A war of books

books-not-warThe British Foreign Office and the University of Oxford have received a formal request to return a collection of books, which was looted by Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex when his troops sacked the city of Faro in 1596. The authorities in Britain are being tight-lipped at the outset of what could become a prolonged historical wrangle involving the world’s two oldest allies.

The seizure took place while Portugal was under Spanish rule during the 16th century Anglo-Spanish War. A combined British-Dutch fleet under the Lord High Admiral Charles Howard was returning to England after destroying Cádiz when a flotilla pulled into Faro. Troops led by Essex found the city virtually deserted. He occupied the bishop’s palace for a couple of nights and then loaded up the book collection, comprising at least 91 volumes, before leaving the city ablaze. Essex presented the collection to his friend Sir Thomas Bodley and it became part of the library Bodley founded in 1602. The Bodleian is still one of the most acclaimed libraries in the world.

The ownership of the pillaged books is clear because nearly all are uniformly bound and have on their covers the armorial stamp of Ferdinand Mascarenhas, appointed the 5th Bishop of Faro two years before the raid. The request for the books’ return is contained in a motion passed unanimously at the general assembly of a 250-member organization called Faro 1540, which is devoted to protecting and promoting the cultural heritage of the Algarve capital. Copies of the motion have been sent to Buckingham Palace and the British Embassy in Lisbon, as well as Portugal’s secretary of state for culture and senior officials in the Algarve. They are mostly 16th century treatises on theology, scholastic philosophy and canon law. Some had been published in Germany, France, Belgium and Italy just a few years prior to their theft.(Text in portuguese  http://www.faro1540.org/?p=1994)

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