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  • Luke Morton Sharpe

John Leland - prototype Antiquarian & saviour of ancient manuscripts

Updated: Jul 10, 2021

In 1533 John Leland (1503-1552) Keeper of the King’s Libraries was commissioned by Henry VIII 'to peruse and diligently to serche al the libraries of monasteries and collegies of this noble reaulme’. Although Leland’s intentions were probably scholarly, the commission’s ulterior motive may have been to garner historical material to bolster the Henry’s case for annulment from Katherine. Leland traversed England and Wales gaining access to the monastic libraries and compiling bibliographies from over one hundred and forty locations. This would ultimately lead to the preservation of many books which otherwise would have been lost in the maelstrom of the dissolution. He complained to Cromwell that the Germans ‘cutteth them out of libraries’ returned home and claimed them ‘monuments of their own country’ the downside of most manuscripts being written in the international languages of Latin and Greek.

He was particularly interested in the historians and chroniclers of England and began extracting passages from their works. Leland with his friend and fellow antiquarian John Bale wanted to unleash the knowledge hidden in the monasteries and ‘restore us to suche a truthe in hystories as we have longe wanted’. This would also enable the scriptures to be ‘sincerely taughte and lernid’ with ‘al maner of Superstition’ from the ‘Romain Bishopes totally expellid’. Leland scholar James Carley gives a flavour of the antiquarian’s visit to the library of Glastonbury where ‘there is so great a number that it is not easily paralleled anywhere else in Britain’ and the ‘mere sight of the ancient books struck my mind with an awe or amazement of some kind’.

Leland seems to have a particular attachment to King Arthur. Amongst his list of forty-four volumes deemed worthy of note from the library is an account of Melkin, a Celtic Bard who wrote a prophecy linking Joseph of Arimathea’s grave with the location of the Holy Grail. Perhaps his interest was inspired by his sponsor’s family - Henry VII claimed descendancy from the ancient British rulers in an attempt to give his fledgling regime some legitimacy, naming his first born after the legendary monarch.

Leland was less impressed with other monasteries. At the Greyfriars in Oxford, he ‘wouldn’t have paid threepence’ for their collection – perhaps a little unfair as they were a mendicant order – and he noted that the monks of Evesham would be better served ‘well-read than well fed’. Alarm at the fate of the monastic libraries was non-sectarian. John Bale, who was arrested for preaching anti-papistry in 1537 and freed with Leland’s help, bemoaned the treatment of ancient manuscripts highlighting that those who had purchased ‘superstycyouse mansyons’ were re-using the books ‘to serve theyr privys scoure theyr candlestyckes & rubbe theyr bootes’. He saw a distinction between the ancient ‘worthy workes of men Godly minded’ contained in the libraries and the ‘laysy lubbers and poppyshe bellygods’ who were being turfed out at the dissolution i.e. don’t throw out the wheat with the chaff.

In 1538 supported by income from several benefices and enthused by the historical detail he had unearthed Leland started a series of itineraries across England and Wales. In these journeys he would base himself in one location for a period and undertake daily excursions in the vicinity. The resultant observations are a priceless record of a country in the midst of radical change. References to the monasteries then in their death throes litter the pages. His travels spanned the latter half of the dissolution so some are mentioned in the present tense, some in the past although its sometimes difficult to determine from the arcane English which state applies. Leland’s remarks about the mighty Abingdon Abbey indicate that the church ‘stondith’ and the ‘est partes whereof yet be seen’. At Malmesbury, the great central tower with ‘mighttie high pyramis’ (steeple) fell in living memory before the surrender but a ‘great square toure’ at the west end was still standing. The parish had already bought the church from ‘one Stumpe an exceding riche clothier’ who turned the rest of the precinct into a factory making ‘3000 clothes’ per year.

Sherborne Abbey still retained its fourteenth century cloister and ancient chapter house with its vault ‘payntid with the images of bishops’ from the Abbey’s time as pre-conquest see. These were demolished in the 1550’s concurrent with the founding of the adjacent school. The rare sixteenth century hexagonal lavatorium had already been relocated from the cloister to the town square where it still remains as a fountain. By the time he visited Vaudey in Lincolnshre it was in ruins though these showed ‘it hath bene a great thyng’. In a nearby wood was a ‘gret quarrey of a course marble’ which ‘belykelihode was occupied yn the abbey’.

Leland never published his Itinerary. In 1547 he ‘fell beside his wits’ and died five years later perhaps unhinged by the dichotomy of his affiliation with the new order and devotion to the ‘visible memorials’ being destroyed by that same force. Maybe it was the sheer magnitude of delivering what he had promised to Henry VIII in a letter to him at the beginning of that year. His notes though formed the basis for future topographical works. He inspired subsequent antiquarians such as William Camden who quoted Leland frequently in his seminal work ‘Britannia’. Probably, for the first time since the days of William I, a broadly national survey had been carried out. The Domesday Book assessed the monetary wealth of the nation, Leland’s Itinerary its heritage, aiming to ‘open this wyndow that the lighte shall be seene so longe…a hole thousand yeres, stoppid up, and the olde glory of your renowmid Britaine to reflorisch thorough the worlde’.



Over a century had passed since Leland described Malmesbury as a ‘right magnificent thing’. It has survived mainly unintentional demolitions. King’s view was drawn shortly after the collapse of the west tower which took with it three bays of the nave. On the right of the picture the four columns of the crossing still stand despite the collapse of the steeple they supported in 1500. This steeple was twenty-three feet taller than Salisbury’s and it’s fall destroyed the east end. According to legend, the column on the far right of the picture fell during Restoration celebrations in 1660 when cannon fire created excessive vibrations. Fortunately, the spectacular Norman south door and tomb slab of King Athelstan can be seen inside this still magnificent church.


Leland borrowed this book from Southwick Priory in Hampshire and never returned it. It is now in the British Library. This section deals with the story of Cedd (620-664) who was raised by Aidan at Lindisfarne and helped spread Christianity across the various English Kingdoms. He was appointed Bishop of Essex and performed baptisms throughout the region including that of King Sigeberht who led a Christian revival in his kingdom. In the margins are notes by Leland himself. He identifies the locations of Cedd’s baptisms as Ithancester (Bradwell) and Tilaburg (Tilbury). Further down he picks out Redlesha (Rendlesham) royal capital of the East Angles where Cedd baptised Sigeberht’s successor and murderer Swithelm. Cedd founded a monastery at Lastingham (identified as Lestingenby Leland) in Yorkshire and died there of the plague.

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