Treasures from the London Library: The spoils of war

Dunia Garcia-Ontiveros discovers a 16th-century book in the collections of the London Library with a fascinating and turbulent history.

Books often contain stories of dramatic events, but we seldom come across a book that has a turbulent history of its own. It is even rarer for that history to be well-documented. A volume from the London Library speaks eloquently of its former owners and of the events that caused it to travel from the Swiss city of Basel to London, via war-torn Netherlands, Coventry and Tunbridge Wells.

This large quarto edition of the complete works of Saint Basil, bishop of Caesarea (329-379) in Cappadocia in Asia Minor, begins its history in 1552, when it was printed in one of the Basel workshops of Hieronymus Froben (1501-1563), member of a family of Swiss scholarly printers.

Saint Basil wrote on monasticism and so it is hardly surprising to find an inscription both on the title page and the end leaf telling us that the book found its way into the library of a monastery in the town of Doesburg in the northern Netherlands. The monastery was probably home to the Brethren of the Common Life, a semi-secular order founded by the Dutch preacher Geer Groote (1340-1384) and later blessed by the Vatican.

However, the decoration of the original leather binding, which depicts nude women dancing, or perhaps just crouching, and men brandishing what look like scimitars, comes as a complete surprise. In the 16th century, books were often sold in temporary paper or parchment bindings and once purchased, their owners would pay to have them bound. Could it be that the book had another owner before it was acquired by the Brethren?

It is at this point that the book’s peaceful existence comes to a crashing end. A very faint inscription on the title page reads: ‘1586 Aug Sep. 1. Ex Dono Robert Arderne’. A handwritten paragraph on the end leaf provides a fuller account. Here we read about a city on the bank of the river IJssel, presumably Doesburg, being surrounded and conquered by the ‘illustrious Earl of Leicester’, governor-general of the Netherlands. The book was taken from the spoils of the city and given by Robert Ardern (this time without an ‘e’ at the end) to Humfredus Fen of Coventry, on September 1st.

We do not know who Robert Ardern was, but Humphrey Fenn (1543/4-1634) was a nonconformist Church of England clergyman. He had already had some brushes with the establishment by the time he accompanied his patron, Robert Dudley the Earl of Leicester, to the Netherlands in the capacity of chaplain. Fenn must have had a front-row seat from which to witness the English and Dutch forces laying siege to Spanish-controlled Doesburg at the end of August 1586. We know that Doesburg surrendered on September 2nd and our book is proof that the victorious English were already helping themselves to the spoils of one of its monasteries on September 1st. After securing and plundering Doesburg, Leicester and his troops attacked the larger garrison at Zutphen where Sir Philip Sidney, Leicester’s nephew and heir, was mortally wounded.

When he returned to England with the book, Fenn soon clashed with the religious establishment once again. In 1590, he was deprived of his living as pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Coventry and incarcerated for the second time in his life. He was released two years later. It is unclear what thereafter became of him, but the next piece of information on our book suggests that he was not restored to his Coventry vicarage. A note written in pencil and inserted in the book reads: ‘Presented to Coventry School Library 1602.’ The bone label nailed to the front cover confirms that the book was a gift made on April 12th, 1602, by Humphrey Fenn, a Cambridge MA and ‘formerly most worthy pastor of Holy Trinity in this city’. This implies that Fenn gave the book to someone in Coventry, but the label does not say to whom.

Although there is nothing to indicate that the book did not spend the next 300 years in Coventry, we know that by 1910 J.F. Tattersall, resident of Longwood, Tunbridge Wells, was making enquiries regarding the Doesburg monastery. Preserved inside the book is the postcard sent to him from Holland on July 6th, 1910, by H. van Alphen, confirming the existence of the Brethren’s monastery and the fact that it was burnt by the English in 1586. H. van Alphen was Treasurer of the Sidney Memorial Committee in Zutphen. He asks Tattersall to kindly tell his friends about the memorial dedicated to Leicester’s nephew in Zutphen.

This astonishingly rich trail of evidence ends with a label on the book’s inside cover telling us that J.F. Tattersall presented it to the London Library in March 1912. It is very satisfying to be able to uncover so much about the book’s history; however, many unanswered questions remain: Who commissioned the incongruous binding? Who was Robert Ardern and did he ‘rescue’ the book from the burning monastery himself? Could he in fact be Robert Arden, son of Edward Arden, High Sheriff of Warwickshire and a Catholic, prosecuted by Leicester for an alleged assasination plot against the queen? How did J.F. Tattersall come to own the book?


Dunia Garcia-Ontiveros is head of Bibliographic Services at the London Library.

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