Purchased for the nation in 1753, the manuscripts owned by Robert Harley and Edward Harley, earls of Oxford, form one of the most outstanding collections of the British Library.
History of the Harley Library
The Harley library was founded in October 1704, when Robert Harley (1661-1724) purchased more than 600 manuscripts from the collection of the antiquary Sir Simonds d’Ewes (d. 1650). In 1711, Harley was elevated to the peerage as 1st Earl of Oxford and Mortimer, from which date his son, Edward Harley (1689-1741), was most active in augmenting the collection. The 1710s saw further groups of important English manuscripts enter the library, and from about 1717 the Harleys also began using overseas agents to make en bloc purchases of manuscripts from Continental Europe, especially France, Germany and Italy. Numerous important British and foreign collections were auctioned in London in the 1720s, allowing further individual acquisitions. Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford and Mortimer, maintained a wide circle of friends, among them the writer Jonathan Swift (d. 1745) and poet Alexander Pope (d. 1744).
A prominent role in the formation and expansion of the library was played by the scholar Humfrey Wanley (1672-1726). Wanley, one of the original members of the Society of Antiquaries in 1707 (refounded in 1717), became library-keeper to the Harleys in 1708. His diary (British Library Lansdowne MSS. 771-772) and letters are an important resource for describing the acquisition of individual manuscripts, and for understanding the growth of the collection as a whole.
Edward Harley bequeathed the library to his widow, Henrietta, née Cavendish Holles (d. 1755), during her lifetime, and thereafter to their daughter, Margaret Cavendish Bentinck, Duchess of Portland (d. 1785). In 1753, the manuscripts were sold by the Countess and the Duchess to the nation for £10,000 (a fraction of their contemporary value) under the Act of Parliament that also established the British Museum.
The Harleian collection today comprises more than 7,000 manuscripts, 14,000 charters and 500 rolls. Although most are in European languages, including a sizeable number in Greek, the library also includes items in Hebrew and in various Oriental languages.
Descriptions and digital images of more than 2000 manuscripts in the Harleian collection are being added progressively to the British Library’s online Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, courtesy of a generous grant by the Getty Foundation.
- Harley MSS. 1 — 7661
- Harley Charters 43 A. 1 — 58 I. 53, 75 A. 1 — 86 I. 63, 111 A. 1 — 112. I. 62
- Harley Rolls A.1 — Z.28, AA.1 – DD. 5
Highlights of the Collection
- Biblical manuscripts, such as the Harley Golden Gospels (made possibly at Aachen about the year 800), the Gospels of Maelbrigte (made at Armagh in 1138), and the 12th-century Worms Bible.
- Some of the finest-surviving Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, including the Book of Nunnaminster, the Ramsey Psalter, the Bury St Edmunds Gospels, and an important copy of the Utrecht Psalter, made in 11th-century Canterbury.
- Books associated with secular patrons, including a copy of the Life of St Edmund made for King Henry VI, the Lovell Lectionary, ‘The Book of the Queen’ of Christine de Pizan, and the Breviary of John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy (d. 1419), and his wife, Margaret of Bavaria.
- Romances and other works of secular literature, such as the Harley Roman de la Rose.
- An important series of medieval rolls and charters, among them the 13th-century Guthlac Roll, associated with Crowland Abbey.
- Books of private devotion, including the Psalter of Queen Philippa of England and the Prayerbook of Lady Jane Grey.
- Medical and alchemical treatises, foremost among which is the Splendor Solis, made in Germany in 1582.
- Works of Classical literature, including a Florentine copy of the works of Livy, owned by Alfonso of Aragon, Duke of Calabria (d. 1494), and a northern Italian Petrarch, owned by Cardinal Francesco Gonzaga (d. 1483).
- A Catalogue of the Harleian Manuscripts in the British Museum, 4 vols (London: The British Museum, 1808-12)
- The British Library’s Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts
- Cyril Ernest Wright, Fontes Harleiani: A study of the sources of the Harleian collection of manuscripts preserved in the Department of Manuscripts in the British Museum (London: The British Museum, 1972)
- C. E. Wright & Ruth C. Wright, eds., The Diary of Humfrey Wanley, 1715-1726, 2 vols (London: The Bibliographical Society, 1966)
- P. L. Heyworth, ed., Letters of Humfrey Wanley: Palaeographer, Anglo-Saxonist, Librarian, 1672-1726 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989)
- The British Library’s Images Online
- A. S. G. Edwards, The Life of St Edmund, King and Martyr: John Lydgate’s Illustrated Verse Life Presented to Henry VI. A facsimile of British Library MS Harley 2278 (London: The British Library, 2004)
- N. R. Ker, Facsimile of British Museum MS. Harley 2253, Early English Text Society, 255 (London: Oxford University Press, 1965)
- David Mills, The Chester Mystery Cycle: A facsimile of British Library MS Harley 2124, Leeds Texts and Monographs, Medieval Drama Facsimiles, VIII (Leeds: The University of Leeds, School of English, 1984)