Week 95: Exeter’s ‘dry garden’ – stinking iris and the queen of poisons

One of the most interesting items found deep in our rare books stack is a remarkable one – a 17th century album of pressed plants.

I came across this book last year and it was curious to pick up a large leather-bound volume expecting it to be heavy and to find it instead very light. When opened the book revealed page after page of carefully arranged dried plant samples – a ‘hortus siccus’ (literally ‘dry garden’) as these albums were commonly called at the time ours was made.

album 9

The name of each plant is written in both Latin and English in a seventeenth century hand, but apart from this and the faint lettering ‘hortus siccus’ on its spine, there is no indication of who might have put this fascinating book together.

A trip to Oxford’s Herbarium, where similar plant albums are kept, revealed some clues: the handwriting in Exeter’s volume was not familiar to the experts at the Herbarium so our album had not been made by the famous Oxford botanists Jacob Bobart the Elder (c.1599-1680) or Jacob Bobart the Younger (1641-1719). However, the binding is the same as that of the Bobart the Younger’s  albums (perhaps a local Oxford binder) and the paper used is also the same. The glue used to attach the specimens is however of a different type, darker and more brittle.

The Herbarium were able to date Exeter’s album as having been made sometime between 1670 and 1700.

Great wolfs bane

Great wolfs bane

It was most probably the work of a medical man, but the plants chosen are not obviously medicinal plants and neither do they conform to the ‘doctrine of signatures’ (the medieval belief that ‘like cures like’, that the plant remedy resembles the part of the body it cures, so walnuts (resembling a brain) would cure mental illnesses for example).

There are no cultivated plants. The samples in Exeter’s album are all wild plant varieties which would have grown locally in Oxfordshire.

Roman nettle

Roman nettle

Stinking gladwin

Stinking gladwin

Great golden maidenhair

Great golden maidenhair

Their English names are charming: the stinking gladwyn or iris (said to smell of roast beef), white flowered maudlin (named for Mary Magdalen), small and great periwinckle, great golden maidenhair. There is also a sample of Wolf’s bane, a very poisonous plant sometimes called the Queen of all Poisons, or the devil’s helmet.

Despite having survived for over 340 years, most of the plant samples are in surprisingly good condition. There is evidence of some old insect damage, and the album was frozen at minus 30 degrees for a week by the Herbarium to make sure no insects survive between its pages.

It is tantalising to think of who might have compiled this plant album. Was it a member of  Exeter College? A friend of Bobart the Younger? Perhaps a visitor to the University of Oxford’s Physic Garden (then about 30 years old)?

The Register of the Rectors, Fellows, and other members on the foundation of Exeter College Oxford by the Rev Charles Boase (Oxford, 1894) mentions a possibly likely candidate, Lewis Stephens, Exeter’s Chaplain 1678-81. He was not a medical man but he was described as ‘famous as a botanist’. Could the Rev. Stephens be our anonymous plant collector?


Joanna Bowring

College Librarian

Week 97: William Morris and Exeter College

This week we reveal some things in Exeter’s Special Collections from the Victorian socialist, designer, and writer, William Morris.

William Morris (1834-1896) is probably best known for his wallpaper nowadays, but throughout his life he proved to be a keen bibliophile. As a student at Exeter College (1852-54) Morris began to bind books, including Carlyle’s ‘Past and Present’ and Ruskin’s ‘Lectures on Architecture and Painting’, which were donated to the College by his daughter in 1939.

John Ruskin's Lectures on architecture and painting bound by William Morris

John Ruskin’s Lectures on architecture and painting bound by William Morris


Later,  Morris set up a printing house, the Kelmscott Press. In 1895 he wrote, ‘I began printing books with the hope of producing some which would have a definite claim to beauty, while at the same time they should be easy to read and should not dazzle the eye, or trouble the intellect of the reader by eccentricity of form in the letters.’

The Kelmscott Press produced books to standards of medieval craftsmanship, of the highest quality, and of exceptional beauty. The paper was handmade, ‘wholly of linen’ ‘laid’ not ‘wove’, the fonts Gothic and Roman, the dyes made from historic recipes.

Kelmscott label


The Library has several Kelmscott Press books including  Sidonia the Sorceress by William Meinhold and translated by Speranza, Lady Wilde, and The History of Godefrey of Boloyne and of the conquest of Jerusalem (reprinted from Caxton’s translation), and two copies of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, one (the first off the press) which belonged to Morris himself and the second which belonged to Edward Burne-Jones.

The jewel in the crown of the Kelmscott Press, the great  ‘Kelmscott Chaucer’ took four years to produce, and is illustrated by Burne-Jones, Morris’ contemporary at Exeter. He said ‘If we live to finish it, it will be like a pocket cathedral – so full of design and I think Morris the greatest master of ornament in the world.’  Burne-Jones words were prescient – Morris died shortly after the first copies were printed, in 1896.


Kelmscott Chaucer (1896)

Kelmscott Chaucer (1896)


The Special Collections also hold other Morris artefacts, the contents of Morris’ desk at the time of his death, including his spectacles, paint brushes (some nibbled), cigarette holder, and a lock of his hair.

Lid of box containing lock of William Morris' hair

Lid of box containing lock of William Morris’ hair


In the College chapel you can see the tapestry, The Adoration of the Magi, designed by Burne-Jones, and commissioned from William Morris and Co, to adorn the new Chapel in the 19th century.


Adoration of the Magi (1886)

Adoration of the Magi (1886)


Morris items from Exeter’s Special Collections can be seen at Modern Art Oxford, in the exhibition Love is Enough: William Morris & Andy Warhol’, curated by Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller, until 8th March 2015.




 Thomas Wilson

(History m.2013)

Week 98: Hunting, shooting and fishing

From the College who gave the world the Jack Russell terrier, thanks to its famous alumnus the “sporting parson” Reverend John (“Jack”) Russell, hunting is the theme this week.

Exeter College beagle pack 1912 (Archives, Exeter College Oxford)

Exeter College beagle pack 1912
(Archives, Exeter College Oxford)

Exeter has a rare copy of a little book called ‘The booke of haukyng huntynge and fysshyng, with all the properties and medecynes that are necessary to be kept.  [1556?]

Booke of haukyng hunting and fysshyng [1556?]

Booke of haukyng hunting and fysshyng [1556?]

It is actually  an expanded edition of an earlier work known as ‘The Book of St Albans’, printed in 1486  and, interestingly, thought to be the work of a woman, Juliana Berners or Barnes, the prioress of St. Mary of Sopwell, near St Albans (fl. 1460). It is not certain that Juliana was the author, but the assumption has arisen because hers is the only name mentioned in the work: at the end of the second part, a treatise in verse on ‘the manere of huntynge for all manere of bestys’  from a ‘Dame’ to her sons, there are the lines: Explicit dame Julyans Bernes doctrine in her boke of huntynge Hunting attrib.  

Hunting tp Fishing tpIt is full of all kinds of detailed advice:  everything you would ever need to know about falconry ‘to speke of haukes from an egg tyll they ben able to be taken’, how to find and catch your bird, how to make a medicines from the juice of fern roots to cure a hawk of ‘unlustynes’.

The author describes the best kind of horse and the perfect hunting dog. There is also a glossary of hunting terminology- how you should properly refer to a ‘a busyness of ferettes’ and  a ‘couple of spanyelles’.

The third section of the book ‘a treatyse of fysshynge with an angle’ was added ten years after the original edition was printed. It is actually the first known work on fly fishing and over 150 years later it was an influence on Izaak Walton, author of the famous ‘Compleat Angler’. The author describes each fish, for example the ‘gentyll’ salmon, the ‘right beauteous’ trout, and the unpalatable barbell which may be caught in March and April with a bit of fresh cheese: ‘the barbell is a swete fish but it is quaysy and perilous for a mannes bodye. And yf the flesshe be eaten rawe, he may be cause of manns death which hath often tymes benne sene’

The book was reprinted in many later editions. Exeter’s copy, thought to have been printed in 1556, is possibly one of only three in existence.

Week 99: Wolf Hall at Exeter – Katherine of Aragon’s prayer book

The current television dramatisation of Hilary Mantel’s novel ‘Wolf Hall’ has prompted the choice of this week’s book, a 14th century psalter, or book of psalms, which belonged to Katherine of Aragon before her divorce from Henry VIII in 1531.

Katherine wrote her name on the flyleaf.

'This boke ys myn Katherina the qwene'

‘This boke ys myn Katherina the qwene’

Before Katherine of Aragon, the book had belonged to her mother in law, Elizabeth the wife of Henry VII and her name can be seen faintly inscribed above that of Katherine. Thrillingly, on the first page of the psalter, half way down the right hand side, someone (perhaps Elizabeth) has written Nativitas Arthuri primogeneti Regis Henrici septimi, this being the only extant record of the date of birth of Prince Arthur, the elder brother of Henry VIII and the first husband of Katherine of Aragon.

The psalter, known as the Bohun Psalter, is one of the greatest treasures owned by Exeter College. It was initially made for Humphrey de Bohun (1342-73), the grandson of Edward I, by monks on the Bohun lands at Pleshey in Essex and it is one of the finest examples of English illuminated manuscripts of the 14th century.

Library 021Bohun Psalter Illuminated Manuscript

Still in its original binding of gold damask, the psalter has 125 parchment leaves decorated with calendar scenes and rich illuminations telling the Bible story.

Noah and the Ark

Noah and the Ark

The manuscript was given to Exeter College by Sir William Petre (1505/6-1572) its great Tudor benefactor. The date of the gift is unrecorded but Petre probably presented it in 1567 when he gave a quantity of printed books to the college.

Portrait of Sir William Petre (1505/6-72); unknown artist 1567

Portrait of Sir William Petre (1505/6-72); unknown artist 1567

At the treacherous and dangerous Tudor court Petre was a survivor. Administrator to Thomas Cromwell and, after Cromwell’s fall, public servant and administrator to Henry VIII, Petre became Secretary of State under the boy king Edward VI. He was later appointed to the same office by Mary Tudor, Edward’s successor, despite his having sworn allegiance to Lady Jane Grey three days after Edward’s death. Petre even helped to negotiate Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain.

After Mary’s death, Elizabeth I retained Petre as a councillor, and it was perhaps from Elizabeth that Petre acquired the Bohun Psalter.



Week 100: William Blake

BLAKE Stedman

Narrative of a five years’ expedition, against the revolted negroes of Surinam by John Stedman

The current exhibition at the Ashmolean, William Blake apprentice and master, has inspired this week’s choice from Exeter’s rare books’ storeroom: a book with illustrations by William Blake.

John Stedman’s The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, published in 1796, is an account of the author’s experiences in the Dutch colony of Surinam twenty years’ earlier. Its detailed and horrific recounting of the treatment of the colony’s slaves meant that it became an important tool in the early abolitionist cause.

The book was published by the radical publisher Joseph Johnson and features engravings by several artists, among them Francesco Bartolozzi and William Blake. Blake delivered his sixteen images  in the winters of 1792 and 1793.

Skinning a giant snake

Skinning a giant snake

Although Blake’s illustrations include many of the plants and creatures of Surinam, the most notable are those of the awful atrocities against the slaves. Blake’s engravings are said to be more forceful than other illustrations in the book, and to echo the fluidity and quality of his original work. However it is impossible to compare Blake’s engravings with Stedman’s original drawings because the latter have not survived.

Blake and Stedman became close friends and visited one another often. Blake later included some images from Stedman’s Narrative in his poem ‘Visions of the daughters of Albion’. Blake STedman europe

New Blog for Exeter College Library

The special collections of Exeter College Oxford are currently being prepared for their move to new accommodation in College’s Cohen Quad, and we are discovering all kinds of interesting things in the process. This blog will tell the story of the move over the next 100 weeks and of some of the unique and exciting books and documents in Exeter’s extraordinary collection.