Ashburnham Wycliffe Collection

Scope and Content

The Ashburnham Wycliffe Collection comprises various versions of the Wycliffe Old and New Testaments, as well as numerous theological treatises that have been attributed to Wycliffe, some of them doubtfully, including The Pore Caitif (English MS 87 ).

Administrative / Biographical History

John Wycliffe, or Wyclif (1328-1384), was an Oxford-educated theologian and early proponent of reform in the Catholic Church during the 14th century. His teachings were characterised by a belief in the supremacy of Scripture over Church law and tradition and in this he is often seen as a precursor of the Protestant Reformation. He argued for the strict division of the secular and ecclesiastical, with secular government having jurisdiction over all temporal matters including Church property and churchmen who committed secular crimes. As a result of this the Papacy and the monastic orders were subject to particular censure; Wycliffe demanded the restriction of the former's interference in English ecclesiastical affairs and the straightforward abolition of the latter. His methods of publication went beyond the usual academic circles and he deliberately set out to win over the masses through polemical tracts and sermons written in English, including a complete translation of the Bible. Although never condemned as a heretic during his lifetime, supported as he was by many of the English aristocracy, most notably John of Gaunt, Wycliffe was declared a heretic posthumously at the Council of Constance in 1415. His teachings became the core doctrine of both the Lollards in England and the Hussites in Bohemia.

One of the most important beliefs held by Wycliffe and his followers was that the Bible ought to be the common possession of all Christians and should be made available for common use in the language of the people. Wycliffe set himself to the task and under his supervision a complete English translation of the Bible was undertaken. In spite of the zeal with which the hierarchy sought to destroy it, citing mistranslations and erroneous commentary, there remain in existence about 150 manuscripts, complete or partial, containing the translation in its revised form.

Source: Anne Hudson and Anthony Kenny, 'Wyclif , John (d. 1384)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). By permission of Oxford University Press:

Bertram Ashburnham (1797-1878), the third son of George, 3rd Earl of Ashburnham, was the man responsible for collecting these Wycliffe manuscripts. Born in 1797, he was educated at St John's College, Cambridge, and then travelled extensively, collecting many examples of fine art in Italy and the East. When his father died in 1830 Bertram succeeded as the 4th Earl of Ashburnham, his two older brothers having predeceased him. In 1840 he married Katherine Charlotte Baillie, and was the father of seven sons and four daughters, his eldest and namesake succeeding him when he died in 1878. For the last thirty years of his life he settled down at the Ashburnham family estate in Sussex and set about the care of his collections and the management of his estate. In the 1840s he purchased three more-or-less complete libraries of manuscripts (the collections of Guglielmo Libri and Joseph Barrois, and the Stowe manuscripts of the Duke of Buckingham). A fourth collection of 251 choice manuscripts, acquired from various sources, he called his 'Appendix'. His eldest son and heir, Bertram, the 5th Earl of Ashburnham, gradually dispersed the library by sale after his father's death. Many manuscripts from the Libri and Barrois collections, which had been acquired in questionable circumstances, were restored to the Italian and French governments. The Appendix was sold to Henry Yates Thompson in 1897 for £30,000.

Access Information

The collection is available for consultation by any accredited reader.

Acquisition Information

The manuscripts were purchased by Mrs Enriqueta Rylands from Henry Yates Thompson in 1897, through Henry Sotheran Ltd, for £1,200 plus £60 commission (invoice dated 11 October 1897: JRL Archive, JRL/6/1/1 p. 185). They were later transferred to the John Rylands Library.

Custodial History

These manuscripts were formerly part of the Ashburnham Appendix, which (with the exception of the 'Lindau Gospels'), was bought in its entirety in 1897 by Henry Yates Thompson, the foremost manuscript collector of his day. Thompson then further dispersed the collection by selling off piecemeal those he did not wish to keep in his collection of one hundred choice manuscripts.

Before becoming part of the Ashburnham Collection, manuscripts 82 and 85 were part of the library of Archbishop Thomas Tenison (1636-1715) on Castle Street, near Leicester Square in his then parish of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London. A life-long bibliophile, Tenison provided many of the books and manuscripts of the new library from his own collections, with a special focus on manuscripts of importance to English history. Unfortunately Tenison did not provide funds for the library to purchase any new material after his death in 1715 and the library lay moribund up until 1861, when it was sold off by its attached school to raise funds.

Eng MSS 77, 79, 81 and 84 were all once in the possession of Mr Lea Wilson, a nineteenth-century collector of Bibles and editor of Wycliffe's works, and are described in his Bibles, Testaments, Psalms, etc. of 1845 (see Bibliography below).

Eng MS 75 was once in the possession of Reverend Charles Fletcher of Southwell, Nottinghamshire.

Related Material

For other works by John Wycliffe held by the John Rylands Library, see the Pricke of Conscience Manuscripts (GB 133 Eng MSS 50,51 and 90) as well as these individual manuscripts:


Josiah Forshall and Sir Frederic Madden, The Holy Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments, with the Apocryphal books, in the earliest English versions made from the Latin Vulgate by John Wycliffe and his followers (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1850).

Christopher de Hamel, 'Was Henry Yates Thompson a gentleman?’, in Robin Myers and Michael Harris (eds), Property of a gentleman: the formation, organisation and dispersal of the private library 1620-1920 (Winchester: St Paul's Bibliographies, 1991), pp. 77-89.

Anne Hudson and Anthony Kenny, 'Wyclif , John (d. 1384)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004):

Seymour de Ricci, English collectors of books & manuscripts (1530-1930) and their marks of ownership (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930); see pp. 131-5 on Lord Ashburnham.

Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge, Catalogue of a portion of the collection of manuscripts known as the "Appendix", made by the late Earl of Ashburnham (London: Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge, 1899).

Lea Wilson, Bibles, Testaments, Psalms and other books of the Holy Scriptures in English in the collection of Lea Wilson, esq, F.S.A., etc. (London: printed at Chiswick by Charles Whittingham, 1845).

For information on Henry Yates Thompson's purchase of the Ashburnham Appendix see the British Library's webpage on his collection of one hundred illuminated manuscripts at