The Books of Lord Herbert of Cherbury

The following article by Dr Dunstan Roberts appears in the 2013 Jesus College Record.

Those familiar with the Fellows’ Library will know that one of its earliest and most generous benefactors was Edward Herbert, first Baron Herbert of Cherbury (1582-1648). It may come as a surprise to learn, however, that his bequest of more than a thousand books was met with disappointment from the Fellows, who had ‘expected much more’ and noted that Herbert had ‘severall times professed his intention to bequeath his whole library to them’.

Edward Herbert of Cherbury (© National Portrait Gallery, NPG 487, Creative Commons)

Edward Herbert of Cherbury, possibly after Isaac Oliver, circa 1603-1605
(© National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 487, CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Herbert’s library was in fact two libraries, both highly prized. One was situated in Herbert’s London townhouse and the other in Montgomery Castle in Wales. In his will, Herbert gave ‘all my printed bookes in latine and greeke which are nowe in my house in Queenestreete vnto the [master] and fellows of Jesus College for the use of the College and as an inception of a library’. The manuscripts and vernacular books, meanwhile, which Herbert had omitted from his bequest, were to be added to the library at Montgomery, which was left to Herbert’s grandson Edward. But the latter half of the plan proved unpropitious: Montgomery Castle was demolished by Parliament in the aftermath of the Civil War. Although detailed accounts survive of the demolition, describing the careful salvaging of timber and stone, the castle’s contents disappear without mention. They resurface in the 18th century, when the extinction of the Montgomery Herberts brought their goods and estates into the possession of the Herberts of Oakley Park in Worcester, who in turn became the Earls of Powis.

At some point in the 18th century, a number of books which had belonged to Herbert were moved to Powis Castle, although the collection was already significantly depleted. Further books were lost through auctions in the 1950s and 60s, so that only the remnants of the Montgomery library survive today at Powis Castle. My research concerns a catalogue of Edward Herbert’s library in the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth. The catalogue lists more than a thousand titles, and can be dated to 1636 or early 1637 (it contains no later publications). It provides a fascinating insight into the contents and organisation of Herbert’s collection, but is also interesting for what it omits. Intriguingly, there is virtually no overlap between the books contained in the catalogue and those which reached Powis Castle. This suggests that the catalogue covered Herbert’s London library, rather than his library at Montgomery, and casts doubt on whether any books were sent from London to Montgomery as specified in Herbert’s will.

There is, however, a significant overlap (around 40%) between the books contained in the catalogue and those which reached Jesus College, not all of which feature in the catalogue. The remaining items, which are mentioned only in the catalogue, include numerous works of vernacular theological controversy, loose bundles of pamphlets and newspapers, and a sizeable number of romances and dramas. Most of this material would have been unattractive even to the most historically far-sighted of colleges in the 17th century. There are also plenty of scholarly works, on law, medicine, politics, and natural history, which, though they fell within the terms of the bequest, seem not to have reached the College.

The research is still progressing, but it is already apparent that Herbert’s library was one of the largest collections outside institutional hands in early 17th-century England. For the modern scholar, it provides a fascinating insight into the intellectual life of the time. For the Fellows of Jesus College in the 1640s, it would have represented a major addition to the College’s academic facilities, and a boost to its reputation and status. Their disappointment at receiving only part of it is wholly understandable.

Dunstan Roberts completed a doctorate in Renaissance literature at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, in 2012. He has conducted independent research into Lord Herbert of Cherbury.

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3 Responses to The Books of Lord Herbert of Cherbury

  1. Dennis Flynn says:

    This work is certainly of great interest, and I am sure you are aware of the characterization of Herbert’s library by John Donne in a letter enclosing his Biathanatos.

    Question: was there not some sort of negotiation between Herbert and the besieging Parliamentary army about allowing him to remove books from Montgomery to some other location?

    Best wishes for your work, of which I have learned from Eleanor Hardy.

    Yours truly,
    Dennis Flynn (

    • Dunstan Roberts says:

      Many thanks for your interest, Dennis.

      Yes, I’m aware of the allusion to Herbert’s library in the Bodleian’s manuscript of Donne’s Biathanatos. It’s interesting because it is dated to c.1608-12, which makes it one of the earliest references to Herbert’s bibliographical pursuits. The library at Montgomery Castle was built during the period 1622-25 (as part of a much larger scheme of renovations), so Donne is probably referring to a library of books which Herbert was amassing in London at the time—some of which would later, I suspect, be moved to Montgomery.

      As for the surrender of Montgomery Castle, you are quite right that a deal was struck between Herbert and the besieging Parliamentarians (on 6 September 1644). The arrangement was essentially that his castle would be occupied, but that the contents would be left untouched, and that Herbert could remove anything he wanted whenever he wanted. (The articles of surrender are particularly interesting because they state that no one is permitted to enter Herbert’s ‘Library or Study’ or the two adjoining rooms.) In practice, though, it doesn’t seem likely that Herbert removed much from the castle when he departed for London later in the month. Certainly his will, written four years later, gives the impression that the library at Montgomery was mostly or wholly intact, although we know from other sources that the castle had suffered quite a bit of collateral damage during its occupation.

      I hope that this answers your question. I have an article appearing next month in ‘Library and Information History’ in which I discuss the rise and fall of the library at Montgomery Castle at greater length.

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