A rare sixteenth century calligraphic inscription

Provenance inscriptions in rare books can elicit very different reactions from librarians and cataloguers. On the one hand, we are grateful to have clues that can provide information about who owned the books, when and potentially where; on the other hand, it can get very frustrating at times to try to decipher century-old scripts that look obscure and illegible to our modern eyes. Every once in a while, a rare event does occur: a book with a calligraphic inscription comes along and surprises us. That is what I found while cataloguing the Historia del descubrimiento y conquista de la India por los Portugueses from the Old Library’s collections at Trinity Hall:


A quick search for Barnard Hampton’s name revealed the fact that he was a clerk to the Privy Council of three monarchs: King Edward VI, Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I, from 1551 until 1572. Hampton also served as the Spanish Secretary to Queen Mary and was one of the four witnesses who signed her will in 1555. He had a wife named Katherine and a daughter Anne; together they resided in a manor house in Twickenham, in south west London.

Unfortunately, not much else is known about Barnard Hampton; his date of birth is unrecorded and his name is rarely mentioned in any official documents of the time. Considering this lack of information, it would be tempting to assume Hampton’s name could have easily slipped into the hidden recesses of time. However, that didn’t quite happen, because Barnard Hampton did leave something behind: his books.  Some of the Italian and Spanish volumes that once made up his private library still survive today. They all carry the same beautiful, calligraphic inscription on one of the preliminary pages: Sum Barnardi Hamptoni eiusq[ue] amicor[um] (‘I belong to Barnard Hampton and his friends’). Who exactly were Hampton’s friends and how many of them there were, is difficult to determine precisely, but we can assume they included members of the court, official dignitaries and perhaps some scholars as well. The fact that most of his books were printed in Italian or Spanish, suggest that the borrowing friends must have been able to read in either one or both of those languages.



Title page of the Chronica del Peru (Antwerp, 1554)

Up to the year 2014, when Dr. Dennis Rhodes wrote the article Barnard Hampton and His Books, only six volumes from Hampton’s library were known to be extant. Dr. Rhodes traced these copies to the British Library (3), Cambridge University Library (1), John Rylands University Library (1) and Trinity Hall Old Library (one volume containing four tracts bound together). However, in the summer of 2016, during the cataloguing project of the Old Library at Trinity Hall, four more volumes with Barnard’s inscription were discovered on the shelves. Out of the total of nine items presently at the Old Library, five were printed in Venice between 1540 and 1548, on subjects such as the history of the Turkish Empire and of the Kingdom of Naples. The remaining four were published in Antwerp in 1554, and they chronicle the discovery of India and Peru. The somewhat unusual topics of these volumes suggest that Hampton had a taste not only for foreign languages (he is said to have been particularly talented in Spanish and its dialects), but also an interest in the history and geography of faraway lands.



Foundation of the city of Frontera in Peru (Chronica del Peru)

Precisely where and when Barnard Hampton acquired the books is difficult to ascertain, but it is possible he bought them while travelling to Europe, perhaps on diplomatic missions (he is known to have been officially sent abroad once, but the location and time were not recorded). The fact that most of the surviving volumes from his collections were printed either in Venice, Antwerp or Lyon, and bound in what appear to be continental design bindings corroborate this theory. Moreover, works on slightly ‘exotic’ subjects such as India and Peru would have been difficult to purchase in early sixteenth century England. That might be, in fact, one of the reasons Hampton chose to share them with his friends. Book lending among close acquaintances was a fairly common practice in early modern Europe, motivated by the high prices of some of the publications and the difficulty in acquiring certain copies.

It is not known what happened to Hampton’s books after his death in 1572, but the presence of a significant number of copies in Cambridge libraries suggests a possible purchase by a Cambridge student or scholar. The identity of this Cambridge buyer remains a mystery (he did not inscribe his name on any of the volumes at Trinity Hall, though he did write some notes in Latin in one of the Venice tracts). Considering the subjects of the volumes, it is slightly intriguing that their owner chose to donate them to Trinity Hall Library (a collection well-known for its strong legal bent). Nevertheless, the cataloguing project of the Old Library collections is still in progress, so perhaps future discoveries will shed some light on the unanswered questions surrounding Barnard Hampton’s books.


Rhodes, E. Dennis. ‘Barnard Hampton and His Books’. The Library: The Transactions of the Bibliographical Society, vol. 15, no. 3 (2014), 343-346.


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