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A Manuscript’s Journey through the English Civil Wars

The Manuscripts for Medieval Studies project has now digitised an early medieval collection of saints’ lives (TCD MS 174), produced between the late 11th- and early 12th centuries as one of four companion volumes at the Old Sarum Cathedral of Salisbury. See the manuscript in full here. So how did this manuscript reach Trinity College Dublin? To find out, we must follow this manuscript’s journey through the English Civil Wars (1642-1651).

Old English inscription reading of searbyrig ic eom (‘I am of Salisbury’), from TCD MS 174, flyleaf i-recto

The saints’ lives collection originally formed part of the library of the Old Sarum foundation established under St Osmund, bishop of Salisbury (r. 1078-1099) with the ownership of the manuscript demonstrated in an Old English inscription on the front flyleaf reading of searbyrig ic eom (‘I am of Salisbury’). The multi-volume work was produced in four manuscripts to be used for liturgical readings throughout the year, and includes the life stories of early saints such as St Guthlac of Crowland (c. 674-c. 715), St Julian of Le Mans (fl. 3rd-4th century AD), St Servatius of Tongeren (d. 384), and St Bathild (c. 626-680).  The four companion volumes remained at Salisbury Cathedral until 1640, when they were borrowed from Dean Richard Baylie with a group of manuscripts by The Most Reverend James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland (r. 1625-1656), as evident from a receipt now at Salisbury: ‘Bookes borrowed out of the Library of that Church of Sarum for the use of the Lord Primate of Ireland: and delivered by Dr. Baylie dean of the Church unto his Grace’.  

Opening page of Radboud’s Sermon on the Anniversary of St Servatius of Tongeren (TCD MS 174, f. 58r)

However, what was intended as a routine study trip soon turned disastrous with the outbreak of rebellion in Ireland in 1641 and the first English Civil War in 1642. Ussher’s position in the Anglican Church and as a royal ally to King Charles I of England (r. 1625-1649) left him vulnerable to targeted attacks, including the destruction of the Archbishop’s Palace in Drogheda. He was forced to move frequently, and his travelling book collection was seized in 1643 by Parliament from Chelsea College in retaliation for Ussher’s delivery of a pro-royal sermon, including the Salisbury manuscripts. Three of the Salisbury saints’ lives volumes were soon recovered with the collection (now Salisbury Cathedral MSS 221-223), but the fourth volume was presumed lost.

Portrait of Archbishop James Ussher by Willem Flessiers, dated 1644; Photo credit: Bodleian Libraries; image supplied by Art UK. Source.

The fourth volume of the saints’ lives collection was eventually found and returned to Ussher’s library, as cathedral deans and chapters were abolished by Parliament in 1649. The library was purchased and sent to Dublin in 1657 on the orders of Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth (r. 1653-1658) and gifted by King Charles II of England (r. 1660-1685) to Trinity College Dublin following the Restoration of 1660. Ussher’s library now forms the heart of the medieval collections at Trinity, including the Salisbury volume, a remarkable survival of a turbulent history.

Opening page of Felix of Crowland’s Life of St Guthlac (TCD MS 174, f. 73r)

Dr Alison Ray

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The work of the Manuscripts for Medieval Studies project has been made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Virtual Trinity Library is a digitisation initiative of the Library of Trinity College Dublin’s most valued collections. It will conserve, catalogue, curate, digitise and research these unique collections of national importance, making them accessible to a global audience, from schoolchildren to scholars.

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