A look at the Wren Library, Lincoln by Dr Anna Marie Roos FLS, University of Lincoln.

There are two Christopher Wren libraries. The most well known is in Trinity College, Cambridge, completed in 1695 under the Mastership of Isaac Barrow who persuaded Wren to design it. The renowned woodcarver Grinling Gibbons decorated the library with lime wood carvings, and the library sports marble busts of several Fellows of the Royal Society and Trinity fellows: John Ray, Francis Willughby, Richard Bentley, and Sir Isaac Newton. Not surprisingly, Trinity’s library also has an exceptional collection in the early modern history of science.

The other Wren library, which deserves to be better known and used, is in Lincoln Cathedral, and it has many similarities to its cousin. Like Trinity’s library, it also has exquisite classical proportions and is light and spacious. The Cathedral Library at Lincoln also has a noteworthy collection in early modern science, but it differs from Trinity in that it was not gathered or built by a college, but rather by an individual.


The Wren Library in Lincoln Cathedral (courtesy of Canon Dr Nicholas Bennett, Vice-Chancellor and Librarian, Lincoln Cathedral)


On my visit, after making a pilgrimage up the medieval ‘Steep Hill’ to reach the Cathedral (once the tallest building in the world), I rang the bell by the library office’s red door in the Exchequergate. There I met Canon Dr Nicholas Bennett, the Vice-Chancellor and Cathedral Librarian, who kindly gave me a tour. We walked through the Cathedral, the home of the famous Lincoln Imp, a little cross-legged gargoyle perched in the Angel Choir that is the symbol of Lincolnshire, and into the library.

Appropriately enough, rather than statues of Fellows of the Royal Society, the Wren Library at Lincoln features a portrait by Cornelius Janssen of the library’s founder, Michael Honywood (1597-1681). Canon Dr Bennett pointed out to me that on the same wall hangs another portrait of Honywood’s grandmother, of whom Honywood was exceptionally proud; she had 114 grandchildren. The coat of arms of this prodigious family is also prominent, as well as several gilded wall grotesques; as typical to many early modern libraries, the books are organised by size, from pocketbooks to lavish folios.


Portrait of Michael Honywood by Cornelius Janssen (courtesy of Canon Dr Nicholas Bennett, Vice-Chancellor and Librarian, Lincoln Cathedral)


Honywood was installed as Dean of Lincoln Cathedral on 12 October 1660, and he was a life-long bibliophile. Educated at Christ’s College, Cambridge, he served as its President. However, when Cambridge was threatened by Civil War in 1642, the royalist Honywood migrated to the Low Countries, leaving behind a ‘vast storehouse of books’ which were seized by Parliamentary forces but redeemed by Honywood’s brother Henry for £20. Honywood’s other brother Thomas was a colonel in Cromwell’s army and probably had a discreet word with the Parliamentary Commissioners.

Whilst in Amsterdam, and then Utrecht, Honywood continued to collect books, leaving behind a manuscript in the Cathedral Library enumerating what he bought, as well as the books he lent to friends and colleagues. Henry Oldenburg, who would become Secretary of the Royal Society from 1663 to 1677, borrowed a variety of texts from Honywood. These included a Hebrew Bible, works by Cardinal Bellarmine, and John Selden’s De diis Syris (1617) (On the Syrian Gods), demonstrating both men’s polymathic interests. Oldenburg was known for his facility for language, and it was clear that he was actively engaged in learning new tongues. It was one of reasons that Oldenburg was such an effective Secretary of the early Royal Society, as he could correspond with virtuosi from the international Republic of Letters who were communicating their scientific discoveries.

After the Restoration, Honywood returned to England and the Deanery of Lincoln, bringing his books with him and reuniting them with his earlier collection. The depredations of the Civil War meant that the fabric of the Church was in urgent need of repair, and Honywood spent much of his career in restoring buildings and recreating the boy’s Cathedral Choir. Indeed, Honywood had a special love for music. Canon Dr Bennett indicated that Honywood treasured and heavily annotated his books of ‘sacrarum cantionum’ by William Byrd.

In 1674, Honywood paid the sum of £780 out of his private purse to erect a handsome new library built to the design of Wren ‘which replaced the north walk of the cloister . . .  taking the form of a long gallery’. The Wren library would house his collection, as well as that of the Chapter; 5000 books are from Honywood’s private library.

Mr Clive Hurst, Head of Rare Books and Printed Ephemera at the Bodleian Library, edited the Catalogue of Lincoln’s Wren Library, the collections of which he characterised as “extraordinary”. He told me that the collection has several highlights, remarking that “The Civil War pamphlets constitute a major collection gathered mainly while Honywood was in exile.”

The early English literature is also notable, “with association copies such as the volume of Edward King obsequies, including Lycidas – King and Milton being fellow students at Christ’s”. Mr Hurst also indicated that “Honywood was typical of the 17th century in being interested in all fields of knowledge, especially the latest thinking in natural philosophy and practical science.”

Indeed, Honywood bought several works in geometry, mathematics, and astronomy. In his collection are books by William Oughtred, inventor of the slide rule, and John Napier, who invented logarithms, as well as several early atlases and tracts about “dialling” or making sundials. A special highlight of Honywood’s collection is a first edition of Galileo’s Two Chief World Systems (1632), in which three characters debate the merits of the Ptolemaic and Copernican systems. Honywood also collected works by Thomas Digges that introduced the Copernican system to England, and two editions of FRS John Wilkins’s tract (1638) that postulated the Moon could be an inhabited world. On 3 June 1663 Samuel Pepys noted in his Diary, “Up betimes and studying of my Horizontall diall againste Deane Honiwood comes to me, who dotes mightily upon it and I think I must give it him”. We could say that Honywood was not only a bibliophile and good administrator, but very persuasive.

These works are but a fraction of the early modern printed books in the history of science available in the Wren Library at Lincoln Cathedral. Clive Hurst’s catalogue of the Wren Library has recently been put online. In July 2013, there will be a lecture about science in the Wren Library, and an accompanying exhibit. So climb up the Steep Hill, take a look at the mischievous Lincoln imp, and visit the other Wren Library for a glimpse into the mind of an early modern bibliophile enamoured with early science.


Lincoln Cathedral (courtesy of Anna Marie Roos)



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