Libelle of English Policy

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

A manuscript copy of the 'Libelle of Englyshe Polycye' made up of 24 folios of an imperfect mid sixteenth-century manuscript, plus 3 folios (ff. 3, 6-7) added later in the same century, on which omissions are supplied by two hands from two other manuscripts. Other omissions are supplied, in the hand responsible for the contents of folio 3, on folio 2 (originally blank) and on pieces of paper attached to the foot of folios 23 and 24.

The copy is covered is soft parchment, cut from an ecclesiastical document of 1505. On the last folio is a note in an unknown seventeenth-century hand, 'Presented to ye L. Archb. Chicheley by John Lidgate, anno domini 1436'. The truth of this statement is highly unlikely. However, it draws attention to the fact that this manuscript, unlike the established text, gives the name of Archbishop Chichele as one of the three members of council to whom the work was submitted.

Administrative / Biographical History

The 'Libelle' or 'Little book' of English policy is the earliest known treatise in English on economic and political geography. The work was a verse treatise on English trade, and in particular argued against the French wars which disrupted important sea trade and reduced the control England had over the Channel. The Libelle describes the main commodities and trading practices of other European states, including Spain, Flanders, Portugal, Brittany, Scotland, Venice and Florence. The Italians are noted for their deception. A substantial section is given to the commodities of Ireland, how to control the trade and conquer the 'wild Irish'.

There appear to be two editions of this work, the first compiled in 1436/7 and the second compiled probably in the following year. There are approximately twenty manuscript copies still in existence, most of which date from the fifteenth century, but a number also date from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, attesting to its continued popularity. The work was printed in 1598 by Hakluyt. The standard edition was published in 1926 by Sir George Warner. It was based on Bodleian MS Laud. 704 and collated with the printed version and the eight other manuscripts then known. At least seven other versions have come to light since this edition, including the Rylands English Manuscript 955.

Conditions Governing Access

The manuscript is available for consultation by any accredited reader.

Acquisition Information

Purchased by the John Rylands Library from J. Fairhurst esq. in February 1940.

Note

Description compiled by Jo Humpleby, project archivist, and Elizabeth Gow, Assistant Keeper of Manuscripts and Archives, with reference to:

  • Early English Books Online for the text of Hakluyt's 'Libelle';
  • F. Taylor, "Some manuscripts of the 'Libelle of Englyshe Polycye'", Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, vol. 24 (1940), pp. 378-418.

Other Finding Aids

Catalogued in the Hand-List of the Collection of English Manuscripts in the John Rylands Library, 1937-1951 (English MS 955).

Custodial History

Former owners: Mr Choke, 17th century (outer front cover); Sir Matthew Hale (d. 1676).

Bibliography

The standard edition of the Libelle is Sir George Warner (ed.), The libelle of Englyshe polycye : a poem on the use of sea-power 1436 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926).

For a full account of this manuscript, which is not recorded in Sir George Warner's edition and shows many important differences from the established text, including a number of additional lines, see Frank Taylor, 'Some manuscripts of the "Libelle of Englyshe Polycye"', Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, vol. 24 (1940), pp. 378-418.