bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

William Cecil’s copy of Henry VIII’s Assertio

Posted in British History, Libraries, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 17 August, 2014

On the other hand, this could be entitled ‘Notes from Christ Church Library’ and be a contribution to that beguiling but non-existent journal, Aperçus & obiter dicta.

My work in Christ Church has seen me pore over the earlier catalogues of the library or, more precisely, of its ‘archives’ in an attempt to reconstruct the physical history of the manuscript collection. The codices have only been held in the ‘New Library’ since it was opened in the 1760s. Before that, the books of Christ Church were held in a room — I remember it being used in my day (as the old say) as an undergraduate set — off the cloister of St Frideswide’s. Not quite all manuscripts were kept there as some were considered to belong to the Chapter as opposed to the ‘college’ (a misnomer in this dual institution but a usage that appears often enough in the records of the place that likes to call itself the House). It was, in fact, only with the move into new premises that a space was set aside as the near-exclusive preserve of manuscripts. Earlier, what was considered fit for the ‘archives’ combined printed books with some handwritten codices. It was an arrangement that existed from the 1670s, but which underwent a significant transformation in the wake of the death in 1710 of Henry Aldrich, dean of Christ Church and polymathic bon-viveur, whose interests ranged across languages and disciplines. His collection in large part became the property of the House, and the contents of the Archives came to be dominated by his music collection, skilfully described by John Milsom in the excellent on-line catalogue. What, curiously, seems not to have been included in that section of the library at that point were the few manuscripts Aldrich himself owned. It was only with the move and the re-organisation work overseen by Edward Smallwell, later bishop of Oxford, that the books created by Aldrich and some owned by him were given pride of place in the new ordering of the Archives.

I have described the archives of the 1760s as providing a ‘near-exclusive’ preserve for hand-written volumes. There are some exceptions, usually there because of a direct association with the former Dean, including, for instance, ‘Aldrich’s Logick’ a volume which combines two printed editions of that work. Close by that volume in the catalogue compiled by Smallwell is an entry, A.13, for ‘Henricus octavus de Sacramentis. 8o.’. Clearly, this is a copy of the anti-Lutheran tract, the Assertio septem sacramentorum, which announces Henry VIII as its author. After it had been printed in Richard Pynson’s workshop in 1521, several copies were all bound in the same style by John Reynes, with the Tudor Rose and English royal arms on the panels. The copy that is still resident in Christ Church, now with the shelfmark Z.e.6.4, is a fine example of this (I have Christ Church’s ever-helpful Special Collections librarian, Cristina Neagu, for the photographs shown here).ChCh e-6-4-lower board

This much is relatively well known. It has also been surmised that the intention of these bindings was to beautify some copies so that they could act as diplomatic gifts or presents to favoured subjects.We do not know who the first recipient of the Christ Church copy was but what perhaps is not as well known is that we can say something of the volume’s history, for at its title-page it has a signature.ChCh e-6-4-title pageAs is clear, this was owned by William Cecil, who was to be first minister to Henry VIII’s younger daughter. The script is close enough to other ex libris he wrote to be definably his, though it style, and the absence of any reference to his title of Lord Burghley, might suggest this was written fairly early in his career (for a contrast, see his note at fol. 1 of BL, MS. Harl. 2471, for instance). Given that he was born only in the year that the Assertio was published (or perhaps the year before), then Cecil could not have been its first owner. But, clearly, he thought this work was worth owning, however far the Church of England which he did much to support had moved away from the doctrinal position espoused in the text.

It would appear that the volume remained in the Cecil family until the famous sale of the collection in 1687: the work is recorded in the sale catalogue as ‘libri theologici, in quarto’, no. 23. At that point or soon after, it must have reached the hands of Henry Aldrich. It was not his habit to add his ownership note to his books but a listing of his library made after his death does include this work and, as I have said, its placing in Smallwell’s arrangement of the Archives is suggestive of that provenance. When the future bishop of Oxford came to look at this book, he might have considered there to be something pleasing about having a distinguished copy of the Assertio in the foundation created by the text’s acclaimed author.