The Auchinleck Manuscript. Back to home page
King Richard f326 *

History and owners

National Library of Scotland -


Very little information is available about the early history of the Auchinleck Manuscript. From the scraps and fragments of evidence that survive, it is possible only to make a few, often tentative, deductions.


This discussion begins by describing the first known owner of the manuscript, Alexander Boswell, in the eighteenth century, then moves backwards in time to consider the evidence for owners and readers prior to this:

Alexander Boswell and the Advocates' Library

The Auchinleck Manuscript was presented to the Advocates' Library, Edinburgh, in 1744 by Alexander Boswell, Lord Auchinleck (b.1706, d.1782). It is not known exactly how the manuscript came into his possession. Though as Boswell was a member of the faculty of Advocates, a judge and the father of James Boswell, biographer of Samuel Johnson, he must have maintained the kinds of contacts and connections among bookmen and bibliophiles that were eventually to lead him to such a rare literary volume.

The manuscript was certainly in Boswell's possession by 1740, as his signature appears on a paper flyleaf with this date. But it seems likely that it came to Scotland before this date and that it was acquired by Boswell here rather than brought to Scotland by him. This is suggested by the location of a number of fragments from Auchinleck that were used as notebook covers by an unidentified St Andrews professor. It may be that this connection with the University of St Andrews implies that Auchinleck was owned by scholar there in the early eighteenth century.

On f.1r is an inscription that records Boswell's donation in 1744. The manuscript initially bore the pressmark Advocates' MS W.4.1, then, when the collection was re-catalogued in 1840, it was given the number that it has had to this day: Advocates' MS 19.2.1. In the last century Auchinleck arrived at its current location; as Pearsall and Cunningham (1977) state

"...The manuscript was part of the donation of non-legal books and manuscripts made by the Faculty of Advocates to the nation when the National Library of Scotland was established in 1925...".

The Earliest Owners and Readers of Auchinleck

Palaeography, style of illumination and internal references indicate that Auchinleck was most likely to have been produced between 1331 and 1340 but the identity of the earliest readers and owners remains unknown. Dialect and the apparently commercial and collaborative nature of this manuscript's production, imply that it was most likely to have been produced in London. As this is a large (and therefore costly) manuscript, professionally produced and with a carefully executed design scheme, it would seem that it must have been produced on commission for a specific purchaser. The question of who this individual might have been has been the subject of considerable debate. Pearsall and Cunnigham (1977) propose that the most likely owner was a London merchant; someone who aspired to aristocratic status and expressed this aspiration by reading texts concerned with chivalric themes. Riddy suggests that Auchinleck may have been a woman's book owned by someone like Katerine de la Poole, a self-made woman whose name appears among the list of Norman names in the Battle Abbey Roll in Auchinleck. Turville-Petre (1996) also looks to the list of Norman names for the original owners but proposes "...a very rich family...that had a long tradition of crusading, such as the Beauchamps and the Percies..." as he detects a sustained attention to the topic of crusading among the texts in Auchinleck.

The Names Written on the Manuscript

A number of names are written in the margins of the manuscript and in the occasional spaces which appear between texts. From the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries are five names all appearing on f.183r:

  • William Barnes
  • Richard Drow (?)
  • William Dro...
  • Anthony Elcocke
  • John Ellcocke

Also from the medieval period are the names of eight members of the Browne family, all written in the same hand on f.107r:

  • Mr Thomas Browne
  • Mrs Isabell Browne
  • Katherin Browne
  • Eistre Browne
  • Elizabeth Browne
  • William Browne
  • Walter Browne
  • Thomas Browne
On the St Andrews fragments, from quire 48, is:
  • Walter Brown

There are also a few names which were written during the post-medieval period. From the sixteenth century, on f.107v, is William Gisslort (?). From the seventeenth century, on f.300r, is John. And from the eighteenth century are Christian Gunter (f.205r) and John Harreis (f.247r).

None of these names has ever been traced.