Lost Manuscripts Discovered by Sir Thomas Phillipps

In late 1837 Worcester Cathedral library was visited by Sir Thomas Phillipps (spelt with two ls and three ps), and he spent some time in the Chapter House, where the library was then stored. He was a well-known figure in the world of book and manuscript collecting, with what was to become the largest-ever private collection in Britain. He travelled over Europe to the big sales, spending most of his £6,000 annual income on material which he stored in Middle Hill House, his mansion on the hill overlooking Broadway in Worcestershire.

He still had time to visit local places to see their collections. And on this occasion he was thrilled to discover leaves from an unknown medieval manuscript bound into the cover of an old book among the “Chapter’s Muniments at Worcester”. As an expert collector, Sir Thomas recognised pages from a Latin grammar, written in Anglo-Saxon by the late tenth-century Abbot Ælfric, but as he later said “the writing [appearing] to be of the latter part of the twelfth century”. These leaves were pasted together to form the stiffening of a large muniment book, perhaps one of the Bishop’s Registers, or of the Acts of the Consistory Court.


Example of post-medieval muniment books. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

From letters written to friends and fellow collectors we learn that he was doubtful what to do next, not wishing even to reveal his discovery for fear of what might happen to it. But he was encouraged by Rev Henry Pye, former Prebendary at Worcester and perhaps the one in charge of these muniments, to cut the covers off the book and do what he could to retrieve the manuscript leaves. Sir Thomas gladly did this, praising Rev Pye’s courage in allowing the damage. He described washing off the salvaged leaves  “so much brown paste”, probably strong medieval wheatpaste. The leaves were made from tough animal skin, but the ink was affected by the separation and washing, and became illegible in places, especially round the edges. The book treated in this way by Sir Thomas has never been identified!

flyleaf - Worcester Cathedral Library

An in situ example of a medieval manuscript used to stiffen the binding of an early modern printed book. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

After the separation, Sir Thomas actually found the remains of two different manuscripts. One was a double leaf he described as from a commentary on the Book of Job “written in the 7th or 8th century” and now in the Library catalogued as Additional MS 4. The other sixty-six leaves were from the Ælfric manuscript, some of them cut in half.

Tremulous hand of Worcester

One of the pages discovered by Sir Thomas, now MS F. 174 in Worcester Cathedral Library. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

It quickly became known that Sir Thomas had found a manuscript of great interest. He was urged to have it published, as then the only printed edition of Ælfric’s Grammar was from 1659. The recently formed Camden Society, dedicated to preserving ancient documents, proposed to print a new edition. But instead Sir Thomas hurriedly chose to publish, in 1838, an incomplete edition of his own. Although Sir Thomas had a printing press set up in the Broadway Tower – still a well-known local landmark on the edge of the Cotswolds – he instead used a London printer, and published a small volume containing just a few pages of Ælfric’s Grammar, and also, from the last four leaves of the manuscript, two other much more exciting items, written in the Anglo-Saxon style: a short lament for the loss of religious teaching in the English language, followed by a version of an old poem usually described as The Soul’s Address to the Body. I believe that he wanted so much to make these two other discoveries known to the world, that he transcribed the Ælfric pages before he had completed washing them, and was obliged to add a page of corrections by the time it was published.

In 1879 a German scholar named Julius Zupitza came looking for the rediscovered pages, but they could not be located in the Library. Eventually Zupitza found them himself, and included readings from the manuscript in his new edition of Ælfric. After that the pages were bound into the volume catalogued as MS F. 174, and are still held in Worcester Cathedral Library today. Zupitza’s German edition seems to be latest available!

Another blog can reveal much more about this fascinating manuscript, not least because the Worcester monk that copied it has a story of his own.

Tim O’Mara

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