Archive for the ‘Matthew Parker’ Category

The Parker Library is celebrated as one of the finest libraries of its kind in the world. Its holdings of medieval manuscripts and early printed books constitute a resource of unparalleled international importance for the study of Britain’s premodern past, and a repository of historical materials of exceptional importance to our nation’s culture and heritage.

Of special significance for scholars of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic is the library’s treasure-trove of extremely early manuscripts. The Parker Library is home to significant portion of all surviving manuscripts older than the year 800 in British collections, including the world-famous Gospels of St. Augustine (MS 286) and our 8th-century Northumbrian Gospel Book (MS 197b). Furthermore, we also hold about a quarter of all extant manuscripts in Old English; our holding is surpassed only by The British Library and The Bodleian. Our shelves hold many of the most celebrated volumes in the entire canon of all surviving Old English manuscripts, such as the earliest text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, today known as The Parker Chronicle (MS 173), the Aethelstan copy of Bede’s Life of St. Cuthbert (MS 183), and The Corpus Glossary (MS 144). The collection contains several of the translations from Latin made at the instance of King Alfred, including St. Gregory’s Dialogues (MS 322) and his Pastoral Care (MS 12) and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (MS 41), while the biblical translation of Abbot Ælfric is represented by The Bath Old English Gospels (MS 140) and MS 449, which contain his Grammar and Glossary. The Parker is one of the principle sources of the Homilies of both Ælfric and of Wulfstan (MSS 198 and 190). Our collections also include rare examples of pre-Conquest laws (in the second half of MS 173 and in MS 383) and of early English monastic rules (in MSS 178, 191 and 201). We also hold the earliest surviving example of polyphonic music in the eleventh-century Winchester Troper (MS 473).

The Parker Library acquired this magnificent collection through the benefaction of our namesake, Matthew Parker (1504-75), Archbishop of Canterbury under Elizabeth I and the greatest of the 16th-century English antiquarians, who bequeathed some 600 medieval books bequeathed to the College in 1575. This collection forms the heart of the Parker Library today; it represents the oldest intact private library in the world and enduring monument to Parker’s extraordinary achievements as a book collector, and a testament to his extraordinary generosity as an institutional benefactor and a sponsor of learning.

The explanation for the presence of so rich a collection of early English medieval manuscripts, and particularly such an extraordinary number of manuscripts in the Old English language, in Parker’s collection is foundational to Parker’s reasons for assembling his whole library. When Queen Elizabeth appointed Parker her first Archbishop of Canterbury, he was charged with a mandate to establish an English Church which would be utterly secure, legal and completely irrevocable. To this end, Parker’s sought to justify the ‘new’ English Church by referring to historical precedent; looking far back into early English history he argued that the original missionaries to Anglo-Saxon England had always intended to set up an independent English Church, speaking the English language and under the authority of the king, not the pope. That is why the Parker Library was formed; to support Parker’s interpretation of history and to justify the ‘new’ English Church.

Matthew Parker was a man of many talents, as witnessed in the many academic positions and ecclesiastical offices that he held at local and national levels over the course of his lifetime, not only as a theologian and later a prelate, as a scholar and an antiquarian, but also a translator and a publisher. However above all else, he was lifelong bibliophile, a passionate book collector, and he used his prodigious talent for book collecting to gather a magnificent library that would furnish tangible proof of incontrovertible precedent for each the clauses of the recreated Anglican Church. In 1568 Parker obtained a license from the Privy Council to gather into his own possession any “auncient recordes and monuments” from the old scattered monastic libraries which would provide evidence of the history of the original English religion. This of course meant especially those which were from or were concerned with the Anglo-Saxon period, and of particular importance for Parker were manuscripts in the English language, particularly those that showed or suggested that the vernacular was used rather than Latin in the religious life of the Anglo-Saxons. Nearly every one of Parker’s books was gathered for that reason, and it is for this reason that the library includes so large a section of early English medieval manuscripts.

Alexander Devine




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c.1064-69, Western England, probably Worcester

This stout little book comprises a portable one-volume compendium of a Psalter and a Breviary for daily use by an eleventh-century bishop travelling around his diocese. Both historical tradition and internal evidence suggest that the manuscript was made in Worcester for Saint Wulfstan (c.1008-1095), bishop of Worcester 1062-95. Wulfstan was canonised by Innocent III in 1203. He is patron saint of vegetarians. The frontispiece displayed here shows King David as a harpist, playing music on a seven-stringed Anglo-Saxon harp, facing the opening of the Psalter, whose text (Psalm 1) begins: ‘Beatus / vir / qui / non / abiit / in consilio impiorum …’ “Blessed is the man who does not abide in the company of the ungodly…”.


c.800, probably Canterbury

The Corpus Glossary is a list of words with synonyms in Latin, Greek, and Old English, arranged in more-or-less alphabetical order by the words’ first two letters. The manuscript’s importance lies in its inclusion of Old English, of which this volume is an early witness. Although this manuscript itself is quite short, in addition to the famous ‘Glossary’, the volume includes two supplementary texts, both grammatical in subject: a copy of the ‘Interpretations of Hebrew and Greek Names’ and an excerpt from the second book of Priscian’s Institutiones grammaticae, copied at a later date. Entries on the left-hand page of the opening shown here offer definitions for a number of book-related words, among them, in the left hand column, “Bibliotheca” or ‘Library’, here defined as a “librorum reposio” or ‘a repository of books’; while other words, such as “bitricius”, are given with their Old English equivalents, in this case, “stoepfaeder” or ‘step-father’.



1566, London (John Day)

This is the first book printed with Anglo-Saxon types. It is an edition of Ælfrician homilies and related materials printed as part of Parker’s programme to use Anglo-Saxon scholarship to solidify the doctrinal and institutional position of the Church of England. The Testimonie, along with the other Old English imprints that Parker were intended to show that the Church of England shared the beliefs of the ancient Saxon church, and thus had a pedigree that was both long and insular. The first Anglo-Saxon type designed for Parker – that which was used to print the Testimonie – had twenty-six sorts, and was based on Old English manuscript models, probably of the eleventh century. The book is here open to the beginning of the homily “In die Sancto Pascae”, with the Old English appearing on the left and a facing-page modern English translation. The layout is clear enough to allow a reader to compare the two versions and presumably, therefore, to learn something of the language.



tenth – eleventh centuries, perhaps Worcester

Annotations of a text can narrate histories of their own, as witnessed in this collection of Old English Homilies. While many later readers have left notes in the margins which attest to their understanding of Old English at a time when it was no longer spoken, the opening displayed here shows annotations which indicate the manuscript’s role in the history of the early printing of Old English. On the right hand page we see the opening of the same homily as that printed in A testimonie of antiquitie, also displayed here – whose text begins ‘Men ða leofostan gelome eoƿ is gesæd’. The number ‘19’ can be seen next to the opening line which corresponds to the page with the same homily in the printed edition.



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September Image

CCCC MS 582, inside front cover

Matthew Parker had been chaplain to Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII. His close relationship with their daughter, Princess (later Queen) Elizabeth, had an important part to play in his life, She was born on 7 September 1533. This coloured engraving of Queen Elizabeth was pasted by Parker inside his own copy of the statutes of Corpus Christi College.


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MS 178, p. 173 (detail)

The homily for VIII kalendas Ianuarii, now known as 25 December

Ælfric of Eynsham (~955 – ~1010) was an abbot, scholar and translator, who composed two series of English homilies, which explained and expounded upon Biblical events in the Anglo-Saxon language. In a fitting example for the upcoming holiday, the homily for Christmas day describes the story of the birth of Jesus, and his subsequent laying in a manger, (or, a ‘binne’ as it is in Old English, which adds a layer of grunge for the modern reader). Ælfric then continues to discuss how Jesus could be both human and divine, and the implications for Christian believers.

The Parker Library holds a number of manuscripts that contain the homilies in whole or in part: MSS 367, 419, 421, 178, 162, 302, 188, 198, and 303. In the illustration above is the beginning of the Christmas homily from CCCC MS 178, which dates from the 11th century but was later annotated in the 13th c. by the famous ‘Worcester Tremulous Hand’. This characteristically shaky handwriting is found in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts that are known to have been at Worcester, where the monk with the increasingly trembling hand studied these older texts and added small glosses and translations into Latin or Middle English. Here, we can see him provide a translation for ‘acennednysse‘ as ‘nativitate‘, both meaning birth.

Matthew Parker’s interests in Biblical translation, the vernacular church, and Anglo-Saxon theological teachings are all present in Ælfric’s Homilies, which no doubt spurred Parker’s collection of the manuscripts. From the original scribe, through the monk of the Tremulous Hand, Parker himself, and on to our modern-day researchers, this interpretation of the Christmas story has been inspiring scholars for 1,000 years.

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Detail- burning at the stakeThis week, a researcher discovered that Parker’s own copy of A discouery and playne declaration of sundry subtill practises of the Holy Inquisition of Spayne […] Set forth in Latine, by Reginaldus Gonsaluius Montanus, and lately translated, from 1569, is a rare complete copy, including a full folded sheet that contains an illustrative guide to the various actors and actions of the Spanish Inquisition. Most other copies appear to have lost this sheet, or it was never tipped-in.  

This copy, class mark SP.330, may be in such an ideal condition because it was not only printed by John Day, Parker’s own printer, but also dedicated to him by the translator, V. Skinner. It would be a reasonable assumption that if a copy were presented to him, it would be complete, with care taken to ensure the extra tipped-in woodcut was included. The full sheet depicts a large, complex scene of torture, judgement, and capital punishment and includes a guDetail- Pullieide to each set of actors on the opposite page.

Reginaldus Gonsalvius Montanus was the pseudonym of Casiodoro de Reina (or Reyna), a Spanish Protestant who fled the inquisition and later produced the first complete translation of the Bible into Spanish. After first spending time in London, he moved on to Antwerp when calls for his extradition became too insistent. His original text, Sanctae Inquisitionis hispanicae artes aliquot detectae, ac palam traductae, was published in Heidelberg in 1567. Parker also owned a copy of the Latin version, which is classmark SP.407.

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You can now see a 3D view of the Parker Library here:



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Over the next couple of weeks I’m going to be focusing on various digital projects and resources both old and new which incorporate data concerning one or more manuscripts from the Parker Library collection.

The first project is one that’s just gone live, Cyfraith Hywel (the Laws of Hywel Dda), a resource for the study of medieval Welsh law created by Dr Sara Elin Roberts and Bryn Jones. The system of Welsh law was distinct from English common law and from canon law. According to tradition, it was first codified in the reign of Hywel Dda (Hywel the Good) (ca. 880-950), described as ‘king of all Wales’ since he came to rule a large area of the country through conquest and marriage. In fact, although the law codes bear his name, there’s no real evidence to connect any particular text or section of Welsh law with Hywel Dda and none of the extant manuscript date from his reign.

Cyfraith Hywel lists 41 manuscripts, most in Welsh and some in Latin, the oldest of which date to the early or mid 13th century. Most of them are housed in the National Library of Wales, including one that was bought at auction last year, but one copy is held in the Parker Library. The manuscript history is a complex one with various redactions and sections, all of which are set out in the digital resource. Although the Statute of Rhuddlan in 1284 declared that English law was to be used instead of Welsh in criminal cases in Wales, Welsh law continued to be used in civil cases until the 1530s. The section illustrated below discusses the value of wild and tame animals for compensation purposes. The text carried on being copied and used, as the Parker Library copy of the Laws of Hywel Dda attests.

Laws of Hywel Dda (CCCC MS 454, f. 24v)

Laws of Hywel Dda (CCCC MS 454, f. 24v)

CCCC MS 454 is a Latin version of the text (Latin E) produced in the early fifteenth century in North Wales, probably in Denbighshire. It’s a small pocket-sized volume (17.5cm tall) and it seems likely that it was the working copy of a legal professional. Its flyleaves contain notes in Welsh and Latin about various cases including robbery and the circumstances for dissolving a marriage.

It might seem strange that a copy of a medieval Welsh law book would end up in the possession of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker, in the 1560s. However, it must be remembered that Parker and his circle were extremely interested in Anglo-Saxon law, not just as antiquarians but in order to seek evidence of precedents for Reformation policies. It seems a similar intent fueled some of the sixteenth-century interest in the Laws of Hywel Dda, as Parker’s copy of the text makes clear.

Titlepage of Ban wedy i dynny (CCCC MS 4544, f. 1ar)

Titlepage of Ban wedy i dynny (CCCC MS 4544, f. 1ar)

Bound in at the front of the manuscript is a pamphlet printed in 1550 and entitled Ban wedy i dynny. This remarkable document is the one of the earliest Welsh publications of any kind, the first pamphlet to be printed in Welsh and the first bilingual Welsh-English publication. And its subject? An argument in favour of married priests, drawing on precedents that it claims are laid down in the Laws of Hywel Dda, with extensive quotation from the medieval text. Although the pamphlet is anonymous, it’s generally believed to have been written by William Salesbury, the great translator and Welsh Protestant humanist, editor of the first printed English-Welsh dictionary and Welsh New Testament. It’s been suggested that Salesbury himself might have sent the manuscript and the pamphlet to Parker. A volume of Parker’s correspondence in the library includes a letter from Salesbury dated 19 March 1565 which discusses the issue of clerical marriage and quotes a passage in Latin on the topic from another medieval Welsh source.

Letter from William Salesbury to Matthew Parker (CCCC MS 114, p. 491)

Letter from William Salesbury to Matthew Parker (CCCC MS 114, p. 491)


Robin Flower, ‘William Salesbury, Richard Davies and Archbishop Parker’, National Library of Wales Journal 2 (1941-42), 7-14.

Christine James ‘Ban wedy i dynny: Medieval Welsh Law and Early Protestant Propaganda’, Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 27 (1994), 61-86.

For a popular introduction to medieval Welsh law, see this BBC website article.

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Our recent conference on Herbert of Bosham, secretary, confidant and biographer of Thomas Becket, was a great success with fascinating papers on the making of Herbert’s manuscripts, his Hebrew scholarship and his letters, on his relationship with Becket, and his connections with the court. The final paper of the conference, by organiser Michael Staunton, was on ‘Herbert and History’, which focused on Herbert’s conception and writing of history but his title also pointed to a clear theme running through the conference, namely how history has treated Herbert, his texts and his manuscripts.

John Allen Giles (1808-84)

John Allen Giles (1808-84)

There was much discussion of the discovery and loss of the manuscripts of his works, many of which are extant only in single witnesses, and of the role played by 19th-century librarians and editors in his posthumous reputation, notably the frighteningly prolific J. A. Giles, a Victorian clergyman and scholar who set up a printing press in his own house and trained local girls in typography in order to keep up with the stream of translations and editions of classical and medieval texts that poured forth from his pen.

Letter of Herbert of Bosham to John of Salisbury (CCCC MS 123, f. 53v)

Letter of Herbert of Bosham to John of Salisbury (CCCC MS 123, f. 53v)

The conference was accompanied by an exhibition of manuscripts. The Parker Library contains a number of important manuscripts relating to Becket and his circle since Matthew Parker was very interested in his martyred archiepiscopal predecessor, despite (or because of) Becket’s defiance of royal authority over ecclesiastical matters. As secretary, Herbert was responsible for writing many of Becket’s letters, but he also put together a collection of his own letters. The single surviving manuscript of his Epistolae, a fourteenth-century copy, is MS 123 in the Parker Library.

Herbert also produced a life of Becket called the Thomus (a pun on Thomas/tomus) which has been condemned by one modern biographer of Becket as ‘rambling and verbose‘. All the conference speakers agreed that Herbert never used one word where ten would do but as an eyewitness to many of the events he describes, Herbert’s account has been praised for its honesty by Becket’s most recent biographer, John Guy. In addition to manuscripts containing several extracts from Herbert’s life of Becket, the Parker Library also contains the only surviving copy of a Middle English verse life of Becket, written by a monk of Christ Church, Canterbury named Lawrence Wade. Wade’s poem, written in 1497, testifies to the continuing devotion to the saint, particularly at Canterbury. Wade also acknowledges Herbert’s Thomus as the major source for his own work:

Prologue of Lawrence Wade's Middle English Life of Thomas Becket, 1497 (MS 298, f.1v)

Prologue of Lawrence Wade’s Middle English Life of Thomas Becket, 1497 (MS 298, f.1v)

Wade’s prologue begins, ‘Here begynnyth the lyff off Seynt Thomas [bekett] off Cantorbury archbysshopp, translatyd in to our vulgar tonge owt off a boke callyd Thomys, by a brother of Christis Church in Cantorbury’. Less than fifty years after Wade’s hagiographical poem was written, the monastery at Christ Church was dissolved and Becket was condemned as a traitor. His controversial status during the Reformation is hinted at by the crossing out of ‘Seynt’, which is regularly seen in references to him in both manuscripts and printed books.

During the Reformation re-evaluation of Becket, this volume was owned by another of his successors as archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, who, like Becket, lost his life amidst royal and ecclesiastical power struggles and was acclaimed a martyr by some and a traitor by others. Rather poignantly, his signature (‘Thomas Cantuariensis’) can be seen above the rubric on the opening leaf of the manuscript.

Opening rubric of MS 298 with the signature of Thomas Cranmer (f.1r)

Opening rubric of MS 298 with the signature of Thomas Cranmer (f.1r)

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