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Archive Spotlight: Anna Seward and the Lichfield Record Office

Another ‘Archive Spotlight’ post for this week! Thank you to Francesca Blanch Serrat – PhD student from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona –  for this essay. Francesca’s research focuses on self-representation, maturity, and Romanticism in Anna Seward’s poetry. She tells us here about her trip to Lichfield, the location of Seward’s family home.

Do you want to write for us on studying Romanticism materials at an archive? We are now opening this series to contributors.  We’d love to hear from academics and postgraduates who would like to write a short blog on their experience of using an archive in the UK or elsewhere. You could use the space to discuss one or two things of interest you found there, perhaps things that are intriguing, but can’t fit into your thesis or other work. Suggestions welcome!

Please contact Anna Mercer for more information. 


Archive Spotlight: Anna Seward and the Lichfield Record Office

Although today she is not quite as well known, Anna Seward (1742-1809) was celebrated in her lifetime as one of the prominent lyrical voices of Great Britain. Strongly imbued by the cult of sensibility and classical poetic models, her style attests to the cultural and literary transition between the Enlightenment and Romanticism. Due to the success of her patriotic elegies on national heroes, Monody on Major André (1781) and Elegy on Captain Cook (1780), she was considered by her contemporaries as a “British muse, spokeswoman for national anguish, pride, and resolve” (Kairoff 2012, 71), which contrasts with, and questions, our current notion of her career as provincial writer. Seward was at the centre of a network of scientific, social, political and literary relations, as her correspondence (12 manuscript volumes, out of which only 6 were posthumously published) demonstrates. She enjoyed a privileged position as confidante and mentor to the outstanding minds of her generation, such as Erasmus Darwin, Esther Thrale Piozzi, Hannah More, Robert Southey, Helen Maria Williams or Sir Walter Scott, to name a few. My thesis pays particular attention to the representation of maturity in Romanticism and investigates in what ways does Seward, from her old age, represent herself as a woman, writer, and ultimately, author.



Anna Seward by George Romney. 1782. Detail.


After the death of her father, Anna Seward lived independently in her family home, the Bishop’s Palace, in Lichfield. She inherited her father’s shares in several business exploits which allowed her not to worry about her keeping. Thanks to that, she never envisioned writing as a way to earn money, but rather as an artistic and intellectual pursuit, and elevated form of art. Lucky her. As a young girl, Seward moved with her parents and younger sister from Eyam to Lichfield when their father was appointed canon-residentiary at the cathedral. There, the Sewards became immediately involved in the city’s intellectual and cultural life, and encouraged their daughters to actively participate in it. They would host meetings with personalities such as Erasmus Darwin -who praised her poetry and encouraged her to continue writing-, James Boswell or Samuel Johnson, as well as the Lunar Society of Birmingham.

On my first year of PhD research I went on a trip to Seward’s beloved Lichfield. After reading about it in her letters and poems, I had to know what all the fuss was about. Lichfield is indeed a beautiful town, ripe with history, and evidently very proud of its past.


View of the cathedral from The Swan.

View of the cathedral from The Swan.


My first appointment was with Clare Townsend, the manager of the Cathedral Library, who showed me the chapter house -the only one with two storeys in the UK!-, where the library has been housed since 1758. Its treasures include a hand-copied manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales from the 15th century and a map of Tudor England by Christopher Saxton (one of the three surviving original copies). I was very lucky to be able to visit it before its closure for restoration work. Ms Townsend had prepared a working space for me on the left side of the building, which incidentally faced Seward’s home, now a school. The feeling of touching the first edition of her collected letters a mere street away from where she would sit and write is indescribable.


The Bishop’s Palace, behind the cathedral. Seward’s home.

The Bishop’s Palace, behind the cathedral. Seward’s home.


After the cathedral, I visited the Lichfield Record Office, where Henrietta Martinez, Kevin Briggs and Anita Caithness, the archive assistants, were incredibly kind and helpful. The Lichfield Record Office is part of the Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent’s Archive Service, which amounts to 6500 collections. It connects the databases of Staffordshire Record Office, the Lichfield Record Office, the Stoke on Trent City Archives, the William Salt Library and the Staffordshire County Museum under one single online catalogue, Gateway to the Past. Gateway to the Past contains an 80% of the Archive and Heritage Service’s holdings. [See here, and here]

In the Lichfield Record Office, I mostly came across letters and poems, but also legal documents and an unpublished portrait. In total I saw 33 documents. The first document I was given was LD127/7/15, which turned out to be a drawing, in pencil and ink, of Seward as a young woman. Although I knew of several versions of her most well known portraits and engravings, by Tilly Kettle and George Romney, I had never read about this one. The portrait is medium sized, smaller than an A5, and features Seward indoors, sitting down on an armchair, not looking directly at the person drawing her. The portrait presents signs of having been kept in a frame. It is not dated, but judging from Seward’s facial features, I would suggest it is from the late 1750s. Regrettably, its author is unknown.

The next bundle of material contained two legal documents dating from 1763 (D15/12/60) and 1781 (LD88/7/7). Both documents, which when spread open occupied half the table, were sealed with royal wax stamps and handwritten in an elaborate, formal manner. They had evidently suffered from humidity. The first one was listed as “Settlement on wife and daughters by Canon Thomas Seward of The Close, Lichfield.” Signed by Thomas and Elizabeth, Anna Seward’s parents, it establishes the amount of money the Seward women would be left with in case of Thomas’s death. It also contains information on some of Thomas Seward’s shares, which his oldest daughter Anna would be in charge of during his illness, and eventually inherit. The other document, listed as “Lea Grange or Stychbrook Grange” contains the details of a lease and the parties involved. It is significant because it is signed by both Thomas and Anna, who is described as a “spinster” and “only child”. By 1781, Elizabeth and Sarah Seward had died. Both documents serve as a testament of Thomas Seward’s preoccupation with providing for his family, as well as the involvement the women of the family had in the financial movements carried out in the house.

If the settlement and the lease shed light on Seward as actively involved in her family’s finances, the following provides an insight into her relationship with the intellectual circle of Lichfield, which might had an influence in her development as a poet. D127/7/14 is a manuscript verse of a poem by Dr Erasmus Darwin “On a target at Drakelaw”, transcribed by Seward. The handwriting differs slightly from her own letters; it looks like she might have been to Darwin’s dictation. Scholarship has paid attention to the relationship between the two writers. We know Darwin encouraged Seward to continue writing, although there is also evidence that he did not behave as well as one might wish towards her, publishing under his name verses authored by Seward. Although some scholars have argued that in the Lichfield circle poetry was a collaboration and it is hard to discern authorship in a publication, Seward expressed, vehemently and repeatedly, her anger at Darwin’s plagiarism, both in her letters and in her biography of the scientist, Memoirs of the Life of Dr Darwin. Be as it may, what is clear is that Seward was actively involved in the intellectual and creative life of the city from an early age, both as an assistant to her mentors and as a poet in her own right; she was admired and celebrated by her contemporaries.

Although at this stage of my research I do not yet know how any of this information will fit within my thesis, these findings have allowed me to gain insight into Seward’s private life, which in turn sheds light on my understanding of Seward as a person and as an author. The work of the Lichfield record office in cataloguing and preserving these documents is invaluable, and I am certain it will prove equally helpful for the academics that decide to study Seward’s life and work after me.

– Francesca Blanch Serrat (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)


Further Reading

Claudia T. Kairoff. Anna Seward and the End of the Eighteenth Century. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2012.

Archive Spotlight: Mapping the Life of Johanna Dalrymple at the British Library

The Archive Spotlight series continues today with a post from Marissa Bolin, PhD candidate at the University of York. She tells us about her research visit to the British Library and what she uncovered there.


“Sacreed Promises and Engagements:” Mapping the Life of Johanna Dalrymple


My fascination with the 1811 Dalrymple v. Dalrymple trial arose from the examination of the legal context of Wilkie Collins’ 1870 novel Man and Wife. Collins recognizes the importance of the Dalrymple trial as background for the case between Anne Silvester and Geoffrey Delamayn when Sir Patrick claims that it is the “one case” where a Scottish marriage was “confirmed and settled by the English Courts.”[i] He links Anne Silvester and Geoffrey Delamayn’s marriage to the Dalrymple verdict when he clarifies that “[a]n English Court of Justice (sitting in judgment on the case I have just mentioned to Mr Moy) has pronounced that law to be good—and the decision has since been confirmed by the supreme authority of the House of Lords.”[ii] Reports by John Dodson and John Haggard as well as later references to the case in the 1868 The Report of the Royal Commission on the Laws of Marriage mark Dalrymple v. Dalrymple as the commencement for the debate for reformed ceremonial laws. The publicity that followed the case similarly served to educate the English population of the lack of formality of Scottish irregular marriages and sparked the debate to end the ways in which women fall victim to these inconsistencies.


marissa1BL 1131.g.1.


Scotland’s marriage laws had few restrictions and caused a great deal of legal confusion. According to the 1868 Commission’s account of the requirements of marriage legality in Scotland, “[n]o form or ceremony, civil or religious, no notice before or publication after, no consummation or cohabitation, no writing, no witnesses even are essential to the constitution”[iii] of irregular marriages. Commissioners were astounded that so few requirements were needed to define “the most important contract which two private parties can enter into.”[iv] The obscurity of Scottish marriage laws led the Commission and recent historians such as Leah Leneman and Lawrence Stone to ask “what defined a marriage in Scotland?”[v] Scottish marriages could be separated into two categories—regular marriages and irregular marriages. It was Scotland’s protection of irregular marriages that caused great confusion.

The Report defines irregular marriages as then separated into two sections, per verba de praesenti and per verba de futuro, subsequente copula. Promises per verba de praesenti were a type of mock ceremony in which a couple would pronounce themselves married from that point forwards “without any ecclesiastical ceremony, parental consent, or physical consummation, provided the consent was notified in words of the present tense.”[vi] Such marriages could be proven through letters signed “wife” or “husband” or the testimony of a credible witness who had witnessed these terms verbally declared. On the other hand, per verba de futuro marriages are characterized by the presence of “a promise of future marriage without any present interchange of consent to be husband and wife, followed at a subsequent time by carnal intercourse.”[vii] Both variations of informal marriage led to a great deal of legal confusion.

It was this legal ambiguity, and the many women who were negatively affected by such obscure requirements for marriage, that led the Commission to focus on Scottish laws. The Dalrymple case provides one of the most well-known cases of Scottish irregular marriages at that time, and is referenced by the Report to support the Commission’s position that “writings, secretly exchanged between a gentleman and lady in Scotland, without the knowledge of any other person, were held by the English Court Matrimonial to have constituted a valid marriage.”[viii] Twenty letters written by Johanna Dalrymple were used as evidence. John refused to provide any letters that he received from Johanna, claiming that they were missing or have been destroyed. Johanna had luckily kept all the correspondences during their relationship, clearly aware of the uncertainties of Scottish marriages. Dodson asserts the significance of the letters presented by Johanna’s lawyers on the verdict, by stating that “[i]t is much more natural that they should be left in the possession of the lady, she being the party whose safety is the more special object of protection.”[ix] Married women were unable to represent themselves within marriage trials and yet it was their respectability and virtue that was on the line. Therefore, women’s possession of written evidence was of the utmost importance.

The Dalrymple case provides an extensive examination of the influence that women’s writings play in marriage laws of the period. The letters presented during the trial dated back to 1804, when John Dalrymple became acquainted with Johanna Gordon during his time as a Dragoon Guard in Edinburgh. John frequently visited her at her family home and in May began writing passionate letters declaring his love and hopes for their future together.[x] They had been acquainted for approximately one to two months prior to the start of their correspondences but few letters were of importance to the case due to the fact that verbal passionate discussions were most likely taking place. Thus, the letters presented during the trial were written after an irregular marriage had occurred, as revealed in letter No. 1, and secured proof of their marriage. The first letter recorded in the Dalrymple v Dalrymple case, entitled “A sacreed promise,”[xi] consists of both John and Johanna’s written agreements to marriage.



BL 1131.g.1.


It is clear that at this point John and Johanna had consented to a marital union by the terms of Scottish irregular marriage per verba de praesenti. Because of John’s family and the fear of “being disinherited,”[xii] the marriage had to be an irregular one and kept in secrecy, not even known to Johanna’s family. John assured Johanna that she was his wife and, thus, obtained all the rights as his wife. These rights included his responsibility to pay for any purchases she wished to make, for he frequently assured her that, “I insist on your ordering every thing you want, and drawing on me for whatever money you stand in need of as it is but your right, and in accepting of it you will prove your acknowledgment of it.”[xiii] He also saw it to be her responsibility to perform all duties as his wife, such as sexual intercourse. The plaintiff stressed the importance of the consummation of marriage, as it remained a legal stipulation of marriage at the time. Although John would later deny that sexual intercourse occurred, the court agreed that his letters proved otherwise. The prosecution argues that his letters were “expressive of the most ardent and eager affection on his part, which can leave no room for the slightest doubt that he was at that time most devotedly attached to her person, and desirous of the pleasures connected with the enjoyment of it.”[xiv] At the end of July 1804, John was forced to leave Edinburgh and return to London because of his father’s suspicions of her relationship with Johanna.



BL 1131.g.1.


Both John and his “Dearest Wife”[xv] continued to write to one another during this absence and after he was stationed in Malta in 1805. With less frequent letters, the death of John’s father in 1807, and his final return to England in 1808, the relationship between the couple became ultimately altered. Using John’s lawyer, Samuel Hawkins, as a transmitter of letters during this three year period, Johanna warns Hawkins that:

were he to think of forming any of the connexions that have been talked of [in gossip], or any connexion whatever, I will immediately come forward with my claims, which must put himself and the unfortunate woman in a most disagreeable situation […] I am convinced he will force me to strong measure ere long.[xvi]

On the 2nd of June 1808, she was forced to call her bluff after John marries a woman by the name of Laura Manners and, within a few days of the marriage, Johanna’s legal battle begins.

Johanna was able to convince the jury that a marriage had occurred and that John was legally responsible as her husband. As a result, John’s second marriage was annulled. Although Johanna and John Dalrymple were from thenceforth married, they agreed to live separately. Due to the fact that the Matrimonial and Divorce Act would not come into action for another 46 years, a legal divorce or separation was not possible.

Unfortunately, little is known of Johanna Dalrymple’s fate after the 1811 trial. My archival research at the British Library enabled me view the widespread distribution of trial reports on the Dalrymple court proceedings. It wasn’t until further research led me to the National Archives in Kew that I discovered an 1827 Inquisition of Lunacy of Johanna and the declaration of her insanity. It is unclear if Johanna self-admitted herself after years of legal and marital sufferings or if this inquisition was called for by John as a reasoning for divorce.

While I’ve had to pause further research into what happened to Johanna Dalrymple after her triumph in the 1811 trial and this 1827 Inquisition due to other research focuses, I fully plan to dedicate future research into uncovering the misfortunes of this legally symbolic woman of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.


Marissa Bolin is a doctoral candidate and tutor in the Department of English & Related Literature at the University of York. Her dissertation entitled “Women, the Law, and the Novel, 1838-1885: Representations of Bigamy, Property Law, Ceremonial Law, Divorce and Separation in the Victorian Novel” examines the use of women’s physical writing, such as letters, marriage certificates, and diaries within Victorian novels as a way of providing women’s testimonial and circumstantial evidence in the debate for marriage law reform.


[i] Wilkie Collins, Man and Wife ed. Norman Page (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995), 523.

[ii] Collins, Man and Wife, 523.

[iii] The Report of the Royal Commission on the Laws of Marriage (London: HMSO, 1868), 16.

[iv] Ibid.,16.

[v] Leah Leneman, Promises, Promises: Marriage Litigation in Scotland 1698-1830 (Edinburgh: Nation Museums of Scotland Enterprises Ltd., 2003), xi.

[vi] John H. Baker, An Introduction to English Legal History, 4th ed. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007), 179.

[vii] The Report of the Royal Commission on the Laws of Marriage, 17.

[viii] Ibid.,18.

[ix] John Dodson, A Report of the Judgment, Delivered in the Consistorial Court of London, on the 16th of July 1811, By the Right Honorable Sir William Scott, Chancellor of the Diocese, in the Cause of Dalrymple the Wife, Against Dalrymple the Husband (London: J. Butterworth, 1811), 66.

[x] Ibid., 1.

[xi] Ibid., 243.

[xii] Ibid., 253.

[xiii] Ibid., 245.

[xiv] Ibid., 69.

[xv] Ibid., 245.

[xvi] Ibid., 264-265.

Archive Spotlight, ‘Finding a wife for the Reverend William Ettrick’

The Archive Spotlight series continues with a post by Elizabeth Spencer (PhD Candidate, History, University of York), on her findings after a research visit to Dorset History Centre in Dorchester. The papers of the Reverend William Ettrick (1757-1847), although not appropriate material for Elizabeth’s thesis, did however tell a rather intriguing tale, which she recounts here.


Would you like to contribute to this series? For more information, please contact Anna Mercer.


“The Lady was to be young and of good Family also”: Finding a wife for the Reverend William Ettrick

By Elizabeth Spencer

Recent research into the Ettrick family of High Barnes in Sunderland led me, somewhat surprisingly, all the way to the Dorset History Centre in Dorchester in order to look at the papers of the Reverend William Ettrick (1757-1847).[1] I have been researching the marriage of his parents William (1726-1808) and Catherine Ettrick (1726-1794), and so hoped that I might find some traces of them in their son’s papers. The Reverend William Ettrick had an extremely difficult relationship with his father, and so had left Sunderland ‘without a penny in [his] pocket’ as soon as he had turned 21 in order to take up a fellowship at University College Oxford; in 1787 he was offered two small livings in Dorset, where he lived until his father’s death in 1808, upon which he inherited the family estate at High Barnes. Unfortunately, his papers offered little in the way of material for my current doctoral research into women’s clothing in eighteenth-century England, but they do provide a fascinating account of one member of a family notorious for their eccentric behaviour.[2]


Dorset History Centre

Dorset History Centre


The papers held by the Dorset History Centre were apparently found sealed in a glass bottle which had been passed down in the Ettrick family; it was finally opened in 1903, and was found to contain documents relating largely to the Reverend William Ettrick’s complicated marital affairs. As well as a personal account written by him in 1810 in an attempt to justify the legitimacy of his marriage, the papers contain correspondence between William and legal professionals, colleagues, and family members, as well as affidavits sworn by various witnesses to his first marriage. They allow us to piece together the somewhat bizarre story of his search for a wife, and his eventual marriage to Elizabeth Bishop (?-1837) in 1800.

Despite their acrimonious relationship, the Reverend Ettrick’s father apparently began making overtures of peace towards his son in 1794 in an attempt to secure the family name; they were the only two surviving male heirs, and in his old age the father was becoming increasingly concerned that he would never see his then 37-year-old son married. According to a later account written by the Reverend Ettrick, his father had offered him £10,000 and the possession of the High Barnes estate – as well as £5000 more on his death – if he would marry a ‘Lady of Fortune’ worth £10,000. His terms also stipulated that the lady was also ‘to be young and of good Family.’ These conditions did not prove agreeable to the Reverend Ettrick, however, who wrote to his University College colleague Dr Wetherell that he had ‘instantly rejected them’ in his own mind as ‘Such a prospect was not only an ideal impossibility to a man of my Constitution & years, and retired life & Habits, but the very thots: of it were Death to me.’ Significantly, the Reverend Ettrick also cited his parents’ own unhappy marriage – they had separated in 1765 – as evidence of the miseries caused by a match based on money alone.

Nevertheless, the Reverend Ettrick challenged his father that if he could find a lady ‘according to his wishes, and equally willing to venture the perilous experiment,’ he would agree to ‘sacrifice all my Expectations of domestic Happiness’ and marry her. Such a lady, however, was not to be found, and five years went by without a match being made. It is here that things become more complicated, and it is more than likely that the Reverend’s own account of these events written in 1810 glosses over or changes details in order to present his actions in a more favourable (and less bizarre) light. According to the Reverend, by 1799 he had decided to set his father’s scheme aside altogether and to marry a woman ‘agreeable to me, & of such Expectations (being of humble rank) and Habits of Life, as were in unison with my own.’ The woman he set his sights upon was Elizabeth Bishop, who was likely already his servant or housekeeper at this point. Rather than simply marrying her, however, the Reverend Ettrick apparently decided to set in motion an ‘experiment’ which would ‘work upon the feelings of my Father & put his Temper fully to the proof.’ He therefore published the banns of his own marriage in his own parish church in December 1799, and let it be widely believed that a marriage ceremony had taken place between him and the said Elizabeth; no such thing had happened, but the Reverend’s intentions were to gauge his father’s reaction to his rumoured nuptials. He had apparently determined to disregard any reconciliation with his father if his reaction proved to be a negative one, and was prepared to forfeit the fortune promised to him in order to marry a woman who satisfied his own needs. His father did not disappoint, and the Reverend’s brother-in-law soon wrote to tell him that the ‘Old Gentleman is much displeased with you’ as he had been told that he had ‘married a Woman that was a Bedd maker at Oxford & that she had befor two Bastards.’

If the Reverend Ettrick was pleased that his father had predictably proved himself to be intractable, he apparently had not foreseen that rumours of his marriage would have negative consequences for his fellowship at University College Oxford. Upon hearing of his apparent nuptials, the college bursar wrote to him to warn that an investigation loomed if he did not provide them with a reasonable explanation; his fellowship was no longer tenable if he was a married man, and he had failed to inform them of any change in his circumstances. ‘You may suppose that the College would not be disposed to give credit to a vague rumour,’ the bursar wrote, but ‘it is only since they have learnt that the report is very generally prevalent in your neighbourhood…that they have been induced to give it attention.’ The Reverend replied explaining the circumstances of the rumour and asking for a year of grace as, although he was not yet married, he intended to be in the near future.

Though he had been forced to deny his marriage to the college, according to the Reverend’s own account he was reluctant to allow these rumours to be contradicted in Dorset as he was ‘not willing to give any needless visitation to my father’; however, it is likely that he and Elizabeth were already living together as man and wife. Indeed, when the pair eventually did marry in April 1800 Elizabeth was already pregnant. Perhaps predictably given the Reverend’s previous record, the marriage ceremony was not a straightforward event; taking place very early in the morning with only two witnesses – Elizabeth’s mother and aunt – the ceremony was performed by the Reverend himself, in a bizarre move which would prove problematic for him later down the line.

Having heard doubts expressed to him over the validity of his marriage to Elizabeth on the grounds that he himself had performed the ceremony, the Reverend was eventually persuaded by his patron to be married again by another clergyman in 1806. Elizabeth had given birth to four children in this time – one of them a son and heir to the Reverend’s estate – and it was this more than anything that seems to have convinced him of the need to ensure the legitimacy of his marriage. Nevertheless, he continued to assert the validity of their first marriage, claiming that the second ceremony was only a ‘Measure of Precaution.’ Indeed, rather than simply including a clause in his will which would allow an illegitimate first son to inherit, the Reverend determined to prove that his 1800 marriage had been legally valid all along. This was complicated even further by the discovery in 1808 – the year of his father’s death – that the wrong date had been entered in the parish register for the banns of this first marriage; though the banns had been heard in December 1799 – and the Reverend and Elizabeth had been married in 1800 – he had incorrectly recorded the banns as being published in December 1800.

It is perhaps ironic that, despite wanting to avoid the unhappy fate suffered by parents who had been married for financial gain, the Reverend Ettrick himself became embroiled in an ongoing legal battle over the validity of his 1800 marriage. It also shows a streak of stubbornness as he continued to fight to assert its legitimacy, in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary. He and Elizabeth would go on to have ten children together, six of whom were born after their second marriage ceremony in 1806. Unfortunately, their first son – whose legitimacy the Reverend fought so hard to prove – died before his father, and so the uncertain status of his 1800 marriage would ultimately prove immaterial in matters of inheritance. The Reverend William Ettrick himself died aged 90 in 1847, and his second son Anthony would go on to inherit the estate at High Barnes.

[1] Dorset History Centre: ‘Correspondence and other documents of Rev. William Ettrick 1787-1810’ D.1854/1, and ‘Correspondence and account of William Ettrick’s life by Mrs Sherwood, 1980’ D.1854.

[2] Jeremiah William Summers, The History and Antiquities of Sunderland (Sunderland: Joseph Tate, 1858), pp. 186-196. ; William Brockie, Sunderland Notables: Natives, Residents, and Visitors (Sunderland: Hills and Company, 1894), pp. 46-52.


Elizabeth Spencer is a third-year doctoral candidate and postgraduate tutor in the Department of History at the University of York. Her research looks at women’s clothing in eighteenth-century England, and is funded by the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities.

Archive Spotlight, ‘A Book and a Bard: Romantic Poetry and the Commonplace Book of Thomas Gray’

This year on the BARS blog we are reviving the ‘Archive Spotlight’ series. We present new and exciting posts from BARS members and blog readers on their studies at various archives. Please get in touch if you want to contribute – the posts can be an account of the archive itself, or some things you’ve studied there that relate to the Romantic Period. Katherine Fender (University of Oxford) starts us off with a post on her time at Pembroke College Library, University of Cambridge. 


A Book and a Bard: Romantic Poetry and the Commonplace Book of Thomas Gray



John Martin, “The Bard”, (c. 1817) (c) Laing Art Gallery


The manuscript to which my doctoral research is most deeply indebted is one over which I had pored even before the first word of my thesis had been written. Similarly, the text itself predates what we generally consider to be the “Romantic period” in literature – though my thesis was firmly rooted in all things Romantic: in the poetry and aesthetic theory of the period. Why then, you may ask, is this pre-Romantic text of any significance to a Romanticism blog?

The answer is that my thesis simply could never, and would never, have come about at all without my having had the opportunity to read and to research Thomas Gray’s Commonplace Book. The Commonplace “Book” is, more accurately, to be described as several books: three volumes, composed from 1736 onward, which offer notes, essays and drafts on a number of different topics, including but not limited to Gray’s poetic interests and early poetry drafts.

I first encountered Gray’s Commonplace Book during my MPhil. at Pembroke College, University of Cambridge, in 2012. At the time, I was starting to think about not only the significance of Welsh landscape and what I termed the “Welsh Sublime” in English Romantic poetry (the topic of my MPhil. dissertation), but also the significance of a particular Welsh figure: that of the ancient Welsh bard, who was thrust to the forefront of the eighteenth-century literary stage by Gray’s “The Bard: A Pindaric Ode”.

Gray’s ode was composed between 1754 and 1757, and was published in 1757: the same year that Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful appeared in print. I was especially keen to consider the intersection between the language and images of the bardic and those of the sublime in this period.

The more I thought about, read about, and researched the figure of Gray’s ancient Welsh bard, the more I came to realise that, though enigmatic – and presented as the last of the Welsh poets in Gray’s text – the bard was certainly not elusive in eighteenth-century and Romantic literature. Indeed, as the eighteenth century progressed, the figure of the ancient Welsh bard became evermore popular in not only the literature, but also in the art and music of the period. But why?

So it was that I set out to trace the wanderings of Gray’s Welsh bard through Romantic verse. I knew, though, that in order to do so, I would firstly need to return to my original resource: Gray’s Commonplace Book. It has been described as the “single most important repository of Gray’s autograph verse and prose”[1], and – especially where Gray’s engagement with the bardic tradition is concerned – this is with good reason.

All three volumes of Gray’s Commonplace Book make reference to bards in offering both historical and poetic accounts of them. They were, as such, invaluable resources – especially in the context of “four nations” Romanticism research. In the first volume of Gray’s Commonplace Book, he introduces the reader to bards in the context of druidism. Within the category of druidism, Gray discerns three main sub-groups – druids themselves, defined as “religious men” and a “holy Race”, as well as bards and vates:


Strabo…mentions two other Orders of Men in great reverence (beside the Druids) the Bardic, & the Vates. the first were their Poets who sung the deeds of their Heroes to the Lyre, mention’d likewise by Deodorus, Marcellinus, Festus Pompeius, Posidonius ap: Athenoeum, Lucan &c.: the others, whom Marcellinus calls Eubages, studied & taught Metaphysicks, Natural Philosophy, & the Sublime Sciences. Caesar seems to have included them all under the name of Druids.[2]


The bards, the poets, are heralded as specifically Welsh in the second volume of Gray’s Commonplace Book, which also contains a seventeen-page section called “Cambri” wherein Welsh verse forms are explored in great detail. As Mack outlines,


Gray’s interest in the origins of rhyme in English poetry…had led him deeper and deeper into the study of Welsh poetry and language. Throughout the early and mid-1750s, he became increasingly convinced that the measures of English poetry ‘not improbably might have been borrowed from the Britons, as I am apt to believe, the rise of Rhyme itself was’.[3]


Rhyme and metre emerge as key concerns in Gray’s “Cambri” pages, which is unsurprising given the intrinsic link between (cultural) memory and verse that define the bardic tradition, and that Gray so reveres. Despite Gray’s obvious fascination with Welsh prosody, though, its role in his verse has not received the attention that it deserves hitherto. Although a study by critic Edward D. Snyder afforded attention to Gray’s use of Welsh sound patterning, his research dates from the 1920s; there has been little critical work conducted on the subject since.


Not only did my studies of Gray’s Commonplace Book expose a relatively neglected area of Gray scholarship, but they also made me think more carefully about what Romantic poets considered the role of a poet to be more generally. Why might they, as poets themselves, revere Gray’s rendition of a bard’s role? How does Gray’s bardic language and imagery inflect their own verse and writings?

Many Romantic poets including Blake, Wordsworth and Hemans adopted the figure of Gray’s bard as a symbol: as a poetic precursor; as prophet; as a figure to be imitated, emulated and even ventriloquised if possible. Gray highlights the power and transcendence of the bardic voice, positioning the ancient bard as not only a solitary individual worthy of pathos – the last of his kind – but, also, as a stoic hero, as a figure to be revered: he who gives voice to communities, past, present and future. I contend that the ancient bard as depicted by Gray is, as such, an appealing prototype for politically-engaged and affectively-driven Romantic poets.

There is not enough room here to do justice to Gray’s Commonplace Book: beautifully-written, meticulously ordered, wonderfully preserved. On a personal as well as an academic level, I am hugely indebted to the Commonplace Book. Without it, my doctoral thesis would not exist.


Many thanks to Mrs Pat Aske at the Pembroke College Library, University of Cambridge, for granting me access to Gray’s Commonplace Book, and for her generosity in sharing her time, knowledge and expertise with me over the past few years.


Katherine Fender (DPhil.)
Stipendiary Lecturer in English
St Peter’s College,
University of Oxford

[1] Margaret M. Smith, Index of English Literary Manuscripts, Volume III, 1700-1800, Part 2, (London: Mansell, 1989), p. 73.

[2] Thomas Gray, Thomas Gray’s Commonplace Book, Vol. I, p. 310. Accessed at Pembroke College Library, University of Cambridge, on 14/08/15.

[3] Robert L. Mack, Thomas Gray: A Life, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 470.


Archive Spotlight: New William Godwin Discovery

Dr Evert Jan van Leeuwen, of Leiden University, has written the following report for us on a new discovery he’s made in the Abinger Collection at the Bodleian.  We’re very happy to publish short notes like this relating to discoveries that might be of interest to the Romantic Studies community – if you’d be interested in contributing a piece on archival findings, please get in touch.

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Unknown Manuscript Note Identified in the William Godwin Papers of the Abinger Collection, at the Bodleian Library

In consulting the online catalogue of the Abinger Collection at the Bodleian Library, on Thursday 15 October 2015, I was able to identify the source of a piece of manuscript in William Godwin’s papers catalogued as “unknown.”  It concerns the following item, the pages of which can be viewed online here and here:

• Shelfmark: MS. Abinger c. 39
• Former shelfmark: Dep. b. 229/4(a)
• Fol(s).: 90r (and 90v)
• Document type: copy, in the hand of William Godwin, and Mary Jane Godwin
• Contents: ?Extract from an unknown work, beginning ‘The head is a house built for reason…’

The “unknown work” is The Guls Horne-Booke (1609) by Thomas Dekker, which Godwin read on the 5th and 6th of February 1813, according to William Godwin’s Diary.

Dr. B.C. Barker-Benfield, of the Department for Special Collections & Western Manuscripts at the Bodleian Library, explains that “the leaf is transcribed in the hand of an amanuensis, probably Mary Jane Godwin, but with corrections certainly in William Godwin’s hand.”  It contains the extended “head is a house” metaphor from Chapter 3 of Dekker’s text (pp.14-15 of the 1609 text, available as a digital file via EEBO).  It is transcribed almost verbatim, with only minor differences in punctuation and a small phrase missing on fol. 90v that appears between “Frenchman” and “nor” in the 1609 text: “that pluckes up all by [y] rootes” (15).  Dr. Barker-Benfield points out that “the watermark of this leaf is the lower half of Britannia, a very common pattern, with no visible date.”

Dekker’s pamphlet is a burlesque of the conduct literature circulating in early seventeenth-century fashionable society.  One wonders what drew the aging philosopher to The Guls Horne-Booke.  Godwin’s young admirer Edward Bulwer Lytton would become famous for his satirical portraits of high-society beaux and belles; Godwin, by contrast, holds the reputation for being a serious (even gloomy) psychological and political novelist of purpose.

In 1817, Godwin published Mandeville, a Tale of the Seventeenth-Century in England.  Reading Dekker may have been part of his research towards writing this work of fiction.  What I am currently researching is to what extent Dekker’s extended “head is a house” metaphor functions as a governing literary motif in Mandeville.  The narrator-protagonist Charles Mandeville reflects at the outset that “it is…necessary that I should here describe the most remarkable features of [my uncle’s] residence” because “they insensibly incorporated themselves as it were with the substance of my mind; and my character, such as it was afterwards displayed, owed much of its peculiarity to the impressions I here received” (23).  Audley Mandeville’s coastal residence is a full-blown Gothic mansion “in a woful [sic] state of dilapidation” (24).  In the course of the novel, Charles Mandeville’s mind becomes as isolated and ruinous as his uncle’s home.  Godwin was clearly struck by Dekker’s extended “head is a house” metaphor and his appropriation of this figure of speech suggests that he was developing a Gothic motif that the American poet, critic and short-story writer Edgar Allan Poe (who read Mandeville) would perfect in “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839).  In this tale, the house and the mind of its proprietor are indeed one; they fall down together.

I will present a working paper on this thesis at the January 2016 British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies conference and plan to publish a finished essay in the course of the year.  I would like to thank Dr. Barker-Benfield for encouraging me to publish a note on the identification of Godwin’s transcription of Dekker’s text.  The online catalogue entry will shortly be corrected in the light of the identification.

Dr Evert Jan van Leeuwen
Leiden University, the Netherlands

Archives Spotlight: Papers of Anna Eliza Bray (1790-1883)

We’re very happy to be able to publish a piece by Holly Wright of the West Sussex Record Office exploring their recently-catalogued archive of materials relating to Anna Eliza Bray, which promises to be a really great resource for Romanticists.

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Papers of Anna Eliza Bray (1790-1883)

The papers of 19th Century author Anna Eliza Bray have recently been catalogued at West Sussex Record Office and are now available for researchers to access. The catalogue can be viewed via our Search Online facility at

BRAY 3-2 stitched together c

Frontispiece of Anna Eliza Bray’s book The White Hoods (Bray 3/2).

Anna Eliza Bray (formerly Stothard, neé Kempe) was born on 25th December 1790 in Newington, Surrey and died on 21st January 1883 in London. She was originally destined for a career in the theatre; however, this endeavour was cut short as she fell ill days before a much anticipated performance at Bath’s Theatre Royal in May 1815, and subsequently lost the opportunity to appear on the stage again. The archive contains letters from this period between her mother, her brother Alfred John Kempe (the antiquarian) and theatre directors from Bath and Cheltenham.

In February 1818, she married Charles Alfred Stothard (eldest son of the Royal Academy artist Thomas Stothard) and her first book was published in 1820 entitled Letters written during a tour through Normandy, Britanny and other parts of France in 1818. This publication would establish her as a writer and advance her into the literary circles of her day, acquainting her with such notable figures as Sir Walter Scott, Amelia Opie, Letitia Elizabeth Landon, John Murray and the most influential character in her career, the Poet Laureate Robert Southey. Her husband died shortly afterwards in a tragic accident on 28th May 1821, when he fell from a ladder in Bere Ferrers Church in Devon while drawing the stained glass window. In 1822, she married Reverend Edward Atkyns Bray and moved to Tavistock Vicarage in Devon; shortly thereafter her next book Memoirs of Charles Alfred Stothard was published in 1823. The West Country became a significant influence on her writing and it was during her life in Tavistock when most of her literary output was accomplished, including her most well-known work A Description of the part of Devonshire bordering on the Tamar and the Tavy, published by John Murray in 1836. This was a 3-volume descriptive account of the history, customs and folklore of West Devon, the idea for which was first suggested to Mrs Bray by Southey in 1831 and later published as a series of letters she had written to him on the subject. It proved very popular and was reprinted in 1879 in a two-volume edition. Other works included a well-received 10-volume set of historical novels, another travel book entitled Mountains and Lakes of Switzerland, biographies of Thomas Stothard and the composer George Frederick Handel and a children’s book entitled A Peep at the Pixies. After her husband’s death in 1857, she moved back to London and continued to write well into the 1870s, editing and publishing her late husband’s sermons and writing further books on French history and Devon folklore.

BRAY 1-1-7

Letter to Anna Eliza Bray from Letitia Elizabeth Landon (Bray 1/1/7).

This archive will, no doubt, be of great interest to Romantic scholars as it contains over 100 letters from Caroline Southey, the second wife of Robert Southey, with whom Mrs Bray was first acquainted in 1840. This correspondence continued over a period of 14 years, which is even more remarkable when considering the fact that they never ended up meeting one another. Not only did Caroline Southey write frequently of her husband and his children, but some of the earlier letters also refer to other Romantic-era figures including William Wordsworth and members of the Coleridge family.

Letter to Anna Eliza Bray from Caroline Southey written after Robert Southey’s death (Bray 1/3/26).

Letter to Anna Eliza Bray from Caroline Southey written after Robert Southey’s death (Bray 1/3/26).

There is also ‘Mrs Southey’s Narrative’, a biographical piece written by Caroline Southey in 1840 regarding her courtship and marriage to Robert Southey, copied by Mrs Bray’s niece from the original manuscript. Other correspondence includes letters from the poet Letitia Elizabeth Landon, Charles Cuthbert Southey and Edith May Warter (nee Southey), son and daughter respectively of Robert Southey and his first wife Edith Fricker. The most unusual and unique items in the collection are undoubtedly three locks of hair belonging to Robert and Caroline Southey, given to Mrs Bray in 1854.

The archive also contains a wealth of correspondence, travel journals, a scrapbook of drawings and watercolours, printed books and numerous draft manuscripts including the 3 volume manuscript of her autobiography, published posthumously in 1884. This work includes an account of the visit made by Robert Southey and his son Charles to Tavistock Vicarage in December 1836 as well as transcriptions of his letters to Mrs Bray. There is also a handwritten poetry book dating from the early 1820s which belonged to Mary Maria Colling, a maidservant and amateur poet from Tavistock. Mrs Bray bestowed her patronage upon Mary and privately published a selection of her poetry in 1831 entitled Fables and Other Pieces in Verse. This publication also included letters written by Mrs Bray to Robert Southey who assisted in gathering together many notable subscribers for the book, including John Murray and William Wordsworth.


Two of Anna Eliza Bray’s travel journals of Cornwall and North Devon (Bray 2/3 and Bray 2/11).

I will be presenting a talk on the Bray archive at West Sussex Record Office in Chichester entitled ‘A Peep at the Pixies’: exploring the life and literary archive of Anna Eliza Bray (1790-1883) on Tuesday 24th November 2015 at 7pm. Tickets cost £7.50 including refreshments, and a selection of documents from the archive will be out on display. If you would like to book a place, please contact our reception on 01243 753602.

For any enquiries regarding the collection, catalogue or the November talk please contact West Sussex Record Office on

Holly Wright
Searchroom Assistant, West Sussex Record Office

All images are reproduced with the permission of West Sussex Record Office.