Sarpi’s History of the Council of Trent and Captain Nicholas Humfrys

Posted on
January 6, 2016

Inscription in Sarpi's "Council of Trent"None of the books from the first library of William & Mary survived the 1705 fire, except, that is, for this one, Paolo Sarpi’s History of the Council of Trent (BX830 1545 .S323 1676b), found in England during the Second World War. How it ended up there is a mystery, especially in light of its inscription, which indicates that the book was the gift of Captain Nicholas Humfrys to William & Mary in the year before the fire. An answer to the question of how this book survived – or whether it ever made it to the College – may never be possible, but in looking at Humfrys’s life we may be able to put some of the pieces together.

An original part of the Nicholson Library, BX830 1545 .S323 1676b
An original part of the Nicholson Library, BX830 1545 .S323 1676b

Captain Humfrys seems to have been a Virginian: at the very least his ship, the Hartwell, was registered with the naval officers in the York River. Two years after the date of the inscription in the Sarpi, Humfrys is mentioned several times in the minutes of the governor’s council, a group that included the College President, James Blair. In January of 1705 he received two French prisoners of war to deliver to England “as soon as he comes there,” but by April Humfrys was complaining of one of the prisoners constantly escaping, and so the council ordered the prisoners sent on board one of Her Majesty’s ships.

From these fragments of information we know that the Hartwell was capable of the journey between Virginia and London, but also that he this was not a Royal Navy ship. In the midst of the War of Spanish Succession Humfrys was still making the trip to London, a fact that tells us that he was capable of carrying the prisoners and explains why he would have been able to bring a book like this to Virginia. He may even have carried more books for the library, though not at his own expense. President Blair had written to the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1700 suggesting that he employ a young scholar to buy books for the College. Blair then suggested that the student have them sent on to a Virginia merchant in London to be then forwarded to Williamsburg. Whether the ship bringing books to the College was the Hartwell or another merchant ship, the connection between Captain Humfrys, London, and the young College of William & Mary gives us a glimpse of how books came to the new place of learning, even as the mystery of this book’s survival eludes us.

Sarpi’s History of the Council of Trent is currently on display in The First Library of the College: Up in Flames, an exhibit located in the lobby of Swem Library's Special Collections Research Center until May 15.