2015 June Robert Dudley’s Magna Carta

Magna Carta

15 June 2015 marks the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta and to mark it, the Worth Library Book of the Month for June 2015 looks at Worth’s copy, which belonged to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (1532/3–1588), the noted favourite of Elizabeth I.

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We know that the book belonged to Dudley because its contemporary binding in panelled calf bears his distinctive medallion badge of a bear with a ragged staff, stamped in blind on the covers. The mark of a crescent on the bear’s shoulder, an indication that the owner was a second son, helps date this binding to 1557, the year in which Robert’s elder brother Henry Dudley died, just one year after the text had been published in English by Richard Tolet (London, 1556).
As the badge of the bear and staff was a popular block used by several different binders it is impossible to pinpoint the particular binder responsible for this binding. However, Dudley patronised six groups of binders who have been given the following names: the Cartouche group; the Frame group; the Initials binder; the Clemens Alexandrinus group; the Dudley binder and the so-called Morocco binder. This binding is a example of the Frame group. The blind-tooled initials in the medallion ‘S.F.’ were added by a later owner.
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Robert Dudley (1532/3–1588) was the fifth son of John Dudley, duke of Northumberland (1504–1553). Almost the same age as Elizabeth I, he had been a childhood friend and their friendship proved an enduring one. His position in the mid 1550s was a delicate one, for with the death of Edward VI in July 1553 he (along with this father and brothers) had supported the claims of Lady Jane Grey to the throne, only to be outmanoeuvred by Mary Tudor. Mary I subsequently had John and Guildford Dudley executed on charges of treason and Robert was imprisoned in the Tower of London awaiting trial. Indeed, both he and his old friend, Princess Elizabeth, were held in the Tower at the same time, but it is unknown if they had any contact at this time. However, the very experience of being in the Tower together no doubt helped cement their friendship. Mary I subsequently released both Elizabeth and Robert in 1554 and by January 1555 Robert had been pardoned as part of Philip II’s policy of trying to win support. He was present at Hatfield when Elizabeth was presented with the Great Seal on 18 November 1558 and it seems clear that they had developed a close association in the years 1557-1558 – just when Dudley purchased his copy of the Magna Carta.

Richard Tolet’s decision to print a Latin edition of the Magna Carta in 1556 is an interesting one. As Christopher Brooke has pointed out, the mid sixteenth century was certainly not a heyday for the Magna Carta for in the main the lawyers of the Tudor state focused more on the rights of the monarch and threats to social order, than on the ancient constitutionalism inherent in Magna Carta. And yet there was a market for the book. While Magna Carta may have been sidelined by the Tudors, it was never completely silenced, for it was regarded as the first of the statutes, and, as such, was a subject for lectures within the Inns of Court. True it was rarely discussed in its entirety, for lectures invariably focused on single chapters (the less controversial ones). However, with the rise of the legal profession, which exploded in the sixteenth century, there was a ready market for all kinds of legal texts.

Magna intro

George Ferrers’s (c. 1500 – 1579) decision to translate Magna Carta into English in the mid 1530s had opened up a new readership for the text. Ferrer wanted to make old, obscure legal terms understandable to law students; to draw attention to the Magna Carta as a formative legal document, one which ‘conteyned a great part of the pryncipples and olde groundys of the lawes’; and, finally, to enable young lawyers to use it to frame new statutes. His English translation of 1534, the first of many, was not the best of its kind for it included many mistakes, but it demonstrated to other printers (such as Richard Tolet in 1556), that there was a ready market for the text, either in English or Latin. With the works of Edmund Coke in the seventeenth century, this market expanded exponentially. Worth’s copy was bought in the mid seventeenth century by his grandfather, Edward Worth (d.1669), Church of Ireland Bishop of Killaloe, and it was subsequently owned by Worth’s father, John Worth (1648-1688), Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

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Selected Sources

The Roots of Liberty: Magna Carta, Ancient Constitution, and the Anglo-American Tradition of Rule of Law, edited and with an Introduction by Ellis Sandoz (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008). Chapter: 2.: The Place of Magna Carta and the Ancient Constitution in Sixteenth-Century English Legal Thought (Christopher W. Brooks).

Text: Dr Elizabethanne Boran, Librarian of the Edward Worth Library, Dublin.

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