henry Hills, the wily craftsman who managed to retain his position as official printer to the crown throughout the extraordinarly [sic] different reigns of Charles II, Oliver Cromwell, James II, and Queen Anne. (Caswell, V. (2016). Meeting Henry Hills: Printer To The King’s Most Excellent Majesty. Elements, 12(2).

(When you click on the link you may access a .pdf of the article.)

While the Campbellsville University blog seems to doubt the sincerity of Henry Hills' Catholicism (calling him "The Prodigal Printer"), as does Caswell, the Dictionary of National Biography indicates that at least one member of his family took the Faith seriously, as one of his sons, Robert, became a priest:

Robert . . . was admitted a demy [he received a scholarship] of Magdalen College, Oxford, on 11 Jan. 1687–8, and was expelled on 24 Oct. 1688 [for being a Catholic?] (Bloxam, Magdalen College Register, vi. 56). He continued his studies at Douay, was ordained a priest, and eventually appointed to the mission at Winchester, where he died on 15 Jan. 1745–6 (Gillow, Dict. of English Catholics, iii. 312).

Gillow's entry for Father Robert Hill notes that he took the "oath of profession of faith" at Douai on October 4, 1689 and the Missionary Oath on April 17,1691.

Henry Hills' conversion to Catholicism meant that his character was considered suspect in that era, as indicated by the the biased sources for his life story, as referenced in the Dictionary of National Biography

(The following scurrilous pieces relate to Hills' chequered career: 1. A view of part of the many Traiterous, Disloyal, and Turn-about Actions of H. H., Senior, sometimes Printer to Cromwel, the Common-wealth, to the Anabaptist Congregation, to Cromwel's Army, Committee of Safety, Rump Parliament, &c., Lond., 1684, small sheet, fol. 2. The Life of H.H. With the relation at large of what passed betwixt him and the Taylors Wife in Black-friars, according to the Original, Lond. 1688, 8vo. . . .)

If you want to know more about the Stabat Mater Dolorosa, check out this website!

Image credit/Copyright: The Ninth Station (from the Stations of the Cross in my parish, Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church), (C) Stephanie A. Mann, 2023.
Image Source: (Public Domain) James in the 1660s by John Riley

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