Gold Leaf and Graffiti

Among the books that John Cosin (1595-1672) gave to Peterhouse, Cambridge, in 1662 is a volume of a large folio Bible in Latin (Perne Library, shelfmark S. 10b). It is printed in two colours (black and red) on vellum, with extensive penwork in red, blue, green, and purple inks (providing chapter headings, numbers, some initial letters, highlighting and rubrication), and has fifty gold initials, mostly infilled with flower motifs in colour, at the beginning of each book of the Bible. Cosin was Master of Peterhouse from 1635 until his ejection by order of Parliament in March 1644. He had returned to Cambridge by June 1660, resuming the Mastership until November. On 2 December 1660, he was consecrated as Bishop of Durham. Royalist in politics and ritualist in religion, Cosin was one of the most indefatigable and successful book collectors and library builders of seventeenth-century England. During his Mastership, in the late 1630s, the library of Peterhouse was rebuilt and extended and work began on new shelves and panelling, as well as a new catalogue. Following the sequestration of Cosin’s books after he had fled from Parliamentarian Cambridge during the English Civil War, his successor as Master, Lazarus Seaman, petitioned to have them settled on Peterhouse. As a result, over a thousand volumes were transferred to the shelves of the College. These books remained in dispute when Cosin returned to England. Some sort of settlement was reached in 1662: this volume is one of several to bear a donation inscription from Cosin dated in that year.

John Cosin: Portrait in the Master’s Lodge at Peterhouse (after a portrait now at Auckland Castle).

The binding on Perne Library, shelfmark S. 10b was renewed in cheap and thin calf over inadequate pasteboards in 1830, as a note on the pastedown of the front board (signed ‘E[dward] V[entris]’) makes clear. That note also identifies the book. It is a copy of the second volume of the 48-line Latin Bible printed by Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer at Mainz in 1462, and thus half of the fourth edition of the printed Vulgate, first published by Johann Gutenberg in the same German city less than a decade before.

Opening folio of volume two of the 1462 Mainz Bible, Perne Library, shelfmark S. 10b, showing an illumination of King Solomon and the donation inscription from Justinian Kidd to Edward Orwell in 1581, as well as a seventeenth-century shelfmark.

On the first leaf of the printed text is a manuscript inscription: ‘Edo Orwell. 1581. ex dono Justiniani Kidd.’ The location of the inscription strongly suggests that in 1581 this (second) part of the 1462 Mainz Bible was already separated from the first volume that had once accompanied it. Both Edward Orwell, to whom the book was given, and Justinian Kidd (its first known owner) can be identified with some certainty. They were lawyers: Kidd (d. c. 1599) acted as a proctor in Doctors’ Commons and as executor to a number of wills; Orwell (d. 1591) had been apprenticed as a notary to Anthony Hussey and served as registrar of the Court of Arches. In the London Subsidy Roll for 1582, both Kidd (£15) and Orwell (£30) were assessed in the Ward of Farringdon Within. Kidd at the time lived in the parish of St Faith; Orwell in the nearby parish of Christ Church.

The copy of the 1462 Mainz Bible that Kidd gave to Orwell is notable for the extensive illumination that it contains. This consists of fifty gold initials, mostly infilled with flower motifs in colours on blue or magenta white-patterned grounds, which mark the beginning of each of the books of the Bible. The opening historiated initial, for Proverbs, depicts King Solomon, as a young man, crowned and dressed in a short contemporary costume of gold and scarlet with blue stockings, standing on a green background. The painting of the initials can be localised to Cologne, as can the decoration and pen-work of four other surviving copies of the 1462 Mainz Bible.

Perne Library, shelfmark S. 10b, fol. 19v, showing a detail of floral decoration and illumination.

Illumination was one of the strategies which helped to ensure the successful sale of the 1462 Mainz Bible in Germany, despite the availability of several earlier editions of the Vulgate. The provision of gold leaf decoration, however, in the copy at Peterhouse later promoted a very different kind of engagement with its text and illustrations. The library at Peterhouse had once contained a large number of manuscripts with some form of illumination or decoration. Most of these books were subjected to extensive iconoclasm, probably in the sixteenth century. As a consequence, very few pictures and very little gold leaf survives among the College’s holdings of medieval manuscripts, even though these preserve the majority of its fifteenth-century library. Two manuscripts, however, entered the library in 1660 and 1661, as part of a gift of books from Algernon Peyton (d. 1667), Rector of Doddington and Fellow Commoner of Peterhouse. In both of these, the illumination survives unscathed. This is largely true also for Cosin’s copy of the 1462 Mainz Bible, from which, however, three floral initials have been excised (at folios 192, 196, and 201) and two partially removed (at folios 12 and 230). Such neat removals are suggestive of the appetite for collecting specimens of medieval miniatures among late eighteenth-century bibliophiles.

Perne Library, shelfmark S. 10 b, fol. 201v, showing an excised initial.

Eighteenth-century users of Cosin’s copy of the 1462 Mainz Bible left their mark on the book in a more singular manner. In 1877, Christopher Wordsworth (1848-1938) described the visit of the eighteenth-century Frankfurt bibliophile, Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach, to Cambridge in 1710. Uffenbach was dismissive of many College collections, including those at Peterhouse, which he regarded as out-dated, tedious, and poorly maintained. Wordsworth repeated Uffenbach’s censure of the librarians of Pembroke, who had allowed cuttings to taken from an illuminated manuscript of Aulus Gellius, and added his own observations: ‘In Peterhouse library the gilding &c. of some of the initials of Fust and Schoeffer’s Latin Bible (Mentz, 1462) has been scratched and mutilated in days when even choristers were allowed free access to the room, which was in sad disorder when Uffenbach visited it, Aug. 7, 1710. One of the offenders (a freshman or a junior soph) has left not only his name but the date of his indenture in the burnished gold — [Jacques] “Spearman, 1732.”’

Peterhouse had no choral foundation in the eighteenth century. Formally, access to the library was limited to Fellows of the College, who could and did borrow books on behalf of their undergraduates. A particular group of scholars, however, principally consisting of those who were in receipt of funds deriving from a bequest made in the late sixteenth-century by Andrew Perne (Master of Peterhouse from 1555 until his death in 1589), were charged with the upkeep of the library, including stock checks and cataloguing. From examination of Cosin’s copy of the 1462 Mainz Bible, it is possible to trace the abuse of such access by a group of scholars of Peterhouse and their friends in the early 1730s. For these readers of the book, its attraction indeed lay in the suitability of gold leaf as a background on to which names and insults could be scratched as graffiti. They carefully chose places to write which were in the middle of the volume, perhaps to reduce the chance of detection or perhaps to increase the thrill of shared discovery. Whether the graffiti that they wrote indicated any disrespect for the Latin Vulgate text of the Bible is unknowable. Certainly, it showed a healthy contempt for the moral character of their friends.

Perne Library, shelfmark S. 10 b, fol. 53v: graffiti reading ‘Pimp PORTEUS’.

The graffiti read as follows:

  1. (initial to Jeremiah, folio 53v): Pimp PORTEUS
  2. (initial to Lamentations, folio 74v): COOK Fool
  3. (initial to Baruch, folio 76v): Spearman 1732
  4. (initial to Daniel, folio 99r): P. Clennell Trin. Coll. 1735
  5. (initial to Joel, folio 109v): Spearman
  6. (initial to Amos, folio 110v): Spearman
  7. (initial to Abdias [Obadiah], folio 112v): WARD
  8. (initial to Jonah, folio 113r): WARD
  9. (initial to Habakkuk, folio 115v): P. Clennell [repeated]
  10. (initial to Zachariah, folio 118r): Wm Wade
  11. (initial to Galatians, folio 200r): [possible reading:] Allenson
  12. (initial to 1 John, folio 231r): Coyte Beaumont 1730

Peterhouse, Perne Library, shelfmark S. 10 b, fol. 231r: graffiti reading ‘Coyte/ Beaumont 1730’.

Who were the writers involved? Charles Beaumont was the son of the rector of Witnesham, Suffolk, and had been educated at Ipswich School before matriculating at Peterhouse, aged sixteen, on 7 March 1727. He was elected to two scholarships, in 1727 and 1729, took his B.A. in 1730 and proceeded M.A. in 1734, by which time he was Perne Fellow (1733-6). He was ordained deacon and later priest in 1736 and succeeded his father as rector of Witnesham, where he died in 1756. Beaumont’s partner in crime was probably Beeston Coyte (rather than his brother, William). Both Coyte brothers matriculated at Peterhouse on 17 February 1727, but William (b. 1708) was two or three years older than his brother and embarked on a medical career (M.B. 1732). Beeston entered the College as a sizar at the age of sixteen, was a scholar, and took his B.A. in 1730. The Coyte brothers again came from Suffolk, where they were neighbours of Thomas Gainsborough at Sudbury, and had also studied at Ipswich School. Beeston Coyte died at Kingston, Jamaica, in 1776 and was memorialised in terms which may strike the reader of this piece with some irony:

In early youth, by native genius led,

Preganant his judgment with a taste refin’d,

The classic page he with attention read,

And formed from thence his great perceptive mind…

Thomas Cooke (d. 1793), also from Suffolk but this time educated at the school in Bury St Edmunds, was admitted to Peterhouse as a sizar in March 1729. He was North scholar and then Hale scholar, took his B.A. in 1732, and became Perne Fellow in the following year, before being ordained in December 1734.

Perne Library, shelfmark S. 10 b, fol. 74v: graffiti reading ‘COOK Fool’.

Robert Porteus (c. 1705-1754) was rather older than the members of this Suffolk trio and seems to have been born in Virginia. He was educated at a private school in Twickenham and entered Peterhouse aged twenty in October 1725 as a sizar. He became successively North scholar and Hale scholar and took his B.A. in 1729, in which year he was also ordained a deacon. He proceeded M.A. in 1738, by which time he was rector of Hatley in Cambridgeshire. Jaques Spearman (1713-45) came from County Durham and was educated at Houghton-le-Spring before matriculating as a sizar at Peterhouse, aged eighteen, in July 1731. He held a number of scholarships before graduating B.A. in 1734. He was ordained as a deacon from Ely in December 1735, and pursued an unsuccessful clerical career, latterly at Royston in Hertfordshire. His distant relative, George Spearman (1714-61), had already begun his studies at Gray’s Inn when he was admitted as a Fellow Commoner at Peterhouse in December 1731. Percival Clennell (d. 1743), who was admitted as a pensioner at Trinity College in October 1733 at the age of seventeen, was from a Northumberland family, and like Jaques Spearman, he had been educated at Houghton-le-Spring. In January 1735, he was admitted to the Middle Temple.

Perne Library, shelfmark S. 10 b, fol. 76v: graffiti reading ‘[Jaques] Spearman 1732’.

The identities of William Wade, Mr. Ward, and Mr. Allenson are harder to establish with certainty. William Wade (c. 1692-1728) came up to Peterhouse in 1710 and became vicar of Standon, Hertfordshire. His son, also William, matriculated at Christ’s in 1743, aged nineteen. If neither of these seem especially likely candidates, then neither does a third William Wade. He was admitted as a sizar at Clare College in June 1721, having been at school in his native Wakefield, Yorkshire. He took his B.A. in 1725 and proceeded M.A. in 1731, by which time he may have been Master of Chichester Grammar School. Ward is such a common surname that it is really impossible to make reasonable suggestions: nobody of that name seems to have been at Peterhouse at the relevant moment, whereas there were several Wards at other Colleges (including more than one at Trinity). There were members of Peterhouse named Allenson in the seventeenth century, but their family appears to have had stronger associations with St John’s College. A more probable author of the inscription here might be Gilbert Allenson, who was admitted to St John’s College aged nineteen in June 1729, and who took his B.A. in 1732-3. There may also be other names recorded as graffiti elsewhere in the gold leaf of Cosin’s copy of the 1462 Mainz Bible, but scratches made on other initials (e.g. folio 206v) have so far not proved to be decipherable.

Perne Library, shelfmark S. 10 b, fol. 99r: graffiti reading ‘P[ercival] Clennell/ Trin[ity] Coll[ege] 1735’.

Despite such disappointments, it is possible to draw one or two conclusions from this prosopography of vandalism. First, the writers of graffiti who can be identified with certainty were almost all young men, either scholars or very recent Bachelors of Arts. Secondly, they were close friends, who in several cases had been to school with one another. This connection almost certainly explains how Percival Clennell of Trinity College came to write his name in a book at Peterhouse. Something like it may also account for the puzzling presence of William Wade and Mr. Ward. Although some became lawyers, most were ordained shortly after defacing the gold leaf in this Bible with jests that one assumes they did not hold in any way to constitute a form of blasphemy. Thirdly, there were repeat offenders, and the defacement of the book took place on three or more occasions, separated by at least five years (1730: Beaumont and Coyte; 1732: Spearman; 1735: Clennell and presumably Spearman again). It is tempting to assume that the inscriptions of Porteus and Cooke were also written together, perhaps as early as 1729. Here other records of the library at Peterhouse help to flesh out the opportunities provided for mischief and amusement. In 1730, both Charles Beaumont and Beeston Coyte were among the scholars responsible for keeping the register of books borrowed and returned to the library, as was Jaques Spearman in 1735. In their treatment of Cosin’s copy of the 1462 Mainz Bible, Beaumont, Coyte, and Spearman were thus gamekeepers turned poachers.


(For a more complete account of this book, see Scott Mandelbrote, ‘Gold Leaf and Graffiti in a Copy of the 1462 Mainz Bible’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 47 (2017), 617-38:

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