The Library of Samuel Harsnett

Part of our Centre’s core activities focuses on the Samuel Harsnett Collection conserved and catalogued at our Albert Sloman Library.

The library of Archbishop Samuel Harsnett (1561-1631) offers exciting possibilities for original research, innovative methodologies, the visual presentation of results, and local public appeal. The library remains largely as Harsnett left it, and is invaluable for the study not just of Harsnett’s thought and intellectual circle, but of early libraries and collecting habits, manuscript pastedowns, bindings, and a broad range of bibliographical matters.

The Harsnett Library is one of the most important early-modern private libraries to await full modern scholarly investigation. Samuel Harsnett, born in Colchester in 1561, died as Archbishop of York in 1631, leaving his collection of books to the Corporation of Colchester, in trust for the clergy of the town, on condition that the bailiffs and incorporation ‘prepare a decent roome to sett them up in, that the Clergie of the Towne of Colchester and other Divines may have free access for the reading and studieinge of them’.

The library was established in the Dutch Bay-hall off High Street with a salaried librarian appointed in 1635. In 1653, the books were entrusted to the care of the minister of St Peter’s church, the librarian’s salary having been cut, but a catalogue undertaken. A further catalogue might have been made when the books were moved to the Moot Hall in 1664.

By the time of Philip Morant (in the mid eighteenth-century), the books were moved to the Free School in Culver Street ‘where they were in danger of speedy decay’. By the intervention of Morant and of his friend, Charles Gray, MP, bibliophile and antiquary, the books were admitted to the ‘chapel’ of Colchester Castle where the Castle Book Society developed during the eighteenth century. The books remained at the castle until moved to the new Borough Library in Sewell Road in the 1930s. They are now in the custody of the University of Essex in the Albert Sloman Library at Wivenhoe Park.

These journeys explain much about how the books have been kept together but also how, kept separate (and often locked up) within their host collections, they have been both preserved and unstudied (a few books do appear to have been separated during the moves but might now also be identifiable in their various resting places in Colchester).

The Centre has already hosted an outstanding study of the Harsnett Library by Dr Francesca Galligan, which has been acknowledged as the most thorough-going report on the Harsnett yet produced and, together with the on-going cataloguing of Dr Clare French, opens up many and exciting new avenues for research and teaching in early modern cultural and intellectual history.

A report on the ongoing study of the Harsnett Library by Dr Francesca Galligan has been published online as part of our Research Tools series.

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