It sometimes happens that the provenance of a book is as interesting as the book itself. Take, for example, the Ward Library’s copy of The works of our ancient and learned English poet, Geffrey Chaucer.
This collection of Chaucer’s works was printed in London, in 1602, by Adam Islip. The volume contains a collection of material relating to the life and works of Chaucer, including a detailed heraldic plate illustration of the “progeny” of Geoffrey Chaucer signed ‘IS’ (John Speed) and based on a portrait of Chaucer first circulated in manuscripts by his contemporary Thomas Hoccleve.
In addition to Chaucer’s works, the volume contains material by a number of other authors, written either about Chaucer or along Chaucerian themes.
The book was likely acquired by Peterhouse because of its editor, Thomas Speght. Speght matriculated at Peterhouse on the 27th April 1566, graduating from his B.A. in 1569/70 and then taking his M.A. in 1573 (Walker, 1927, p. 254). According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Speght first became interested in Chaucer whilst at Cambridge; this interest was shared with a fellow Petrean, Francis Beaumont (matriculated 1565, and later a judge on the bench of the Common Pleas, father to the well-known dramatist of the same name). Beaumont contributed a prefatory letter, “To his very loving and assured good friend M. Thomas Speght”, to this particular Chaucer edition.
To whom the book belonged during its first two hundred years we do not know, however, an inscription on the book’s endpaper provides us with some information regarding its nineteenth-century ownership. The inscription reads: “Henry White Cathedral Close, Lichfield, presented by Lady Elr. Butler, & Miss Ponsonby, Llangollen, Tuesday, August 21st 1810.”
Lady Eleanor Butler (1739-1829) and Miss Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1831), the ‘Ladies of Llangollen’, were famous both for the life of retirement they led together and their romantic friendship. Neither artists nor writers themselves, their celebrity drew an impressive line-up of visitors, including Sir Walter Scott, Erasmus Darwin, Southey and Lady Caroline Lamb (Mavor, 1971, p.9). Lord Byron sent them a complimentary copy of The Corsair (Mavor, p.175) and Wordsworth “Called upon the celebrated Recluses” and composed a sonnet in their grounds (William Wordsworth in a letter to George Ticknor, Wordsworth, 1851, p.123).
The history of the ladies makes fascinating reading and is detailed very entertainingly in Elizabeth Mavor’s The Ladies of Llangollen: a study in romantic friendship. They met when the orphaned thirteen-year-old Sarah was sent to Miss Parke’s boarding school in Kilkenny; Eleanor, then twenty-nine, lived at the castle of Kilkenny with her family and likely visited Sarah following a request from Sarah’s relative, Lady Betty Fownes. Despite the age difference, a strong friendship grew between the two.
On leaving school, Sarah moved in with Lady Betty Fownes where she was subject to the unwanted attention of Lady Betty’s husband. Eleanor, now thirty-nine and still unmarried, was under increasing pressure to enter a convent in Cambrai. The two unhappy women conspired to run away with each other and, on the night of Monday March 30th 1778, their plans came into fruition. Dressed in men’s clothing and armed with a pistol, the women fled towards Waterford with the intention of taking a boat to England. The fugitives were intercepted by their families prior to reaching the quay and returned, ignominiously, to their homes. Friendship will find a way, however, and after a second escape attempt and much pleading, the ladies were finally given permission to go away together. They made a home together at Plas Newydd, north Wales, near the town of Llangollen.
Their romantic friendship and retired lifestyle, and their selection of a home so close to a major staging post between Ireland and England, meant that the ladies were much talked about and visited. One of their visitors, it is assumed, was Henry White, sacrist and later priest-vicar of Lichfield (1761-1836), to whom they gave the Chaucer on 21st August 1810. Books from White’s collections were first offered for sale in London in 1826 (J.W. Southgate) and again, after his death, in 1838 (Samuel Leigh Sotheby). Judging from the items listed in his sale catalogues, Henry White shared as varied an interest in literature as the Ladies of Llangollen. When and to whom White disposed of this copy of Chaucer, however, remains uncertain.
We do have information on one final owner of the book prior to Peterhouse. This is provided in an armorial bookplate pasted in the flyleaf. The bookplate belonged to the genealogist Hugh Robert Hughes of Kinmel and Dinorben, Co. Denbigh. Hughes, the son of Hugh Robert Hughes of Bache Hall, Cheshire, was born in 1827 and died in 1911.
Unfortunately, we do not know exactly when Peterhouse acquired the book – was it obtained from the Hughes estate or from some later owner? Acquire it we did, however, and probably because of the aforementioned Peterhouse connection. It is interesting to remember, however, when browsing through its contents, that this book was once the possession of nineteenth-century celebrities, that it has come down to us from many hands, and that the full history of its provenance is yet to be revealed.
Matthews, D. ‘Speght, Thomas (d. 1621)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/, accessed 19 Dec 2014].
Mavor, E. ‘Butler, Lady (Charlotte) Eleanor (1739–1829)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2006 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/, accessed 19 Dec 2014].
Mavor, E. The Ladies of Llangollen: a study in romantic friendship. London: Michael Joseph, 1971.
The National Library of Wales. Dictionary of Welsh Biography, Aberystwyth: 2014; online [http://wbo.llgc.org.uk/en/s-HUGH-ROB-1827.html, accessed 19 Dec 2014].
Walker, T.A. A Biographical register of Peterhouse men…’ Part I, 1284-1574. Cambridge: At the University Press, 1927.
Wordsworth, C. Memoirs of William Wordsworth, Poet Laureate, D.C.L. Volume II. London: Edward Moxon, 1851.