Shake-Speare’s Schoolbooks

Banner - marginalia of Pope Clement and Francis I - Thomas Smith books library

26 September 2019
· More about Sir Thomas Smith’s books in the Old Library at Queens’ College, Cambridge ·

In the previous post about my father’s portrait, I wrote of my early education, the eight years I spent under the roof and tutelage of Sir Thomas Smith, before my father died and Queen Elizabeth gave me into the care of William Cecil. I noted that Sir Thomas bequeathed a portion of his library to his (and my) alma mater, Queens’ College, Cambridge. I wanted to write in more detail about the books, but the last thing that post needed was a longer digression. I was also waiting for something relevant to be posted elsewhere. It went live a couple of days ago, so here’s the rest of what I wanted to say.

Sir Thomas died of throat cancer in August 1577 at the age of sixty-three. (Two months later George Gascoigne died of an illness, only fortyish. That was a season of melancholy.) Sir Thomas’s bequest to Queens’ consisted of his books written in Greek and Latin. Eighty or so made it to Cambridge, from a total (including other languages) of more than four hundred volumes. In 16th-century England, only William Cecil owned more books than Thomas Smith.

I stress this point because of its importance to the non-hypothetical origins of Shake-Speare’s (my) erudition and wide range of knowledge: from the time I was five years old through most of my adult life, I lived with or had unlimited access to the two largest, most encyclopaedic private libraries in the realm. Public libraries did not exist.

Four hundred forty years after the bequest, at the end of 2017, the Old Library put some of Sir Thomas’s books on display. I wasn’t able to write about the exhibit at the time, but I’ve kept an eye out for the online version. Fortunately, at my age two years isn’t a long wait. It’s now up.

Books and Power in Tudor England:
The Renaissance Library of Sir Thomas Smith (1513–77)

Smith holding book engraving - Thomas Smith books libraryI encourage you to explore it. Read the captions and spend some time with the images, even if you have small Latin and less Greek. Most of the photos highlight Sir Thomas’s marginalia rather than the words on the pages, so they shouldn’t give you any trouble.

Here is the true location of Shake-Speare’s grammar school: inside Sir Thomas’s brain, and inside his books.

For more bibliographic detail, see Smith’s library at politicworm, and this PDF by the blog’s author Stephanie Hopkins Hughes. I don’t know how good her poetry is, but she has me beat at research. The PDF lists the books alphabetically by author, with short descriptions of the author and subject where possible, and it includes many that aren’t in the Queens’ College collection. The list dates to 1566, so it’s subsequent to my time at Hill Hall (I moved to Cecil’s in 1562), and it precedes Sir Thomas’s death by about a decade.

My digression in the portrait post mentioned Jacob Ziegler’s Terræ Sanctæ, the geography book with maps like this in the back. Terræ Sanctæ went onto the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, Rome’s list of forbidden books first published in 1559, even as I was a boy of nine poring over those maps. Ziegler was a convert to the reformed faith, and the Pope decreed that books by such contaminated authors, even those having nothing to do with religion, were also contaminated. This did not go down well with Catholic intellectuals, but Paul IV had the last word. You can imagine what Sir Thomas, definitely not a Catholic, had to say about the Index, when even his good humour was acerbic. He was not one to suffer fools, gladly or otherwise. Like my father, his friend and contemporary, Sir Thomas was not dogmatic. He was the epitome of a Renaissance humanist, a man for whom an understanding of reality in the present world meant as much as any promise of paradise in the next.

I had plenty of options for the post banner, but I chose the marginal doodle of Clement VII and Francis I found in De rebus gestis Francorum, History of the French Kings. Not so much for the pontiff and le roi as for the event which brought them together: the 1533 wedding of the pope’s niece Catherine de’ Medici to Francis’s son Henri, Duke of Orléans, the future Henri II. If you’re a regular reader of this blog you might recall my post from early 2017, Smell the Gloves, Part 1. In February 1575 I attended the coronation and wedding of Henri III, son of Catherine and Henri II. The widowed Queen Mother wore a sublime perfume that she first brought with her from Florence at her own marriage, the wedding that Sir Thomas doodled in the margin of his book. Read the post for more about Catherine’s perfume, which is still sublime. It’s amusing to think that I may have seen the wedding doodle during my boyhood, then met the bride a generation later at the wedding of her son.

Here’s a post on the Queens’ Old Library blog, where they explain how they created the exhibit.

Behind the scenes of our latest exhibition, Books and Power in Tudor England: The Renaissance Library of Sir Thomas Smith []

This brochure omits most of the photos and all the captions, but it includes a précis of Sir Thomas’s life that isn’t posted online.

Exhibit brochure [PDF at Queens’ GDrive]

I can think of just one thing missing from this exhibit, which seems to have been overlooked. This caption is as close as they got. Not very.

Nobody’s perfect.


Stephanie Hopkins Hughes has written more extensively about Sir Thomas and his influence on my work, in the April 2021 De Vere Society newsletter. The PDF is available to download at this link.