Rebel, Rebel: from student layabout to pillar of society

Away from home for the first time, it did not take an Oxford fresher long to opt for the delights of city life over his studies. He was mesmerised by the theatre, spent all his money on clothes and all his time hanging out with friends. Sport was another great love and essays, well, forget it! Is this a student of today? No, our fresher is none other than Matthew Hale, born in 1609.

In the Old Library I came across “The life and death of Sir Matthew Hale, Kt.” by the Reverend Gilbert Burnett (London, 1682). More a hagiography than a biography, this book nonetheless contains fascinating insights into Hale’s life and turbulent times.

Matthew Hale was a survivor. He was born into an upwardly-mobile, middle-class Gloucestershire family (his grandfather had been a prosperous wool merchant and his father was a barrister of Lincoln’s Inn).  However, his troubles came early: by the age of three he had lost his mother and his father died two years later. He was taken into his mother’s family and brought up by Anthony Kingscot, a devout Puritan, who educated him for the Church. But when the seventeen year-old Hale went up to Magdalen Hall Oxford, his new-found freedom and the pleasures of that sophisticated city put paid to all thoughts of the Church!

“The Stage Players coming thither, he was so much corrupted by seeing many Playes, that he almost wholly forsook his studies,” Burnett tells us disapprovingly and continues, “The corruption of a Young Man’s mind in one particular, generally draws on a great many more after it, so he being now taken off from following his Studies … set himself to many of the vanities incident to Youth … He loved fine Clothes, and delighted much in Company: and being of a strong robust Body, he was a great Master at all those Exercises that required much strength.”

Youthful exuberance soon led Hale into trouble. “He also learned to Fence, and handle his weapons, in which he became so expert, that he worsted many of the Masters of those Arts: but as he was exercising of himself in them, an Instance appeared … One of his Masters told him he could teach him no more, for he was better at his own Trade than himself was. This Mr. Hale lookt on as flattery; so to make the Master discover himself, he promised him the House he lived in, for he was his Tenant, if he could hit him a blow on the Head: and bad him do his best, for he would be as good as his word: so after a little Engagement, his Master being really Superiour to him, hit him on the Head, and he performed his promise; for he gave him the House freely.” I wonder what his guardian thought of that?

Hale left Oxford after three years, with his mind fixed on becoming a soldier in the Prince of Orange’s army in the Netherlands (so much for a costly Oxford education!). But fate intervened: a family law case took him to London and he was persuaded to follow his father’s footsteps and become a lawyer. At the tender age of twenty he was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn on 8th November 1629 to study law. He still enjoyed nights out on the town with his mates … until one fateful evening of binge drinking when a friend collapsed and was believed dead. Deeply shocked, Hale rushed into another room “and shuting, the door fell on his Knees, and prayed earnestly to God … and he vowed to God, that he would never again keep Company in that manner, nor drink a health while he lived: His friend recovered, and he most religiously observed his vow, till his Dying day.” This was a turning point in Hale’s life. From then on he channelled his prodigious energies into his career and the study of law, mathematics, theology and the classics.

He was called to the Bar in 1636, during the period of turbulence leading to the Civil War. Hale had sympathies for both sides (he was a natural conservative with a Puritan upbringing) and his reputation for integrity enabled him to steer a safe course through these troubled times. He started off supporting the Royalists, however, subsequently Oliver Cromwell made him Justice of the Pleas and he served in both Oliver and Richard Cromwell’s Parliaments. His career prospered. He was noted for his incorruptibility and his willingness to make politically unpopular decisions which upheld the law. At the Restoration he was made Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer “managing the Court, and all Proceedings in it, with singular Justice.”

The next upheaval came in 1666. Hale again took a prominent role as “one of the principal Judges that sate in Cliffords-Inn, about setling the difference between Landlord and Tenant, after the Dreadful Fire of London.” According to his biographer, “the sudden and quiet Building of the City, which is justly to be reckoned one of the Wonders of the Age, is in no small Measure due to the great care, which he … used.” Among all the judges, it was the polymath Hale who first “contrived the Rules, upon which he and the rest proceeded afterwards; in which his readiness at Arithmetick, and his skill in Architecture were of great use to him.”

Hale continued to rise and was made Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench in 1671. He retired due to ill health in February 1676 and died ten months later on Christmas day 1676. Always his own man, the student rebel had reached a position of high office. It had been a remarkable life.


Burnett, Gilbert: The life and death of Sir Matthew Hale, Kt. (London, 1682).

For details of Hale’s achievements and legal writings, take a look at the Wikipedia article.

All images (except the image of Burnett’s book) are from Google Images.


Archaeology of the Book

Every copy of a rare book has its own unique story. Our recently discovered copy of the “Breeches Bible” is no exception! As a historical artefact, it embodies a fascinating record of use (and abuse) right up to the present day. This version of the Bible was published in Geneva in 1560 and dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I.  The Bible was in English (based on a careful examination of the Hebrew and Greek  texts) and it became very popular in England. It was reprinted regularly, in more than 160 editions, right up to 1644.

Our copy looks a disaster on the outside! It has been used so much that it has started to disintegrate, however, therein lies its fascination. The Bible is still in its original binding (bindings were made to last in those days!) and its poor condition reveals the sixteenth-century bookbinder’s art. The cover is made of thick brown leather over cardboard boards. The leather is stamped with a decorative design in the centre, with evidence of gold-tooling,  and there remains parts of the metal clasps – it was once a very handsome book!  



 The texblock was sewn onto raised bands made of leather ties which were slotted into the boards, as is clearly revealed in the image on the right because the volume has lost its paste downs. The pages are very thumbed, curling at the edges and torn in some places. Continental paper was produced from linnen and is very strong, stable and acid free. Despite the heavy use, most of the pages of this Bible have stood the test of time remarkably well.  
The Bible is beautifully illustrated with woodblock prints which can only have enhanced its appeal to the common people. 
Because Bibles were in daily use and treasured as holy texts, they were also used for recording the owning family’s important events: births, marriages and deaths. Inscriptions on one page in the Book of Psalms of this Bible record the births of children of the Way family in the mid seventeenth century. We can only speculate as to what history has been lost with the destruction of the end papers and fly-leaves of this Bible!

The history of this Bible does not end in the seventeenth century. At some time during the twentieth century repairs to the torn pages were made using sellotape, with disastrous consequences. Over time the glue on sellotape becomes yellow and very sticky, leeching into the paper and leaving a permanent stain. Pages at the start an end of the Bible have been badly affected.

At some time, also probably during the twentieth century, the title page (which had obviously come loose) was glued onto a wooden board and possibly varnished, in a misguided attempt to preserve it. The glue/varnish used has turned a dark brown and has bonded the page onto the wood in such a way that it is now impossible to remove it. Thus the book and its title page are forever separated. The book is now in the hands of expert conservators. Although it is impossible to reverse most of the damage, hopefully the interventions made during the twenty first century will be kinder than those of the last century!

Title page of the "Breeches Bible" stuck to a wooden board

New Discovery

A book that has been languishing on one of the benches in the Old Library turns out to be a fascinating copy of the “Breeches Bible” that we did not know we had!  The identity of the book came to light this morning during a visit from Melvin Jefferson and Edward Cheese of the Cambridge Conservation Consortium to assess the conservation needs of several manuscripts.

As an afterthought I showed them a printed Bible which I considered to be the worst book in the Old Library because it is in such a poor condition. The Bible is bound in what remains of its original thick brown leather binding, over much worn cardboard boards. There is part of a metal clasp on the back cover and the metal fixing on the inside front cover for what must have been a boss. The volume lacks a title page and the internal pages are curled, much worn and some are torn. The opening pages of Genesis have been repaired with sellotape which has become sticky and is breaking down and causing damage to neighbouring pages. There is no class-mark in the book and there is no record of it in our card catalogue.

On closer inspection of the first page of Genesis, Edward identified it as the “Breeches Bible”, printed in Geneva in 1560! This has simultaneously solved the mystery of the existence of a separate title page from the Geneva Bible which had been mounted on board at some time in the distant past which is also housed in the Old Library. Further examination of the Bible has revealed inscriptions recording the names and birth dates of various family members from the early seventeenth century.

The Bible has now gone for conservation to remove the sellotape (although it will leave a permanent residue). We have yet to decide how to conserve this remarkable book which has had such a chequered history!

Flights of fancy

Just a few days into our project to catalogue the eighteenth-century books in the Old Library and interesting things are coming to light already! As you might expect, considering the College’s foundation for the study of law, the first volumes we have catalogued are law books. Dry as dust you might think …

Perhaps a reader of “An institute of the laws of England” by Thomas Wood, London, 1745, thought so too!  In any event, he enlivened the back cover of the book by drawing a calligraphic bird in pen and ink (image below). The words “Trin. Aul. Bib.” adorn the body of this elegant bird and pen flourishes form its outstretched wings.

Detail of pen and ink drawing on back cover

Another reader (with rather less skill) passed a few idle moments drawing some caricatures on the reverse of the front fly-leaf of “A compleat collection of state-tryals”, London, 1719. Could these possibly be attempts a likeness of a lecturer or fellow scholar at Trinity Hall in the early eighteenth century?

Caricatures in pencil