Letters from Oxford, and Some Google Books Lurve

If there’s one thing that I am thankful for this Thanksgiving, it’s Google Books. I can’t tell you how many trips to the library it’s saved me, or how many books I’ve found on Google Books that aren’t available in the library.

Anyway, last night I was looking up a letter in what I thought was surely going to be a hard book to track down (Epistolae academicae Oxon. by the Oxford Historical Society), and sure enough, I found the book straightaway on Google Books. While looking for the letter in question, I found this 1478 letter mentioning Lionel Woodville’s honorary degree at Oxford (I’m copying the Latin letter as well as the English abstract so people unfamiliar with this blog can be vastly impressed):

To the Dean of Exeter.

It has ever been the wisdom of our predecessors to show peculiar respect for learning in persons of high social rank : it is due both to their position and their merit, whereof the one adds lustre to the University and the other advances its work. You have been raised to a position to which your family could never have aspired, and we ought not to be behind hand in conferring upon y ou a corresponding degree of academical advancement. In communicating to you the unanimous vote of Convocation by which the degrees are conferred, we hope you will not consider them an unworthy tribute, and that we may reckon upon your help and protection.

1478. Prestanti ac nobili viro, domino Leonello Widewill, Exoniensis ecclesie decano colendissimo, Cancellarius Universitatis Oxoniensis universusque regentium in eadem cetus salutem plurimam dicunt. Sapienter instituisse majores nostri nobis videntur, amplissime domine, viros ingenuos litteris operam daturos summa semper apud nos veneratione colendos esse. Hoc enim et nobilitatis conditio et meritorum magnitudo postulabat. Tanta namque fuit multorum nobilitas, tanta fuerunt merita ut illa in gloriam ista in utilitatem Universitatis nostre redundarent. Nos igitur, quoniam certo scimus ea te nobilitate pollere, ad quam nulli tuorum majorum propemodum aspirare poterant, par est ut te etiam, in disciplinarum studiis aliquamdiu Oxoniis obversatum, non minori tandem observantia prosequamur. lis enim honorum gradibus tuam nobilitatem ornandam duximus, quibus benemeritos viros in hoc nostro litterarum ocio versalos donare solemus. Placuit sane summo nostrum omnium consensu fieri, ut primum ad extraordinariam decretalium lecturam admitti, tum in decretis licentiari possis; ea tamen lege ut ad incipiendum nullo tempore cogi prestantiam tuam oporteat. Hoc unictim est, clarissime domine, parentis nostre donum; revera tantum ut nec majus ab illa aut expeti debeat aut rependi possit; donum certe tua, ut confidimus, amplitudine non indignum; quod si gratie nomen merito sortiri debebit, necesse profecto erit ut et te nobis et nos tibi gratiores efficiat. Magna igitur est, colendissime vir, in tuenda republica nostra tue probitatis expectatio, quam, quia nonnullis antehac meritis concitasti, facile speramus te longe singularissimum Universitatis nostre patronum fore.


Don’t you love the slightly snarky tone of “you have been raised to a position to which your family could never have aspired”? Oxford elected Lionel its chancellor later in 1478 or in 1479, and he became Bishop of Salisbury in 1482. (One historical novel set during the Wars of the Roses–the same one that has the dead William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, rising from the grave to have a go at fathering Edward of Lancaster–has Lionel becoming bishop around 1465, when he was probably no more than fifteen and possibly as young as ten.)

Speaking of Suffolk, the letter I was looking for was this one to his wife, Alice de la Pole, dated May 6, 1450:

To the Duchess of Suffolk.

To the rigth and myghti princes, the duchesse of Suffolke, oure ryght especiall benefactrice and singuler lady.

Ryght high and myghty princes, We youre humble oratours recommaunde us unto youre good ladyshippe an noble grace wyth the gostely suffrages of oure prayers, inioyng gretly als wel of youre goude spede late in youre matyrs at London, as of youre commyng home and abydyng in this contre : whiche treuly beth un to us grete glore and comfort. And for as much that hit hath plesed youre noble ladishippe but late ago to shew unto us grete liberalite and tendyrnes in sondre wyse, therfore we besech devotely almygthi god to thank yow ; and we for oure deute, als ferforth as is possible unto us, thanke yowr heynesse al so w* alle the internes of oure hertes ; Recommending us w* lowly spiryts into the gracyous continuaunce of youre rygth heyh and benigne ladishippe ; as we shall dayly offre to god oure prayers and devocions for youre noble estate, good helth, welthe and prosperite : whiche oure lord graunte yow abundantly at the meke instance of oure prayers. Writ at Oxford in oure sembly hous the 6 day of may

The interesting thing about this letter, aside from its obsequiousness that would do Jane Austen’s Mr. Collins proud, is its singularly bad timing: It was sent on May 6, and the duchess’s husband William de la Pole, on his way into exile, had been murdered at sea on May 2. It seems that word of the murder hadn’t reached Oxford as of May 6, or surely the writers would have mentioned prayers for the duke’s soul.

6 thoughts on “Letters from Oxford, and Some Google Books Lurve”

  1. Don't you love the slightly snarky tone of "you have been raised to a position to which your family could never have aspired"?

    Based on what I understand about who was allowed to attend Oxford, I think it's a statement of fact even though today it would be seen as snarky.

  2. Susan Higginbotham

    I would think that the comment referred to the chancellor's position he was about to acquire. I don't think attending the university itself was something socially above the Woodville family–I could be wrong, but my impression is that most Oxbridge students at the time came from the gentry level rather than from the nobility, except for those younger sons who were destined for the Church.

  3. Sue

    What a star you are!

    Thanks to your tip about Google Books I’ve been able to track down a book I’ve been trying to get my hands on for some time only because it has not yet been published in the UK there’s no copy in the BL. I have, however, thanks to Google been able to track down the location of a copy in the UK and that is in the Bodleian Library in Oxford – the next nearest was Nijmegen in the Netherlands! – and while its admissions rules are far stricter than the BL I’ve been there before so fingers crossed.

    I could have bought it from Amazon but Amazon UK were charging £121 – that’s over $200 for a used copy which would have to be imported from the USA and when I checked with Amazon.Com it wanted $80 for the same – that’s a mark-up for Amazon UK of over 250%!

    Enjoy yours Thanksgiving festivities. By the way always wanted to know. What’s on the American Christmas Dinner menu?

  4. Sue

    Are you doing a Jacquette Wydeville on me or what?

    Literally seconds after posting last comment I received an email from the BL to inform me that another book I’ve been chasing for months has finally gone through the mark-up process and is available now for reading.

    Even the weather’s turned fine after near hurricane conditions.

    Going to celebrate my own Thanksgiving.

  5. Ohhhhh GOogle books??/ and here I thought I had been a Google fiend since day one – oh! that was Amazon. No matter. I simply must check Google books. BTW I did thoroughly enjoy that letter – thank you for posting it!

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