Book on a Cushion: Notes from the Special Collections Reading Room at Senate House Library

A large portion of the work we undertake in Special Collections is affectionately known as ‘fetch’. A reader requests a rare book or archival material, and we go get it, bringing it from one of the secured strong rooms to the reading room where it can be consulted. Given the variety of our readers’ interests, often we end up fetching things we never would think of consulting ourselves. Our new blog series Book on a Cushion, is designed to highlight some of the interesting items in our collections, the things we stumble across during the fetch and find beautiful, or intriguing, or both.

The Special Collections Department holds more than 50 named collections. Deposited or acquired at different periods throughout the history of the University of London, many of the collections were assigned similar classmarks, the identifying alpha-numeric strings that help us to find a particular item within the collection as a whole. If a reader only provides us with a partial classmark, then occasionally we may pull the wrong item. In this case, the reader was looking for Pratchett MS.28, a typescript draft of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch from the Colin Smythe Terry Pratchett Archive. I, however, fetched MS 28, a veritable A-Z of seventeenth-century crime covering everything from ‘Alehouses and Drunknes’ to ‘Wooll and Yarne’ [1].

Compiled by a Justice of the Peace, the equivalent of a modern magistrate, in the early seventeenth century (two of the cited cases give dates of 1613 and 1628), the manuscript serves as a handbook, proceeding alphabetically through both minor and major crimes, and lists standard punishments for various offences. While many of the crimes are familiar to a modern reader, such as robbery, forgery, murder, or treason, others are less commonly prosecuted today. For instance, leaving the house while carrying the plague is punishable by death (f. 67v), and the penalty for killing pheasants, partridges, or hares depended on whether the offender captured ‘any feasants or partridges by netts, snares, or any other engines’ or whether they attempted to ‘shoote at, kill, or destroy with a gunne or bow any feasant, partridge, gouse, doue, or pigeon’ (f. 32r).

The punishments for witchcraft. MS 28, f. 18v - 19r.

The most severe sentence, that of death without a member of the clergy, was reserved for the most serious crimes. Among such crimes are poisoning, stabbing someone who hasn’t drawn a weapon, the rape of female children under the age of ten, and the practice of conjuration or witchcraft. Not only is the definition of the last crime unusually specific: ‘whosoever shall undertake by witchcraft, inchantment, charme, or sorcery to tell in what place any treasure of gould, or silver, may be found, or to the intent to provoke any person to unlawfull love, or to impaire or destroy any persons goods or cattle, or to hurt any person in body although the forme were not effected’, but the punishment upon both the first and second offences is equally detailed: the accused ‘shall for the first offence suffer imprisonment by the space of one whole yeare without baile and once every quarter of the said yeare shall in some markett towne on the markett or faire day, stand openly upon the pillory by the space of 6 houres and there openly confesse his fault and offence […] And for the second offence shall suffer death as a felon and not have cleargie’ (ff. 18v – 19r).

Given the power that the justices were able to exercise, it must be asked who these justices were, and how they came to be appointed within their various counties. Appointed by the King or his Chancellor, not only were justices required to have ‘a certain knowledge of Latin and a certain knowledge of law’, but they also had to be resident in the county in which they served and ‘have lands or tenements to the value of £20 a year, for as the preamble of the law states, otherwise the temptation offered to men of small means for bribery and extortion interferes with the purposes of the institution’ [2].

The signatures of Paul Wentworth and John Creswell, Esq. MS 28, f. iiiv - 1r. 

In the case of MS 28, two inscriptions on the third flyleaf help us identify the compiler. Written in a similar ink to that used for the main text of the manuscript is the name Peter Wentworth, and a later inscription, dated 1685, reads ‘John Creswell his booke. Given me by my honoured uncle Paul Wentworth, Esq.’. Peter Wentworth is likely Sir Peter Wentworth, K.B. (1591 – 1675) of Lillingstone Lovell. Born the eldest son of Nicholas Wentworth, Esq. and Susanna Wigston, he was named as a Knight of Bath at the coronation of King Charles I, yet later he became a close friend of Oliver Cromwell and served as one of the four judges at the King’s trial. Unmarried at the time of his death, MS 28 was likely inherited by his younger brother, Paul Wentworth. As Paul also died unmarried on February 26 1689-90, his estate passed to the children of his sisters, among them was the daughter of Susanna Wentworth and Rowland Wilcox, Esq., Elizabeth Wilcox, who had married John Creswell, Esq. While there is no extant record of their marriage, they did have four living children as of 1686, suggesting that they were certainly married by 1685 when the inscription was written in MS 28. Furthermore, it seems as if John Creswell may have been particularly close to his uncle as ‘under the will of his wife’s uncle, Paul Wentworth, Esq., he [John Creswell] assumed the additional surname and arms of Wentworth’ [3].

There’s no record of MS 28 after it was received by John Creswell in 1685. The manuscript finally surfaces once again at Sotheby’s in December of 1891, having likely been rebound in what may be a recycled, fine brown morocco binding, tooled in gold, embossed with the initials E. G., and curiously attached upside-down on the book [4]. It was purchased at the aforementioned auction by the University of London for £30.00.  

A comparison of the bindings of Senate House Library MS 28 and a typicall Gwynn binding from the Folger Library (Folger STC 22164)

For the present, MS 28 has been returned to its home in the strong room. Next month Book on a Cushion will continue, though perhaps it would more appropriately be renamed Books on the Cushions as we’ll be looking at [Littleton] 8: a four volume, 1563 copy of the Psalms printed in four (vocal) parts!

[1] Transcriptions from MS 28 have been placed in italics and the original spelling has been maintained; however, for the purpose of clarity, modern punctuation and capitalisation have been added when judged necessary.

[2] J. R. McVicker, ‘The Seventeenth Century Justice of Peace in England’, Kentucky Law Journal, vol. 24 (1935 – 36), 392.

[3] J. Wentworth, The Wentworth Geneology: English and American (Boston: Little, Brown & co, 1878), 31 – 33.

[4] The 1921 catalogue provides a potential attribution for the E.G. initials as Edward Gwynn (†1645), a prominent book collector and member of Furnivall’s Inn. However, not only do the dates not line-up, but his bindings are distinctive, and different than that found on MS 28. R. A. Rye, Catalogue of the Manuscripts and Autograph Letters in the University Library at the Central Building of the University of London (London: University of London Press, Ltd., 1921), 19. More examples of Edward Gwynn’s bindings can be seen in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Binding Image Collection.  

Blog post details