Catalogue of the Sunderland Library

  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 133 Eng MS 62
  • Dates of Creation
      n.d. [2nd Quarter of 18th Century]
  • Name of Creator
  • Language of Material
      English  and Latin
  • Physical Description
      426 x 270 mm. 3 volumes; vol. 1: i + 343 + ii folios; vol. 2: iii + 232 + xlviii folios; vol. 3: ii + 361 + i folios. Binding: bound in full calf, Earl of Sunderland's arms stamped in gilt on front covers; oval leather Bibliotheca Spenceriana book label inside each front cover. Condition: front boards detached from volumes 2 and 3.
  • Location
      Collection available at John Rylands Library, Deansgate.

Scope and Content

Three-volume alphabetical catalogue of the library formed at Sunderland House, London, by Charles Spencer (1675-1722), 3rd Earl of Sunderland. Entitled Catalogus Bibliothecae Alphabeticus on the spine of each volume. Works are arranged alphabetically by author; volume 1 covers letters A-C, volume 2 D-L, and volume 3 M-Z. For each work the catalogue records the short title, date and place of publication, size and shelf-mark. Manuscript additions and vellum copies are noted. Dated incunables are identified by an asterisk in pencil, undated incunables by a circled asterisk. In one or two cases prices are noted, e.g. Fust and Sch™ffer Bible on vellum, £200.

According to Katherine Swift, this is the earliest extant catalogue of the Sunderland Library, and it is, in fact, an index to the (now missing) inventory catalogue of 1728. This is demonstrated by notes on the rear endpapers, made c 1820 by Vaughan Thomas, librarian at Blenheim, that these volumes are the alphabetical index to the catalogue. The inventory did not appear in the sales of 1881-3. The precise date of the present catalogue is difficult to determine; it may be exactly contemporary with the 1728 inventory, or it may have been produced after the succession of Charles Spencer (1706-1758) in 1729.

Administrative / Biographical History

The magnificent library formed by He began collecting in the 1690s and by the time of his death in 1722 had amassed one of the finest private libraries in Europe. It was particularly rich in incunables (including numerous works on vellum), Bibles, first editions of the Classics, and fifteenth- and sixteenth-century continental literature. It was located at Sunderland House in Piccadilly, occupying two rooms in the house itself and a further five rooms in a purpose-built library.

Following Sunderland's death, the library was inherited by his eldest son Robert, the 4th Earl. After lengthy negotiations he sold the manuscripts to the King of Portugal in 1726. When Robert died in 1729 the Sunderland Library passed to his younger brother Charles Spencer (1706-1758), who succeeded as 5th Earl of Sunderland and inherited the Dukedom of Marlborough on the death of his aunt Henrietta in 1733. Marlborough had the collection moved from London to Blenheim Palace in 1749, where the books were little used and suffered some deterioration. However, Katherine Swift has shown that the books appear to have been kept in good order, and an inventory of 1820 found that only sixty-nine of the 20,960 volumes were missing. Under the will of George Spencer (1739-1817), 4th Duke of Marlborough, the books were entailed as heirlooms, to prevent his spendthrift son George Spencer-Churchill from selling of them. However, in 1870 there was a sale of 'duplicate and surplus copies'. The Blenheim Settled Estates Act of 1880 permitted the 7th Duke of Marlborough to break the entail and the entire library was dispersed in a series of major sales conducted by Puttick & Simpson between 1881 and 1883. The 13,858 lots brought £56,581, of which around £33,000 was paid by Bernard Quaritch alone.

The Sunderland Library was never at Althorp, seat of the Earls Spencer. It was always kept separate from the old Spencer family library there, which was greatly augmented by George John, 2nd Earl Spencer.

Access Information

The manuscript is available for consultation by any accredited reader.

Acquisition Information

Purchased by Mrs Enriqueta Rylands, on behalf of the John Rylands Library, in 1892 from John Poyntz Spencer (1835-1910), 5th Earl Spencer.


Description compiled by Jo Klett, project archivist, and John Hodgson, Keeper of Manuscripts and Archives, with reference to:

  • William Clarke, Repertorium bibliographicum; or, some account of the most celebrated British libraries (London: William Clarke, 1819), pp. 316-24;
  • Seymour De Ricci, English collectors of books & manuscripts (1530-1930) and their marks of ownership (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930), pp. 38-40;
  • Katherine Swift, 'Poggio's Quintilian and the fate of the Sunderland manuscripts', Quaerendo, vol. 13 no. 2 (1983), pp. 224-38;
  • Katherine Swift, 'Bibliotheca Sunderlandiana: the making of an eighteenth-century library', in Robin Myers and Michael Harris (eds), Bibliophily (Cambridge: Chadwyck-Healey, 1986), pp. 63-89.

Other Finding Aids

Catalogued in the Hand-List of the Collection of English Manuscripts in the John Rylands Library, 1928 (English MS 62).

Custodial History

Charles Spencer (1706-1758), 3rd Duke of Marlborough; then by descent to John Winston Spencer Churchill (1822-1883), 7th Duke of Marlborough; lot 1466 in the sale of the Sunderland Library at Puttick & Simpson, December 1881; purchased by John Poyntz Spencer (1835-1910), 5th Earl Spencer: pencil annotation on the flyleaf of volume 1: 'Bought at Puttick & Simpsons, 7.12.81. £4 15'; Spencer accession no. 575.

Related Material

The JRUL's collection of Spencer Library Catalogues also contains a Catalogue of the Library of Dukes of Marlborough before 1500 (ref.: GB 133 Eng MS 66 ).

Archives of the Spencer-Churchill family, Dukes of Marlborough, are held at Blenheim Palace and numerous other repositories: see the entry in the National Register of Archives at

For the papers of Charles Spencer, (1675-1722), 3rd Earl of Sunderland, held elsewhere see the National Register of Archives at


Katherine Swift, 'Poggio's Quintilian and the fate of the Sunderland manuscripts', Quaerendo, vol. 13 no. 2 (1983), p. 227.

Geographical Names