Over the past two months, I’ve been immersed in the wonders of the Hatfield House book collections. Assisting my colleague Peter Hoare, Historic Libraries Consultant, our brief was to examine the whole historic book collection and to provide an insight into the age, publishing geography, subject matter and provenances of individual books. We also looked (very superficially) at the physical condition of the books, although a professional conservator will be asked to provide more detailed observations.
It has been a delight working alongside Peter, who is a fount of knowledge, and to meet such dedicated staff and enthusiastic room guides. I’ve mentioned the importance of in-depth library surveys before. In this case, although card catalogues exist for parts of the collection, these have not always been kept up-to-date when books have been moved around the house (and it is large!). The other factor to consider was that there are literally books everywhere!
At the moment, we’re sifting through all our notes and compiling the statistics. I’m hoping to post a few of my highlights in the next month or so, but for now I’ll limit myself to some snaps of the historic library and (thanks to Peter) a shot of yours truly in action! 😉
The present house was built by Robert Cecil 1st Earl of Salisbury, younger son of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, around 1600. The Library was created in ca. 1782 out of two rooms which had originally formed part of the Queen’s State Apartment when the new house was built. It faces out over the West Garden and the Old Palace, which was where Elizabeth I held her first Council of State as the new Queen of England in 1558 and now houses the main historic book collection. Before we started, we were told that the room, which had a gallery added in the nineteenth century, contains around 10.000 books. Someone must have done a shelf count in the past or be very good at guessing because our count of the total number of volumes came to about 9970!
Because there has been a lot of movement in the past – the last time in the 1960s – a large number of the older books which may have been shelved here originally, are now in another part of the house. In addition, a fire in 1835 destroyed a large part of the West Wing, although it appears that no books were lost in the blaze.
Instead, there is a significant collection of books and pamphlets relating to the French Revolution, collected by the third Marquess of Salisbury in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, we found a few early sixteenth-century items lurking on the shelves, such as two Aldine Latin texts (one of which is ca. 1513 and the oldest item in the Library) and St Augustine’s Opera omnia printed by Hieronymus Froben in Basel in 1528-9, in a contemporary blind-panelled pig-skin binding.
Once we finished the survey of the library, we moved on to the secure areas where the oldest collections are kept (i.e. some of William Lord Burghley and Mildred Burghley’s books and those of Robert Cecil). After the semi-tropical conditions of the Library (not ideal for the books or for the lovely red goat-skin covered furniture), it was quite a relief to work in the environmentally controlled conditions of the strong room… Here we found a real cornucopia of interesting materials, including 35+ incunabula (with an emphasis on Venetian and Northern Italian printing). Although we weren’t contracted to include manuscripts in our survey, I was also very pleased to discover a manuscript of Petrus de Crescentiis De ruralia commoda (dated 1354), one of my personal research interests!
- Directory of Rare Books and Special Collections, 2nd ed. (London: Library Association, 1997), pp. 96-7.
- Hatfield House: over 400 years of history (Hatfield, Herts: Hatfield House, and Peterborough: Jarrold Publishing, 2014)
- Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 5th Marquess of Salisbury, The library at Hatfield House, Hertfordshire (London: Bibliographical Society, 1964)