26 April 2023
Lichfield Cathedral Library
exhibition is an insight into
the world of book collectors
Two of us were in Lichfield earlier this week, when I visited the ‘Library and Legacy’ exhibition telling the story of Lichfield Cathedral Library and the Seymour Family.
The exhibition opened in the Chapter House last Saturday (22 April) and offers an insight into why Lichfield Cathedral Library is unusual – perhaps unique – among cathedral libraries and its link with the Seymour family.
The Cathedral Library, as it is today, began in 1674 with a gift of over 400 books from the private collection of William Seymour, Duke of Somerset, donated by his widow, the former Lady Frances Devereux. The books reflect the wide-ranging interests of a wealthy intellectual in the 17th century and are different from the books normally found in a cathedral library.
The mediaeval library at Lichfield Cathedral was almost totally lost during the English Civil War. A new library was established in the 1670s with the gift of more than 400 books from the widowed Duchess of Somerset.
Frances Devereux inherited her husband’s library when he died in 1660, and bequeathed the collection to Lichfield. She wrote in her will: ‘for the respect which I and my family have received from the City of Lichfield, I give the books which were my late deceased husband’s, to the Church of Lichfield to be put in the new library there.’
In this way, Lichfield Cathedral Library inherited a wide range of books associated with the library of a prominent 17th century intellectual rather than with a cathedral. The exhibition explores William Seymour’s library, illustrating the types of books he and his ancestors included in their libraries and how this reflects the culture of their time.
No catalogue survives for Lichfield Cathedral’s mediaeval library. But the exhibition includes the only three books known to have survived from the mediaeval collection and that survived the ravages of the English Civil War (1642-1648).
The Lichfield Gospels, an eighth century Gospel Book dating from 730, was the greatest treasure in the mediaeval library. It is older than the Book of Kells yet a little younger that the Lindisfarne Gospels. The opening folio contains a faded signature, Wynsige presul, which may refer to Wynsige, Bishop of Lichfield from around 963 to ca 975, and folio four refers to Leofric, Bishop of Lichfield in 1020-1026.
The book was in Lichfield Cathedral until 1646, when the cathedral was sacked during the English Civil War and the cathedral library was looted. Fortunately, one of the cathedral clergy gave it to Frances Devereux for safekeeping. She kept it in a box known as ‘The Ark’, and the book was returned to the cathedral when she died in 1674.
The Gospels have been on public display since 1982. They are used in solemn liturgical occasions on special feasts and the Bishops of Lichfield still swear allegiance on the Lichfield Gospels at their enthronement.
Another survivor from the mediaeval library is the ‘Decretals of Pope Gregory IX’, a 14th century collection of decrees from the Pope and notes on liturgy, summarising Papal decrees from the early Middle Ages on.
Additional notes in the margin show that the book was a well-used working document, and this explains why it was saved by the chapter clerk during the English Civil War. Geoffrey Glaiser, the Chapter Clerk, removed it from the Cathedral Library in 1647 to keep it safe. It was returned by a later chapter clerk, John Haworth, in 1839.
The third survivor from the mediaeval library is a book of sermons written by a Dominican friar, John Bromyard, in the 14th century.
These three books from the mediaeval library are among more than 400 from the Seymour Bequest, and thousands more have been added over the past 350 years. William Seymour (1588-1660), Duke of Somerset was a wealthy, well-educated aristocrat who loved books. He left the administration of his estates to his wife Frances and spent much of his time in reading and in study.
Some of William’s books had belonged to his grandfather Edward Seymour (1539-1621), Earl of Hertford, who wrote his signature in them. Some were probably inherited from other family members. As books became increasingly available in the 17th century, William bought books that reflected his own wide-ranging interests, including religion, philosophy, classics, ancient and mediaeval history, geography, genealogy, literature and more. He was also a patron, paying authors and publishers to produce books on specific topics.
William and Frances had family connections with the highest levels of English society. His great-grandfather, Edward Seymour (1500-1552), was a brother of Jane Seymour, the third wife of Henry VIII, and Lord Protector of Edward VI, making William’s grandfather, Edward Seymour (1539-1621), 1st Earl of Hertford, a first cousin of Edward VI. His grandmother, Lady Katherine Grey (1540-1568), was a sister of Lady Jane Grey, the ‘Nine Days Queen.’
William and Frances supported the Royalists during the English Civil War, although Frances was related to a Parliamentarian general. William was a trusted advisor of Charles I, who in 1640 appointed him to supervise the household of the Prince of Wales, the future Charles II. The royal instructions to William still survive, with each ‘order’ signed by the King. Charles II rewarded William for his loyalty, making him Duke of Somerset when the monarchy was restored in 1660.
Frances Devereux (1599-1674), Duchess of Somerset, was the daughter of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, a former favourite of Elizabeth I, who was executed for treason in 1601. Through her father’s family she had links with Lichfield, Tamworth and Drayton Bassett, and lived in Drayton Bassett for extended periods.
I was writing yesterday of her friendship with Colonel William Comberford of Comberford Hall and the Moat House, Tamworth, who fought at the Siege of Lichfield during the Civil War, and who left her a bequest one of one of the books in the Lichfield Cathedral Library collection.
William Seymour’s books were listed in 1671 in the ‘Catalogue of Her Grace ye Dutchesse of Somersett’s Great Library.’ This document lists over 1,400 books and manuscripts, and more than 400 of them are now in the Cathedral Library. The catalogue was made a year after he died and lists the books in his library when his widow inherited them. The manuscript is in two sections, with the second part a revision of the first, and the last pages were used as a borrower’s register.
The exhibition includes ‘Orders for the Household of Charles, Prince of Wales’ (ca 1640), in which King Charles I gave his orders to William Seymour as guardian of his son, the future Charles II. Separate sets of instructions apply to the various departments of the household. One page describes the frequency of services in the Prince’s chapel and how they should be conducted. Each set of orders is signed by Charles I at the beginning and initialled by him (CR) at the end.
Classical works by ancient Greek or Roman writers were important in 17th century education. William commissioned John Ogilby (1600-1676) to produce an English translation of works by Virgil with coloured and gilded illustrations. Ogilby also translated Aesop’s fables.
William owned a copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and a copy of Of the advancement and proficiencie of learning by Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who developed a methodical system of learning in which subjects are divided into smaller topics.
An interest in the text of the Bible developed at the time of the Reformation, with a particular interest in Greek versions of the New Testament. Seymour’s library included a 1569 edition of the New Testament in Greek, originally published in Paris by Robert Estienne (1503-1559).
As a Royalist, it is not surprising that William Seymour owned books by Henry Hammond, a chaplain to the royal household, and the royalist poet George Sandys.
William’s interest in heraldry and genealogy is reflected in ‘The booke of all the Knightes of the most noble order of the Garter’ ( 1580). The page on display shows the full heraldic achievement of King Edward VI (1547-1553). This book includes the arms of the other Tudor monarchs along with those of the Garter knights in each reign. Another copy of this rare manuscript is at Windsor Castle.
His interest in architecture is reflected in the collection too. He owned books by Vitruvius, an influential Roman architect who wrote that all buildings should have strength, utility and beauty. His interest in the world beyond Europe is reflected in his collection of early printed map-books. The earliest of his map-books is ‘A description of the world’ by Sebastian Münster (1488-1552).
Jean Froissart’s history of the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) is still regarded by historians as an important source of information. William’s copy contains the signature of his grandfather, dated 1572.
This exhibition invites visitors to reflect on what books we choose to have in our homes these days and whether books are still relevant in a digital age.
• The ‘Library and Legacy’ exhibition in Lichfield Cathedral opened on Saturday (22 April) and remains open during visitor opening hours until Sunday 3 September 2023.
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What a fascinating read. Thank you for taking the time.
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