From Durham to Dublin: the journey of two fifteenth-century books

We recently received an enquiry from Dr Ian Doyle, former Keeper of Rare Books at Durham University Library, about two printed books from our collections with an intriguing provenance. The volumes form parts two and three of a six-volume set of a Latin Bible with the commentary of Nicholas de Lyra (c. 1270-1349), printed by Johann Froben and Johann Petri de Langendorff in Basel in 1498. Our two volumes, at shelfmark FF.dd.4-5, are recorded as having once been connected to a cell of Durham’s Benedictine cathedral priory of St Cuthbert by evidence of an ownership mark belonging to a monk of one of its religious houses.1 The volumes bear the inscription of Christopher Wyllye, monk of Durham, transcribed here from the first leaf of FF.dd.5: Liber dompni Xtoferi Wyllye monachi Dunelmensis.

Liber dompni Xtoferi Wyllye monachi Dunelmensis

Indeed a monk named Christopher Willy (also found as Willey, Wyllie, Wyllye) was a prior at the cell of Stamford, St Leonard, from May 1525 until his death in 1530.2 St Leonard’s Priory was founded as a cell of the Benedictine cathedral in Durham and remained so until its dissolution in 1538 under King Henry VIII.3 The CERL database lists seven other printed works, mostly incunabula, bearing evidence of Wyllye’s ownership: one at the Bodleian, Oxford, one [formerly] at Hawkesyard Priory, Staffordshire [now untraced], and the remainder at Ushaw College, Durham. A search under ‘Wyllye’ in the database Medieval libraries of Great Britain brings up further information on these.

John Worth's signature on first leaf of volume FF.dd.5How did two volumes owned by a monk in Durham make their way to the shelves of the Long Room in Trinity College Dublin? A clue is provided by the later mark of ownership, ‘Joh Worth’, written on the first and second leaves in both volumes. The signature belongs to John Worth (1648-88), who was Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, from 1678 until his death in 1688. His father was Edward Worth (c. 1620-1669), Bishop of Killaloe.

John Worth had two sons – Michael, who studied law in London but who died before being called to the bar, and Edward (1676-1733), the physician and bibliophile who later left his own books to Dr Steevens’ Hospital in Dublin. John had intended his library of books to pass to one of his sons, provided they took holy orders, but if neither was ordained, then to his nephew Edward.4 That nephew was Edward Worth (1672-1741) of Rathfarnham. Despite the stipulation in his will, John’s library was inherited by his son Edward. Upon the latter’s death, Edward Worth of Rathfarnham, in his position as executor of his cousin’s will, was given the option of purchasing the books and about a thousand of them were later bequeathed to Trinity College Dublin in 1742.

The two books have travelled a great distance: from their place of printing, Basel, in the fifteenth century, to Christopher Wyllye in Durham by the sixteenth century, to John Worth in Dublin by the seventeenth century and on to the Library of Trinity College Library during the eighteenth century. At some stage they were united with other volumes to make up a complete set. The first volume, from an edition of 1501, bears the provenance ‘El Dor Franco de Pisa’. Volumes four, five and six (the latter dated 1502) are inscribed ‘fray philipe’, while an additional volume, an alphabetical index dated 1508, is without a mark of ownership.

Footnotes:

  1. N.R. Ker (ed.), Medieval libraries of Great Britain: a list of surviving books (Second edition, London, 1964; and supplement to the second edition, London, 1987). A beta-version is available to search online at http://mlgb3.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/
  2. David M. Smith (ed.), The heads of religious houses England and Wales III 1377-1540 (Cambridge, 2008), p.150.
  3. Historic England, ‘Ruins and site of St Leonard’s Priory.’ https://www.historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1007690; accessed 16/02/2016.
  4. Peter Fox, Trinity College Library Dublin: a history (Cambridge; New York, 2014), p.74.