The poet, the polymath and the fallen archbishop: Precious 17th century writings acquired by Bodleian Libraries

By Richard Moss | 26 May 2016

The Bodleian Libraries in Oxford have acquired a collection of fascinating 17th century literary treasures from the collection of the late bibliophile Robert Pirie

a close up of a handwritten in ink scrolled letter with the signature John Locke
John Locke's letter with signature© Courtesy Bodleian Libraries
One of John Donne’s most famous poems, a letter by the philosopher John Locke and a book on supernatural phenomena by John Aubrey are among the 17th century literary treasures recently secured by the Bodleian Libraries from the collection of recently deceased bibliophile Robert Pirie.

The precious literary haul was bought in December 2015 at Sotheby’s during a sale of the collection of the late American collector who amassed perhaps the finest collection of 16th and 17th-century English literature in private hands.

The Donne poem, Meditation upon a Good Friday, ryding from London towards Exceter, westward, was written in 1613, and sees Donne reflecting on the fact that his thoughts are in the east, where Christ died, while he himself is riding west.

Written in the hand of Sir Nathaniel Rich, a colonial investor, politician and friend of Donne, the manuscript was discovered in the 1970s and is well known to scholars because it contains clues about the evolution of the text.

Thought to be an earlier version of Donne's poetic religious mediation, it omits portions known from other manuscript versions and has Donne taking a different route on his journey westward.

a photo of a hand written page of a poem
John Donne's Good Friday Riding Westward© Courtesy Bodeian Libraries
It joins a collection of Donne materials at the Bodleian, which includes the only surviving poem of Donne's written in his own handwriting. Interestingly, that copy is addressed to Sir Nathaniel Rich’s sisters.

John Aubrey’s Miscellanies offers a different but equally intriguing insight into beliefs in the 17th century.

In it, the Brief Lives author explores documented reports of a variety of unexplained supernatural phenomena such as apparitions, omens, corpse-candles, knockings and transportation through the air.

Annotations by his colleague Robert Hooke, one of the leading scientists of 17th century England, also suggest evidence of the two great men working on the text together.

Aubrey’s manuscript for Brief Lives, the short biographical sketches of the leading figures of the day, already resides in the Bodleian's collection.

a frontispiece of a book dated London 1696
Corpse Candles, Marvels and Magic - from the frontispiece of John Aubrey's Miscellanies© Courtesy Bodleian Libraries
The 17th century’s descent into bloody civil war is curiously reflected in a letter from Archbishop William Laud, written to John Greaves, fellow of Merton College and Savilian Professor of Astronomy, during the churchman’s incarceration in the Tower of London in 1642.

In it, the firebrand Bishop, who during his time as Archbishop of Canterbury and adviser to King Charles I persecuted Puritans with authoritarian zeal, discusses a collection of coins he has given the University of Oxford - in addition to a large collection that he had given to the Bodleian in 1636. 

The letter asks that the gift be "written into the Booke" - a reference to a catalogue of the collection that still survives among the very extensive manuscript holdings he bequeathed to the Library.

Having made ample provision for the execution of his belongings, Laud was eventually beheaded on the scaffold - for Treason - on January 10 1645.

a photo of a red letter seal
The seal of the letter Archbishop Laud sent from the Tower of London© Courtesy Bodleian Libraries
A copy of a letter written by philosopher John Locke, through a secretary, to Irish physician Thomas Molyneux in 1699 laments the recent death of his brother, William Molyneux, a natural philosopher who was Locke’s friend and is regarded as the founder of modern science in Ireland.

During his lifetime, William Molyneux regularly corresponded with Locke and provided insights and criticism on Locke’s works.

As well as offering insights into the intellectual exchanges that took place between these two great thinkers, the letter is also important because of the paper stock on which it was written and the handwriting of the amanuensis, which may help with dating other works by Locke. The letter is now part of one of the largest collections of Locke materials in the world.

The final literary treasure acquired by the Bodleian is a small volume containing three separate works of proverbs bound into a single edition.

It contains proverbs in Spanish, Finnish and English dating back as early as the 16th century, including a wealth of sayings that remain part of the English language today including "the more the merrier" and "Rome was not built in one day."

a photo of an imprinted/embossed seal on a book frontispiece
The seal on the book Spanish proverbs© Courtesy Bodleian Libraries
“Every one of these items has an Oxford connection and is a perfect complement to the Bodleian’s existing collections,” said Chris Fletcher, Keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian Libraries.

“We are grateful to the institutions and donors who have helped us bring these books and manuscripts back to the UK for the benefit of the public and the scholarly community.”

All of the books and manuscripts have now been catalogued and are available for consultation at the Bodleian Libraries.

The acquisitions were made possible with a grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund with support of the Victoria & Albert Purchase Grant Fund, the Aurelius Trust, All Souls College, Oxford, Friends of the National Libraries, Friends of the Bodleian and several individual donors.

a photo of the spines of two leather bound books
The spines of the John Aubrey and the Misceallany © Courtesy the Bodleian Libraries
The William Laud letter with its red seal© Courtesy the Boldeian Libraries
a photo of a written letter and signature
William Laud's signature© Courtesy Bodleian Libraries
a photo of a frontispiece with a squashed insect visible
A close up of the proverbs book - with an unfortunate visitor© Courtesy Bodleian Libraries
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