Ownership and Travels over 550 Years

Who were the earliest owners of the Alberta manuscript? We may never know. But it is not fanciful to theorize that a very highly ranked person in the retinue of King Edward IV of England—perhaps even the king himself—carried this volume from the Low Countries into England in the last quarter of the fifteenth century.

The primary basis for such a theory lies here, in a fenestra (or bookplate) on the back cover of the volume:

This inscription—“a booke in frenche of the creat[i]on and fall of aungells”—offers remarkable testimony of cultural convergence. Although it is written in a lettre bourguignonne hand, probably of the fifteenth century, the text is English. This strongly suggests that it came into the hands of an English owner at a very early date. The fact that all of the names and ownership inscriptions appearing in the text—some dating from the sixteenth century—refer to men living in Britain further suggests that it never left the island until the twentieth century, when it made its journey to Canada.

How, then, did this luxury manuscript get to England? The answer may lie in a remarkable political union that developed in the 1460s and 1470s. The Yorkists—English nobles who were locked in a bloody struggle with their Lancastrian rivals to secure the English throne (the famous Wars of the Roses)—forged an alliance with members of the court of Burgundy. Charles the Bold, who succeeded Philip as the Burgundian duke in 1467, married Margaret of York—sister of the Yorkist king, Edward IV—in 1468.

Two years later (and some five years after the Alberta manuscript was probably produced), Edward was temporarily ejected from the English throne. He went to live in exile with Louis de Bruges, a prominent Flemish nobleman in Duke Charles’s territories. Edward was inspired by Louis’s library, and after his return to England and his reinstatement as king, he established a royal library containing numerous illuminated manuscripts (including many commissioned from Flemish illuminators). 

It is thus possible that the king himself, or someone in his retinue, brought the book to England—either at the time of the Yorkists’ return to power or at a later date, as manuscripts continued to circulate among princely bibliophiles. We may never know for certain, as there are no clear ownership inscriptions from this early time (given the absence of fols. 1 and 2, it is certainly possible that such inscriptions disappeared with them into the mists of time).

It is certainly possible that the following, nearly illegible mark, which was erased at some point from fol. 79v, may play some role in the mystery of early ownership:

Further research may offer more insights into the meaning of this inscription. For the moment, we can confidently affirm that the manuscript remained in English hands in the sixteenth century, based on two ownership inscriptions from the period:

The first and oldest of these, “edwarde asbury othe [oweth, i.e. owns] thes boke god make hym a good m[a]n amen” (fol. 75v), is written in a sixteenth-century hand and follows a formula that appears in a number of contemporary manuscripts. The second name, “Wyllm [William] Walles,” appears in three places in the text (on fols. 83v and 84r), suggesting that the writer might have used the book for “pen trials.”

We have not identified either of these sixteenth-century owners, nor can we name the mysterious “Thomas” whose surname was irretrievably erased from this seventeenth-century inscription on fol. 80v:

The monogram at the end of the inscription likewise remains undecipherable, though it is possible that future research will clear up the mystery.

We are certain, however, about the identity of two eighteenth-century owners—Sir Herbert Mackworth (1737-91) and Capel Hanbury Leigh (1776-1861)—both of whom lived in South Wales. Mackworth, whose inscription appears on fol. 83v, was a baronet, industrialist, and parliamentarian from the Glamorgan region.

An Oxford-educated lawyer, Mackworth seems to have had wide-ranging interests; he was an avid collector of manuscripts and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1777. When he died in 1791, the Alberta manuscript appears to have been bequeathed to his son, Robert H. Mackworth. When Robert died three years later, the manuscript passed into the hands of his widow Molly (née Myers), and thence to the man she later married, Capel Leigh, whose inscription appears on fol.3r.

Leigh, who served for a time as Lord Lieutenant of Monmouthshire, was not as politically prominent as the elder Mackworth. But he too was extremely wealthy—and, in the words of a London Review obituary writer, “one of the most influential of the squirearchy of southeast Wales.”

We have no information on the fate of the book after its tenure in Leigh’s estate in Pontypool Park. In the absence of ownership inscriptions and other forms of physical evidence, the trail goes cold until the middle of the twentieth century, when we may conjecture that an expert on historical sites and preservation named John Lunn obtained the Invectives manuscript—probably by purchasing it—in his native England.

Why did Dr Lunn buy the book, and what interest did he have in such texts? Regretfully, we cannot ask him, as he died in 2001; his family members, who remember the manuscript, know relatively little about it. Thanks to the efforts of Edmonton writer Paula Simons, we do know that Dr Lunn emigrated to Canada in 1957, working first in Nova Scotia and later in Alberta, where he served as an associate deputy minister and as director of the province’s museum services. He donated the volume to the University of Alberta Libraries shortly after his retirement in 1988.

While the last segments of the book’s travels are thus as mysterious as the first, we can all be deeply grateful to Dr Lunn for his gift to the people of Alberta—a volume of immense historical significance that ranks high among the cultural treasures contained in University of Alberta collections.

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