A catalogue of Western manuscripts at the Bodleian Libraries and selected Oxford colleges

Christ Church MS. 154

George Cavendish, Life of Thomas Wolsey; England, s. xvi/s. xvii


Language(s): Middle English

fol. 1–172r
Rubric: The Prologue
Incipit: It seemeth noe wisdome to creditt every light Tale
Explicit: fol. 2r] promocons and Riches [last nine lines of page blank]
Rubric: [fol. 2v] The life and deathe of Thomas Wolsey late Cardinall written by George Cavendish his gent. vsher.
Incipit: Truth it is, this Cardinall Wolsey was an honest poore mans sonne
Explicit: [fol. 172r] shall spend and confirme it. Finis.
George Cavendish, The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey

Most recently edited from the author’s holograph manuscript, BL, MS Egerton 2402, by R. S. Sylvester [EETS, original series, 243] (Oxford, 1959), with our copy listed as no. 15 of the thirty-one secondary manuscripts (284). To Sylvester’s list, seven more extant copies have been added by A. S. G. Edwards, ‘Unrecorded Manuscripts of George Cavendish’s Life of Wolsey’, Notes and Queries, 56 (2009), 512–13.

Physical Description

Secundo Folio: I might
Secundo Folio: Lord their (fol. 3)
Form: codex
Support: Paper (two stocks visible: coat-of-arms, with a rod of Basel above a hunting horn; one-handled pot surmounted by grapes and crescent)
Extent: Fols: 172
Dimensions (leaf): 283 × 175 mm.
Dimensions (written): 206/213 × 110/117 mm.


1–258 264 278. No quire signatures or catchwords for each quire, but a catchword at the bottom of each page.


26 long lines, presented evenly but seemingly with no ruling.


Written throughout in one calligraphic secretary script.


The manuscript lacks any illumination. The text is presented plainly, with sections marked by a space of one line and an incipit in ‘black-letter’ textualis.


Leather over millboards, s. xvii, sewn on five thongs. Simple gilded pattern on both boards, providing three rectangles with a fir-cone ornament pointing inwards on the innermost rectangle, and an eight-petalled flower pointing outwards on the middle rectangle. Signs of two cloth stubs near edge of the boards. Two nail-holes, 30mm apart, and some rubbing consonant with there having been a chain-staple at Watson’s position 4 (see provenance). Edges of leaves gilded. A ChCh bookplate pasted to the inside of the upper board.


Origin: England ; s. s. xvi/s. xvii

Provenance and Acquisition

This manuscript is, in truth, less significant than it has sometimes been claimed to be. Kitchin rather hopefully noted that ‘this is probably the original MS. of the work’ (52), even though Cavendish composed his work in the reign of Mary and the script of our manuscript can be no earlier than the very late sixteenth century. It has also been said that it was ‘probably used as copy for the first published edition’ of The Life (Paul Morgan, Oxford Libraries outside the Bodleian, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1980), 28), but the differences between the text here and in the printing for William Sheares in 1641 [Wing C1619 and cf. C.1619aA] are significant enough to require us definitively to discount that possibility.

Perhaps Kitchin was encouraged to make his mistake by giving too much credence to a note at the inside of the front board: ‘This book was wrote in the Reign of Queen Mary’. That note had been crossed out by the time that Kitchin came to see it and replaced with a note immediately below it, in a different hand: ‘See Anthony Woods account of the Cardinal wherein Is drawn up a Better account than in this Author as I think[.] Note A. Wood in his Athenae P 280 vol 11us says that Tho: Storer ^Student^ of Xt Church wrote the Cardinals life in 10 shettes in quarto in English verse & printed it in 1599’ (on Thomas Storer (d. 1604) see Matthew Steggle in Oxford DNB). The author of this note is probably responsible for the few marginalia in the manuscript (fol. 4, 12, 16, 20v and 92), and perhaps for the note at the inside of the lower board (‘Cawood 7 miles from York’). It is possible that their author is Thomas Tanner.

There is no explicit evidence for the context of the production of this manuscript or of its early history. This uncertainty includes the date of transcription: Kitchin, as we have seen, is over-influenced by pietas when he dates it ‘saec. xvi’; Sylvester, in his edition, suggests ‘ca. 1600’, while Peter Beal in his on-line Catalogue of English Literary Manuscripts proposes ‘c. 1630’ [last accessed 9th May 2014]. The positioning of the marks of a chain staple is unique in the ChCh collection and suggests that the volume was chained in another institutional library before it arrived in its present home. This hypothesis gains weight by considering the chronological limits for its arrival in ChCh: it is not recorded in the 1676 catalogue (at which point those manuscripts which had been chained were liberated; see Appendix I); it is, on the other hand, present in that of 1717, with the shelfmark ‘L2’ (see Appendix II, and cf. Appendix III, B.18). Characteristically of the collection, the 1717 shelfmark is not recorded in the volume itself; the only one to appear there – at both inner upper board and top right of fol. 1 – is ‘E10’, the number it had in the New Library (see Appendix IV), entered into the volume by Edward Smallwell.

This is not the only manuscript copy of Cavendish’s Life in the Library. The next shelfmark, MS 155, is occupied by an eighteenth-century transcript, the origins of which are explained by a note at its first flyleaf:

Dec. 10th 1741

This life of Cardinal Wolsey was transcribed from an ancient Manuscript by yᵉ care & at yᵉ Expense of yᵉ Revd Mr John Blackbourn M. A. formerly of Trinity College in Cambridge lately deceased, whose Widow by yᵉ hands of yᵉ Revd Dr Tookie presents it to yᵉ Library of Christ Church Oxon. where her Husband intended it should be deposited.

At the inside of the upper board, opposite this note, there is a cross-reference to our manuscript, written by Richard Hind, Librarian 1748–53 (on whom see headnote to Appendix II): ‘This Life was written by Tho. Cavendish: of which there is another Copy L.2 [with E.10 added in pencil]’. MS 155 has not been highly regarded: Kitchin notes laconically that ‘it is of no value’ (53); Thomas Vere Bayne, Librarian 1872–99, considered both it and this manuscript ‘very bad’ copies of Cavendish’s work (signed note added to the 1813 catalogue, MS Library Records 28, volume 2 sub Cavendish).

Record Sources

Ralph Hanna and David Rundle, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Western Manuscripts, to c. 1600, in Christ Church, Oxford (Oxford, 2017).


For enquiries relating to this manuscript please contact Christ Church Library.

Last Substantive Revision

2017-07-01: First online publication.

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