Author Archives: ferguswilde

  1. Richard Johnson, the First Librarian: No Surplus Surplice?


    Richard Johnson is said to have been Chetham’s very first librarian, but his back story and relationship with Humphrey Chetham is better documented than his time in that post. His life spanned the first three quarters of the 17 th century; at least until he was 60 he was a key figure in the prevailing religious and political strife. Born in Buckinghamshire and graduating from Brazenose, Oxford, Johnson was a scholarly defendant of the Anglican settlement and prayer book established during the reign of Elizabeth I. Appointed curate of Gorton in 1628 he became its minister shortly after, in which post he befriended Chetham, who owned the neighbouring Clayton Hall and its extensive lands and was already a powerful civic figure. Perhaps as a result of this friendship Johnson became a fellow of Manchester Collegiate Church in 1632.

    The lives of Johnson and Chetham were thereafter intertwined. Chetham was conscientious in cultivating friends from all parties but Johnson saw it as his calling to maintain the collegiate church as a bulwark against growing puritanism around Manchester and the entrenched catholicism in the rest of Lancashire. This was no easy task. In the year of Johnson’s appointment another fellow of the college, Daniel Baker, drowned under Salford Bridge. Either he was ‘overcharged with drinke’ or, as was alleged with several other protestant clergy, he was murdered. This was a time when men, even scholarly clerics, went about their business armed with daggers. The affairs of the collegiate church were in disarray, partly as a result of the absentee wardenship of John Dee and then Richard Murray. When Johnson took up his fellowship he was shocked: he wrote to Chetham that Richard Murray had fallen or been thrust into ‘recklessness of most unclean living’ and subsequently he became embroiled in a confused and distinctly ungodly tale of greed, accusation and counter- accusation. Murray was eventually imprisoned for embezzlement and bastardy. His supporter Peter Shaw claimed that some were ‘seeking to disgrace him by secret calumnies and slanderous letters.’ Shaw accused Johnson in his turn of embezzlement, failing to wear the surplice, administering the sacrament to private seats, omitting parts of divine service, and neglecting Gorton chapel. It is ironic that some of these sins, seen as signs of non-conformity, were imputed to Johnson, who was entirely conformist. Humphrey Chetham, now Receiver of the College Revenues, was well aware of the situation, and Johnson was effusive and frank in his thanks to Chetham for his ‘warninge concerning our subtile and wily enemye’ and opined that Murray would ‘lye in prison till hee stinks before he will pay.’ This was hardly the language of devout Anglican scholarship. He went on to make a not altogether convincing defence against the allegations to Archbishop Laud, including the statement that he had constantly worn the surplice ‘unlesse it were some one day or another in the washinge … or through the negligence of the clerk.’ Was there no surplus surplice?

    Photo of metal cut showing an Anglican Priest, as he might have appeared circa 1600.

    Metal cut showing an Anglican Priest in his surplice, as he might have appeared circa 1600.

    Despite all the skullduggery, Johnson emerged as the man to negotiate with Archbishop Laud and the privy council for a new charter and reform of the Collegiate Church. Encouraged and financed by Chetham, and thanking him for his support, Johnson set off for London to plead his case and secure agreement about the future management of the church. This was an onerous task, as Johnson made clear in letters to his friend. By August 1635 nothing was settled, and he wrote: ‘I must stay till ye Kinge cometh agayne to London before I can have his hand or knowe who shall be Warden. Charter must pass through three seales and be foure tymes transcribed in parchment or in vellum … Letters of sequestration of ye tythes are in forgeinge. I use my skill. God bless you.’

    Even at this time Johnson was aware ofthe dangers of such free expression of opinion. He urged Chetham, clearly to no avail, to ‘do as much for this letter as I did for yours; sacrifice it to Vulcane.’ The closeness of the two men is further illustrated in a letter from Johnson to Chetham about the christening, at which he was sponsor, of the latter’s nephew and namesake. Eventually Johnson was vindicated, the charter was sealed and a new warden appointed, Richard Heyrick. Although at that time showing non- conformist tendencies and later joining the presbyterians as a covenanter, Heyrick was a man Chetham could do business with. Building work was undertaken in the collegiate church, partly financed by Chetham. Posts, wages and finance were settled. Johnson retained his fellowship and served alongside his ‘wily enemye’ Peter Shaw. Johnson had demonstrated his skills as a negotiator and ambassador, but felt he owed a great debt to his deare friende. His letters show the staunch support he in his turn provided to Chetham in times of trouble. The first of these was when Chetham was accused of ‘borrowing’ a coat of arms from another family and not following proper heraldic practice. In a long letter in June 1635, Johnson wrote ‘I might justly be condemned of a pragmatical humour, or as a busy body in other men’s matters if I had not been intreated to yeild my advise, Sir, I perceive that some malicious knaves have endeavoured to disgrace you about your Coate of Armes.’ He went on to warn Chetham to be careful of certain alliances as some of the Lancashire (no doubt catholic) gentry were displeased with his presumption. In the end, Chetham’s loyal work as Sheriff, and some greasing of palms, saved his reputation and secured the arms we now see in the library.

    Further moral support was given when Chetham was involved in disputes and accused of fraudulence over leases of the church lands, and later when he upset tenants with his attempts to boost income from his estates. Chetham survived these setbacks and when he reluctantly accepted the post of Sheriff of Lancashire (which made him a glorified tax collector for the King) he appointed Johnson, still in London, as his chaplain. So effective in performance of his onerous duties was Chetham during the early reign of Charles I that years later, in November 1648, Parliament nominated him again as ‘Sheriffe of the Countie of Lancaster’. This time there followed a bitter struggle to evade the honour, in which he was once again energetically supported by his friend Johnson, who joined others in the effort to get the nomination annulled. During this campaign Johnson wrote to Chetham: ‘Sr, we will doe what we can, be of Good cheere, I think you may with conscience, beinge so ould (he was 68) and weake and broken with cares, pleade want of abilitie in memory and understanding and thus be released from the burden.’ Johnson opined that some rich and great man may be found. He had been talking to his contacts in Parliament and suggested that if the plan did not work Chetham should petition Parliament to appoint two under-sheriffs to do most of the work. Johnson was well aware that any resistance to Parliament was dangerous. Referring to another letter, he wrote: ‘I did not for a tyme dare to write an answer for some letters use to be opened, I think you understand mee.’ He was full of a sense of doom. ‘The Lord have mercy on us … men’s mouths are sewed up … if the Soldiery take all ye power and new modell ye kingdom, it is a question how little will be left to you to doe, and it may be the lesse the better’. The crisis was all over for Chetham by April 1649. The King was dead, the Commonwealth established, and John Hartley of Strangeways was appointed sheriff.

    Johnson had every reason to be cautious. In 1646 parliamentary supremacy in Manchester had led to the suppression of the Church of England and the establishment of presbyterianism in a ‘godly reformation.’ Johnson’s Anglicanism and suspected royalism led him to lose his fellowship in the chaotic early days of the Commonwealth, when the college was dissolved and the warden and fellows dismissed. It was said, clearly by a fellow royalist, ‘Ye greatest sufferer was Mr Richard Johnson, fellow, a pious, learned and sober man. He was carried to Lancaster or Chester Jail, and stoned in the streets here and they carryed him to prison for his loyalty and because he was utterly against ye Republicans, and Cromwel’s tyrannous usurpation. The fellows who seized him would not permit him to put on his boots, but he was forced to twist whisps of straw or hay round his legs to defend him from the dirt; and in this posture they mounted him upon a poor, ragged little beast’. Despite this ignominy Johnson returned to London on his release, first as preacher then as Master of the Temple Church, in which role he became involved in the acquisition of scholarly and religious books for its library, the Inns of Court being at that time both a training ground for lawyers and a finishing school for the gentry. He may have become acquainted with Robert Littlebury, a renowned buyer and seller of books and a man of ‘composed and serious countenance’ who later played animportant part in supplying books for Chetham’s library. Johnson continued his frank correspondence with his friend, sending dramatic accounts of riots and disturbance in the capital against the new regime and saying that he proposed to stay at the Temple until ‘ye Lord be pleased to putt ye Kingdome in some more peaceable and stable condicion.’

    Photo of woodcut illustration of the Temple Church, London

    A woodcut image of the Temple Church.

    When Chetham died in September 1653 Richard Johnson was of course remembered in his will. He featured in the list of feoffees as ‘Gentleman Richard Johnson Clerke late one of the Fellows of the College in Manchester’ and was nominated as one of a trio entrusted with the acquisition of books for the church libraries. Johnson and Chetham’s friendship, their affiliation to Gorton and Johnson’s skill as a preacher no doubt influenced the choice of Gorton as one of the parishes where a library would be established. Chetham also requested that Johnson should preach his funeral sermon and further decreed: ‘I give unto my lovinge friend Mr Richard Johnson preacher att the Temple London three score pounds’. At the famously lavish funeral Johnson was furnished with a mourning suit for which £7 was provided from the expenses. Even before the scholarly library was established Johnson, together with Richard Hollinworth and John Tilsley, began the business of acquiring ‘godly books (in English) for the edification of the common people’ for the parish libraries. After the Restoration in 1660 Johnson’s fellowship of the collegiate church was restored. He seems to have acted with prudence and discretion working alongside colleagues with different religious and political allegiances. In 1660 one of his renowned sermons began: ‘The name of Liberty is very precious. The thing which men call Liberty is desired by all, abused by many, understood by very few.’ As a feoffee of the Chetham foundation he now took a leading role. Their minutes of 27 May 1661 note: ‘Mr Johnson and Mr Edward Chetham at the desyre of the other feoffees doe intend to meet at London about this day six weeks to endeavour the Incorporating of the Hospital and Librarie from his Majestie.’ The instructions for this charter include the provision: ‘Mr Johnson to be named the present Librarie Keeper in the foundation for his life (if hee accept of it) with such yearly stipend and salaries as shall be thought fit by the feoffees.’ The royal charter was finally granted four years later on 10 th November 1665.

    The earliest acquisitions for the library were, appropriately, of a theological nature, geared towards the concerns of local preaching clergy and scholars. Invoices covering the period of Johnson’s tenure provide rich evidence not only of the books acquired but of other expenses in getting them delivered from London. For example, on 2 August 1655 we learn that the cost of ‘carriage of it (the consignment) with ye chains, Rods, ye chains for patternes’ was £0.2.5d.’ After the first theological purchases, the librarians began to collect classical works, and then branched out into natural history, travel, law, medicine, history and science. During Johnson’s period of office at least two English works of distinction were acquired:

    Photo of engraved title page of Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, 1632

    The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton, 1658, is a vast medical textbook, but also a work of literature, science and philosophy, both serious and satirical in tone. In the preface Burton explains ‘I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy.’ It cost ten shillings.

    Photo of title page of Francis Bacon's Advancement of Learning, 1605.

    Francis Bacon shown in The Advancement of Learning of 1605. He broke new ground by arguing that the only knowledge of importance was that which could be discovered by observation- ’empirical’ knowledge rooted in the natural world. The book cost 8 shillings.

    The most valuable book acquired during this period was Besler’s Hortus Eystettensis (The Bishop’s Garden) of 1613.

    Photo of detail of page of Basil Besler's Hortus £ystettensis, 1613

    A detail from this botanical masterpiece, which measures 55 x 44cm and takes two people to lift. It is printed from elaborately prepared copper engravings and has 367 plates illustrating more than 1000 species

    Photo of hand-coloured page of Basil Besler's Hortus Eystettensis, 1613

    A very few copies of the Hortus Eystettensis were printed on special paper and hand coloured by teams of illuminators

    It is to be hoped that Johnson took some pleasure in the acquisition of such treasures in the name of his old friend. The library keeper’s footprint grows fainter towards the end of his life. He remained nominally in post but took up a living as rector of St Paul’s church, Broadwell, Gloucestershire, whose clergy house was at Adelstrop, while Robert Browne and then Edward Lees acted as deputies at Chetham’s Library. Johnson continued to preach thoughtful and scholarly sermons, and died in 1675, perhaps having finally enjoyed some respite from religious strife away from the turbulence of Manchester.

    Photo of hand-coloured title-page of Basil Besler's Hortus Eystettensis, 1613.

    Title page of one of the coloured editions. Both the above reproduced in Hortus Eystettensis : The Bishop’s Garden and Besler’s Magnificent Book> Nicolas Barker, 1994

    Title page of one of the coloured editions. Both the above reproduced in ‘Hortus Eystettensis : The Bishop’s Garden and Besler’s Magnificent Book.’ Nicolas Barker 1994


    Cunliffe Shaw, R. ‘A Lancashire Clerical Family of the 16th and 17th centuries.’ Historic Society of Lancashire and Chesire, 1963

    Groves, Gill. ‘Reverend Daniel Baker – Murder Victim?’ Ashton and Sale History Society Journal 32 2017

    Guscott, S. J. Humphrey Chetham 1580-1653. Chetham Society 2003

    Purdy, J G. Parish Libraries and their Readers in Early Modern England. PhD thesis, MMU 2021

    Raines, Robert et al. The Life of Humphrey Chetham. Chetham Society, 1903

    Raines, Robert. The Fellows of the Collegiate Church of Manchester Chetham society, 1891 ; Digitized, Aug 8, 2005.

    Snape, Anne. ’17th Century Book Purchasing in Chetham’s Library.’ Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, University of Manchester 1985

    Yeo, Matthew. The Acquisition of Books by Chetham’s Library 1655-1700. Leiden, Boston 2011


    By Kath Rigby

  2. Chetham’s Librarians: Lives and Legacies


    All good things must, as the saying goes, come to an end. This is sadly true of our recent exhibition, A Woman’s Write, which has been running since last summer; in that time, we’ve explored the stories of the remarkable women who made their mark on history with their literary endeavours (who you can still learn about in recent blog posts). At the same time, one thing’s ending is another’s beginning, and the same can be said of Chetham’s Library at the moment: our current librarian, Fergus Wilde, will soon be retiring, and his successor, Julianne Simpson, has recently been announced. We’ve chosen to mark this occasion by looking backwards as well as forwards, with a new exhibition that focuses on Chetham’s Librarians throughout history.

    Fig 1: Our new exhibition on Chetham’s Librarians.

    On display at the moment are various items from our collections connected with past Chetham’s Librarians. One such item is an obituary of Thomas Jones, one of our longest-serving librarians, who held the post for thirty years from 1845 to 1875. It was a role for which he was particularly well suited, and his friend and successor James Crossley described him as ‘one who was seemingly designed by nature for the place, and whose whole soul was in his work’. Jones’ diaries reveal the minutiae of his daily life and the consistency with which he carried out his responsibilities. Most mornings were spent dusting and cataloguing, and throughout his librarianship, Jones produced several volumes of catalogues, making the collections accessible to those who wished to use them. In the afternoons, he attended to readers’ needs, and it was soon after Jones took up the librarianship that two of the library’s most famous visitors, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, visited the library. They spent six weeks studying together in the Reading Room, and must have become acquainted with Jones during this time; years later, Engels fondly recalled him, and in a letter he wrote to Marx in 1870, he noted that ‘Old Jones, the librarian, is still alive but he is very old and no longer active. I have not seen him on this occasion.

    Fig 2: Thomas Jones, Chetham’s Librarian from 1845-75.

    Two further highlights from our current display are an advertisement for the librarianship when it was vacant in 1944, and a list of applicants for the role. One of the nineteen applicants was Hilda Lofthouse, who was ultimately appointed as Chetham’s Librarian, becoming the first woman to hold the position (although there had previously been a female assistant librarian). Hilda’s employment by the foreign office during the Second World War prevented her from taking up the librarianship until the end of the war the following year, and the task facing her when she did so was immense: a report made in 1943 had highlighted the library’s neglect during the war, and noted that ‘the books are most regrettably uncared for, covered with a dust that is thick and greasy, and full of the acids common to Manchester dirt’. Hilda therefore undertook a programme of cleaning aided by two library assistants, Pauline Leech and Kathleen Mark. A private log kept by these three women, in which they recorded their daily activities accompanied by pithy observations, is also on display.

    Fig 3: Private log kept by Hilda Lofthouse and her assistants, 1947.

    Rounding out our exhibition are some more recent items from our collections relating to the librarianship of the late Michael Powell, our longest-serving and dearly missed librarian, who held the post for thirty-five years from 1984 to 2019. During his lengthy tenure as Chetham’s Librarian, Michael was instrumental in guiding the library into the twenty-first century, and a newspaper cutting from 1988, currently on display, illustrates this perfectly: the cutting describes the adoption of an innovative technological approach to the conservation of the library’s books, described as a ‘sci-fi venture’, which Michael advocated for. Michael was also a vigorous promoter of the library, and a photo displayed alongside the cutting reflects this: it shows him and a much-younger-looking Fergus Wilde welcoming Prince Edward during a visit to the library in 2004, one of several visits to the library by members of the royal family during Michael’s librarianship.

    Fig 4: A photograph of Michael Powell, taken in 1995.

    Much more remains to be said about our past librarians and their assistants: Chetham’s Library has a storied history, and there are many more stories to be told. Among them are instances of book theft and imprisonment, codebreaking and scandal, and several large personalities. Over the coming months, we’re looking forward to sharing these stories in greater depth, showcasing the lives and legacies of individual Chetham’s Librarians and examining how they have shaped this library’s history over four centuries – so be sure to keep an eye on this space!


    By Volunteer Emma Nelson

  3. Humphrey Chetham’s Dinner

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    There have been no verses addressed to our eponymous founder this century, we believe, until now. Volunteer and friend of the Library Kath Rigby sets that right:

    Humphrey Chetham’s Dinner

    What was for dinner Humphrey?
    Surely not a mince pye, banned
    with Cromwelly rigour
    lest it encourage gluttony?

    Did you take a Neat’s foot and mince it
    very Small with a pound of Beef suet?
    Then beat eight Egg yolkes with whytes,
    a penny Loaf grated, half a pound of Currants,

    a little Nutmeg and salt?
    Did you mix them well together
    and let it boyle, and for ye Sauce
    use butter, sugar and a little Sack?

    Then did you slip on your embroidered hat,
    smooth down your Van Dyke beard,
    brush the crumbs from your ruff,
    pick up your fringed gloves?

    Was it time to call in some debts,
    survey your growing demesne,
    enclose some land, evade some tax,
    collect some subsidies?

    did you then commend yourself to God,
    in the writing of your will,
    making your to-do list –
    Item: endow school and library
    Item: cure ignorance
    Item: overcome poverty?
    And so to bed

    The thoughts above arose while looking at the portrait of a stern Humphrey Chetham in the Reading Room of Chethams Library. He’s so hard to read and he left few clues as to what his life was really like. The poem is a fanciful imagining of some of those details (and incorporates a recipe found among many in the library).

    Photo of oil painting portrait of Humphrey Chetham

    The Reading Room portrait of Humphrey Chetham (1580-1653), founder of Chetham’s

    We know from Humphrey’s careful accounts and correspondence that he acquired great wealth, first from trading in textiles and later, as was often the way with seventeenth-century merchants, from money-lending and rents from his extensive lands and properties. It is clear that he had a sharp business brain and was not always scrupulous in his dealings with tenants and debtors. He reluctantly but efficiently discharged his public duties when appointed sheriff. A quiet Anglican, and financial if not ideological supporter of Cromwell, he appears to have lived frugally but well. Although he had no children of his own, he was generous to his wider family and, as his wealth grew, so did his grand scheme to ‘overcome ignorance and poverty’ by founding a school for poor but respectable boys, a library for ‘schollars and others well-affected’ in which ‘no-thing should be asked of any man’, and five chained parish libraries to contain godly books for the ‘edification of the common people’.

    Humphrey’s plans evolved and changed; this is reflected in the various wills he prepared during his lifetime. He lived in an age when a new, secular conception of giving to others was beginning to replace the focus on the donor’s immortal soul, but the poem suggests that there was no harm in hoping that through his philanthropy he would find favour with his God.

  4. Morbid Curiosities: Gothic Stories In The Library


    If you have been on a tour of Chetham’s Library before, you might have heard that the cabinet at the end of the Library’s Mary Wing used to contain a real human skeleton, rather than the books that now occupy it. To the modern mind, a skeleton seems like a fairly strange thing to find in a library, but libraries in the early modern period – besides keeping books – fulfilled a similar function to museums today, displaying ‘curios’ to excite the interest of visitors. Chetham’s Library was no exception, and our collections once included a variety of curiosities – some of them morbid, such as the hand of a mummy from Thebes – which were shown off to visitors by boys from Chetham’s hospital school. In the same spirit, and in conjunction with our new ‘morbid curiosities’ tour, we’ve gone in search of sinister stories from the archives to share with you.

    Fig 1: The death mask of Thomas Whitaker in the library.

    For almost all of recorded history, people have been fascinated by death. The famous expression ‘memento mori’ (‘remember that you must die’) originated in the ancient world and has persisted ever since, although its meaning has changed during that time. Initially intended as a reminder to enjoy life’s pleasures (as in the phrase ‘eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’), it took on a more sombre tone in the medieval and early modern periods, and instead reminded the recipient to live a godly life to secure a place in heaven. ‘Memento mori’ jewellery incorporating skeletal imagery came into fashion in the fifteenth century, and developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries into mourning jewellery commemorating specific individuals’ deaths. It was in the nineteenth century, though, that this morbid preoccupation reached startling new heights. This period witnessed extremely high mortality, and reminders of that were very much in-vogue; photographic portraits were made of the recently-deceased, plaster death masks were taken from them (including a death mask of Thomas Whitaker in the Library), and mourning jewellery was made from their hair.

    Fig 2: The Castle of Otranto (1764).

    Unsurprisingly, this fascination with death extended to literature as well, with the development of the new ‘gothic’ genre characterised by its focus on horror, haunting, the unnatural and the supernatural. These elements had existed in storytelling for centuries; ghost stories have survived from the ancient world and the medieval period, and Shakespeare’s plays utilised ghosts, omens and the supernatural as narrative devices in ways that notably foreshadowed the genre’s development. It was in the second half of the eighteenth century that the genre truly took shape, though. Our collections include a copy of The Castle of Otranto (1764), a work widely regarded as the first gothic novel and described as such from its second edition onwards. The novel’s narrative revolves around the inheritance of a southern-Italian castle, and features paintings that seem to move, doors that close by themselves, and skeletal and ghostly apparitions. Originally passed off as a genuine translation from an Italian manuscript, the work was a success and spawned various imitators in the years that followed. This early popularity of the genre is reflected in another gothic novel found in our collections, Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (written 1803, first published 1818), which subverted the genre’s expectations through a heroine who avidly devours gothic fiction but foolishly mistakes it for real life.

    Fig 3: The ‘penny dreadfuls’.

    The nineteenth century saw the flourishing of the gothic genre, and the circulation of gothic fiction in increasingly accessible format. This phenomenon is best exemplified by the so-called ‘penny dreadfuls’, which, as their name suggests, were morbid stories sold for a penny apiece. Published weekly from the 1830s onwards, these cheaply produced booklets featured sensational narratives of body snatchers, murderers and highwaymen. They were wildly popular, especially among the working classes, and even poor working-class boys who couldn’t afford the penny a week to purchase them would form clubs, splitting the cost of the booklet and passing it from reader to reader. Despite their seemingly humble format (and perhaps on account of their broad appeal), some of the serial stories published in penny dreadfuls even shaped gothic fiction as a genre. Varney the Vampire (1845-7) introduced many of the most recognisable stylistic cues of the subgenre of ‘vampire fiction’, and paved the way for one of the most famous gothic novels ever written, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Another serial story, The String of Pearls (1846-7), introduced the famous character of Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street who murdered his customers and sold their bodies to make pies.

    Fig 4: An illustration of Marley’s ghost from A Christmas Carol (1843).

    Of course, no discussion of gothic fiction would be complete without mentioning the Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843). Written and published in a hurry following the failure of Dickens’ previous serial story, Martin Chuzzlewit (1833-4), the new novel was an immediate success, selling out of its first print run in only four days. Its narrative reflects Dickens’ horror at the real conditions of working-class children, but its supernatural elements place it firmly within the gothic genre; Dickens described it as a ‘’ghostly little book’, and Scrooge’s remarkable transformation from a miserly old man into a kind, generous one, following ghostly intervention and premonition, perfectly reflects the medieval and early modern reforming tradition of the ‘memento mori’ expression. It also establishes a connection between long winter nights and morbid tales.

    By Emma Nelson.

  5. ‘Strange Knowledge of a Crow’: A Yeoman Farmer Annotates Holinshed’s Chronicle


    One of the most striking annotated books in the collection of Chetham’s Library is a copy of Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, annotated by a yeoman farmer from the North of England (Radcliffe Collection 2.H.2.15). Better known simply as Holinshed’s Chronicles, the volume is an extensive account of the history and topography of the British isles and published in 1577, with a revised edition following ten years later.

    Although they later came to be most closely associated with the name of its chief contributor, Raphael Holinshed, the Chronicles were a multi-author venture, both relying on many ancient and medieval source texts and including contributions from a number of prominent sixteenth-century scholars. The work is in two volumes, which in turn consist of different sections focussing on individual countries and their geography and history. The work, detailed and wide-ranging even as it currently stands, started out as a ‘cosmography’, a description and history of the world. Although the scope of the project diminished during the lengthy writing and publication process, it retains elements of its original ambition: the Chronicles are more than historiography and include lengthy descriptions of the topography of the countries discussed, as well as reprinting some source texts at full length. This wealth of mixed-genre materials was part of the attraction the Chronicles held for their readers – the best-known of whom, William Shakespeare, drew on the Chronicles to write his history plays.

    Another reader who was fascinated by the Chronicles and the wealth of historical and topographical information they provided was Edward Ollerenshawe, a yeoman farmer from Chapel-en-le-Frith in the Peak District. Hailing from a prominent local family, Ollerenshawe signed his copy on the title page and stated on the final page that he had read the book in 1588.

    Title page with Ollerenshawe’s signature.

    Final page with inscription by Ollerenshawe: ‘historia hec est lecta 1588’ (‘This history was read in 1588′).

    Ollerenshawe’s annotations in the Chronicles display a keen interest in a number of topics, ranging from agriculture to history and from myths to linguistics. In addition to comments on all of these subjects, his book features doodles of animals, places or objects mentioned in the printed text, such as his drawing of a bow and arrow next to a passage about Robin Hood and Little John. By illustrating his copy in this way, Ollerenshawe created a visually striking means of marking passages to which he wanted to return. Frequently, such doodles accompany references to magical or legendary items and stories, such as a drawing of a harp illustrating the tale of a harp hanging on the wall playing of its own accord. Another such illustration is Ollerenshawe’s rather charming rendering of a crow, illustrating the tale of a crow saving a miner by stealing his purse and thus luring him away from a mine that was to collapse shortly thereafter, an occurrence on which Ollerenshawe comments: ‘Strange knowledge of a crow.’ Miraculous stories such as this seem to have exercised a particular fascination for Ollerenshawe and led him to mark them with his illustrations.

    Illustration of the crow.

    This interest in visual representation of the text’s contents also informed Ollerenshawe’s most arresting additions to the Chronicles: his book features hand-drawn maps of Scotland and England, as well as a more detailed map of the area around his own home in the Peak District. His maps represent an interest in the areas that provided the setting for the history in Holinshed’s Chronicles, but they also demonstrate Ollerenshawe’s fascination with local history and a desire to see his native region represented within the picture of Britain drawn by Holinshed. His map of England, for instance, features Chapel-en-le-Frith rather prominently – arguably lass an accurate representation of the geography of England than a visualisation of Ollerenshawe’s own mental map of the country, where his hometown would naturally have taken centre-stage. His map of the North West, too, features information that would have been of practical use to Ollerenshawe, such as local market towns. In addition, he carefully includes the most important estates, halls and parks in the area, many of which still stand today, such as Lyme Park, Dunham Massey and Tatton Park.

    Image of the map of England.

    Image of local map.

    Ollerenshawe’s preoccupation with local history and topography also led him to be particularly thorough in his annotations of those passages in the Chronicles that give accounts of regions Ollerenshawe knew well, chiefly in North West England. On a page listing market days and fairs all over England, for instance, Ollerenshawe has added a date for the fair in ‘Garstan in Lanksh’ (Garstang in Lancashire) and crossed out the market date of 17 July in Chapel-en-le-Frith. He also supplies units of measurement that were in use locally and provides corrections where he disagrees with the Chronicles’ spelling of North English place names, adding his local knowledge to the bigger picture of the Chronicles.

    This Chetham’s Library copy of Holinshed’s Chronicles shows a reader’s intense engagement with a book. Edward Ollerenshawe not only read his Chronicles, but annotated and illustrated them, demonstrating his interest both in the information the book provided about the history and geography of Britain and his passion for – and detailed knowledge of – the characteristics of his native region. His annotated Holinshed is a representation of his interests and requirements as a reader, combining an interest in practical matters like agriculture with a fascination for the strange and supernatural and an interest in national and international concerns with a love for the local and with practically useful place-specific information: Ollerenshawe’s annotations are the product of a rich and complex reading life lived in North West England.

    By Ellen Werner

  6. A Bluestocking Influencer – Lady Mary Wortley Montagu



    One of the most influential English women of the 18th century, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762), lives on at Chetham’s library in the form of three collectors’ items: a volume of her early letters, a panegyric written by an admirer after her death, and a pamphlet touching on her turbulent relationship with the waspish poet Alexander Pope.

    Born into an aristocratic family, classically educated through her own efforts and ambition in defiance of the times, she was betrothed at the advanced age of 23 by her father to an Irishman of suitable distinction (not least on account of his name – Sir Clotworthy Skeffington) whom she had never met. She described the wedding arrangements as ‘daily preparations for my journey to hell’ and eloped to marry her lover, Edward Wortley Montagu, just days before the ceremony. This spirited young woman continued to defy convention, becoming a prolific writer and a central figure both at court and in the literary and scientific circles of the Enlightenment.

    Photo of portrait of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu attributed to Jonathan Richardson 1667-1745, from Wikimedia Commons

    Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, attributed to Jonathan Richardson 1667-1745 (Wikimedia Commons)

    Travelling through Europe in 1716 and settling in Turkey, where her husband was English Ambassador at Constantinople, she recorded her experience in 58 letters in which she discusses, based on her acute observations, subjects ranging from the role of women, religion, oriental philosophy and politics to fashion, dancing girls, eunuchs, Turkish baths. These extraordinary pieces of extended writing were passed around certain circles during her lifetime but, in keeping with her wishes and the prevailing hostile climate for women who appeared in print, not published until after her death. They then appeared in 1763 as Letters of the Right Honourable Lady M–y W—y M—-e; written during her travels in Europe, Asia and Africa, to Persons of Distinction, Men of Letters etc in different Parts of Europe; Which contain, Among other curious Relations, Accounts of the Policy and Manners of the Turks. Additionally, she claimed that her letters were based on ‘Sources that have been Inaccessible to Other Travellers’, thus staking a claim to the authority of women’s writing.

    Photo of portrait Lady Montagu in Turkish Dress.  Jean-Etienne Liotard c.1756,  Wikimedia Commons

    Lady Montagu in Turkish Dress.  Jean-Etienne Liotard c.1756 ( Wikimedia Commons)

    The letters were a publishing sensation. A second edition was released the same year and even translated into French. Chetham’s copy is a first edition of that translation. One of the most interesting letters, written to Mrs S…C… in April 1717, describes an experience which would be life-changing for Montagu:

    I am going to tell you a thing, that will make you wish yourself here. The small-pox, so fatal, and so general amongst us, is here entirely harmless. . . . There is a set of old women, who make it their business to perform the operation, every autumn, in the month of September, when the great heat is abated. People send to one another to know if any of their family has a mind to have the small-pox; they make parties for this purpose, and when they are met (commonly fifteen or sixteen together) the old woman comes with a nut-shell full of the matter of the best sort of small-pox, and asks what vein you please to have opened. She immediately rips open that you offer her, with a large needle (which gives you no more pain than a common scratch) and puts into the vein as much matter as can lie upon the head of her needle, and after that, binds up the little wound with a hollow bit of shell . . . . 

    Montagu had observed the practice of inoculation. Her brother had died of smallpox in 1713 and she herself was badly disfigured from having caught it in 1715. The following year (though it was not published until 1747)

    in Town Eclogues:Saturday; The Small-Pox, she wrote of a victim of the disease:

    wretched FLAVIA on her couch reclin’d,
    Thus breath’d the anguish of a wounded mind ;
    A glass revers’d in her right hand she bore,
    For now she shun’d the face she sought before.
    How am I chang’d ! alas ! how am I grown
    A frightful spectre, to myself unknown !
    Where’s my Complexion ? where the radiant Bloom,
    That promis’d happiness for Years to come ?

    The long poem goes on to satirise the patriarchy of physicians and the society in which women were made to feel that their beauty was the only way they could contribute. Horror of this dread and prevalent disease was widespread. After observing the Turkish custom Montagu swiftly arranged for her own 4 year-old son to be inoculated and, once back in London in 1721 at the height of a smallpox epidemic, she had the procedure repeated on her daughter, this time before an audience that included the King’s physician. What we would now call clinical trials followed (on prisoners and orphans) and eventually, two of the King’s granddaughters were inoculated and the practice spread. However, by the time Edward Jenner introduced the safer use of cowpox as a vaccine in 1796, Montagu’s efforts to eradicate smallpox had fallen into obscurity.

    Medical advance and female fame have recently become a popular subject for study; scholarly debate continues on the extent to which Montagu influenced medical practice. It is certain that during her lifetime she was the object of both fulsome praise and vitriolic criticism. Her essay of 1722, ‘A Plain Account of the Inoculating of the Small Pox by a Turkey Merchant,’ and the conviction she showed by using her own children to make her case, caused shock waves. The chief objectors were the many members of the medical profession with a vested interest in traditional practices. Moreover, there was deep suspicion of what was seen as alarmingly oriental (classed with the ‘Heathen, Turk and Jew’) as well as what we might now call a gendered response; smallpox to men was a threat to life, while to women it was merely a threat to beauty.

    As well as her letters, Chetham’s Library holds a rare copy of a wonderfully overblown tribute to Montagu’s struggles.

    Photo of the preface to The triumph of inoculation; :a dream (London : Payne, 1767).

    The triumph of inoculation; :a dream (London : Payne, 1767).

    The Triumph of Inoculation; a Dream’ appears anonymously in a collection of pamphlets, but a note on the title page of the Bodleian copy names the author as Budworth Cruch, an apothecary. It tells the tale of a dreamer-narrator who finds himself in a hostile land, where ‘every object wore a melancholy aspect, and altogether formed a complete scene of disgust and horror.’ Ruler of this hell-hole, in a Gothic temple where human skulls ‘grinned horribly a ghastly smile’ was the evil goddess Variola (or,‘in the common style, The Small Pox’), supported by corrupt and mercenary doctors of the kind whose ‘scurrilous abuse’ was so ‘plentifully poured upon her ladyship.’ There suddenly appears, moving through the ‘sulphureous glare’ and ‘pestilential fumes’ and past scenes of inexpressible pain and grief, in a flash of lightning and clap of thunder, the glorious goddess, Health, who instantly transforms the gothic horrors into sweetness and light. This vision is led in by a female figure in English garb, whom the attendants address as ‘Inoculatia’. The piece concludes; ‘upon my asking (the name of) her benevolent conductress, I was waked, in a transport of joy, with the sound of ‘Montagu! Montagu!’’

    The account of the dream was published in 1767, three years after Monatgu’s death. By this time her literary and intellectual reputation had been firmly established. Best known for her verse, written in the serious form of heroic couplets, she had early in life became friendly with the poet and satirist Alexander Pope and sent him witty letters from Turkey.

    Photo of Letter to Pope in which Montagu humorously describes nearly falling in the River Hebre, then discusses legends, language, music and poetry

    Letter to Pope in which Montagu humorously describes nearly falling in the River Hebre, then discusses legends, language, music and poetry

    When Montagu returned to England the two poets collaborated comfortably at first, but Montagu found it necessary to guard her integrity as a woman poet; Pope later described her as calling out, when they were working together, ‘No Pope, no touching! For then whatever is good for anything will pass as yours, and the rest for mine.’ The gloves were off in their quarrel when, allegedly, Pope confessed his tender feelings for Montagu and she laughed in his face. More than a hundred years later this incident was dramatized in William Frith’s romantic painting of an operatic scene in which Montagu’s scars and Pope’s crooked back were airbrushed out.

    Photo of painting entitled Pope Makes Love To Lady Mary Wortley Montagu 1852 William Frith (1819 - 1909).Wikimedia Commons

    Pope Makes Love To Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, 1852, by William Frith (1819 – 1909) (Wikimedia Commons)

    Montagu went on to accuse Pope of stealing her verses; he retaliated in his long poem ‘The Dunciad’ implying that she was a prostitute and conflating smallpox with syphilis; she called him a toad-eater, mocked his obscure birth and hunchbacked body, and tried to erode his reputation as a clever satirist, writing: ‘Satire should, like, a polished razor keen,/ Wound with a Touch that’s scarcely felt or seen./Thine is an Oyster knife that hacks and hews;/The Rage, but not the Talent, to Abuse’. Pope upped his attacks on Montagu, ensuring that ever nastier, lewder verses of his were published anonymously.

    The third piece of Montagu memorabilia in our library touches on this stormy relationship between the two poets. Six years after their quarrel had begun, there appeared an anonymous pamphlet, ‘A Popp upon Pope: or a true and faithful account of a late horrid and barbarous whipping committed on the body of S-n-y Pope, a poet’ tells the sorry tale of how ‘Mr A Pope, a great Poet (as we are inform’d)’ was set upon by two Protestant thugs (Pope was a Catholic) who, after pretending to discuss The Dunciad with him, de-trousered him and struck so hard with a stable broom ‘upon his naked posteriors that he voided large quantities of Blood which being yellow’ was confirmed to have ‘a great Proportion of Gall mixed with it which occasioned the said colour.’ It now becomes clear that the whole piece is a clever satire which, while on the face of it commiserating with Pope and his suffering from the aftermath, then goes on to admire ‘the Wisdom of Providence, which brings this Man to the Lash, whose wanton wit has been the lashing of others’ and to hope that ‘when he returns to his senses, he will make better use of them and then may say…it’s good for me that I have been afflicted.” In other words, Pope got his just deserts.

    Photo of 'A Popp upon Pope ... Account of a late Horrid and Barbarous Whipping' (London : Moore, 1728).

    ‘A Popp upon Pope … Account of a late Horrid and Barbarous Whipping’ (London : Moore, 1728).

    It is not surprising to find that this false account – even the bookseller’s name in the imprint is fictitious – was attributed to Lady Mary Montagu. In the 1730s she went to live abroad, well away from ‘the wicked wasp of Twickenham’ as she called him. She was mightily relieved when he died in 1744.

    It would be unjust to define Montagu through this bitter dispute, even though it does tell us something about the ferocity with which unconventional women writers and thinkers were forced to defend their creativity and reputation. But for all the thousands of words from her poetic, if sometimes uncharitable, pen and despite the controversy about her contribution, she is still best remembered, as in her memorial below, as the person ‘who happily introduced from Turkey, into this Country, the Salutary Art of inoculating the Small Pox’ so that ‘by her example and advice we have softened the virulence and escaped the danger of this malignant disease.’

    Photo of Memorial to the Rt. Hon. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu erected in Lichfield Cathedral. 1789

    Memorial to the Rt. Hon. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu erected in Lichfield Cathedral. 1789

    Kath Rigby

  7. A Tale of Manchester Life: The City’s Most Famous Literary Woman and Her First Novel


    Recently, this blog has featured several posts about the literary women featured in Chetham’s Library’s current exhibition, A Woman’s Write. However, one figure not included in this exhibition is an individual who is arguably Manchester’s most famous literary woman: the author Elizabeth Gaskell. Gaskell lived in Manchester from 1832 to 1865, and her experiences of the city informed her depiction of working-class life in her novels. Today marks the 175th anniversary of the anonymous publication of her first novel, Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life, and to celebrate the occasion, we’ve gone in search of the five copies of this work which can be found on our shelves. These range from a second edition printed in 1849 to a modern edition from 1993, and each of them has something to say about this work and its reception.

    Fig 1: The five copies of Mary Barton held by the library.

    Our oldest copy of Mary Barton is a second edition printed in early 1849, only a few months after the novel’s initial publication and in response to its immediate success. This second edition corrected a number of typographical mistakes, particularly in instances of the Lancashire dialect Elizabeth Gaskell used to depict working-class life in Manchester. Gaskell herself played an active role in this process, sending several letters and a corrected first edition to her publisher, the London-based Chapman & Hall, in December 1848. One carry-over from the first edition was the novel’s anonymous publication, a tactic commonly (and often necessarily) employed by female authors, including several featured in A Woman’s Write. As a result, Elizabeth Gaskell’s name appears nowhere in our earliest copy of Mary Barton, and this anonymity actually aided the novel’s initial success; speculation abounded as to the author’s identity, which Gaskell herself even engaged in! Another noticeable carry-over from the first edition was the inclusion of a preface to the novel written by the author, which would disappear from later editions.

    Fig 2: The preface of the second edition (1849) of Mary Barton.

    Elizabeth Gaskell’s first novel was influenced by the hardship experienced by both herself and Manchester’s working class. In the novel’s preface, she noted that she ‘became anxious (from circumstances that need not be more fully alluded to) to employ myself in writing a work of fiction’; it is now known that the circumstance she was referring to was the death of her infant son, William, in 1845. Her husband, the Unitarian minister William Gaskell, suggested that she take up writing to ‘soothe her sorrow’, and Elizabeth Gaskell wrote to her friend Mrs Greg in 1849, telling her that she ‘took refuge in the invention to exclude the memory of painful scenes which would force themselves upon my remembrance’. At the same time, the preface makes it plain that the plight of the working class also moved her; while she had initially begun writing a historical work set on the rural borders of Yorkshire, she began to wonder whether there might be a deeper romance in the lives of those who she saw while out and about in Manchester: ‘care-worn men, who looked as if doomed to struggle through their lives in strange alternations between work and want; tossed to and fro by circumstances’.

    Fig 3: The cover of the tenth edition (1867) of Mary Barton.

    Mary Barton was reprinted several times in quick succession, and by 1850 the novel was already on its fifth edition. By this point, Elizabeth Gaskell was less involved in the publication process, having learnt of the fourth edition only after seeing it advertised! Our next oldest copy of Mary Barton is a tenth edition, issued in 1867 by Chapman & Hall as part of the Select Library of Fiction. This series aimed at offering ‘the best, cheapest and most popular novels’ by the best authors at two shillings apiece, a price reflected on the spine of this book. Inside its front and back covers, double-page spreads list other works available in the series, ‘sold by all booksellers, & at railway stations’. The covers themselves are much more visually appealing than before, with illustrations of the novel’s events intended to entice potential buyers. Two further changes from earlier editions are also evident: for the first time on our shelves, Elizabeth Gaskell was prominently named as the author on both the cover and title page, while at the same time, the preface was no longer printed alongside the novel. 

    Fig 4: An illustration of Mary and her father, from the 1881 edition of Mary Barton.

    Our most recent historical copy of Mary Barton was published in 1881, by Smith Elder & Co., as Mary Barton and Other Tales: the fifth in a seven-volume series of Elizabeth Gaskell’s works. In this edition, the preface was once again omitted, but for the first time the chapters received titles: the first chapter, previously known by its number, was now named ‘A Mysterious Disappearance’. Although the cover of this edition is unillustrated, the text contains four printed plates, the first of which depicts a tender moment between Mary Barton and her father from near the end of the novel. The other illustrations accompany five shorter works by the author, which were included alongside the main novel. 

    The last two copies of Mary Barton on our shelves are identical, modern critical editions of the novel published in 1993. In them, the novel is prefaced by an introduction, a pair of short notes which provide biographical information about Elizabeth Gaskell’s life and the development of the work, and suggestions for further reading, while it is followed by almost thirty pages of explanatory notes. For the first time since our second edition, Elizabeth Gaskell’s own preface has also been printed at the beginning of the novel. The copies of Mary Barton on our shelves therefore represent the novel’s journey from contemporary fiction to a literary classic, worthy of study. Despite its success soon after publication, Mary Barton is today overshadowed by Elizabeth Gaskell’s most famous novels, Cranford and North and South. Gaskell’s first novel is no less deserving of attention, though, for what it tells us about working-class life and a remarkable literary woman. 

    By Emma Nelson.

  8. Matilda Betham: An (un)Celebrated Woman


    Above: Matilda Betham, unknown artist, image taken from Wikimedia Comms.

    Mary Matilda Betham (known as Matilda to her friends and family) was a diarist, poet and author in the last years of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth. She had a keen interest in women’s rights, which was reflected in her numerous writings. Like many of the individuals whose works are included in Chetham’s Library’s new exhibition, A Woman’s Write, her life highlights the difficulties faced by women who tried to publish during this period. 

    Like her fellow author and contemporary Jane Austen, Matilda was the daughter of a rector. Born in 1777 to Reverend William Betham and his wife Mary (née Damant), she was the eldest of fourteen children. William Betham was himself an author, having written and published works on royal genealogy and the English baronetage. From a young age Matilda exhibited an interest in history and literature, reciting poetry and reading plays and histories. She educated herself in her father’s extensive library under his occasional tutelage, although she also received instruction in sewing to prevent a ‘too strict application to books’. During visits to London she learnt to speak French, and she later learnt Italian from Agostino Isola in Cambridge. 

    Unfortunately, Matilda’s growing family faced severe financial hardship. Driven by a sense of duty, Matilda left the family home and took to painting miniature portraits to support herself. While in London she was encouraged to pursue her talents by her uncle Edward Beetham, whose family was closely involved in literary and artistic circles. Matilda received instruction from the portraitist John Opie, who was tutoring her cousin Jane Beetham, and was encouraged by her uncle (himself a publisher) to realise her literary ambitions. It was around this time that Matilda developed an interest in women’s rights, and she began to ‘rally and argue about the equality of the sexes’. In 1797 she published her first work, Elegies and Other Small Poems, for which she received praise from her family, her friend Lady Charlotte Bedingford, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who wrote to her in 1802, comparing her to Sappho (another poet featured in ‘A Woman’s Write’) and encouraging her to continue writing. Between 1804 and 1816, Matilda exhibited her portraits at the Royal Academy of Arts.

    Matilda published her second work, A Biographical Dictionary of the Celebrated Women of Every Age and Country, in 1804. The result of six years’ research, it included short biographies of women who were ‘distinguished by their actions or talents’, including Cleopatra, Boadicea, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Marie de France (a medieval poet), Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth Elstob (an early Anglo-Saxon scholar) and Marie Antoinette. A copy of this work can be found in Chetham’s Library, although we know relatively little about how it got here besides the fact that it was acquired before 1862. It is the only work of Matilda’s to have entered the library.

    Above: The title page of Chetham’s Library’s copy of Matilda’s A Biographical Dictionary.

    In the years that followed, Matilda’s literary career flourished. She published a second book of poetry in 1808 and several shorter works anonymously in magazines, and gave public recitals of Shakespeare in London. In 1816 she published the Lay of Marie, a poem with scholarly appendices, inspired by the life of the medieval poet Marie de France. This poem was Matilda’s best-received work, but its publication was beset by difficulties. Advertisements for the poem misspelt both the heroine’s name and its author’s, many of the printed books were damaged by mildew, and the costs of publishing and advertising the work drove Matilda into severe financial hardship. Forced to abandon her literary career, she returned to the country and tried to support herself by painting miniature portraits again, hindered by the shabby state of her clothing. She later recalled sleeping in room without furnishings or a bed, keeping herself warm by covering herself with old clothes. In 1819, she was placed in a mental asylum by her family. 

    Matilda was released the following year. She claimed that she had suffered a ‘nervous fever’ due to the stresses of publishing the Lay of Marie, and that she had been unjustly committed without any sort of examination or treatment. Following her release she returned to London and kept her address secret from her family. She received financial assistance from the Royal Literary Fund and returned to her literary pursuits, directly championing women’s rights. In a letter to the MP John Cam Hobhouse, she urged him to continue working for ‘general suffrage’ in parliament to improve women’s conditions. In 1821 she published A Challenge to Women, which defended Queen Carolina against the charges of adultery levelled against her and called on women to support her by signing a petition. The following year she was once again committed to the asylum by her family, but she continued to pursue her literary ambitions after her release. She published Sonnets and Verses in 1836, and A Dramatic Sketch in 1838. However, she also suffered from several setbacks. Her play Hermoden, written in the late 1830s, was lost and was never published. She tried to publish Crow-quill Flights by subscription in the early 1840s, but when the promised money failed to materialise she was forced to apply for additional funding. Many of her manuscripts were lost in a fire, and she was unable to secure copies of poems she had previously sent to her friends; as a result, several of Matilda’s works are now lost. Nevertheless, she maintained a circle of friends into her old age, and a young man of her acquaintance remarked that he ‘would rather talk to Matilda Betham than the most beautiful young woman in the world’.

    Above: Portraits of famous women in Matilda’s A Biographical Dictionary.

    Matilda died in London on 30th September 1852 at the age of seventy-five. Over the course of her life she had published at least nine works, and won acclaim from those in her literary circle. Her poetry and miniature painting earned her some financial independence, but she nevertheless faced hardship throughout her life. After her death she was included in Six Life Stories of Famous Women and Friendly Faces of Three Nationalities, both written by her niece Matilda Betham-Edwards, but today she is little-known. Hopefully, A Woman’s Write can bring inspirational women like Matilda to light and celebrate their remarkable achievements.

    By Emma Nelson.

  9. The Accedence of Armorie: Sixteenth-Century Paint by Numbers

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    The top shelf of the last press in Chetham’s Library, press Z, is home to a copy of Gerard Legh’s Accedence of Armorie (shelfmark Z.1.64). Having accessed the book in this remote location, the enterprising librarian is rewarded with a beautiful book: Legh’s work illustrates the basics of blazon, the symbols and colours depicted on coats of arms. The Library’s copy of the Accedence  (a word defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as meaning ‘fundamentals’ or ‘first principles’) has been carefully coloured in by one of its early readers, whose efforts have turned the title page into a vibrant work of art. It is possible that the artist was Thomas Tyndale, whose signature can be seen on folio 96r. In addition to the woodcuts and hand-colouring, the book also includes a foldout illustration of a particularly elaborate coat of arms, flanked by the mythical figures Hercules and Atlas.

    Signature of Thomas Tyndale, folio 96r.

    The book is a good example of the interaction between printed books and handwritten additions by readers. Manuscript culture did not simply disappear with the advent of printing in Europe in the fifteenth century: rather, manuscript and print coexisted for many years, and many early printed books relied on professionals or readers to ‘finish’ the book, for example by filling in initial letters or colouring in images.

    Foldout illustration of a shield flanked by Hercules and Atlas.

    Legh’s work similarly invites its readers’ cooperation: for example, the book is printed in black and white, but because colour is an important part of a coat of arms, detailed instructions for readers are included, specifying which part of any coat of arms should be depicted in which colour. To achieve this, the book includes small letters in every section of the images, each of which stands for a colour. The letters and corresponding colours are all listed carefully in a table at the back of the book, rather like in a modern ‘paint by numbers’ set. 

    Table of colours.

    The table uses the Anglo-Norman French widely spoken at court in the Middle Ages, when blazon was originally developed. For instance, ‘O’ stands for ‘or’ – the term still used for ‘gold’ in modern French. Similarly, ‘V’ is for ‘vert’ (French for ‘green’) and ‘A’ for ‘argent’, ‘silver’. The reader of the Chetham’s Library copy has carefully followed these instructions, colouring in every coat of arms up until folio 50r.

    Last page with hand-colouring.

    At this point, the reader seems to have lost interest or was unable to complete the project for an unknown reason, and the subsequent coats of arms all remain uncoloured. Nevertheless, the Accedence of Armorie shows how closely some readers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries engaged with their books as they carefully completed the work begun by author and printer to create a coloured copy of the work.

    First page with uncoloured coats of arms.

    While metallic colours like gold and silver have turned very dark due to oxidization, most other shades retain their original vibrancy. The first shield described in detail, for instance, the mythical shield of Perseus, depicting the head of Medusa, includes a bright pink border and a deep blue background. Other images show shields with animals like goats and elephants, all carefully hand-coloured by the reader.

    The shield of Perseus with the head of Medusa, fol. 29r.

    Although the Chetham’s Library copy of the Accedence of Armorie demonstrates such intense focus on the part of one reader, it also bears marks entirely unrelated to the text of the book. On a page containing a kind of index towards the end of the text, a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century reader has written:

    ‘As Fier [‘fire’] cannot fries [‘freeze’], for it is not his kind

    So trew [‘true’] love cannot lose the constancy of the mind’ 

    Manuscript verse at the back of the book.

    Perhaps this was the work of a different owner, or perhaps the diligent colourist became distracted by a love affair and turned to recording romantic verses rather than completing his work on the Accedence of Armorie. Either way, this single book demonstrates two distinct ways in which readers in the past engaged with their books: while one reacted to the text, having closely observed the author’s instructions and the purpose of the book, the other used the book more or less as we would use a notepad, in a way that is not tailored to the text, but rather simply makes use of empty space on a random page. The result is a unique and beautiful copy of Legh’s work, bringing together printed texts and two very different kinds of readers’ marks.

    By Ellen Werner.


  10. An English Renaissance Feminist: Cancelled

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    Above: Portrait by Lady Mary Wroth, by John de Critz 1620.

    Just before International Women’s Day 2023, there emerged from the shelves of Chetham’s Radcliffe collection a rare copy of The Countesse of Montgomeries Urania, published in 1621.

    Beyond the unassuming cover lies the first romance or novel written by an English woman. The very circumstances of its publication are intriguing. John Marriott and John Grismand, publishers, entered Urania into the Stationers’ Register on 13th July 1621, a mere three days after they had been released from the Marshalsea prison, having been fined for promoting an allegedly scurrilous poem by George Withers. Publishing was, then as now, a risky business.

    This volume looks innocent enough, and even dull, but 5 months after it was released its author was writing to the Duke of Buckingham to ask for a warrant to have any sold copies withdrawn; she seems to have been intent on cancelling herself. It is possible she did not intend it for publication since there was an aristocratic stigma against those, especially women, who circulated their work in print. But in her letter requesting its withdrawal she blamed ‘strong constructions that have been made of my book’ that were ‘as far from my meaning as is possible.’ Urania appears to have been a succès de scandale.

    Chetham's Library copy of Urania.

    Chetham’s Library copy of Urania.

    Who was this woman who disregarded convention to the point of endangering her reputation? Mary Sidney was a contemporary of Shakespeare and bright star of the Elizabethan court. She was born in 1587 into a literary and political family which included the poets Sir Philip Sidney (her uncle), Mary Sidney (her aunt) and Robert Sidney, the Earl of Leicester (her father), Sir Walter Raleigh was also a first cousin. Mary herself was not only a scholar but an accomplished musician and dancer. After Queen Elizabeth’s death she became a close associate of Queen Anne, the wife of James I, for and with whom she sang and danced in popular masques.

    This glamorous young girl was married at the age of sixteen by arrangement, as was the custom of the time, to Sir Robert Wroth, well-connected, a sportsman, but allegedly a spendthrift, gambler and drunkard; it was said that he hunted while she danced. She was already eminent enough to have several literary volumes dedicated to her by the time she was in her twenties, the only book worthy of her husband’s patronage was a Treatise On Mad Dogs.

    Within a few months he was complaining to her father of his wife’s demeanour towards him. Ben Jonson, although praising Wroth publicly, wrote that Mary was ‘unworthily married on a jealous husband.’ Although Wroth did refer to Mary in his will as his dear and loving wife, his death from gangrene in 1614, followed by the death of their only son, meant that Mary was deprived of property and heavily in debt.

    Either before or after her husband’s death, Mary began an affair with the married William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, her first cousin and childhood friend with whom she shared a passionate interest in art and literature. This time the liaison was Mary’s own choice, even though Herbert was said to be ‘immodestly given up to women.’

    One of Herbert’s mistresses, Mary Fitton, has been suggested as a model for the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and Herbert himself has been claimed by some to be the Fair Youth. All did not end well for Mary Wroth; soon after she left the court as a result of the Urania scandal Herbert appears to have abandoned her, never acknowledging the two children they had together.

    William Herbert was not a self-effacing man. His statue outside the Bodleian Library in Oxford celebrates his generous gifts of manuscripts, books and money.

    Bronze statue of William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke (1580–1630) in front of the main entrance to the Old Bodleian Library. Photo by Frank Schulenburg.

    By 1621 Mary was well-known and respected for her poetry and for Love’s Victory, a pastoral ‘closet drama’ to be read rather than performed, in which four different couples are paired up, each signifying a different kind of love (flawed, chaste, comic and true). She had already transgressed traditional boundaries by writing in a secular vein, with an emphasis on female agency and desire. Now, in Urania, she produced a complex romance in 400,688 words, ending with a sequence of sonnets and with almost a thousand characters, hundreds of intersecting tales, mostly about love, though also incorporating political themes.

    The central story is of Queen Pamphilia’s love for her cousin, the Emperor Amphilanthus, whose name means ‘lover of two.’ Pamphilia, Greek for ‘all-loving’, takes pride in her constancy to him, even as he repeatedly becomes entangled with other women. Though the references are coded, this is thought to echo Wroth’s own love for Herbert. She used her vivid imagination to fictionalise the world she knew, often adding melodramatic flourishes to real events, and including songs and poems as part of the story.

    When Urania was published, some elements of aristocratic society would have rejected the book as shameful gossip by a woman whose error consisted of writing a book containing her thoughts. She was criticised by some powerful noblemen for depicting their private lives under the guise of fiction and was accused of ‘taking great liberty … to traduce where she please.’

    Edward Denny, Earl of Norwich, who claimed to recognise his family in Urania, accused her of slander in a satiric poem, calling her a ‘Hermaphrodite in show, in deed a monster’, and declaring ‘Thy witt runs madd not caring who it strike.’ She fired back with her own poem, later suppressed, calling him a ‘lying wonder.’ Other men, however, praised her work. Henry Peacham named her ‘an inheritrix of the Divine wit of her immortal Uncle’, while Ben Jonson lauded her in a sonnet, and claimed that by copying her works he not only became a better poet, but a better lover. There is evidence that other aristocratic women writers read and commented on Urania, at the time of its publication and later in the 17th and early 18th century.

    Women of any class in the time of Mary Wroth were expected above all to be silent and obedient, as illustrated in contemporary religious works, legal treaties and literature. Mary was a radical in her time merely for writing a work intended for public consumption, since the act of composing a novel violated the ideal of female virtue. She was a pioneer in freely adapting a traditional romance form to accommodate the experience and perceptions of a Jacobean woman. In mixing fact and fantasy the text draws attention to contemporary issues, such as the hitherto unquestioned ‘traffic’ in women, who were acquired and exchanged as the property of men. Urania is now in the 21st century seen as a valuable text for feminist readings of the early modern age, providing insights into the complex and often contradictory nature of women’s place and role in society.

    Chetham’s library edition of Urania is one of only twenty-nine surviving 17th century copies. It remained out of print until the appearance of a scholarly edition in 1995. Our 1621 copy is unusual in that it does not include the elaborately drawn frontispiece by the engraver Simon van de Passe, which depicts the ‘Throne of Love’, an idealised vision of relations between the sexes.

    There remain some uncertainties about Mary Wroth’s intentions for her book. Although it is named in honour of her friend, Susan Vere, the Countess of the title, none of the seventeenth-century copies includes the usual commendation by friends, or author’s dedication or letters to readers. The end of each of the first two parts of the book are marked with an elaborate printer’s ornament and announcement, but strangely there is no definitive conclusion; at the end of Part 3 Wroth breaks off the happy ending in mid-sentence (all things are prepared for the journey, all now merry and contented and nothing amisse; griefe forsaken, sadness cast off; Pamphilia the Queene of all content; Amphilanthus joying worthily in her; And …) The printer has left the last page blank, perhaps in the hope that he might eventually receive material to complete the volume.

    Chetham’s copy begins with a handwritten inscription: The Countesse of Montgomeries Urania written by the Honourable the Lady Wroath: Daughter to the right noble Robert Earle of Leicester and Neece to the ever famous and renowned Sr Phillip Sidney knight ; and to ye Most Exelent Lady Mary Countess of Pembroke late deceased. Unlike the novel, the sonnets have a definitive ending. Mary Wroth went on to compose a second volume of Urania between 1620 and 1630, running to a mere 240,000 words, half the size of the first part. It survived only in manuscript until its publication in 1999.

    Chetham’s Library copy of Urania.

    This sequel generally follows a second generation of characters descended from those that appear in the first volume, and it occupies a world stage, containing epic encounters between Christianity and Islam. This, together with the first Urania, Love’s Victory and 105 sonnets, comprise the canon which has enjoyed a dramatic increase in interest in the last twenty years and is the subject of international scholarly debate. Mary Wroth lived privately and worried by debt until her death in 1651 or 1653 (documents disagree). How differently might her life have turned out if she had not found it necessary to withdraw from public life after the launch of Urania!

    By Kath Rigby