The history of the Saint-Omer First Folio is tied, like the history of Saint-Omer itself, to the town’s past as a center of learning before the French Revolution. The eponym of Saint-Omer was Saint Audomar (died 670 A.D.), more popularly known as Saint Omer. This is why residents are collectively called Audomarois.
The city of Saint-Omer sprang up around a monastic community founded under St. Omer’s patronage. He founded the Diocese of Thérouanne, which was known as Terwaan or Terenburg at the time.
At the request of Dagobert I, King of Austrasia (623-634), King of All Franks (629-634), King of Neustria and Burgundy (629-639), Omer, a Burgundian monk before his consecration as bishop in 637, re-introduced Christianity to this region of Neustria.
The city of Thérouanne had been the capital of the Morini tribe of Celts in Belgic Gaul. Although Saints Fuscian and Victoricus had converted the Morini to Christianity, there was no sign of the religion when King Dagobert made his request.
Upon his mother’s death, Omer had entered the monastery at Luxeuil, which had been founded in 535 A.D. by the Irish monk St. Columbanus on the ruins of a Roman fortress in the Diocese of Besançon in modern Switzerland. In 638, the abbot of the Luxeui monastery sent several monks to assist Omer, including Saints Bertin, Mommolin, and Ebertran.
In 654 A.D., Omer founded the Abbey of Saint Peter. Adrowald, a nobleman who had converted to Christianity, donated a tract of land called Sithiu which Omer provided to the monks.
The monastic community grew so rapidly that it had to move to another location at Sithiu. The city of Saint-Omer grew up around the second monastery they built.
Mommolin was the first abbot and Bertin was the second. Bertin (circa 615-709) was a kinsman of Omer.
His reputation for sanctity was so great that Bertin was recognized as a saint shortly after his death and the Abbey of Saint Peter was renamed the Abbey of Saint Bertin. Audomar also founded the Church of Our Lady of Sithiu with an attached monastery, which he also gave to the monks of the Abbey of Saint Peter (as it was then known).
When Pepin the Short, Mayor of the Palace, deposed King Childeric III in 751, with the permission of Pope Zachary (after inquiring if the royal title should be held by the man who wielded the real power), Childeric was forced to become a monk in the Abbey of St. Bertin. His son was also forced to become a monk, and may have joined the deposed king at the Abbey of St. Bertin.
About 150 after St. Omer’s death, Abbot Fridugisus applied the reform of Louis the Pious (lived 778-840, ruled 813-840), the son of Charlemagne who ruled as the second emperor of the Carolingian Dynasty. The chapel became a collegiate church, meaning it was administered by a college of canons: a non-monastic community of secular (diocesan) priests. This one consisted of thirty chanoines.
It was this church that evolved into the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Saint-Omer (Cathedral of Our Lady at Saint-Omer). Over time, the first wooden church building was replaced by a stone collegiate church built in the Romanesque style of architecture in the second half of the 11th Century, and a larger Gothic church building.
In 1553, Charles V (Emperor Karl V /King Carlos I of Spain, Naples and Sicily) destroyed the city of Thérouanne in retaliation for his defeat by the French in the Siege of Metz (1552-53). He moved the enormous statue of Christ seated between the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Apostle from the cathedral he destroyed to the Cathedral of Our Lady at Saint- Omer. The Diocese of Saint-Omer was one of several successors to the Diocese of Thérouanne.
The location of St. Omer’s tomb is unknown, but there is a cenotaph in the Cathedral of Our Lady at Saint-Omer. The abbey’s old collegiate church gained cathedral status in 1559. This was the seat of the bishops of Saint-Omer, but the diocese was not re-recreated following the French Revolution under the Concordat of 1801 that Napoleon negotiated with Pope Pius VII.
Instead, the territory was absorbed into the Diocese of Arras, which encompasses the entirety of the Department Pas-de-Calais. [Arras is the capital city of Pas-de-Calais.] For this reason, although the Cathedral of Our Lady at Saint- Omer is clearly a cathedral building, under cannon law it is no longer considered a cathedral for ecclesiastic purposes.
Instead, it is a minor basilica, a designation Pope Leo XIII gave it in 1879. The episcopal palace is now a court-house.
The library, archives, and art collection of the Abbey of St. Bertin were famous beyond France. Brother Robert Guérard (1641-1715) published the charters of the Abbey of St. Bertin as Cartulaire de l’abbaye de St. Bertin.
Thanks to the atheistic French Revolution, the Benedictine monks were expelled in 1791 and the abbey was sold at auction in 1799. The Gothic abbey now lies in ruins.
The municipal government demolished most of the Abbey of St. Bertin and used the stone to build the town hall, an act decried by Victor Hugo. The ruins of the abbey church can be viewed in a public park.
In Saint-Omer, Jesuits founded colleges for Walloons (the French-speaking Celts of modern Belgium) in 1565 and Englishmen in 1592. Gérard d’Haméricourt, Bishop of Saint-Omer, asked the Jesuits to found the Walloon College.
Back then, Saint-Omer was part of the County of Artois, which was not yet part of France. It was ruled by Spanish monarchs as part of the Spanish Netherlands, which they inherited as a result of Mary the Rich, Duchess of Burgundy’s marriage to Emperor Maximillian and their son Philip the Fair’s marriage to King Ferdinand & Queen Isabella’s daughter Joanna the Mad.
Artois became part of the Kingdom of France when the French conquered it during the Franco- The Kingdom of Spain recognized this in the Treaty of the Pyrenees (1659). King Louis XIV of France and Navarre conquered Saint-Omer in 1677.
It was the English Jesuit, Father Robert Parsons (1546-1610), who founded the English College at Saint-Omer (often called St. Omer’s or St. Omers by Englishmen) for the education of Catholic laymen. He had been an acting rector of the English College in Rome, which was a seminary for English missionary-priests, a number of whom became martyrs.
Father Parsons (also spelled Persons) drew his first students from a small school he had founded at Eu in Normandy. It quickly drew Catholic students from England (as they could not legally receive Catholic educations in Protestant England under the Penal Laws). In 1684, all of the English College at Saint-Omer’s buildings burned down.
The Kingdom of France and Navarre expelled the Society of Jesus in 1762. Consequently, the faculty members and some of the students of the English College moved to the Flemish city of Bruges, which was then in the Austrian Netherlands and now is in the Kingdom of Belgium.
There, they established a new college under the protection of Maria Theresa (1717-1780), Queen of Hungary, Queen of Bohemia, and Archduchess of Austria (1740-1780) and Empress of the Holy Roman Empire (1745-1765). She was the last of the Catholic monarchs to take part in the 1773 worldwide suppression of the Society of Jesus outside the Russian Empire.
The ex-Jesuit priests and most of their students at Bruges moved yet again. They re-constituted the English College in the Principality of Liège, which was then part of the Holy Roman Empire and is now mostly part of the Kingdom of Belgium. They enjoyed the patronage of François Charles de Velbrück (1719-1784), Prince-Bishop of Liège (1772-1784).
In 1794, the faculty and students departed Liège. [To place this exodus in context, the Liège Revolution, which began in 1789, was crushed by the Holy Roman Empire in 1791, and led to annexation by Revolutionary France in 1795]. By then, enough of the anti-Catholic laws in England had been relaxed that most of the faculty and staff returned to their home island.
Thomas Weld, a former student who had studied at the English College in Bruges, donated his mansion, Stonyhurst Hall, in Lancashire for the site of a new Jesuit college. This became Stonyhurst College.
It educates children ages thirteen-to-eighteen while its prep school St. Mary’s Hall educates children ages three-to-thirteen. Both Stonyhurst College and Sixth Level and St. Mary’s Hall are day-and-boarding schools.
At the behest of King Louis XV, meanwhile, clergy who taught at the English College in Douai, who were not Jesuits, replaced the Jesuit faculty at the English College in Saint-Omer. Douai was home to an English college, an Irish College, and a Scottish College.
The Douai clergymen transferred their preparatory school to Saint-Omer. A second fire in 1725 resulted in further reconstruction of the English College at Saint-Omer. The oldest English College buildings in the city date back to this period.
In August of 1793, during the French Revolution, and as a result of the United Kingdom’s declaration of war on the (First) Republic of France, Dr. Stapleton, President of St. Omer, and the St. Omer students, were arrested. They were imprisoned first at Anas, and then, along with the faculty and students of Douai, at Doullens in Picardy.
After the fall of Robespierre (and thus the end of the Reign of Terror), the French Revolutionaries took the English prisoners to Douai. They were released in February of 1795.
Dr. Stapleton soon joined a Catholic college that had formed in the south of England. On November 16, 1793, the Feast of St. Edmund, Bishop Douglass gathered four Douai students and founded the College of St. Edmund at Old Hall near Ware, in Hertfordshire. He intended St. Edmund’s College to be a seminary as well as a school for laymen.
Dr. Stapleton later joined St. Edmund’s College as president. He was joined by two of the professors from Douai.
This is now St. Edmund’s College & Prep School. It is a day school and boarding school for children ages three-to-eighteen.
Today, in Saint-Omer, the Lycée Alexandre Ribot occupies former college buildings. The Bibliothèque d’aggolmération de Saint-Omer (Agglomerated Library of Saint-Omer), founded in 1805, occupies former Walloon College buildings.
The library collections of the abbey and colleges and the woodwork from the abbey library were incorporated into the public library. In 1799, Jean-Charles Joseph Aubin, a Benedictine monk and librarian, began to sort and classify the books in the amalgamated collection.
There are 887 manuscripts from 9th Century to the 18th Century. Of these, 549 manuscripts are from the Benedictine Abbey of St. Bertin, 115 are from the Cistercian Abbey of Clairmarais, and thirty-five manuscripts from the Chapter of the Cathedral of Our Lady at Saint-Omer. Claimarais is about two miles from Saint-Omer. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), founded the Abbey of Clairmarais in 1140, as a daughter house of Clairvaux Abbey, and the monastic community there also disbanded as a result of the French Revolution.
Around 150 incunabula published between 1450 and 1500 represent the output of 106 printer-publishers. One of these books is a forty-two-line Gutenberg Bible.
The collection of “old printed” books consists of 16,622 books published from the 16th Century to 1914. One of these old books is the Shakespeare First Folio librarian Rémy Cordonnier discovered last November.
 Childeric had the misfortune to be the last of the Merovingian kings. Pepin the Short (circa 714-768) became the first of the Carolingian kings. He was the son of Charles Martel (circa 668-741) – who defeated the Arab invasion of France in the Battle of Tours in 732 – and grandfather of Charlemagne, King of the Franks (768-814), King of Italy (774-814), and Emperor of the West (800-814).
 Finding itself surrounded on three sides by Hapsburg dominions with the Burgundian Netherlands to the north, the Holy Roman Empire to the east, and Spain to the south, French kings of the House of Valois and House of Bourbon did everything they could to fight the Hapsburgs openly. They also undermined the Spanish Hapsburgs by supporting Dutch rebels in the Burgundian (later Spanish) Netherlands and the Duchy of Savoy in Italy and undermined the Austrian Hapsburgs by forging alliances with Protestant princes in the Holy Roman Empire and the Protestant Kingdom of Sweden, as well as the Muslim Ottoman Turkish Empire. The Kingdom of France supported the Kingdom of Sweden which entered the Thirty Years War on the side of Protestant nobles in the Holy Roman Empire. After an army of Catholic Germans, Spaniards, and Italians defeated the Protestant army of Swedes and Germans at the Battle of Nördlingen (1634), France attacked a Spanish army in the Battle of Les Avins (also known as the Battle of Avein) in the Netherlands in 1635.