Shelf Lives

Four Centuries of Collectors and their Books

In the Interest of Church and Crown: Matthew Parker and Richard Holdsworth


The Cook in the ‘Canterbury Tales’, from an early fifteenth-century manuscript of Geoffrey Chaucer’s collected works formerly owned by Richard Holdsworth. MS Gg.4.27(1).

Matthew Parker (1504–1575) served as Master of Corpus Christi College and Vice-Chancellor in Cambridge before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury under Elizabeth I. The Reformation saw many monastic libraries spoiled of their treasures; Parker set about gathering and preserving what was left, using his collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts to assert the independence of the English Church from Rome. In 1574, the year before his death, he gave a hundred books to the University Library, ranging from eleventh-century manuscripts to the most up-to-date religious commentaries.

A lesser-known figure is Richard Holdsworth (1590–1649), Master of Emmanuel College and one of the most significant early donors to the University Library, who assembled a vast library of 186 manuscripts and some ten thousand printed books. The terms of his will led to a dispute between his College and the University over the fate of his collection, which only came to the University Library in 1664.


A portrait miniature of Matthew Parker, from a volume of statutes of Corpus Christi College compiled by Parker, probably in 1574. CCCC MS 582. Reproduced by permission of the Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.