Books That Tell Stories: John Fitzwilliam’s Library

31 August 2015

Trinity Term 2015’s exhibition looked at the libraries of a wide range of people, and examined them with the same question in mind: what can books tell us about their owners? Studying the libraries of individuals can tell us a lot about their interests, and can also provide us with valuable information about the history of the book trade and the importance of the book in society. The largest personal collection of books now held at Magdalen originally belonged to John Fitzwilliam (d.1699).

Fitzwilliam was a Fellow and Librarian of Magdalen. Unfortunately, little is known about his early life. He was born in London (date unknown), and probably came from a relatively humble family. In 1651 he entered Magdalen, matriculated the following year, and was made a Demy in 1656. By 1661, just after the restoration of Charles II, Fitzwilliam had been elected a Fellow, and the following year he became Librarian as well as a university lecturer in music.

It was at this time that Fitzwilliam began attracting influential patrons. The first of these was George Morley (d.1684), who later became Bishop of Winchester. Morley secured Fitzwilliam a place in the household of Thomas Wriothesley (1608–67), 4th Earl of Southampton and Lord High Treasurer to Charles II. Fitzwilliam acted as chaplain to Wriothesley, as well as tutor to his daughters. Later, again with the assistance of Morley, Fitzwilliam was able to secure a place as chaplain to Charles II’s brother James, then Duke of York.

When James succeeded to the throne in 1685, Fitzwilliam’s fortunes improved markedly yet again, and in 1688 he became canon of the Chapel Royal at Windsor. With connections like these, it is unsurprising that after James was forced to abdicate in the Glorious Revolution Fitzwilliam felt unable to swear allegiance to William and Mary. Despite protests from friends, Fitzwilliam stood by his decision, and by 1691 he had suffered the fate of other Nonjurors, being deprived of his living and the canonry at Windsor. He appears to have spent the rest of his life in quiet retirement, living in the households of friends and engaged in study.

When Fitzwilliam died in 1699, he bequeathed Magdalen’s Library the generous sum of £500 and any items from his personal library that we did not already own—approximately 840 books, roughly half of which survive. His books are all in smart bindings, with careful purchase notes on the front flyleaves. The collection is wide ranging, including religious works (with Catholic and Protestant apologetics), law, history and biography, literature (including prose, poetry, drama, and letters), architecture, botany, classics, philosophy, astronomy, geography, travel, maps and atlases, books, politics, linguistics, medicine. They are in a wide range of languages, including English, Latin, Greek, French, and Italian. As might be expected, it also contains a selection of books and pamphlets that may well have been responsible for shaping his views on kingship and his decision to be a Nonjuror, with books and pamphlets on the Divine Right of Kings, the Gunpowder Plot, the Oath of Allegiance Controversy under James I, and the Civil War.

Michael Hudson, The divine right of government (London, 1647).
Magd. OL. O.5.22

Like other book collectors of the period, Fitzwilliam inscribed most of these volumes with his name and either one or two mottoes: reddenda est ratio villicationis’ (‘an account of [your] stewardship will have to be given’), a slight variation of ‘redde rationem villicationis tuae’, which is a biblical reference (Luke 16:2), but also the title of a sermon delivered by Thomas Wimbledon in the fourteenth century. By the sixteenth century, Wimbledon’s sermon had become a popular example of a pre-Reformation Protestant tract. For a clergyman such as Fitzwilliam this motto has appropriate associations, but it is also a reflection of the mind of a man who would eventually sacrifice his career by joining the non-juring schism.

Samuel Rutherford, Lex, rex : the law and the prince (London, 1644).
Magd. OL. G.5.26

The buying marks on the front flyleaves of Fitzwilliam’s books are also particularly interesting. This one reads: empt. a Bate | man | 92. This tells us that he bought it from a bookseller named Bateman (possibly Christopher Bateman) in 1692. Fitzwilliam used codes to record the purchase price of his books. At this time book prices were neither advertised nor fixed, and it was common practice for booksellers to mark titles with an estimation of their worth in a coded form. Book-buyers often used this method as well, primarily as a means of maintaining a secret record of how much they had invested in their collections. Fitzwilliam’s buying codes have never been fully studied, but could tell us a lot about book purchasing patterns in the 17th century, and about how Fitzwilliam’s interests changed over time. This book argues that Scottish resistance to Charles I in the Civil War was valid, as a legitimate government is grounded in a covenant between king and his people, which Charles broke by trying to force idolatry on the people. Obviously it would have been of great interest to Fitzwilliam in the 1690s, whilst he grappled with his decision not to accept the exile of James II and accession of William III.

Fitzwilliam’s inscriptions are not the only marks of ownership in his collection; some books also bear the names, mottoes and annotations of previous owners or are in the armorial bindings of previous owners. Many books were given to Fitzwilliam by authors, editors and illustrators showing that he was part of the literary and publishing circles of his day, including a volume of Pepys’ Memoires. The inscription on the upper fly-leaf of this volume tells us that the author himself gave this copy to Fitzwilliam.

Samuel Pepys, Memoires relating to the state of the Royal Navy of England, for ten years, determin’d December 1688(London, 1690).
Magd. OL. O.1.30

Fitzwilliam and Pepys were contemporaries and both were life-long bibliophiles. Pepys records in several entries of his Diary that he frequented the shop of Henry Herringman, a famous literary bookseller of the period who was located at the New Exchange (just off The Strand). These entries reveal that Pepys went to Herringman’s not only to buy books but also to meet people. Fitzwilliam’s inscriptions indicate he too was a customer of Herringman’s, and it is not unlikely the two met through the bookseller. By the time this book was gifted in 1693 both men were retired from successful careers that had ended in less than favourable circumstances. Apart from his fame as diarist, Pepys is also regarded as one of the most important naval administrators in England’s history. This work on the Royal Navy, unlike his Diary, represents the other, public face of Pepys. However, at the end of his career, in 1689 and again in 1690, Pepys was imprisoned for Jacobitism, although released both times without charge. Like Fitzwilliam, he spent his retirement during the 1690s reading, studying and organising his books.

John Fitzwilliam’s collection of books is wide-ranging and diverse, reflecting his many interests. In contrast some of Magdalen other donors, such as John Goodyer, have given the library very focussed selections of books. Click here to read about John Goodyer’s botanic book bequest.