The property of an embezzling Elizabethan Shakespeare fan?

Autograph of Richard Stonley on the titlpage of Elyot's The Castell of helth (Sp Coll Hunterian Au.4.11a)

Autograph of Richard Stonley on the titlepage of Elyot’s The castell of helth (Sp Coll Hunterian Au.4.11a)

Richard Stonley (1519 or 20-1600) boasts an interesting literary claim to fame: his acquisition of a newly printed copy of Venus and Adonis on 12th June 1593 makes him the earliest known purchaser of any Shakespeare work. We are fortunate to know this – and a lot more about Stonley’s library and purchasing habits besides – due to the survival of some fascinating Stonley documents, several of which are preserved in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC. Additionally, a remarkable inventory of all the books and belongings from Stonley’s London home, compiled in 1597, survives at the National Archives at Kew. This unusual document was created after he became embroiled in a scandal and was locked up in the Fleet prison.

Stonley was one of four Tellers of the Exchequer of Receipt, a senior figure in Elizabeth I’s Treasury charged with receiving payments for the Queen’s coffers. By the late 1590s he was powerful and wealthy having been in position at the Exchequer for over four decades during which he accumulated land in six different counties and houses in Kent, Essex, Buckinghamshire, Oxford and London. But in early 1597 his world was thrown into turmoil – he was accused of siphoning off some £12,000 (the equivalent of several million pounds today) of the Queen’s money for his own use! The priced-up inventory of all Stonley’s London possessions seems to have been made while he was imprisoned, desperately trying to make-good the debt by selling off all he owned.

Special Collections recently received a visit from Dr Jason Scott-Warren of Cambridge University, an expert in early modern English literature and book culture who has written about Stonley (a chapter entitled ‘Books in the bedchamber: religion, accounting and the library of Richard Stonley’) in a recent edited book. He was particularly interested in a modest little group of eleven 16th-century books (previously all bound together) in our Hunterian Collection, which he believed to have been owned by Stonley. Dr Scott-Warren confirmed the Stonley provenance by identifying two examples of Stonley’s autograph in different items; however, even more exciting was his identification of the autograph of Stonley’s wife, Anne, in one of the items – the only known example of a book with her signature.

Autograph of Anne Stonley. If you happen to recognise the shelfmark (?) or cipher (?) after her name (in her or a later hand) please let us know!

Autograph of Anne Stonley in Elyot’s The castell of helth (Sp Coll Hunterian Au.4.11a). If you happen to recognise the shelfmark (?) or cipher (?) after her name (in her or a later hand) please let us know!

So, wondered Dr Scott-Warren, might Anne Stonley have considered these her books rather than her husband’s? Well, tantalisingly we’ll probably never know for sure. Certainly none of the eleven titles are specifically listed in Richard Stonley’s inventory and Anne clearly felt moved to add her name to the volume, so she must have had some interest or connection with it.

Woodcut of Hippocrates (presumably raised from the dead!) talking with Avicenna. From Hippocrates: Prognostics [English] [ca. 1545] (Sp Coll Hunterian Au.4.11e)

Woodcut of Hippocrates (presumably raised from the dead!) talking with Avicenna. From Hippocrates: Prognostics [English] [ca. 1545] (Sp Coll Hunterian Au.4.11e)

Interestingly all eleven items are medical/health treatises (presumably the reason William Hunter acquired them) printed in London in the vernacular. Scott-Warren has previously noted that Stonley’s library held an unusually large number of books printed in English (during a period where Latin books were still the norm) – over half compared with other known libraries of the period, where 10 percent or so was standard. The majority of our eleven items were printed by Robert Wyer, one of the most prolific London printers of the mid-16th century. He specialised in small, cheaply produced octavos – medical remedies, astrological treatises and manuals – all in English. Bibliographer Heny R. Plomer has described him as a ‘printer to the people’: perhaps his work wasn’t always aesthetically pleasing (often he used very worn type – including aging type once owned by Wynken de Worde) but mise-en-page took second place to the latest up-to-date content succinctly presented. The abridged information came from the best classical and contemporary sources, so these were practical books that were intended for use rather than prestigious shelf-embellishment!

Despite their contemporary popularity, such books are far less common survivors – presumably ‘used to death’ or considered less valuable by early bibliophiles and librarians – than their more prestigious shelf-fellows. In this small group are some very rare items and unique survivors; Dr Scott-Warren describes the collection as,

“a delicious concatenation of books, several of them the only surviving witnesses”.

Robert Wyer's woodcut printer's device featuring St. John the Evangelist (the sign under which he operated) seated on Patmos writing.

Robert Wyer’s woodcut printer’s device featuring St. John the Evangelist (the sign under which he operated) seated on Patmos writing.

The full list of items is:

You are welcome to pop up to Special Collections to view any or all of these items.



Categories: Library, Special Collections

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

3 replies

  1. I hate to be a pedant but it’s in the first sentence and in bold … it’s not a play.

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