08 September 2012

'Omnibus Christi fidelibus': A Sixteenth-Century Deed Uncovered

In my previous post, I mentioned coming across a sixteenth-century document amongst the Reed provenance files. These files generally consist of pages from book dealer catalogues (occasionally with Reed's pencilled marks), old exhibition labels, notes made by Reed or a local academic on a particular item in the collection, and correspondence. It was with some surprise, then, when I opened the folder on the library's copy of a 1551 Bible, that I found a folded piece of parchment with two wax seal remnants tucked into an envelope among the papers inside.

The document turned out to be a deed written primarily in Latin and dated 2 September 1544. Some research on the manuscript had evidently been done, as a typed transcription of the text was found with it. Full of standard legal phrasing, the deed relates to property granted by Henry VIII ('under the great seal of England') to Roger and Robert Taverner in late August. According to the text, the brothers conveyed to one John Merifelde (also spelt 'Meryfeld'), 'porter de le Mercers, London', a tenement situated in Fenchurch Street in the parish of All Saints Staining. 'Mercers' presumably refers to the Worshipful Company of Mercers, formed in 1394 and the oldest of the 'Great Twelve City Livery Companies'. The text continues that the location in Fenchurch Street was once the Monastery of Grace, near the Tower of London, which was disbanded during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. In response to my email about the deed, David Pearson described it as 'part of that huge jigsaw of parcelling up of the spoils of ex-monastic properties, with which many up and coming City men made their fortunes and established their families'.

The deed entitled Merifelde to the tenement and 'all and severally the cellars, basements, shops, rooms, stables, outhouses, entries, passages, gardens, easements and other amenities ... pertaining to the same'. The text ends: 'In witness whereof we have attached to this present deed our seals on the second day of September in the 36th year of the reign of Henry VIII by the Grace of God of England, France and Ireland, King Defender of the Faith, and in the land of France, England and Ireland Supreme Head' [punctuation is mine]. Roger Taverner's seal, of which just a fragment remains, bears a cipher or monogram. Robert's seal is nearly intact and is that of a man's head.

Who were the Taverners?

Roger Taverner (d. 1572) was an MP, surveyor for the Court of Augmentations, and a writer of tracts on economics. His brother Robert (ca. 1523‒1556) was elected a junior MP for a Cornish borough during the last Parliament of Henry VIII. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, they were two of four sons of John Taverner (ca. 1457‒1545) of North Elmham, Norfolk, and his first wife, Alice. One of his kinsmen was the composer and organist John Taverner (ca. 1490‒1545).

Transactions involving land appears to have been a common practice of the Taverner brothers. According to the History of Parliament website: 

'The first glimpse of [Robert] Taverner is in June 1544 when he acquired property in several counties from augmentations for just over £600. In the following ten months in conjunction with two of his brothers he bought land worth over £4,200, much of which they soon alienated, and he continued to make joint purchases with these two brothers in the closing years of Henry VIII’s life and throughout the reigns of Edward VI and Mary until his death'.

[From The History of Parliament: The House of Commons 1509‒1558, edited by S. T. Bindoff and published in 1982]


The two men were the younger brothers of Richard Taverner (ca. 1505‒1575), clerk of the signet and evangelical reformer. Taverner is perhaps best known for his revision of the Matthew Bible (Antwerp, 1537). Taverner's Bible was first published in London in 1539, though replaced that same year by the 'Great Bible', which was considered a superior revision of the earlier Matthew Bible. The 1551 edition held by Dunedin City Library* was the eighth and final edition of Taverner's Bible, known for the infamous note at I Peter 3:7 on marital relationships: 'And if she be not obediente and healpeful unto hym: endevour to beate the fere of God inter her heade, that thereby she maye be compelled to learne her dutye and do it'. The note was not part of Taverner's translation, but is attributed to Bishop Edmund Becke who revised the 1551 edition.

Some of the deed's provenance is known. Written on the verso is 'Phillipps Ms 28218', which places the document in the vast nineteenth-century collection of Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792‒1872). The next piece of evidence is a letter on file dated 24 July 1937, written by J. C. Pearson of Cleveland, Ohio, whom I've identified as John Calder Pearson, a member of the Rowfant Club of bibliophiles and author of The Rowfant Candlesticks (1959). The letter was addressed to the Honourable William Burgoyne Taverner, who served as mayor of Dunedin (1927‒1929) and as a member of New Zealand Parliament (1929‒1931). 'You will no doubt know', wrote Pearson, 'whether you are descended from this Taverner family ... If you would like the document as a relic of the name and family in England nearly 400 years ago, I offer it for sale for three guineas or $15'.

It is possible that Pearson acquired the deed in one of two Phillipps sales. According to A. N. L. Munby's The Dispersal of the Phillipps Library (Cambridge, 1960; fifth volume in the Phillipps Studies series), Sotheby's held two auctions of manuscripts from the Phillipps collection on 24‒25 June 1935 and 29‒30 June 1936 (Munby 86). Either is close enough in date to Pearson's July 1937 letter to be a potential point of sale.**

The Taverner-Merifelde deed, however, did not warrant sale as an individual lot, and it seems clear that the manuscript was likely sold as part of a large bundle. As Munby wrote: 'The sales of 1936 and 1938 need not detain us long. Both contained many lots of English deeds, which sold for very modest prices; one may instance xxi [the 29‒30 June 1936 sale], [lot] 512, one hundred and forty-four court-rolls on vellum ... extending from 20 Edward III to 25 Elizabeth, fetched £21 or about three shillings a roll' (91).

However Pearson acquired the deed, his suggested ancestry of W. B. Taverner was correct. He was indeed a descendant of the sixteenth-century Taverners, which made purchasing a document related to his ancestors an irresistible prospect. A second letter by Pearson confirms that the deed was bought by Taverner in December 1938. It was presented to the Dunedin Public Library by Taverner's family after his death in 1953.

The deed, and the associated correspondence, have now been removed from the 1551 Taverner Bible provenance file for cataloguing. In light of this find, a systematic check of each folder in the provenance files sequence is in order. I will add a follow-up post should anything else turn up during my search. Stay tuned.


* The Byble that is to say, al the holy Scripture conteined in the olde & new Testament ... London: Ihon Day dwelling over Aldersgate, 1551; ESTC S107008; Herbert 93. Provenance: From the library of Charles Vere Dashwood, Esq. (b. 1745), of Stanford, Nottinghamshire. The Bible was purchased by the Dunedin Public Library from Thomas Thorp, London, sometime between October 1950 and July 1951.

** Sir Thomas Phillipps's collection numbered more than 100,000 printed books and manuscripts, which took over a century to disperse after his death. For more information, see A. N. L. Munby's Portrait of an Obsession or the relevant pages in Nicholas Basbanes's A Gentle Madness.

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