Hey big spender! The Yellow Earl and Trinity Hall

What has the Yellow Earl, who left Eton at the age of 12 and devoted his youth to playing sport, to do with Trinity Hall, a premier academic institution? The link is tenuous, as you will discover if you read on, but nonetheless tangible, as will be immediately apparent: in our special collections we have a set of books that came from the earl’s library at Lowther Castle!

Trinity Hall's set of books from the library of Lowther Castle

Trinity Hall’s set of books from the library of Lowther Castle

The Yellow Earl was the second son of the Third Earl Lonsdale and little importance was given to his education (hence his misspent youth on the sports field). His elder brother duly inherited the title and the management of the estate at the young age of 23. However, St George (the Fourth Earl had a most unusual name!) unfortunately died three years later in 1882 after a short illness. It was now the turn of poorly prepared Hugh Cecil Lowther, the Yellow Earl, to take up the title and he made a spectacularly bad job of it.

The Yellow Earl set about spending his fortune, and he spent in a big way! According to Wikipedia “He bought chestnut horses, carriages and many other extravagances. He had yellow-liveried footmen, a groom of the bedchamber, a chamberlain and a master of music to supervise the 24 musicians who travelled from house to house. His household travelled in a special train.” He loved horses (he became Senior Steward of the Jockey Club), he loved cars (he was first President Automobile Association) and he loved yellow. Indeed it was his passion for yellow – the Lowther family’s traditional racing colour – which gave rise to his nickname the Yellow Earl.

Portrait of the Yellow Earl outside Lowther Castle (BBC's Antiques Roadshow)

Portrait of the Yellow Earl in the grounds of  Lowther Castle (BBC’s Antiques Roadshow)

It took a while, but by 1935 the Yellow Earl was spent up. He was forced to move out of Lowther Castle because he could no longer afford its upkeep. When he died in 1944 the title passed to his younger brother Lancelot Edward Lowther, who was an alumnus of Magdalene College Cambridge. To raise money, the Sixth Earl held a large auction of the contents of Lowther Castle, including its library (and our set of books), in 1947.

Detail of the title page of

Detail of the title page of our set of books

After an interval of five years the books found a new home. Here another big spender (on a less spectacular scale) enters the story! This man was George Edward Larman, an alumnus of Trinity Hall and a bibliophile. Larman was a very different kind of man – he was not a spendthrift, instead he used his wealth to build up his own personal library. In 1952 he bought a handsome set of books “An essay towards a topographical history of the County of Norfolk” to add to his collection. The books, which are by Francis Blomfield and were published between 1739 and 1775, came from the library of Lowther Castle. They are handsomely bound in gauffered leather, with a gilt centrepiece of a wreath of oak leaves surrounding the family name “Lowther” and surmounted by a coronet.

The gilt-stamped centrepiece on the Lowther bindings

The gilt-stamped centrepiece of the binding

It is doubtful if the Yellow Earl ever looked at these books when they were in his library (he was too busy living it large) but we can be sure that Larman did! He proudly inscribed his name and the date of his acquisition in the front of volume 5. Larman was fascinated by Tudor and Stuart history, heraldry, the history of British Catholics and local history. He read widely and his library was immensely important to him. He bequeathed his extensive library to Trinity Hall and we continue to make fascinating discoveries in the process of completing the project to catalogue his collection.

Larman's inscription recording the acquisition of the volumes in 1952

Larman’s inscription recording the acquisition of the volumes in 1952


Lowther Castle is now a magnificent ruin and is open to the public. You can find out more about the Yellow Earl in the two latest episodes of the Antiques Roadshow from Lowther Castle. The first episode was transmitted on Sunday 19 April and the next episode will be aired on Sunday 16 April. People in the UK can watch the programmes on iPlayer for 28 days after the original transmission date.


Biography of Hugh Cecil Lowther Wikipedia

Lowther Castle http://www.lowthercastle.org/

BBC Antiques Roadshow


The Medieval Manuscripts of Trinity Hall

Forthcoming Supporters of the Old Library Event

Professor Nigel Morgan will give a talk to Supporters of the Old Library on “The Medieval Manuscripts of Trinity Hall” in the Graham Storey Room, Trinity Hall,  at 2:30pm on Saturday 18 April 2015.

After the talk there will be an opportunity to visit of the Old Library to see its treasures. There will also be an exhibition of the “Medieval Manuscripts of Trinity Hall” in the Chetwode Room, featuring some of our rarely seen manuscripts.


Trinity Hall Cambridge MS.3

This manuscript “The doctrines of the Church against the blasphemy of Wycliffe” by Thomas Netter (Trinity Hall MS.3) contains a lovely illuminated initial showing the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child. Mary’s mantle is held up by an angel and kneeling on the left is the author, Thomas Netter, who is depicted as a Carmelite in white and black robes. This fifteenth-century manuscript was written in Ghent and is among the manuscripts which will be described in Professor Morgan’s talk.

The talk is free, however spaces are limited. If you are interested in attending the talk and would like to book a place, please contact Emma Bennett

Samuel Pepys, Trinity Hall and the Civil War

In celebration of the birthday of the famous diarist Samuel Pepys on 23 February we take a look at his connection with Trinity Hall. Surely some mistake? Everyone knows that Samuel Pepys went to Magdalene College, Cambridge, which has the world renowned Pepys Library. Well, on 21 June 1650, Samuel Pepys was admitted to Trinity Hall!

Entry in Venn for Samuel Pepys recording his matriculation at Trinity Hall (extract)

Entry in Venn for Samuel Pepys recording his admission to Trinity Hall (extract)

Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) was the son of a London tailor and the family lived above the shop in Salisbury Court, just off Fleet Street. They had important relations in Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire and in 1643 Samuel was sent to his uncle, Robert Pepys, in order to attend the “Free Grammar School” of Huntingdon. Three years later Samuel returned to London to finish his education at St Paul’s School and to apply to Trinity Hall, Cambridge.

Why Trinity Hall? Well, Trinity Hall was the college of Samuel’s great-uncle, Talbot Pepys. As Recorder of Cambridge (1624-1660) and M.P. for Cambridge from 1625, Talbot Pepys was a man of considerable power and influence. He had a large manor house at Impington and was a leading figure in raising taxes to fund Cromwell’s armies. Perhaps, then, it was natural for Samuel Pepys to choose Trinity Hall.

Trinity Hall in the time of Samuel Pepys

Trinity Hall in the seventeenth century

But Samuel never actually attended Trinity Hall! Sadly, we don’t know the reason why. Trinity Hall was a law college and Claire Tomalin, in her life of Pepys, speculates that perhaps Samuel was not keen on the idea of a career in law, adding “or it may have been too expensive to pursue”. Instead Samuel migrated to Magdalene and matriculated there in 1651.

The choice of Magdalene may have been influenced by the fact that the new Master of Magdalene, John Sadler, was a London neighbour at Salisbury Court. Moreover, Samuel had even more influential relative in Edward Montagu, the Parliamentarian soldier, whose mother was Samuel’s great-aunt. Tomalin tells us, “Montagu’s patronage probably came into it too; his chaplain had a Magdalene connection, and Samuel Morland, who claimed his friendship, had just been appointed to a fellowship there and became Pepys’s tutor.” So it was that Samuel Pepys studied at Magdalene for his Cambridge degree.

Trinity Hall and the Civil War

The Master of Trinity Hall in 1642 was Thomas Eden, who was also the M.P. for Cambridge University. Crawley tells us that Eden was “known by 1642 as one of the rare civilians [i.e. civil lawyers] who leaned towards the Parliamentarian cause”. Eden seems to have been skilful in navigating difficult times and, according to Crawley, “he may have had some influence in saving in saving the College silver from requisition either by the king or by Cromwell”.

Founders cup, circa 1350

Founders cup, circa 1350, a remarkable survival

In 1644 Edward Montagu (a relative of Samuel Pepys’s) and the Earl of Manchester came to Cambridge to purge the university of senior members with Royalist sympathies. Crawley tells us that twelve of the sixteen Heads of Houses were turned out and replaced with Puritan scholars – but Thomas Eden was not one of them! In February 1644 Eden had signed the Solemn League and Covenant and in 1645, a few months before his death, he was appointed to serve on a Parliamentary Committee for Admiralty affairs. Parliament took an interest in (or interferred in!) the appointment of Eden’s successor and it was not until 1546 that a mutually acceptable candidate was found at last. John Bond, who had strong Puritan credentials, was appointed Master. He served as Vice-Chancellor in 1658 and retired at the Restoration in 1660.

During the Commonwealth the discipline of the ecclesiastical courts was abolished. This had a direct impact on our civil lawyers. However, civilians still had probate and Admiralty business. College’s links with Admiralty law may account for a charming manuscript in the Old Library dating from about 1660-1690 called “Sea terms and geography”. It contains a glossary of nautical terms, the names of the winds and geographical descriptions of the world.

Trinity Hall manuscript of "Sea Terms" (MS.32). Pepys would have learnt similar terms on board ship with Montagu

Trinity Hall manuscript of “Sea Terms” (MS.32). Pepys would have studied similar terms aboard the “Swiftsure”

Samuel joins the Admiralty

After obtaining his degree, Samuel Pepys returned to London and worked as a clerk for his patron Edward Montagu, who had risen through the army to become Cromwell’s General-at-Sea. The navy flourished under Cromwell, it was well run and gained enormous respect among the European powers. After the Cromwell’s death the Commonwealth began to fall apart under his son Richard. In the interests of stability, a number of the ruling elite, including Montagu, began to think the un-thinkable and work covertly for the restoration of the monarchy.

Samuel Pepys by ClaireTomalin

Life of Samuel Pepys  by Claire Tomalin

At such a time Montagu needed a man he could trust and he chose Samuel Pepys as his secretary. Thus at the age of 27 Pepys joined the Admiralty. On 23 March 1660 Pepys set sail with Montagu aboard the “Swiftsure”. According to Tomalin “Pepys enjoyed his snug cabin, set out to learn sea terms, walked on the deck to keep sickness at bay as they put to sea.” From the “Swiftsure” the party transferred to the “Naseby” (soon to be renamed the “Royal Charles”) which sailed to the Netherlands to bring Charles II and his brother James back to England.

Montagu had royal favour for the part he played in the Restoration and through his influence Samuel was appointed clerk of the acts at the Navy Board, at a salary of £350 a year! Pepys turned out to be an admirable civil servant: a hard worker and loyal to his royal master James Duke of York. He was also a canny businessman. Dealing with naval supplies, he managed to amass a considerable fortune and a wonderful library!

Pepys Library at Magdalene College Cambridge

Pepys Library at Magdalene College Cambridge


Two members of the Pepys family attended Trinity Hall: Talbot Pepys, Samuel’s great-uncle and John Pepys, Talbot’s second son (and Samuel’s cousin).

Talbot Pepys matriculated as a pensioner at King’s in about 1595 and became a scholar of Trinity Hall in 1601. He was Recorder of Cambridge and M.P. During the 1640s and 1650s Talbot Pepys sided with Parliament, being appointed to numerous parliamentary commissions and serving on the committee of the Eastern Association. Shortly before the Restoration, aged 77 and with failing eyesight, he resigned the recordership in favour of his eldest son, Roger, who also became M.P. for Cambridge

John Pepys was admitted as pensioner at Christ’s in 1636 and was admitted to Middle Temple in 1640. In 1641 he obtained an LLB from Trinity Hall and was appointed a fellow. In 1647 he was called to the Bar and obtained an LLD from Trinity Hall.


Samuel Pepys: the unequalled self” by Claire Tomalin. London: Penguin Books, 2002

Trinity Hall: the history of a Cambridge college, 1350-1975” by Charles Crawley. Cambridge: Trinity Hall, 1976

Alumni Cantabrigienses: part 1, From earliest times to 1751” compiled by John Venn and J. A. Venn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1924

The Pepys Library, Magdalene College Cambridge, opening times

Master of Trinity Hall in the Tudor corridors of power

The Master of Trinity Hall is a major player in the new BBC2 series “Wolf Hall”! The “Sherlock” actor Mark Gatiss plays Stephen Gardiner (Master of Trinity Hall from 1525-51 and 1553-55) in the TV drama based on Hilary Mantel’s historical novels about career of Thomas Cromwell.

The first volume of Hilary Mantel's trilogy on Thomas Cromwell

The first volume of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on Thomas Cromwell

Stephen Gardiner came up to Cambridge at the age of 14 (which was not unusual in those days). He obtained his Bachelor degree from Trinity Hall in 1518 and became Doctor of Civil Law in 1521 and Doctor of Canon Law in 1522. Crawley tells us that Gardiner “was in residence at Trinity Hall, and almost certainly a fellow, in the early 1520s, and was not at that time reputed to be a rigid or intolerant man”. He lectured in civil and canon law during the years 1521-24 and was appointed in 1523/4 to examine in both subjects for four years.

In 1523 he was engaged by the University on business with Cardinal Wolsey. The Cardinal was so impressed by Gardiner that he took him into his employ in 1524. It was probably through Wolsey’s influence that Gardiner was elected Master of Trinity Hall in 1525. Gardiner was an absentee Master. However, he clung to his Mastership until his death, despite the fact that he held other more important offices.

Trinity Hall's portrait of Stephen Gardiner

Trinity Hall’s portrait of Stephen Gardiner. For a colour version go to BBC’s “Your Paintings”

Gardiner was to rise to become Bishop of Winchester, Chancellor of the University of Cambridge (1540-47 and 1553-56) and eventually Lord Chancellor. He seems to have valued Trinity Hall as a potential bolt-hole if things went wrong in his public life and Crawley quotes a report that “if all his [Gardiner’s] palaces were blown down by iniquity, he would creep honestly into that shell”.

However, when Gardiner’s fortunes WERE reversed, during the reign of Edward VI, he did not have a chance to retreat to Trinity Hall! Instead he was imprisoned in the Tower and put on trial. In February 1551 he was deprived of his bishopric and sometime later that year he was deprived of the Mastership of Trinity Hall (to be replaced by Walter Haddon in 1552). During the turmoil after the death of Edward VI, Crawley tells us that Gardiner “cautiously chose to stay in the Tower until Queen Mary came in person to release him and reinstate him.”

Gardiner's dedication to Mary Tudor in his book against the marriage of priests.

Gardiner’s dedication to Mary Tudor in his book against the marriage of priests (1554)

His time in the wilderness was over! Gardiner was once again Bishop of Winchester, Privy Councillor, Master of Trinity Hall, Chancellor of the University of Cambridge and, from August 1553, Lord Chancellor of England.

You can follow Stephen Gardiner’s career at the centre of Tudor power in BBC Two’s series “Wolf Hall” broadcast on Wednesday evenings.


Trinity Hall has a portrait of Stephen Gardiner by the school of Hans Holbein the younger. In the library’s Trinity Hall Collection, we have three books by Gardiner: ‘A detection of the devil’s sophistrie’ (1546), ‘De vera obedientia’ (1553) and ‘A traictise declaryng … that the pretensed marriage of priestes … is no mariage’ (1554).

The heavilly annotated titel page of "A detection of the devil's sophistrie"

Annotated title page of Trinity hall’s copy of “A detection of the devil’s sophistrie”

For an insight into the religious controversies of the time, take a look at an earlier blog post “Thomas Morgan of Minety”. In the post Dunstan Roberts, our guest blogger and graduate of Trinity Hall, looks at the extensive contemporary annotations to our copy of ‘A detection of the devil’s sophistrie’.References

Trinity Hall : the history of a Cambridge college, 1350-1975  / Charles Crawley. Cambridge: Trinity Hall, 1992

Wolf Hall / by Hilary Mantel. London: Fourth Estate, 2009

Bring up the bodies / by Hilary Mantel. London: Fourth Estate, 2012

BBC Two Wolf Hall (first episode on iplayer)

BBC’s Your Paintings: Stephen Gardiner

Radio Times Wolf Hall in pictures

A Dickensian Christmas

“Christmas time! That man must be a misanthrope indeed in whose breast something like a jovial feeling is not roused – in whose mind some pleasant associations are not awakened – by the recurrence of Christmas.” These were the sentiments of Charles Dickens in 1835.

The making of the Victorian Christmas began as early as 1800 when Queen Charlotte set up a decorated Christmas tree in the Queen’s Lodge at Windsor for the delight of her young guests at a children’s party. During the 1820s and 1830s there was a strong revival of interest in Christmas traditions, with emphasis on feasting and conviviality – a trend that was reflected by Charles Dickens in his first Christmas piece “Christmas festivities” published in 1835. “Punch” had its first Christmas issue in 1841 and the first Christmas cards were sent in 1843, three years after the introduction of the penny post. However, it was the huge success of Charles Dickens’s tale, “A Christmas Carol”, with its message of loving kindness to the poor and the themes of the home and family love which defined Christmas as we know it today.

The superb Christmas Tree in Hall!

This year’s superb Christmas Tree in the newly refurbished Dining Hall!

But how did the great author himself celebrate Christmas? His son Henry Fielding Charles Dickens (Harry) had vivid recollections of Christmas at Dickens’s beloved home Gad’s Hill. Christmas was a time not only for the family but also for friends of the family. Gad’s Hill was often “full to overflowing and rooms had to be taken in the outlying cottages for some of the guests”.

Harry tells us that Christmas was “a great time, a really jovial time, and my father was always at his best, a splendid host, bright and jolly as a boy and throwing his heart and soul into everything that was going on.” These were not soporific Christmases with people dozing by the fire. Instead they were packed with entertainments and activity, including round games, songs, country walks and energetic dances all driven by Dickens’s prodigious energy. According to Harry “On one occasion, I remember, we had a country dance … – down the middle and up again! There was no stopping him! His energy, his light-heartedness, his buoyancy, were simply immense.”

The culmination of Christmas excitement came in 1866 when Dickens put on a sports day in a large field at the back of Gad’s Hill. It was a public event with “an immense crowd” of over 2,000 people! Charles Dickens himself describes the day in a letter to one of his best friends, John Forster, “The great mass of the crowd were labouring men of all kinds, soldiers, sailors and navvies… I made them a little speech from the lawn, at the end of the games.” The sports day was a huge success and, according to Dickens, “the road between this and Chatham was like a fair all day.”

Door to the Master's Lodge, Trinity Hall 2010

The door to the Master’s Lodge, Trinity Hall, Christmas 2010

Harry was admitted to Trinity Hall in 1868 (just a couple of years after this Christmas sports day) to read Mathematics. He worked hard and obtained a scholarship at the end of his first year in 1869 to the great delight of his father. Unfortunately, 1869 was to be the last Christmas for Charles Dickens and Harry, in his memoirs, recounts a very different Christmas at Gad’s Hill that year:

“It was on Christmas night, the Christmas before his death. My father had been ailing and had been troubled with his leg which had been giving him considerable pain, and he was lying on the sofa when we started this Memory Game… After successfully repeating a string of words the time came for him to add his own contribution.” Dickens suddenly came out with “Warrens’ Blacking, 30 Strand.” Harry remarks, “What a contrast that Christmas night… On the one hand a great name, admitted and respected throughout the world; while on the other, his mind had reverted to the tragic tale of his childhood.” That Christmas Dickens was looking back to his traumatic time as a boy when he was sent to work in a blacking factory to earn six shillings a week after his own father’s bankruptcy. Charles Dickens was to die just six months later on 9 June 1870.

The Old Library Trinity Hall in winter, complete with snowman!

The Old Library Trinity Hall in winter, complete with snowman!

Harry continued his studies at Trinity Hall and graduated in 1872 as 29th wrangler. He chose a legal career and was called to the Bar in 1873. He had a successful career, being appointed Queen’s Counsel in 1892, a Bencher of the Inner Temple in 1899 and Common Serjeant in 1917.

Throughout his life Harry continued to keep the memory of his father alive. During the 1914-18 war he gave recitals of his father’s works to raise money for the Red Cross. In “An open book” Monica Dickens tells us that at family Christmas gatherings at his home in Mulberry Walk, Harry performed imitations of his father giving his famous “Readings”, during which he would wear a geranium, his father’s favourite flower, and lean on the same velvet-covered reading stand used by Dickens during his reading tours. Moreover, to celebrate his 80th birthday in 1929, Harry went through the whole of “A Christmas Carol” without a hitch, his false teeth loosening at the melodramatic section, “I know him – Marley’s ghost!”

“A Christmas Carol” was first published on 17 December 1843 and by Christmas Eve it had already sold over 5,000 copies! The book was immensely popular and is still in print today.

The Hall with a dusting of snow

The Hall with a dusting of snow


“Christmas festivities” by Charles Dickens which appeared in Bell’s Life in London on 27 December 1835.

The recollections of Sir Henry Dickens, K.C. by Henry Dickens. London: Heinemann, 1934

A Christmas Carol and other Christmas writings by Charles Dickens; introduction by Michael Slater. London: Penguin Classics, 2010 (ISBN 9780141195858)

Wikipedia: Henry Fielding Dickens

An open book by Monica Dickens. London: Heinemann, 1978

The first Christmas tree” by Alison Barnes, article in History Today, vol.56, issue 12, 2006

Pushkin and his age: The Russian Connection, Part 2

It is not all about Russian spies! While some Trinity Hall alumni went on to become spies for Russia, bringing notoriety and dishonour to their College, one notable alumnus forged an honourable connection with Russia in the twentieth century through his distinguished scholarship. Anthony Cross (TH 1957-61) studied Russian at Trinity Hall and became the third Professor of Slavonic Studies, 1985-2004.

Professor Cross is internationally known for his work on eighteenth-century Russia and Anglo-Russian relations. Among numerous honours, he received an Honorary Doctorate from the Institute of Russian Literature of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Pushkin House) in 2010.

Throughout his career Professor Cross has built up a remarkable personal library and the Jerwood Library Trinity Hall has been the fortunate recipient of his fine collection of about 500 books on Pushkin and his age. Although the collection contains some works written in English, the majority of the books are rare volumes in Russian. These were either purchased, mainly during the time of the Soviet Union, or collected by gift.

Pushkin book

Published in Moscow in 1937

Alexander Sergievich Pushkin (1799-1837) is the national poet of Russia. He was born in Moscow and came from an aristocratic family, of which he was very proud. He was no less proud of Abram (Ibrahim) Gannibal (1696-1781), his great- grandfather on his mother’s side, who was an African slave brought over to Russia to serve as a page in the court of Peter the Great and who later rose to a prominent position in Russian society.

Pushkin showed promise as a poet at a young age and was educated at the prestigious Tsarskoye Selo Lyceum, an exclusive boarding school attached to the Catherine Palace, near St Petersburg. He published his first poem at the age of 15 and had made a name for himself in literary circles by the time of his graduation. His first long poem “Ruslan and Lyudmila” appeared in 1820 and he went on to write many classics of Russian literature including the verse novel “Eugene Onegin”, the tragedy “Boris Gudonov” and the novel “The captain’s daughter”, amongst others.

A selection of books on Pushkin from the collection of Professor Cross

A selection of books from the collection of Professor Cross

Pushkin had a short and tempestuous life. He was exiled several times for his liberal views, he was an inveterate gambler and fought as many as 29 duels. Most tempestuous of all was his relationship with the beautiful Natalya Goncharova whom he met in 1828 and married in 1831. The couple moved in court circles, but Pushkin’s pride was hurt because the Tsar awarded him the lowest court title. As a result Pushkin came to believe that he was only accepted at court on account of his wife’s beauty.

After several years of marriage, rumours began to circulate about Natalya’s close relationship with her brother-in-law Georges d’ Anthès. In February 1837, Puskin challenged d’ Anthès to a duel in order to defend his wife’s honour.  The duel proved fatal for Pushkin and he died of his wounds two days later on 10 February 1837. One hundred years after Pushkin’s death, the town of Tsarskoye Selo was renamed “Pushkin” in the poet’s honour.

This fine collection of books on Pushkin and his age is housed in the Jerwood Library Trinity Hall and is a valuable resource for researchers and scholars.

Bookplate in the books of Professor Cross' collection at Trinity Hall

Bookplate in the books of Professor Cross’ collection at Trinity Hall

Professor Anthony Cross is Emeritus Professor of Slavonic Studies and a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College Cambridge. He has written widely on Russia and his latest publication is a bibliography of travel writing about Russia under the Tsars “In the lands of the Romanovs: an annotated bibliography of first-hand English-language accounts of the Russian empire (1613-1917)”.



Biography of Professor Anthony Cross http://www.mml.cam.ac.uk/slavonic/staff/agc28/

In the lands of the Romanovs: an annotated bibliography of first-hand English-language accounts of the Russian empire (1613-1917) Cambridge: Open Book, 2014 (ISBN 9781783740574)

The Hillwood Museum Washington DC also has a collection of books from the library of Professor Anthony Cross

Wikipedia for biographies of Pushkin and his circle

Tiptoe through the tulips: John Gerard’s “Herball”

Hundreds of woodblocks from the great Plantin Press in Antwerp were shipped to London for a magnificent new edition of John Gerard’s “The herball or generall historie of plantes” published in 1633. Gerard’s book first appeared in 1597, and the new edition of 1633 was revised by the apothecary and botanist, Thomas Johnson. It was so popular that it was quickly reprinted in 1636.

John Grerad, from the title page of the 1636 edition of his "Herball"

John Gerard, from the title page of the 1636 edition of his “Herball”

John Gerard (c.1545-1612) was a herbalist and curator of the London physic garden of the College of Physicians. His patron William Cecil, Lord Burghley, was one of the most powerful men in Elizabethan England (and Chancellor of the University of Cambridge) and Gerard was also employed as superintendent of Burghley’s gardens in the Strand and at Theobald’s in Hertfordshire.

His herbal, which was written in English rather than Latin, was a great success despite the fact that he was not regarded as a scholar by his contemporaries. He was condemned for borrowing widely from other scholars, including Dodoens and Lobel, without giving them due credit – a clear example of Elizabethan plagiarism!

Nevertheless, in his revised edition Thomas Johnson (d. 1644)seeks to excuse Gerard’s failings. “His chief commendation is, that he out of a propense good will to the publique advancement of this knowledge, endeavoured to performe therein more than he could well accomplish; which was partly through want of sufficient learning … and although there were many faults in the worke, yet judge well of the Author.” However, Johnson was at pains in his edition to rectify some of Gerard’s shortcomings and the work of 1633 contains his extensive revisions.

The Plantin woodblocks which arrived in London for the new edition had originally been made for an edition of Rembert Dodoens’ herbal “Stirpium historiae pemptades sex”. They are beautifully executed in a lively style and show excellent botanical detail. This made them a valuable resource and eminently suitable for re-use in other publications, as was the case here.

The "pretty Perian tulip", Tulipa Persica

The “pretty Persian tulip”, Tulipa Persica

Amongst a comprehensive array of botanical illustrations in the herbal, there are 30 woodblocks of the genus “tulipa”. Gerard is somewhat overwhelmed by the task of describing the many varieties of tulip available at the time. Instead he confines himself to a few, saying “each new year bringeth forth new plants of sundry colours not before seen; all of which to describe particularly were to rolle Sisiphus stone”. Among the tulips illustrated are “the purple tulip”, “the bright red tulip”, the “white tulip with purple streakes”, “the pretty Persian tulip having a red floure with whitish edges” and “the late yellow, with sanguine spots and a blacke bottome”. Gerard also describes some of the tulips he has seen in cultivation including one “in our London gardens, of a snow white colour, the edges slightly washt over with a little of that we call blush colour”.

The "many branched tulip with a yellow floure", Tulipa Serotina

The “many branched tulip with a yellow floure”, Tulipa Serotina

Thomas Johnson adds a footnote about tulips “I do verily thinke that they are … the Lillies of the field mentioned by our Saviour, Mat. 6.28, 29”. He gives the following reasons “First, their shape: for their floures resemble Lillies; and in these places whereas our Saviour was conversant they grow wilde in the fields. Secondly, the infinite variety of colour… And thirdly, the wondrous beautie and mixtures of these floures.”

The Old Library’s copy of Gerard’s herbal is the 1636 edition, coincidentally published when tulips were at the height of fashion. At this time “tulip mania” had taken hold in the Low Countries, with prices for bulbs reaching their peak in March 1637.

Ballerina Tulip

Tulip “Ballerina”, Trinity Hall gardens

Tulips remain popular spring flowers today. The flower beds of the Old Library, Trinity Hall are planted with two striking varieties which flower in April and early May: the orange and gold “Ballerina” and the appropriately named “Black parrot”. Despite the early season this year, tulip enthusiasts will still have a chance to see a myriad of tulips in bloom if they visit the specialist stands at the Chelsea Flower Show.

Tulip "Black Parrot"

Tulip “Black Parrot”, Trinity Hall gardens

The Old Library’s copy of Gerard’s herbal was recently conserved by the Cambridge Colleges Conservation Consortium through the generous support of alumnus Richard Ferens (TH 1957-1960) and his wife Penelope in celebration of their Golden Wedding.


Most of the refernces are from Wikipedia

Gerard’s “Herball” can be viewed online: https://archive.org/details/herballorgeneral00gera

The Plantin Moretus Museum in Antwerp is open to the public and has UNESCO World Heritage status

Trinity Hall gardens: http://www.trinhall.cam.ac.uk/about/gardens/