Usseriani sed non Usseriani

Two of the manuscripts that form the subjects of our study are connected to the name of Ussher. TCD MS 55 is commonly called Codex Usserianus Primus, while TCD MS 56, also known as the Garland of Howth, has been designated as Codex Usserianus Secundus. The adjective ‘Usserianus’ therefore associates these two Gospel Books with the eminent scholar and ecclesiastical politician  James Ussher  (b. 1581, d. 1656).

James Ussher, by Cornelius Johnson, 1641 © Jesus College, University of Oxford; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation. Source.

Ussher played a key role in the assembly of the collection of the Library of Trinity College Dublin.  Belonging to the first generation of students educated at the recently-founded College, which he entered in 1594, aged 13, he went on to become one of its first scholars and remained there as a member of staff until he was elevated to the bishopric of Meath in 1621. Four years later, he was appointed Archbishop of Armagh.

In the early 17th century he was responsible, together with Luke Challoner, for buying books to build the Trinity College holdings. They went on ‘shopping trips’ to England and liaised with numerous eminent scholars and  collectors of the time, such as Sir Robert Cotton, whose library would later be one of the foundation collections of the British Museum, now held at the British Library.  Ussher himself also assembled a great library, estimated at c. 10,000 volumes,1 most of which made their way into the collections of Trinity College Dublin.

The  association of the two early manuscript Gospel Books (TCD MSS 55 and 56) with the famous  scholar would have been a prestigious provenance,  especially since their numbering, as Primus and Secundus, would imply that they were among the first volumes received from his library. This provenance, however, cannot be verified and seems rooted in tradition rather than fact. According to William O’Sullivan, former Keeper of Manuscripts at the Library,  Thomas Kingsmill Abbott gave them this name because both manuscripts had been placed with Ussher’s manuscripts.2

We will come back to the question of the manuscripts’  actual provenance in future posts.

For more on James Ussher, see HERE.

Catherine Yvard, Research Fellow




  1. See ‘Archbishop James Ussher’, in A. Webb, A Compendium of Irish Biography, Comprising Sketches of Distinguished Irishmen, Eminent Persons Connected with Ireland by Office or by their Writings, Dublin: M. H. Gill & Son, 1878
  2. W. O’Sullivan, ‘Ussher as Collector of Manuscripts’, in Hermathena 88 (November 1956, pp. 34-58 [p. 52]).