Visiting the Dr Williams’s Library – A Library of Protestant Dissent

In March, project team member Dr Laura Slater visited the Dr Williams’s Library in London. Her project looks at the cultural patronage of Queen Philippa of Hainault, wife of Edward III of England, focussing particularly on the manuscripts made for her personal religious devotions.  One of these manuscripts, a psalter possibly made for Philippa on her arrival in England in 1327, is today part of the collections held by this fascinating library.


Laura’s first priority was to go through the manuscript folio by folio. Like many medieval manuscripts, MS Ancient 6 had been catalogued some decades ago, but not researched, displayed or photographed in any detail since. It is one thing to know from a catalogue that on f.20r there is a depiction of King David, but much more can be learned from seeing this image on the page. How has King David been portrayed? What kind of dress, gestures or expression does he have? The next thing is to think about what these images might have communicated to the medieval viewer, and what kind of deeper meanings or Christian symbolism they may have had.


medieval lattice-work shoe

Man’s Shoe and Baby Boot (1300-1500) from (taken 2016-09-16). On display at the Museum of Medieval Stockholm

On f.20r of MS Ancient 6, for example, David is dressed in elaborate, multi-coloured and decorated robes. His shoes are formed by a complicated pattern of crossed black lines. This is exactly the kind of fashionable shoe mocked in The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, when he describes a vain young clerk ‘With Poule’s wyndow corven on his shoos’ (l. 210 of The Miller’s Tale). Chaucer was referring here to the complicated, criss-crossing patterns of tracery found in church windows such as St Paul’s Cathedral in London. By dressing a Biblical icon of virtuous kingship in the latest courtly fashions, Philippa’s psalter gives a divine sanction to magnificent courtly display. This subtle visual lesson may have found a willing pupil in Philippa, for we know that in her later life, she spent lavishly on clothes and jewels.


Minute individual details like the state of David’s shoes are never going to be noted down by a cataloguer, so it is essential for the researcher to spend time patiently working through the manuscript, noting down any features that might be of further interest or require more research. A particularly valuable detail to look out for is any marks of ownership and use. Many of the images in MS Ancient 6 are damaged and partly scratched away. Some small human heads in the initials have even been scored out with a cross mark. This tells us that MS Ancient 6 was probably in England during the Reformation, when ‘idolatrous’ images were deliberately destroyed as part of a new Protestant focus on the Word of God alone. Yet the psalter can still be easily read. Such careful iconoclasm suggests that Philippa’s psalter was still being read and used as a book of prayer in the sixteenth century. Its new audience may have been concerned to not let themselves be distracted by all its lovely images.

A portrait of Daniel Williams



The Dr Williams’ library was founded by Dr Daniel Williams (c. 1643-1716), a Presbyterian minister. Born at Wrexham in north Wales, he worked for some years in Dublin before moving to London and becoming a leading figure in the world of Protestant dissent: ‘his large Acquaintance and diffusive Influence, gave him Advantages for Usefulness beyond many of his Brethren’. In 1678, he even took part in an exorcism recorded by Richard Baxter in his 1691 book, The Certainty of the Worlds of Spirits.


Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford by Sir Godfrey Kneller


The term ‘dissenter’ applies to Protestants who ‘dissented’ from the official articles of faith of the Church of England. After the restoration of the British monarchy in 1660, an Act of Uniformity was passed in 1662, setting out the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England in detail. All clerics and all holders of public office (such as MPs or soldiers) were required to take the Oath of Uniformity, swearing to uphold this official, state version of the liturgy and sacraments. Nonconformists- for example, a Quaker or a Presbyterian- refused to do this. As all students at Oxford or Cambridge were required to take the Oath of Uniformity, the Act also excluded such dissenters from practising the law or training as doctors. Other civil and commercial careers, while not formally impossible to pursue, were in practice often equally difficult to embark on.

Williams took an active part in the disputes between Presbyterians and Congregationalists in the 1690s and tried to use his growing prominence in public life during the reign of Queen Anne to support dissenters in the American colonies as well as in England, Ireland and Scotland. From at least 1701, he had an active correspondence with Robert Harley, the first earl of Oxford. A powerful politician, the earl was also a great collector of manuscripts, leaving what is now the Harleian collection in the British Library to the nation at his death in 1724.


The Dr Williams’s Library started more modestly. Williams bequeathed 7,600 of his books to be made available for all nonconformist ministers, tutors and students in the City of London, establishing one of the first public libraries in the United Kingdom in the process. He set up a trust for religious and educational purposes in his will, but it was the commitment and fundraising efforts of its first trustees that enabled the library to open in 1729 in Red Cross Street, Cripplegate. In 1865, the coming of the railways forced its removal to Bloomsbury, traditional heartland of the London intelligentsia.

After a time at 8 Queen Square, the library moved to a purpose-built new location in Grafton Street East. In 1890, the library moved to its present home at 14-15 Gordon Square. This grand building was designed as the first hall of residence of University College London and later shared between UCL and what was then called the Manchester New College (now Harris Manchester College in Oxford). Both institutions were founded by dissenters, and the grandeur of the Dr Williams’s Library building is quite deliberate. Nobody was going to be allowed to dismiss nonconformist educational centres as shabby poor relations of Oxbridge. Architectural glories? Grand libraries and intimidating wealth? Available here to anyone, no matter what they believe in. These buildings are proud statements of rebellion and dissent.


The library from the gallery

© David Hawgood

Have you ever visited the Dr Williams’s Library?  To discover more about Laura’s project, please visit the RESEARCH AREAS page.

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