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30 August 2020

Elizabeth Elstob, Old English scholar, and the Harleian Library

Elizabeth Elstob (1683–1758) is considered to be the first female scholar of Old English and one of the earliest advocates of women’s education. She was supported in her scholarly pursuits by Robert Harley (1661–1724), 1st Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer, the founder of the Harley collection, and his Library-Keeper Humfrey Wanley (1672–1726), another renowned scholar of Old English. 

The youngest of eight siblings born to a merchant family in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Elizabeth initially received private education under her mother’s tutelage. When her mother died in 1691, she was sent to her uncle Charles Elstob, Prebendary of Canterbury, who was opposed to the education of women. Despite his disapproval, Elizabeth began studying ancient and modern languages. She subsequently moved in with her brother William, a clergyman and scholar in Oxford, who introduced her to the leading Old English scholars of their day. In 1702, they moved to London where she began publishing major works on the Old English language.

An engraving of a woman’s portrait representing Elizabeth Elstob

An engraved portrait of Elizabeth Elstob: Add MS 29300, f. 39r

Among Elizabeth’s publications were an edition of the Latin Athanasian Creed with an Old English interlinear gloss (1708); an edition and translation of the Old English Life of Pope Gregory the Great by the Benedictine monk Ælfric of Eynsham (1709); and The Rudiments of Grammar for the English-Saxon Tongue (1715). The latter was the first grammar of Old English published in modern English. Up to that point, scholarship on Old English had been mostly in Latin, so this was an important publication for making the study of Old English more accessible to students and amateur female scholars alike. While preparing a complete edition of Ælfric’s Homilies, she worked with her brother William on his editions of the Old English adaptation of Orosius’s History of the World and Old English legal texts.  

The initials ‘W. E.’ and ‘E. E.’ drawn in and decorated with penwork in red ink

The initials of William Elstob and Elizabeth Elstob from a transcript of Textus Roffensis which they collated with the original manuscript in 1712: Stowe MS 960, f. 3r

During her career, Elizabeth received the support of Robert Harley at a time when he practically was Prime Minister and enjoyed great proximity to Queen Anne (1665–1714). On two occasions, she petitioned Harley for financial support from Queen Anne in order to publishing her edition of Ælfric’s Homilies. She was successful in her second attempt, as evidenced from a letter in which she thanked him ‘for so great a Favour’.

A letter written in brown ink in the hand of Elizabeth Elstob

Elizabeth Elstob’s letter to Robert Harley: Harley MS 7524, f. 30r

During her career, Elizabeth was in close contact with Humfrey Wanley, Library-Keeper of the Harleian collection. Aside from consulting manuscripts herself at the Bodleian Library and the Cottonian Library, she made ample use of Wanley’s catalogue of Old English manuscripts that he had published in 1705 with the support of Robert Harley. Her respect for his work is clear from a letter dated 1709, in which she explained that she abandoned her plan to make an edition of the Psalms in Old English after learning that Wanley was already working on an edition of the Bible in Old English:

‘I had a design upon the Psalms, but since that, Mr. Wanley tells me he is preparing the whole Bible: of which the Psalms make a part, I cannot allow myself to interfere with so excellent a person, tho’ he has been so generous as to offer me, all the assistance he can give’

A letter written in brown ink in the hand of Elizabeth Elstob

Elizabeth Elstob on Humfrey Wanley: Add MS 29300, f. 40r

Wanley also greatly valued Elizabeth’s scholarly work. He transcribed a manuscript at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, for her publication on the Old English Life of St Gregory, and he incorporated a number of her works into the Harleian Library. Elizabeth sent him a genealogy of the Elstob family to the year 1710, and a separate descent of her mother’s family, which traced her ancestry back to Brochwel Ysgithrog, a 6th-century king of Powys. Wanley was clearly impressed with the genealogies that she had expanded by researching and citing Old English and Latin sources. He inserted them into a 17th-century manuscript with pedigrees from the Palatinate of Durham; in cataloguing the manuscript, he attributed them to ‘that ingenious virgin gentlewoman Mrs Elstob’ (A Catalogue of the Harleian Manuscripts in the British Museum, London, 1808–12), II, p. 29).

A drawing of a Roman pillar, including roundels with the names of Elizabeth Elstob’s mother’s ancestors. Next to the pillar are citations from historical sources in Latin and Old English, and a coat of arms in colours

The ancestry of Elizabeth Elstob’s mother Jane Hall, drawn up by her for Humfrey Wanley: Harley MS 1397, f. 238r

Wanley also expressed his appreciation when, in 1712, Elizabeth presented him a facsimile reproduction on parchment of an early 12th-century manuscript containing the 'Annals of Rochester' (Textus Roffensis), an important source for the study of law in early medieval England. Wanley paid her five guineas and catalogued the manuscript, noting that 'Mrs Elstob hath finely imitated the Hand-writing of the [...] Textus Roffensis' (Catalogue of the Harleian Manuscripts, II, p. 272).

A page with a medieval script copied by Elizabeth Elstob, featuring an introduction in red, initials in green and red, and a decorated initial featuring Christ and a dragon in green, purple, and red against a yellow background.

Elizabeth Elstob’s facsimile of Textus Roffensis, featuring an initial decorated with Christ and a dragon: Harley MS 1866, f. 9r

The Harleian Library also obtained a second parchment manuscript with a facsimile of Textus Roffensis written and decorated by Elizabeth Elstob.

Elizabeth Elstob’s reproduction of King Alfred’s law texts, written in minuscule script, organised in two columns, and featuring numerals in red ink, and initials in red and purple

Elizabeth Elstob’s facsimile of King Alfred’s laws: Harley MS 6523, f. 9r

In 1715, Elizabeth’s scholarly career came to an abrupt end when her brother died suddenly. She was left with financial debts from their joint publishing projects and without any support, since Queen Anne had died before sending her the funding secured by Robert Harley. Perhaps in an attempt to flee her creditors, Elizabeth left London for Evesham (Worcestershire) where she lived in relative anonymity as a teacher at an elementary school for girls. She never returned to her scholarship and left her magnum opus, the complete edition of Ælfric’s Homilies, unfinished: her manuscript volumes survive at the British Library as Lansdowne MSS 370–374 and Egerton MS 838. However, Elizabeth Elstob did remain attached to the Harley collection in some small way. From 1739 until her death in 1758, she was governess to the children of Margaret Cavendish Bentinck (1715–1785), duchess of Portland, who, as granddaughter of Robert Harley, had inherited the Harley collection. Perhaps Elizabeth felt some comfort in returning to the family who had supported her scholarly pursuits, and whose collection, formed under her friend Wanley's direction, preserved her work.

 

Mechtild Gretsch, 'Elizabeth Elstob: A Scholar's Fight for Anglo-Saxon Studies', Anglia, 117 (199), 163–300, 481–524.

Jacqueline Way, '"Our Mother-Tongue": The Politics of Elizabeth Elstob's Antiquarian Scholarship', Huntington Library Quarterly, 78:3 (2015), 417-440.

 

Clarck Drieshen

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