Mary, Queen of Scots in the library of Dr William Hunter (1718-83)

In today’s blog, Michelle Craig, Leverhulme Trust Doctoral Scholar at the University of Glasgow, explores Marian books in the library of the eighteenth-century anatomist and book collector William Hunter and discusses how the provenance and cataloguing of these books can help us think about the cultural afterlife of Mary in the late Georgian period.

Dr William Hunter (1718-1783) was Physician Extraordinary to Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III. As well as this living queen consort, Hunter appears to have developed a personal interest in another queen: Mary, Queen of Scots.

 Hunter was an energetic collector. His collections were varied and included a large quantity of medical and natural history specimens, anatomical drawings, art, and a stellar coin collection, said to be second only to that of the King of France. He also owned a large library – of around 10 000 books – which served his professional, leisurely, intellectual, and antiquarian pursuits. His collections were donated in his will to the University of Glasgow where they are still housed in the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery and the university library.

William Hunter by Allan Ramsay, c.1764-65, The Hunterian Art Gallery

In the eighteenth century, the genre of history was one of the most popular and was widely read by large proportions of the literate population. Hunter was very much part of this trend and his library not only contained the most important historians of his day, but also printed contemporary sources of key events.

Hunter’s collection of books on Mary

Although we can have no idea of Hunter’s personal opinion of Mary, his library clearly demonstrates a fascination with her story. One of the bits of evidence for this is his library catalogues. Started in the last few years of his life and as he prepared for the donation of his collections to Glasgow, his catalogues aimed to record his whole printed book collection (a manuscript catalogue was never attempted). They were arranged by the format of the book (i.e. folio, quarto, octavo, octavo & infra, and pamphlets) and author name. They were therefore ‘author catalogues’, with entries listed in alphabetical order of author surname, and not ‘subject catalogues,’ that listed books under subject headings or key words. Despite this however, Mary is given her own section in the catalogue (see below). She was not the author of the works listed, but since they were all related to her, it forms a sort of subject category. This is one of the few instances where Hunter’s cataloguing system slipped into a form of subject categorisation – in other instances where this happened, it tended to be areas where the library specialised, such as tracts on inoculation. Although it is not a complete synopsis of the books on Mary in Hunter’s collection, it may suggest that these books were deemed worthy of attention in their own right.

‘M. Octavo &c’ (entries written by Frederick Birnie & William Hunter), Common catalogue, Sp Coll MR2, Glasgow University Library Special Collections.

There are few records of Hunter’s book purchasing habits, so it is difficult to chart how this part of his collection developed in any depth. We can however use a few book auction catalogues to explore his purchase of a large number of these Marian books.

He bought some at the auction of John Baber’s books in 1766.[1] Perhaps the most interesting, is potentially linked to Mary herself, Los doze libros de le Eneida de Vergillio (Antwerp, 1557). The final few leaves of the volume bare an inscription “Maria Scotia Regina.” This book is indeed the sort of thing Mary had in her library, both in its language and content.[2] John Durkan was unsure of the inscription’s authenticity, however – he first concluded that the signature was a forgery, then concluded that it may in fact be in the hand of a juvenile Mary.[3]

Los doze libros de le Eneida de Vergillio (Antwerp, 1557). Sp Coll Hunterian Bb.4.16. Glasgow University Library Special Collections.
Inscription in Los doze libros de le Eneida de Vergillio (Antwerp, 1557). Sp Coll Hunterian Bb.4.16. Glasgow University Library Special Collections.

There are several unusual aspects to the inscription. Firstly, the letter forms themselves are fairly different in form to other examples of Mary’s signature. The ‘M’ is notably different for example. Secondly, the language choice is an unusual one. Mary mostly wrote in French, not Latin, and she largely appears to have used “Marie” or “Marie R” in her signatures.[4] Finally, the location of the inscription, at the back of the volume, is a little unusual for an ownership inscription, although this is perhaps not that unusual if the inscription was instead signature practice.

It is also not clear if Hunter was aware of the inscription. The volume did not reach a comparatively high price at the auction, £0.4.6. Hunter principally bought other sixteenth and seventeenth-century Spanish and Italian printed books at the sale and these are of a comparable price.[5]

The inscription was also not noted in the auction catalogue itself or in Hunter’s own catalogues. This lack of provenance is perhaps not unusual at this point; provenance was not routinely added to most catalogues. The focus instead was often on recording imprint details and collectable features of that copy, usually the book’s condition and its binding. It is also unclear if Hunter even viewed the objects before sale and it is likely he relied on the brief catalogue descriptions provided by the auctioneers.

The book was rebound at some point in the early eighteenth century. We have no indication of what any earlier binding looked like, so it is possible that this held some provenance information that might explain the “Maria” note.[6] It is therefore difficult to assess the authenticity or the value of the Marian connection the book might hold. The attention that it has drawn as an object in the Hunterian collection is however significant; while many books with attestable royal provenance within Hunter’s collection have been ignored, the provenance of this book has been catalogued, studied and debated.

When we look more specifically at other books on Mary in the collection, we can get a greater idea of both the wider eighteenth-century focus on Mary’s story and Hunter’s own involvement. The international interest in the queen is evident in the collection for example. Hunter’s agent, Peter Molini, bought him a number of books from a auction in Malines (Mechelen), Flanders, in either 1764 or 1770.[7] A French-speaker, and a previous owner of many of the books sold at the Malines sale, wrote in a number of them and was intensely interested in the Marian story – there are many introductory notes to Mary in the books that Hunter bought at the sale.

‘Malines annotator’, Adam Blackwood Martyre de la Royne d’Escosse… (A Edimbourg [Paris], 1587) Sp Coll Hunterian Cn.3.39, Glasgow University Library Special Collections.
-Books bought by Peter Molini for William Hunter at the Malines sale, in either 1764 or 1770. Details noted are lot number, book title, format, publication date and price paid (in florins and sous). Sp Coll H204(2), Glasgow University Library Special Collections.

What becomes apparent is the importance of the 1770s on Hunter’s collection of Marian material. Around that time, Hunter was also buying other publications on aspects of Scottish and English history, and his books related to Mary seem to suggest that the 1770s were an important point for his interest in her story. Despite first being published in 1759, his copy of Robertson’s The History of Scotland dates to 1771 and his copy of John Anderson’s Collections Relating to the History of Mary, was bought at the British Museum duplicates sale of 1769. This book was borrowed by Ben Franklin sometime after its purchase which perhaps indicates avid discussion of Mary amongst Hunter and his circle at this point.

James Anderson, Collections relating to the History of Mary Queen of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1727-1728), Sp Coll Hunterian I.4.9-12, Glasgow University Library Special Collections.

Hunter’s copy of Hume’s The History of England was also the 1770 edition. The volume that contains material on Mary was, like Robertson’s, also first published in 1759, with the first complete edition in 8 volumes published in 1762. It is of course possible that the 1770 edition was bought to replace an earlier copy (Hunter did replace editions when he found preferable ones). It is significant though that Hunter had the later 1770 edition – Hume himself appeared to have favoured this edition. Unfortunately, any clues that the book might have offered up are lost as the whole set was destroyed during WWII.

The year 1778 also appears to be noteworthy. In March, at the Robert Hobyln sale, Hunter purchased the pro-Marian treatise by John Lesley, A Treatise touching the right… of the…Princesse Marie Queene of Scotland ([Rheims], 1584), and also Leslie’s A Defence of the honour of right highe, mightye and noble Princesse Marie Quene of Scotlande… (London [Rheims], 1569) which Leslie wrote under the pseudonym, Morgan Phillips.[8] In May 1778, he bought a second copy of the Morgan Phillips text from the sale of Dr Bernard Wilson and John Channing’s books.[9]

Hunter was not alone in this interest in Mary in the 1770s (which was also the decade he started compiling his catalogues). Both Hume and Robertsons’ histories cultivated debate in their readers’ minds over the characters and actions of the individuals they depicted, and Mary was no exception. In taking this approach, Hume and Robertson also encouraged their readers to reflect on virtue and vice more generally.[10] The debate it created had reached such intensity in society that by 1773 David Dalrymple, Lord Hailes, was able to state that “the Marian controversy has already become too angry and too voluminous.[11]” Although Hunter’s own thoughts on Mary’s character and actions do not remain, we can ascertain from his library that he was very much part of the renewed interest in the queen in the late eighteenth-century.

The Abdication of Mary Queen of Scots by Gavin Hamilton, 1765-1773, Hunterian Art Gallery.

[1] At this sale he bought both Robert Turner’s Maria Stuarta… innocens (Ingolstadt, [1588]), Sp Coll Hunterian Cn.3.35 and Los Doze libros de la Eneida de Vergilio (Antwerp, 1557), Sp Coll Hunterian Bb.4.16, Glasgow University Library Special Collections. See also the annotated John Baber auction catalogue, ‘A catalogue of the genuine and elegant library of John Baber…’, S.C.S. 6*(2), British Library.

[2] C. MacLaughlin, ‘Los Doze Libros de la Eneida, 1557’, Art Culture and Patronage in Renaissance Scotland, 1406-1625. [accessed 25 October 2020].

[3] J. Durkan ‘The Library of Mary Queen of Scots’, Innes Review 38, 80 & 96 (endnote 41).

[4] For discussion of this and examples of Mary’s signature see MacLaughlin, ‘Los Doze Libros de la Eneida.’

[5] Baber had been a collector of sixteenth and seventeenth century Spanish and Italian books. It is of course a possibility that this is a second copy, and that the Baber copy was removed from the collection.

[6] An example of this is Sp Coll Hunterian Ba.1.4. Although not part of Hunter’s collection (it was added to the Hunterian collection when at Glasgow), the copy had apparently belonged to James VI and had once had an armorial binding. Due to the poor condition of the binding though, it was removed at some point in the nineteenth century and does not survive in the current collection. In this case, several bibliographers over the centuries added notes to the book so we are now aware of the royal connection, but provenance was often lost when rebinding took place.

[7] Sp Coll H204(1) & Sp Coll H204(2), Glasgow University Library Special Collections department. The 1770 date is noted in N.R Ker William Hunter as a collector of medieval manuscripts (Glasgow: University of Glasgow Press, 1983), 15. The date is likely to be 1764 however – a note from Hunter’s agent Peter Molini states that he bought books “at the sale of Malines” in April 1764. Hunter was billed £7 for all books purchased at the sale, around the correct amount given exchange rates between florin and Sterling. See Sp Col H206(1), Glasgow University Library Special Collections department.

[8] Bibliotheca Hoblyniana… (London, 1778), S.C.S. 11(4), British Library.

[9] Dr Bernard Wilson and Mr Channing sale (London, 1778), S.C.S. 11(5), British Library.

[10] For more on this see A. Broadie The Scottish Enlightenment: The Historical Age of the Historical Nation (Edinburgh, Birlinn, 2001), 47-54.

[11] I. B. Cowan The Enigma of Mary Stuart (London: Gollancz, 1971), 21.

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