John Leland’s New Year’s Gift to the King

In the Tudor era the New Year began at sunset on December 31, and it was customary to give a gift then, rather on Christmas Day as many do in modern times. Happily for the historical record, in the early 1540s John Leland gave King Henry VIII a present that has been a cause for rejoicing among bibliophiles ever after.


Leland, considered by some to be “the father of English local history and bibliography”, gave the king a letter as a New Year’s updating him on the success of the mission Leland had undertaken to travel throughout England trying to catalogue and preserve the books that would have probably been lost during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Leland assured the king that:

“by the authoryte of your moste gracyouse commyssion, in the xxxv yeare of your prosperouse reygne, to peruse and dylygentlye to searche all the lybraryes of Monasteryes and collegies of thys your noble realme, to the extent that the monumentes of auncyent wryters … might be brought out of deadly darkenesse to lyuelye lyght, and to receyue lyke thankes of their posteryte … to the notable fame and ornature of this land … I have conserued many good authors, the whych otherwyse had ben lyke to haue peryshed … the which parte remayne in the most magnificent libraryes of your royall places.”

Leland’s letter, which included descriptions of some of the authors and titles he found, was published by John Bale in 1549 in a book entitled The laboryouse journey & serche of Johan Leylande for Englandes antiquitees, which included notes and commentary from Bale, a noted antiquarian himself.

John Bale

During his quest to save monastic libraries in Britain, Leland also saw “a hole worlde of thinges very memorable.” He took notes and wrote observations and recorded the local histories of the areas he passed through, but these travelogues weren’t published in English for the general readership until 1906.  However, Leland’s notes from his travels had “provided a significant quarry of data and descriptions for William Camden‘s Britannia (first edition, 1586), and many other antiquarian works” for centuries before the five volumes of his Itinerary were printed in English.

Leland’s notes have been invaluable for the historical record:

[He] took pains to note all kinds of archaeological remains, including megaliths, hillforts, and Roman and medieval ruins … He often reported finds of coins, writing of Richborough, Kent, for example, that more Roman money had been discovered there “then in any place els of England”. He investigated and recorded building materials in some detail … At Lincoln, for example, he identified three phases of urban development, beginning with a British settlement at the top of the hill (close to which “much Romaine mony is found”), the Saxon and medieval town further south, and a more recent riverside development at Wigford. He was able to judge that the existing fabric of Ripon Minster “indubitately was made sins the Conquest”. He correctly distinguished what he called “Briton brykes” (actually Roman bricks) at several geographically dispersed sites, including Verulamium, Richborough, Lympne, Dover Castle, Canterbury, and Bewcastle … Leland’s Itinerary may be regarded as the earliest archaeological field report.

As a reward for Leland’s hard work, King Henry VIII gave him the rectory of Great Haseley, Oxfordshire, which generated a significant income, as well as a canonry of King’s College and a portioned stipend from the church of Sarum. Leland was now a relatively wealthy man, but sadly it didn’t do him much good in the long run. The historian had a mental breakdown in early 1547 and died insane at the age of 48 on 18 April 1552.

Leland’s books and notes were given into the care of Sir John Cheke, whose son lent them John Stow. Stow transcribed and copied Leland’s work and disseminated it among antiquarian circles during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign. In the 17th century an amateur historian and gentleman named William Burton collected all of Leland’s writings and books he could find and donated them to the Bodleian Library, where they remain to this day.

There is also a 28 mile footpath in South Somerset named the Leland Trail in his honor. It follows the route Leland took across Somerset between 1535 and 1543, beginning at King Alfred’s Tower, through the forest of Penselwood, and ending at Ham Hill Country Park.

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