bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Good Duke Humfrey: bounder, cad and biliophile (Part I)

Posted in Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 17 December, 2013

Yesterday, 16th December, I gave the Christmas Lecture to the Volunteer Guides of the Bodleian Library. The talk took place in the University’s Convocation House, with the convivial party following next door in the Divinity School. I would like to thank Marilyn Tresias for the invitation, and Felice Vermeulen for her skilful organisation. My talk was entitled ‘Good Duke Humfrey: bounder, cad and biliophile’. As has become my usual practice, I spoke without notes, but I intend to provide here an approximation of what I said. This is the first instalment, with the second half appearing tomorrow:

When I was invited to talk to you about Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, on whose library I have worked intermittently for over a decade, I accepted with alacrity. Standing here now, I wonder whether I should have tread with more angelic steps. Sitting at the back of your business meeting a moment ago, it struck me that I was about to lecture to people all of whom are themselves expert in being the speaker, rather than the passive listener. Not only that but you are the guides to this institution, Thomas Bodley’s successor foundation to that endowed by the Good Duke, by Bodley’s own calculation the fourth Library of the University of Oxford – the third being Humfrey’s, the second that provided by Thomas Cobham, bishop of Worcester and the first (moving back beyond history into the mists of myth) that donated by King Alfred. What, I am wondering, can I tell you that you do not already know about the man largely responsible for the third library of the University of Oxford?

You certainly do not need me to remind you that Humfrey delighted in being described as the son, brother and uncle of kings. He was the youngest boy of Henry Bolingbroke who, when Humfrey was not yet ten, usurped the English throne from Richard II and was crowned Henry IV. Humfrey was brother to Henry V who, at Agincourt, saved his youngest sibling’s life when Humfrey, thrown from his horse, lay prone on the ground, with Henry standing over him, fighting off assailants until the duke of Gloucester could be pulled to safety. And he was uncle to Henry VI who, it has been said, moved from the inanity of childhood to imbecility without the intermission of lucidity that usually occurs between those two states. He was, in his nephew’s long minority, England’s Protector – not its Regent, and that was an issue of some contention. Moreover, from 1435, following the death of his last surviving elder brother, John, duke of Bedford, Humfrey was heir apparent to the throne.

The heir apparent who, as you also well know, ended his life on 23rd February 1447 at St Saviour’s Hospital, Bury St Edmunds, arrested on an accusation of treason against his own nephew. The manner of his death was cause for him to be awarded posthumously the sobriquet of ‘Good’. Those contemporaries who may have been in a position to know did not suggest any foul play was involved in the duke’s death but the circumstances allowed those of a more suspicious bent to smell the scent of conspiracy and murder. In the sixteenth century, the most frequent explanation was that he had been smothered ‘between two featherbeds’, though others said he had been strangled – that is the version that appears in Shakespeare – while some suggested that the murder had been hidden by effecting it with, in John Foxe’s words, ‘a whole spit [being] privily forced into his body’. In the immediate wake of his demise, his downfall was taken by those discontented with the regime as a symbol of the end of good statesmanship. There is something fitting that two of the battles of what we know of as the Wars of the Roses should have been fought close by the chantry chapel erected for him in the Abbey of St Albans.

Yet, later political historians have not been so quick to find goodness in the Duke. Rather, the general opinion is that – saving his nephew – Humfrey was the runt of the Lancastrian pack: he lacked the political shrewdness of his father, Bolingbroke, the charisma of his eldest sibling, Henry V, or even the downright competence of his closest brother in age, John, duke of Bedford. Humfrey was, these historians say, hot-headed, cack-handed and tight-fisted – but, they go on, at least he liked books.

About the books, of course, you, the volunteer guides of the Bodleian, know so much. You know that he amassed a large collection, some presented to him by their authors, some sent to him from the Continent (from France and from Italy), some given to him (more or less willingly), and many bought by him. What is all the more striking is that, in his own lifetime, he gave away something in the region of three hundred of them in a series of donations to the University of Oxford, between the late 1430s and 1444.  The University believed it was the rightful inheritor of the rest of his collection but Oxford was to be thwarted in that aspiration. On his death, the crown claimed that the Duke had died intestate – a claim strongly challenged by the University but to no avail. The result was that Humfrey’s possessions passed into the hands of the crown, and his books were dispersed, with some (but by no means all of them) suffering a sorry fate of ending up in Cambridge, at King’s College, Henry VI’s new foundation, the sister of the chantry school he founded at Eton. The Reformation saw significant deprivations to that college, so much so that only one of Humfrey’s manuscripts now resides there and only another one is known (now in the British Library). That said, the manuscripts he gave to the University of Oxford did not fare much better.

Humfrey’s books had originally been stored in the Old Library, the first-floor space in the semi-detached university accommodation adjoining the Church of St Mary the Virgin. As you know, the University authorities decided to revise the plans they had already made for the Divinity School, so that that building could house on its first floor a new library room, suitable for the donations of the Duke and of others. It opened in 1488 but its heyday was brief: by the very middle of the sixteenth century, it was closed and its books dispersed. How that came to happen is something to which I want to return at the end of this talk.

The result of the two dispersals of Humfrey’s library – that immediately following his death and the other in the sixteenth century – leaves us, presently, with just under 50 manuscripts (the exact number depends on how you count them) from a collection which probably comprised, at a necessarily rough estimate, between 500 and 600 manuscripts: an overall survival rate of under 10%. This masks some variation for, in fact, the books given to the University of Oxford have suffered worse than those he did not donate. Of the 274 listed in the University Register, only 14 are presently identifiable: a survival rate of 5%. Of those, just three are in the Bodleian, with another two of Humfrey’s books, not originally given to Oxford, now resident here; in the Oxford colleges, we can now count seven manuscripts, of which probably four come from those donated to the University.

How do we identify a manuscript as once having belonged to the Duke? As I have just mentioned, the relevant Register of the University of Oxford includes inventories of three of the gifts that Humfrey made and, on occasion, a manuscript can be matched with the information that provides. More often, though, the evidence for his ownership comes from the Duke’s own hand, for Humfrey was one of those blessed collectors who cannot resist writing in their books. In many of his volumes, Humfrey adds a formula announcing his ownership either at the front or at the final colophon – sometimes both and a few times in more places. In its usual form it reads: ‘Cest livre est A moy homfrey duc de gloucestre’. On occasion, he is even more helpful, giving his not just his name but details of how he came by a book – whether he was given it and, if so, he sometimes mentions when, or whether he bought it from, for example, an acquaintance’s executors. More rarely, but also significantly, he adds a motto to mark his ownership. I want to concentrate for a moment on one of those. At the very top of a copy of a medical treatise which opens with an illumination of his coat-of-arms, he adds ‘Loyale et belle A gloucestre’ – ‘loyal and beautiful to Gloucester’, in the feminine. The gender of those adjectives has made some wonder whether, in fact, this was a gift to Humfrey from his wife but I see no reason to make that assumption. The motto is definitely written in Humfrey’s script and there are other signs of his interest in this manuscript: he notes a section on cures for baldness (a passage which, I have to admit, also interests me). The use by a husband of a motto relevant to a wife is not unknown in other manuscripts of the fifteenth century – there is a well-known example in the collection of Humfrey’s brother, John, duke of Bedford. Are we then to take this as a mark of uxoriousness, a symbol of his love for his wife? That wife was the ill-fated Eleanor Cobham, who would end her life in prison – a little like her husband, though her confinement lasted decades not days and was as a result of her attempts, in 1441, to use sorcery to predict when Humfrey would be king. Eleanor was a distant relative of the Cobham, bishop of Worcester, who founded the University’s second library (on Bodley’s counting); it was surely not, however, for that family association Humfrey came to marry her. Indeed, that he married her at all was, to some people’s eyes a scandal, and this brings me to what you have been waiting for: Good Duke Humfrey as bounder and cad.

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  1. […] on from yesterday’s post, here is the second half of the Christmas Lecture that I gave to the Bodleian’s Volunteer […]

  2. […] life as a lecture to Bodley’s Volunteer Guides, an extempore performance then written up as two instalments on this blog. What has now appeared replicates that with some – but, as we shall see, not […]


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